Flowing from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, the Rhine has been a vital trade and transportation corridor for central Europe since Roman times. One of the best examples of the economic and cultural impacts a navigable riverway can have on surrounding areas, the German Rhine has been a lynchpin of western German economic development, greater hegemony among constituent members of the Holy Roman Empire, and a historic boundary between the powers of what are now modern-day France and Germany. The many castles and other fortresses underscore the Rhine Valley’s strategic importance and front-line status defending the German homeland from the Middle Ages onward (and among the less polite, times more recent).
The river’s many navigable tributaries, a series of canals and is direct link to the North Sea have been crucial for everything from linking the inland city of Cologne to the Hanseatic League, to inserting German power into the upper Balkans, to integrating Atlantic Europe into a single economic space, and to delivering German manufactured goods to the ocean for global export.
The question moving forward is transformational: As global trade withers and the EU cracks apart, the past two generations of European economic development are under threat. Can the export-driven economies of the Rhine — Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany — evolve into something besides being massive exporters? If not, the region will face a deflation-driven depression far worse than their experience from the 1930s.
For more on the future of Germany, see Chapters 10 and 15 in The Accidental Superpower, and Chapters 5 and 6 in The Absent Superpower.