by Lea Wiser
Passau → Linz
Our third day on the Danube excursion was both eventful and thought provoking, packed with activities covering a broad range of subjects: from environment and sustainability to modern history and the Nazi regime, to where these two subjects intersect—the city of Linz.
Our first stops, the Donaukraftwerk in Jochenstein and Haus am Strom in Untergriesbach, were already familiar to us, but during this visit we were able to admire the views from the other side of the Danube. On the way, we passed the Schlögener Schlinge, a meandering part of the river that created a loess-rich agricultural land below the steep slopes of the Bohemian Massif.
Because the river marks the border to Austria, soon after Passau we found ourselves in the neighboring country. For the American participants, in particular, it was a unique experience to be able to walk back to Germany alonga path over the power station, situated in the picturesque river valley.
Jochenstein has been operating since 1956, and remains the biggest river power plant in Germany. After World War II, the district around Passau and the Bavarian Forest was one of the poorest areas of Bavaria, and the hydroelectric power plant helped to provide work for many people. Here, we learnt that water energy generates 50 million kilowatt hours yearly. This is equal to the amount of energy that 190,000 tons of petroleum oil or 280,000 tonnes of coal burnt in a thermal power plant would generate, which in turn is equivalent to a carbon dioxide emission of 700,000 tonnes.
The technology enthusiasts on our trip could gaze at the 240-meter-long locks and huge dams. Our program continued with a tour through the Haus am Strom, a center for sustainable economy and environmental teaching, which is situated right next to the power plant.
Haus am Strom
Haus am Strom is an environmental education center, built to inform and inspire sustainable practices. We were lucky to receive a guided tour of the interactive exhibitions by Sebastian Zoder, who shared with us new insights about nature, water, and energy in relation to the Danube valley. To demonstrate how a lock drives Europe’s only hydraulic water elevator, he showed us the underlying mechanism. The highlight was Jochen, a tame aesculapian snake, who was allowed to curl around the shoulders of some willing students. We were also able to see other animals typical to the Danube valley, such as the stag beetle, woodpecker, and lynx—unfortunately, these were only stuffed specimens. We were, however, lucky enough to find ourselves entertained by the beautiful bright blue and green (living) smaragd lizards (European green lizards, Lacerta viridis), which we had already heard about in our tour the previous day.
Haus am Strom is not only an exhibition center but includes the management of the “Donauleiten” reserve, which we saw on the previous day of our excursion. The reserve, reaching from Passau to Jochenstein, is protected under the Natura 2000 directive. As the largest coordinated conservation network in the world, Natura 2000 aims to ensure the long-term survival of threatened species and their habitats, and now protects 18 percent of European landmasses and six percent of marine territories.
Various interactive games brought out the children in us; for example, we enjoyed a fictional ride on a paddle boat along the river and sat on the back of a huge model sturgeon (a fish, or more like a monster) that lived in the Danube until around 150 years ago. The “Hausen” (or Beluga) is a type of sturgeon that can reach more than seven meters in length. We left the museum lighthearted, but with the knowledge that a very different atmosphere awaited us at our next stop.
The small town of Mauthausen is situated right next to the Danube and is an important historical site. The links tying the recent history of this place to the river itself are few, and heavily obscured by tragic circumstances. What many people, even the locals from surrounding villages, do not know is that this Konzentrationslager (KZ Mauthausen) was not the only concentration camp in the area. More than 40 smaller working camps were established and operated in the region. KZ Mauthausen started as a prison for people who were considered, at that time, to have a detrimental impact on society (primarily Jewish people). Later, anyone suspected to be against the national socialist regime was also imprisoned in the camp. In addition to the torture of living in squalid and violent conditions, the prisoners of war were forced to labor in the granite quarries, work that included hauling the cut blocks onto ships on the Danube. Many prisoners were rented out as slaves to work on the land in the area, repairing roads and reinforcing the river banks. Approximately 200,000 people died in the camp at Mauthausen.
Our guide, Stephanie Maier, led us through the grounds and buildings in an unconventional but very sensitive way. We did not get a tour with facts and numbers, nor an exact description of the cruel things that happened here. Instead, Stephanie told us stories from individuals, and we read an excerpt from a book describing the author’s own feelings about Mauthausen. What startled me most was how seemingly normal it was for most residents to have a concentration camp in such close proximity; the camp was located on the top of a hill that overlooked the surrounding area, so it was visible from the residents of nearby villages and the town of Mauthausen. There was even a football field for the guard’s team next to the camp, where villagers could visit and watch games.
Everyone in our group responded differently. Some felt they could have a dialogue about their impressions of the place, the lives of the prisoners, and the lives of the guards as well as those living around the camp. Others drifted from the group to absorb their impressions alone. Leaving the camp in a different mood to that in which we had arrived, we could contemplate the value of experiencing this particularly prominent stop on the Danube.
Ernst Langthaler, professor of Social and Economic History at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and former fellow at the Rachel Carson Center, invited us on a tour through the city of Linz. Known as the Führerstadt of the Third Reich, Linz was subject to dramatic transformations during the 1930 and ’40s. Hitler had big plans for the city: huge housing projects were built, as well as a steel plant—the Hermann-Göring-Werke—and various other industrial buildings. The famous sentence “In Linz, da stinkts!” refers to the air pollution caused by the new factories.
In the 1980s, after the steel crisis, the factory was privatized. It was only after massive civil protests that the issue of air pollution was addressed and new technology, like filters, implemented. We saw the stark contrast between the industrial buildings and the surviving older architecture from the Schlossmuseum (Linz Castle museum)—on top of a small hill, we had an idyllic view of delicate old houses and steaming chimneys in the background.
The last stop for the day was the the Martinskirche, which is disputably the oldest church in Austria. It was erected in the eighth century on the foundations of a Roman bath. Positioned parallel to the Danube, it is a just a short walk from both the banks of the river and the city’s Schloss (castle).
At the end of this eventful day of environmental, geological, historical, and social experience and discussion, I reflected on the fact that this opportunity to explore the sights and absorb the knowledge presented and generated on our trip along the Danube embodies the interdisciplinary approach that the Rachel Carson Center strives to support.