More than a decade after the Great Recession, Europe is being stalked by phantoms of its pre-post-nationalist past. Border issues once thought to have been eliminated by political and economic integration are now a matter of daily politics in many European countries. States in Central Europe are building fences to keep out migrants, while Macron tightens French asylum law ‘to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here’. In this climate, Peter Schöttler’s historiographical treatment of the Rhine—one of Europe’s most symbolic frontier zones—comes as a timely intervention. Focusing on the river’s twentieth-century history, Schöttler wants to understand how borders have been made and remade, and how they have come to figure as part of a European imaginary.

The Rhine is not, as Schöttler notes, solely a Franco-German river. From its sources in the Swiss Alps, it flows mostly northward, forming a part of the Swiss-Austrian, Swiss-German, and lower Germano-French borders. From there it traverses the German Rhineland, passing through Mannheim, Mainz, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Duisburg before cutting across the southern part of the Netherlands and emptying into the North Sea. The Rhine’s modern history, however, has been dominated by the national rivalries of France and Germany. East of the Rhine, the river has been seen as unquestionably German, part of its Herzland. French statesmen, on the other hand, considered control of the left bank to be of strategic value—a bridge into Central Europe and defensive corridor against Austria and Prussia. The Revolutionaries aimed to push France to its ‘natural borders’: the sea to the north and west, the mountains to the south, the Rhine to the east. Napoleon made this a reality in 1806. With his fall, the right bank of the river fell under Prussian control in 1815. Half a century later, Bismarck extended the borders of the German nation-state into the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine—a founding trauma for the fledgling Third Republic, though Schöttler attempts to moderate the impression of an unbridled revanchist nationalism. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles returned Alsace-Lorraine to France while the Rhineland Agreement provided for Allied occupation of the left bank for fifteen years, administered by a High Commission in Koblenz. In 1923, French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré sent troops across the river into the Ruhr Valley, bringing German economic life to a standstill. At the same time, French representatives on the High Commission decided to recognize Rhenish separatists in the Palatinate as an independent government. The infuriated British sent orders for their own staff to abandon any support for this state, and as a result, the movement collapsed immediately. The last French troops vacated the Rhineland in 1930. Hitler remilitarized the region in 1936. After the Nazi Blitzkrieg of May–June 1940, a ‘Demarcation line’ ran north from the Pyrenees along the Atlantic Coast up to Tours, then cut west across the middle of France to Geneva: everything north and west of that line was under German occupation; south and east the domain of Pétain’s National Revolution.

What entry has this turbulent history made in the world of ideas? Soon after the First World War there appeared a specialist literature around the problem of whether the Rhine was the frontier of France or the main river in Germany. This included pamphlets, books, edited volumes, as well as publications by committees and organizations dedicated to researching the Rhine. These are the texts that occupy Schöttler in the first half of Du Rhin à la Manche, with the author positioning himself as an arbitrator between the two literatures.

He examines the French case first, turning to Lucien Febvre’s 1931 study, Le Rhin, a work commissioned by the Société Générale Alsacienne de Banque to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. Though sketchy in places and evidently written in haste, Le Rhin was, for Schöttler, a work of the highest political and intellectual significance, in effect announcing an entirely new research programme. Febvre approached the Rhine not as a naturally given barrier, but as a product of human history, a construction. Human beings had adapted themselves to the river over the centuries, and in turn the river had been transformed through their actions. Thus, there could be no original or pure state of the Rhineland, as was claimed by proponents of the racial view of history. If one looked at the medieval and Renaissance life of the Rhine, as did Febvre’s book, one would see forming at the confluence of Roman, Christian and Germanic civilizations a zone of flourishing urban cultures. The river cut across empires and kingdoms, and its cities, from Basel to Dordrecht, came to acquire their own distinct culture—republican and cosmopolitan in spirit. The Rhine was truly a European river, and retrospective attempts to make it solely Teutonic or French could only do so through patent distortion. In writing such a study, Febvre was, for Schöttler, fulfilling one of the programmatic ideals of the influential historical journal Annales, envisioned by Febvre and its co-founder Marc Bloch as an explicitly anti-nationalist enterprise. At his inaugural lecture at the University of Strasbourg in 1919, Febvre claimed to have no interest in becoming ‘a bootless missionary of an official national gospel’. For this, it was necessary to ‘unlearn from Germany’. Schöttler notes that German historians thought Febvre’s book dangerous, not for opposing German nationalist ambitions, but for delegitimizing them.

Indeed, scholarship on the other side of the Rhine was markedly different, and Schöttler devotes two detailed chapters to Germany’s institutes for Westforschung (Western research). The first of these to appear after the War was the Institut für die geschichtliche Landeskunde der Rheinlande (Institute for the Regional History of the Rhineland) in Bonn in 1920. Not unlike the Annales School, it aimed to break with the diplomatic and political history of nineteenth-century scholarship to create an interdisciplinary study of the region’s people, taking in contributions from historians, linguists (especially those who specialized in German dialects), geographers, economists and historians of art. Schöttler points out a key ambiguity in the group’s output. On the one hand, it was often reluctant to embrace a racial view of history. He notes in particular how Franz Steinbach, an historian and early director of the group, concluded his 1926 study of the Rhine by arguing that ‘it is a grave error to deduce Frankish cultural and economic institutions from Germanic or Roman singularities. By mixing hydrogen and oxygen, a new entity is formed, water’. On the other hand, the texts were mired in nationalist themes, and Steinbach contradicted his own position by calling for more research on the Frankish colonization of Gaul, and recommending that the Rhine’s left bank be re-Germanized.