Schlögener Schlinge © WGD Donau Oberösterreich Steininger

Reading the Danube

Reading the Danube

Narratives of a European River

Long before film became a formative medium for the perception of landscapes, historical events and shared memories, it was literature or music. Just think of the great river earworms, where images and vibrations immediately arise, such as “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss or the symphonic poem “My Fatherland” and the particularly well-known melody “The Vltava” by Bedrich Smetana, then it becomes clear how anchors and perceptions arise, shape and also differentiate. For example, New Orleans on the Mississipi, where jazz has become formative.


The upper course of the Danube from Germany through Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, which has been promoted for many years as the “Road of Emperors and Kings”, is characterised by very special literary testimonies based on myths, legends and history. The Song of the Nibelungs, which is said to have been recorded at the end of the 12th century at the court of the Passau bishop Wolfger von Erla, certainly stands at the beginning. The Nibelungen’s journey from the Rhine to the Danube, where the towns of Plattling, Passau, Eferding, Pöchlarn, Melk, Mautern, Tulln, Vienna, Hainburg and Esztergom play a special role, is considered a German national epic. Similar works for other countries and cultural areas are, for example, Homer’s Odyssey for Greece, Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italy or William Tell for Switzerland. They are burned in like DNA and even today one can still see that it is not only the historical fascination but also the perception between peoples and even for current argumentations and political narratives that still plays a role. This puts us right in the middle of what always makes a European river like the Danube.

Passau_DREI_FLÜSSE_STADT @ Tourismusverband Ostbayern
Passau_DREI_FLÜSSE_STADT @ Tourismusverband Ostbayern

The Rhine with its masculine Western European charge and, in contrast, the Danube with its feminine Eastern European character. The Danube is the queen of Europe among the rivers. And these traces can also be found if one analyses the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries a little and uses it as a travel guide to the Spirit, to the voyage of discovery for Bavaria, Austria and Hungary. And as soon as Hungary is included, the Danube also radiates into Central and Eastern Europe, into the Balkans. It’s a mutually stimulating and constantly destroying alliance that you can’t get out of if you want to understand current political events. Whether Kriemhild, Blessed Gisela, Empress Maria Theresa, Empress Sissi or even the mermaid Isa – deep down in the Jochenstein rock: these are striking female figures that contribute significantly to the myth of the Danube.

In addition, there is the fascination of the nobility with emperors and kings, castles and palaces as well as religious witnesses and testimonies such as saints, but also the many churches, cathedrals and monasteries. These are the landmarks, the formative elements that give this region its uniqueness.

Pöstlingberg © Linz Tourismus Alex Sigalov
Pöstlingberg © Linz Tourismus Alex Sigalov
Fairy tales as the basis of all narratives

Emperors and kings – these are fairytale themes that not only fascinate children. They also exert a fascination on adults. The Danube is especially occupied with such mythical, legendary material. For example, the Danube mermaid Isa, who, according to legend, lives at the bottom of the Jochenstein rock in a magnificent crystal fairytale castle.

On the one hand, she was considered a helper with orientation problems, and at the same time she was always a seductress. A golden-haired beauty who has a sister on the Rhine, the Loreley. She shows the boatmen the way in the fog. But woe betide them if they follow the wonderful song, they are taken away and have to stay at the bottom of the river forever. Events of war, fate, natural phenomena, madness and, of course, eroticism, the allure of women and the seductiveness of men – all this is the material from which the sagas along the Danube have grown. Two particularly distinguished storytellers in Upper Austria are Helmut Wittmann and Dagmar Fetz-Lugmayr, who have edited and collected the Danube sagas in numerous books. The entire Danube is presented in a book published in 2007, “Die Donau in Sagen, Mythen und Märchen” (The Danube in Legends, Myths and Fairy Tales), on almost 400 pages. This shows the wealth of experiences and tales about the Danube that have been created over the centuries. We can be curious about what stories our time will add here.

Danube Classics

First and foremost here is the Danube essay volume by the Trieste literature professor Claudio Magris, published in 1986. He set a literary monument to the Danube that still has a unique position. Despite the iron curtain that separated the Upper Danube with the southeast of the river until 1989, he was able to realise an overall representation from the Danube’s source to the Black Sea. Herta Müller, the future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who was still living in Romania at the time, was already on his radar. But his tribute to Elias Canetti, another Danube Nobel laureate in literature from Ruse, also impressed. In Ruse in Bulgaria, far more than 1,000 kilometres from Vienna, he writes, one “goes to Europe when it goes up to Vienna”. The overall perception of the people along this river never fails to impress. Although the communication possibilities do not come close to today’s conditions, they nevertheless created a Danube and Europe consciousness that is very impressive from today’s perspective culturally, culinary and politically, and where one has the feeling that the fragmentation of this space is now regressing rather than progressing. In his overall characterisation, which he makes on page 30 of this fascinating book, it says: “…The Danube is consequently partly a tributary of the Rhine and flows into the North Sea rather than the Black Sea: triumph of the Rhine over the Danube, revenge of the Nibelungs against the Huns, domination of Germania over Central Europe. Since the Song of the Nibelungs, the Rhine and the Danube have faced each other with mistrust. The Rhine is Siegfried, Germanic virtue and purity, Nibelung loyalty, heroic chivalry, intrepid love of doom, German soul. The Danube is Pannonia, the empire of Attila, oriental, Asian flood, which at the end of the Song of the Nibelungs sinks Germanic values and virtues; by Burgundians sealing their fate – a German fate… The Danube is the German-Hungarian-Slavic-Roman-Jewish Central Europe polemically opposed to the Germanic empire: a “hinternational” ecumenism, as Johannes Urzidil from Prague enthusiastically called it.” .- this is how an Italian writes about this space. It will not get any easier with Europe.

