When the levee breaks
In case it has escaped your attention, Germany is sodden right now.
In fact it has been sodden for months.
First, we had the wettest November in 80 years. Then, a couple of weeks of snowfall melted shortly before Christmas, which, combined with torrential rain, swamped large swathes of Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony.
From that point on the rain hasn’t let up. Placid streams have transformed into frothing, gurgling rapids. Rivers have swelled… and swelled.
On a belt across the north of the county, rivers such as the Weser, Aller and Leine have risen precipitously close to the tops of their banks, or have already flooded nearby fields and streets.
The first evacuation orders were put in place at Christmas. Since then, thousands of people have left their homes as water has submerged their kitchens and living rooms.
In the flatland state of Lower Saxony, every single one of a reserve of 1.5 million sandbags has been used to strengthen the state’s dyke system.
There have been some scary moments. Levees on smaller rivers in particular have crumbled under the pressure. Largely though, safety measures built over decades have done their job.
No one has died. Some giraffes had to be left behind at a zoo in Hannover, but it seems like they will survive.
And yet, in a sign of our times, some flood-hit locals are holding the country’s leaders responsible.
On Thursday, Olaf Scholz was heckled by bystanders when he visited a town in Saxony-Anhalt to inspect the damage. Locals called him a “traitor” and a “criminal.” According to an account in Der Spiegel, one woman wanted to know: “why don’t you care about the little people?”
These are fairly strange reactions to a natural phenomenon which has affected Germanic river dwellers for time immemorial.
You can hold Scholz responsible for a lot of things, but surely asking him to hold back the clouds that cover Germany for most of the winter is a bit too much to ask?
Germany’s mighty rivers, the Rhine in the west, the Danube in the south and the Elbe in the north, brought prosperity to local merchants in the middle ages.
But they were also a threat to the wealthy trading towns that were built on their banks.
One of the most vivid reminders of the destruction these forces of nature can wreak is a series of markings at the entrance to Schloss Pillnitz in Dresden. These record high water marks on the River Elbe all the way back into the 18th century.
The highest markings, from 2002 and 1845, almost reach the top of the sandstone gate. (Eerily, the Elbe also has records of low water marks, so-called ‘hunger stones’ that record years of drought.)