|The German Dreadnought class battlships SMS Stalsund passes under a railroad bridge over the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal in 1915.
What is the busiest man-made commercial waterway in the world? It you guessed the Panama or Suez Canals or the St. Lawrence Seaway you would be wrong. All of those are impressive engineering accomplishments and major conveyers of international commerce. But none of them match the daily number of vessels using their waters of the Kiel Canal, a much more modest ditch. Now known officially as the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal (North to Baltic Canal), it is shorter than its rivals—just 60 miles long from at Brunsbüttel on the North Sea to Kiel on the Baltic—and was built across fairly level terrain requiring a relatively modest system of Locks.
The Jutland Peninsula sticks out like a thumb from the north coast of Europe almost meeting the Scandinavian Peninsula to the north and east. It divides the water of the tempestuous North Sea from the relatively placid Baltic. Commerce from ports just a few score miles apart as the crow flies had to make the long and often hazardous journey in stormy seas, a detour of more than 250 miles.
The Danes, then occupying the entire Peninsula, were the first to do something about it. The Kingdom of Denmark-Norway was then a dominant power in Northern Europe. In the dawning of Europe’s canal building era they constructed the Eiderkanal (Eider Canal) which used stretches of the Eider River for the link between the two seas. Stretching 43 the canal was part of a 109 mile long waterway from the port city of Kiel to the Eider River’s mouth at Tönning on the west coast. The canal was only 95 feet wide and ten feet deep, limiting its capacity to the lightest coastal traders and barges. It was completed in 1784 during the reign of Danish King Christian VII.
Europe was soon enveloped by the series of wars resulting from the French Revolution and the eventual rise of Napoleon. The Danes tried to remain neutral but Copenhagen was heavily shelled by the Royal Navy for not lending its fleet to anti-French campaign. During those wars the potential naval significance of being able to rapidly deploy war ships between the two seas became apparent to both sides.
Expansionist Prussia had long dreamed of building a modern canal across the peninsula capable of handling large naval vessels and had disputed the heavy tolls extracted by the Danes for the long passage through the Danish Straits. More over the southern duchies of Denmark—Schleswig and Holstein had large German speaking populations. The Prussians had attempted to wrest control of the area in the First Schleswig War from 1848-51 but failed when the British, French, and Russians threatened to intervene.
In 1864 ambitious Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck engineered at Prussian-Austrian alliance to seize the disputed duchies in the name of the German Confederation. The combined forces moved with astonishing speed against the badly outmanned, outgunned, and poorly led Danes who found the entire Jutland peninsula occupied and the Danish islands in the Baltic threatened. Neither the other great powers nor the Swedes came to their rescue. The humiliating Treaty of Vienna compelled Denmark’s cession of the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Saxe-Lauenburg on the mainland to Prussia and Austria.
Bismarck turned his attention to German unification. After disposing of the French in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 he was able to create the German Empire with the Prussian King on the imperial throne as Kaiser Wilhelm I. Bismarck turned his attention to turning his traditional land power into a naval power to rival the British. Much of the construction of his navy of modern ironclad steamers was concentrated in the ship yard at Kiel. The need to move his Navy rapidly between the seas soon became not just theoretical, but actual.
After long consideration and through Prussian engineering and planning, construction began on a new, modern canal on June 3, 1887 when Wilhelm I laid the first ceremonial stone. It took eight years to build the Kiel Canal employing nearly 9,000 using modern technology like steam dredgers and railways. Although the terrain was fairly regular and not stony, ground water and crossing existing rivers and streams presented a challenge.
In the early hours of the June 20, 1895 the German imperial yacht Hohenzollern with Kaiser Wilhelm II on board slipped into the lock at Brunsbüttel cutting a ceremonial a ribbon. They yacht led a convoy of 24 ships, 14 of them representing other seafaring nations and nearly all naval vessels on a transit of the canal. The next day at a ceremony in Holtenau Wilhelm II laid the final stone and named officially named the canal Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal in honor of his father.
The canal was an immediate success and led to the significant growth of Kiel as a shipbuilding center and of the port of Hamburg on the North Sea which quickly became Germany’s largest and busiest.
But the rivalry between Britain and Germany soon made the canal obsolete for naval purposes. In 1906 the British launched HMS Dreadnought, revolutionary new type of ship much larger and more heavily armed and armored that its predecessors. The ship gave its name to a whole class of new battleships. The Germans responded by quickly beginning a new construction program for Dreadnoughts of its own. And to accommodate those ships it began a major widening, deepening, and enlarging of locks on the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal in 1907.
Work on the canal alarmed Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, Britain’s First Sea Lord and prime mover in the naval arms race between the empires. He predicted that the completion of the canal would be the signal for the beginning of a war between the rival powers.
The widening project was completed in 1914 and as Fisher predicted war broke out. But it turned out the canal was not a catalyst. Events in the Balkans that summer quickly spun out of control and one after another dragged most of Europe into the war. After the war it was found that the Imperial Navy had no active war plans for the canal. Its mere completion was not planned to start a wide spread re-deployment of forces from the Baltic to threaten the British on the North Sea.
Whatever the canal’s usefulness the Germans ultimately lost World War I. During discussion leading to the Versailles Treaty after the war, consideration was given to restoring her lost provinces to Denmark. But since the Danes had, to the complete exasperation of the Allies remained neutral in the conflict, it was decided not to reward them too heavily. They did get the return of some heavily Danish speaking area in Northern Schleswig. The terms of the Treaty effectively de-militarized and internationalized the canal while leaving it in the hands of German civil administration.
The internationalization of the canal was just one of the treaty “injustices” that Adolf Hitler pledged to address when he came to power. In 1936 he repudiated international status and began levying heavy tolls on foreign ships and, as tensions rose around Europe, denying transit to some nations even before hostilities began.
During World War II the canal saw limited naval use—primarily by U-boats constructed at Kiel for deployment in the North Sea. At least one sunk in the canal briefly interfering with operations. Attempts to mine the canal by air were foiled by heavy anti-aircraft defenses and the difficulty in laying mines in such a narrow passage. If the canal escaped heavy damage, the shipyards and docks of Kiel were heavily bombed and 80% of the city itself was leveled.
After the war the canal was reopened to international traffic administered by a German authority. It was officially renamed Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, but everyone, including its administrators call it simply the Kiel Canal.
Only minor widening and deepening has been undertaken since 1914. The largest modern container ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships are often too wide or too high to get under the eleven fixed bridges that carry rail and road traffic across the channel. Some work is being planned to help correct this, including the replacement of the oldest and lowest of the bridges. 14 ferries also cross the canal to accommodate local traffic.
The canal was partially closed in March 2013 after two lock gates failed at the western end near Brunsbüttel. The failure was blamed on neglect and a lack of funding by the German Federal Government which has been in financial dispute with the state of Schleswig-Holstein regarding the canal. While service was restored and improvements announced and planned, the continuing dispute threatens progress.