Michael W. Weithmann from Passau is an expert on the Danube. His Danube books impress with historical competence and narrative brilliance. He prepares the entire river historically and writes on p. 15: “In its contradictoriness, the Danube represents the soul of Europe…One is required to reach very far back into history to be able to comprehend that specific cultural, ethnic and religious shaping of the Danubian multi-ethnic state…”.

And a third book that left a fascinating impression on me because of its structure and unusual research is the exhibition catalogue “Danube- People, Treasures & Cultures – a Journey from the Black Sea to Schallaburg” published on the occasion of the big Danube exhibition 2020 at Schallburg Castle in Lower Austria. Here the Danube ends at Schallaburg Castle in Lower Austria. But the references and influences from South-Eastern Europe in particular become particularly clear, which were also formative for the K + K Danube Monarchy, for the development and for the perception of the Habsburg Empire.

40715 © WienTourismus Christian Stemper Bildtext Blick Auf Volksgarten, Museen Und Parlament
360x242 40715 © WienTourismus Christian Stemper Bildtext Blick Auf Volksgarten, Museen Und Parlament
Ungarische Donau Bei Visegrad(c)strassederkaiserundkoenige.com_GG
Ungarische Donau Bei Visegrad(c)strassederkaiserundkoenige.com_GG
Donau-Denker, Philosophen und Politiker

Dr. Gerd Burger has written a literary journey along the Danube in 2018. I would like to mention Joseph von Eichendorff, Ernst Trost, Gertrud Fussenegger or Karl Markus Gauss here. The Danube literature Nobel Prize winners from Elias Canetti to Ivo Andric, Imre Kertész and Elfriede Jelinek show that this space is not narrowed to a few trains of thought, but has breadth.


As a representative example, I would like to quote Karl-Markus Gauss who writes under the heading “The Teaching of the Danube”: “Nothing new happens unless it is tested on the Danube, and nothing old can disappear or reappear from happy oblivion that has not already sunk on the Danube or ghostly reappeared on one of its banks. Countless nationalities have settled along this mighty river, which has seen and suffered everything that the peoples of Central and South-Eastern Europe have accomplished or done to each other. What we shudder at, at the grimace of chauvinism, the hatred of peoples who depend on each other but are periodically driven towards each other, the fanaticism, the narrowness, the destruction of nature, the levelling tread of progress – we find all this on the Danube, but also what fascinates us in the world: the beauty of a sometimes lovely, sometimes rugged, often surprising landscape; the richness of culture, the diversity of ways of life, which constantly influence and enrich each other, but do not outdo each other; serene art and passionate joy of life, often proven magnanimity of the people; their defiant strength to develop the special against standardisation and to insist on what makes them different… The Danube does not tolerate hegemony, not even the hegemonistic claim of the well-intentioned. Simultaneity is its historical destiny and its doctrine. Doing justice to this teaching is the simple thing that is so often difficult.”

And this spirit shapes the literature, whether poetry or prose, whether sagas, fairy tales or political observations, whether folkloristic or anthropological. To read the Danube means to come across all the landmines, but also possible solutions for a modern Europe in the 21st century. And the many nobles, emperors and kings, but also popes, bishops and saints – they have all contributed to this in their claim to exclusivity, to their own truth. But there have also always been those who have recognised that only diversity, tolerance, makes this space something special, something worth living in and worth protecting.

I wish you much pleasure and insight when you immerse yourself in the literary and historical reflections of the Danube region.
For this I recommend:

Claudio Magris, Danube – Biography of a River, dtv Verlagsgesellschaft 1986.

Michael W. Weithmann, The Danube – History of a European River, Böhlau Verlag and Verlag Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2012

Danube – People, Treasures & Cultures – A Journey from the Black Sea to Schallaburg, Schallaburg Kulturbetriebsgesellschaft m.b.H., Schallaburg 2020

Emil Brix, Erhard Busek, Central Europe Revisited, Kremayr & Scheriau Publishing House, Vienna 2018c

Gerd Burger, Danube – a literary river journey, Dr. Peter Morsbach Verlag, Regensburg 2018

Helmut Wittmann, The Donausteig Legend Book, Tyrolia Society, 2021

Dagmar Fetz-Lugmayr, Sagenhaftes Linz: Geschichten einer Donaustadt, Anton Pustet Publishing House, Salzburg 2022

Georg Steiner2020 ©mesic
Georg Steiner2020 ©mesic
About the author: Prof. Georg Steiner

Prof. Georg Steiner is the retired tourism director of Linz and a great Danube connoisseur and expert. He has been involved with the Danube for many years and has worked with great commitment in various projects along the Danube from (Eastern) Bavaria via Austria to develop its tourist attractiveness and charge. He was the managing director of ARGE Die Donau – Straße der Kaiser und Könige for many years and is still involved around the Danube.

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