Of Danube, Death and Dams  

Of Danube and Dams

I’m off to see the Danube next week, as I fly to Vienna. So it was a nice happenchance to see this morning’s “Earth’s Great Rivers” programme on BBC2. It took the journey down the Danube beginning at Passau, past the amazing pool-turtles just above Vienna, into the vast Budapest,Pálvölgyi-Mátyáshegyi cave system under Budapest, and on into Romania and the amazing Danube Delta, complete with synchronised swarming pelicans, all dipping their massive beaks into the water at the same time in order (presumably) to give the fish no other way out.

A body of water with a boat in it and trees in the back

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The programme ended with a panegyric against river control because of its “un-natural” nature. There was much soothing music and many sobbing activist presenters who wanted things to remain as they are, regardless of the views of local inhabitants.  Counter-argument were unconsidered. We were simply told that sun and wind provided better green alternatives.

I am reminded of the massive Akosombo Dam in Ghana which I visited in the 1960s, soon after its opening. It brought electricity and irrigation to vast numbers of poor people and impoverished lands. How picturesque the Volta might have been – How nice for tourists! It was another of Nkrumah’s crazy pan-Africanist visions that were strangled by imperialism at birth. (The aim was to use the electricity generated at Akosombo to develop a Ghanaian industrial base. However, CIA-inspired coups and privatisation led to Kaiser Aluminium purchasing the rights, cancelling the project, and deciding to export Ghana’s vast bauxite reserves for treatment in Canada rather than develop it locally. So the demand for electricity went down, and the price slumped – just as the price for cocoa was dropping at the same time. Imperialism always wins!

My upcoming visit to Vienna also provides a good opportunityt to dust off two classical volumes on the great Roman Danuvius. Caludio Magritte’s “Danubio” acquired cult status soon after its publication in 1986. Subtitled “A sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea”, Magris’s map shows how small is the stretch of Danube that I shall be visiting next week compared with its total extent of near 3000 kilometres (and how sad that my crucial 350-kilometre north-south stretch of the river from Esztergom to Novi Sad should be lost in the fold of the book!)

My other ‘classic’ on the Danube is “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor – “Nothing short of a masterpiece”, says the blurb. Fermor first entered my ken when I was in Crete: he was the fabled British agent who captured the German General Kreipe and spirited him off the island into a prisoner-of-war camp. Earlier in 1933, at the tender age of eighteen, Fermor had set off from Rotterdam to walk to Istanbul (or ‘Constantinople’ as he insistently calls it). What sane youngster contemplates such a trek? – and what parent allows it?

I find it amazing that some thirty years later (but sixty years ago now), my risk-averse parents allowed me to hitch-hike from Hull to Vienna in 1963 at the tender age of eighteen. How much more remarkable then that Mr and Mrs Leigh Fermor should allow their tender son to wander across Europe in 1933 at the same age. Admittedly they did have better contacts than my parents, and the young Patrick was welcomed in the chateaux and Schlosses of Europe by slightly decaying gentry, while my nights were spent in slightly decadent youth hostels along the route via Maastricht, Koblenz, Augsburg and Salzburg. (I was due to call in on a German girlfriend in Augsburg – my only pre-planned stop – but her father had suffered a Herzschlag on the morning of my arrival so I was hurried out of the door. I never heard from Christina again. I hope that Herr Dorschner survived.)

My re-reading of Fermor has concentrated upon the central chapters where he encounters the Danube from San Florian to “The edge of the Slave World”.

He has some premonitions of what is to follow.

By the time of Magris’s book a half-century later, Fermor’s future is long past. Magris account of this part of the Danube enters via Linz and the Wachau, and is possibly the shortest chapter in Magris’s book. In its entirety it reads as follows: “A PUFF OF SMOKE: In the castle museum in Linz is a nineteenth century print showing a view of Mauthausen. Peaceful hills, friendly houses, boats on the Danube full of people waving gaily, the idyllic atmosphere of a country outing. From the steamers on the river there rises, cheerfully, a puff of smoke”.

The next chapter – one of the longest – is entitled “MAUTHAUSEN”, and recounts that this Lager was “not one of the worst” but nevertheless “more than a hundred and ten thousand people died” in the camp within a few years of Fermor’s visit. (Fermor experienced Mauthausen differently, in a paragraph almost as long as Magris’s afore-mentioned chapter: “I crossed the river to the lights of Mauthausen by a massive and ancient bridge. A tall fifteenth-century castle thrust out into the river and, under its wall (I saw my friends), and I realized, as we waved to each other from afar, that another cheerful evening lay ahead. Hans and Frieda were on the quay.”