To fully understand modern Germany, you need to see the Ruhr, says Mark Arrol
There’s a reason why Germany became the pre-eminent industrial power in Europe, and it’s located in the strip of land between the Rhine and Westphalia. It’s the land that sits north of the River Ruhr, a tributary of the Rhine, between Duisburg in the west and Dortmund in the east, commonly known as the Ruhrgebiet.
Never mind all the German fantasy castles, if you want to discover and understand real German history you need to spend some time in this gritty area. The history may not be sexy, it’s far too dirty for that, but from 1860 to 1960 the Ruhrgebiet was the most important area in the whole of Europe.
From the middle of the 19th century mines were sunk here wherever there was a seam of coal. What had been a quiet undeveloped rural landscape became a highly industrialised conurbation, with towns increasing in size at an unprecedented rate. Gelsenkirchen went from a population of 653 in 1843 to 169,000 in 1910 and over 300,000 by the 1930s. Nearby Bochum underwent a similar rate of growth, from a population of 1,500 in 1800 to 150,000 by the end of the 19th century, and doubling in size again over the next 30 years.
The industrial output of the region powered the development of newly unified Germany over the latter part of the 19th century. It did the same for a country recovering after WWI (it was occupied by the French in 1923 in an effort to ensure Germany met its reparation commitments) and was crucial in the re-armament of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The names of the pre-eminent industrialists, Krupp and Thyssen, are synonymous with that era. Accordingly, it was a huge target for Allied bombers in WWII and towns such as Oberhausen were razed to the ground.
But it didn’t take long for the area to recover and become the driving force behind the post war Wirtschaftswunder, the miracle on the Rhine, in the 1950s, when the combined population of the Ruhr exceeded six million. Since the 1960s the mines have steadily closed – the last one went a couple of years ago – and the area has had to deal with a period of declining prosperity.
Despite this the region is well worth a visit, not only to look at the fascinating industrial heritage to be seen at the Landschaftspark in Duisburg, the Zollverein coal mine in Essen or the Mining Museum in Bochum. The area is surprisingly green, with some spots of real beauty along the River Ruhr itself, in Essen-Werden and Mülheim an der Ruhr.
So if you want to understand modern Germany and how it developed, forget the castles and the princes, spend a bit of time in the Ruhrgebiet!