Everything in flux


March 5, 2023 · The Oder flows between east and west. Along its shores, cultures and systems merge into something new. Join us on a journey from north to south; to the people who want to make a difference on the river.

We look at the Oder like blind people. Water and the life it transports and nourishes seem self-evident to us. Since last summer, it has been clear that a river can only live if we let it. An alga could poison the Oder because the salt introduced into the water caused it to bloom. Over 500 kilometres, fish, mussels and snails suffocated. This catastrophe was man-made.

The Oder shares its naturalness with other rivers and yet is special: as a path that can divide the world into East and West, and as a path that wants to unite and force compromises. We, the F.A.Z. volunteers, visited them for our final project, in Stettin, in the Oderbruch, in Frankfurt (Oder), in Breslau, in Opole, in Ostrava and at the source.

What drives the people there? How do they fight for the river, how do they fight for their economic survival? How can self-evident awareness become for water, for life? This is what our articles, which lead from north to south to the banks of the river, are about.

Maps: kaho.

Maps: kaho.

Othmara Glass

We start our journey at the lower reaches of the Oder, where it flows into the Baltic Sea: in Szczecin. The West Pomeranian capital has almost 400,000 inhabitants, making it the largest in an otherwise rather sparsely populated area. In autumn 2012, politicians in Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Poland announced that they would develop Szczecin into a metropolitan region in which one million people would live. But finding them is not so easy.

German-Polish Cooperation How the Szczecin Metropolitan Region Works Dana Hajek

While in Germany shipping is asleep on the Oder, in Poland completely different visions are taking place. The country is in the process of developing the Oder into its Rhine and Szczecin into its Rotterdam. But who else transports goods via the 900-kilometer waterway? For three weeks, we evaluated shipping traffic on the Oder to understand which nations use the river as a freight route and why.

Shipping Who owns the Oder Kevin Hanschke

The imposing, free-standing stairs of the hook terrace are the landmark of Szczecin. Directly behind it is the city's contemporary theatre, where Jakub Skrzywanek has been artistic director since 2022. At just thirty-one years old, he is one of the youngest theatre directors in Europe. His plays are scandalous and popular at the same time, because they question the Catholic Church, the Polish government and social problems. His goal is to create a theater that is "not indifferent to what is happening around us, and at the same time gives a stage to those who are looking for identity," he says. In this interview, he tells us about what makes Szczecin so special, why this industrial port city in particular is so free-spirited and what his vision is for the renewal of Polish theatre.

Theatre in Szczecin "We fight" Katharina Hofbauer

Dirk Treichel manages the only floodplain national park in Germany – on the Oder. After the fish die-off last summer, it is incomprehensible to him that the river should be further expanded. "The Oder would need a grace period. This does not happen, but on the contrary, the river will continue to be massively stressed by the expansion." At stake is an ecosystem that actually benefits humans – but supporters of the Oder expansion do not want to know anything about it.

Floodplains on the Oder protect what protects us Othmara Glass

The Oder divides and connects Germany and Poland. In the nineties, many Germans associated the neighboring country mainly with its markets, where they could buy cheap clothes, CDs and cigarettes. Since Poland's accession to the EU in 2004 and the emergence of online retailers and streaming services, the heyday of border bazaars is actually over. Nevertheless, a shuttle bus runs three times a day from Berlin across the Oder to Osinów Dolny. The shopping ticket to the Polish border and back costs ten euros. A day on "Berlin's largest Polish market".

Shopping on the Polish market Market economy from below Anna Schiller

During the Oder flood in 1997, Reitwein narrowly escaped disaster. That's why it's important to the people in the small town that their dike and its access road are in good shape. But for Mayor Detlef Schieberle, the rehabilitation of the path is developing into a back and forth between ministries and authorities. "I don't understand why obstacles are being put in our way. Something like the Ahr Valley can be repeated here," he says. He fights against small communities being left alone when it comes to flood protection.

Fear of Ahr Valley scenario How flood protection is stalling David Lindenfeld

The success of German boxing in the nineties is closely linked to the town of Frankfurt an der Oder: Axel Schulz, Henry Maske, Manfred Wolke, Rudi Fink, Torsten May. Everyone grew up here or trained in the small town in eastern Germany. Some became professionals. With the exception of Schulz, all were Olympic champions. Today, German boxing is on the ground, TV stations are switching off, the big fights are being fought by others. A visit to those who still do not give up.

How German boxing is struggling to survive years after Kim Mauru's boom

The microscopic brackish water algae that attacked the Oder last summer is actually not native to rivers. But the water in the Oder was low and the salinity high due to discharges from Polish industry. Fishermen like Henry Schneider had to watch as the river died. There is no sign of recovery for seven months – and the algae is waiting to bloom again.

Fish kills in the Oder Waiting for the second wave Othmara glass

In the autumn, Poles will vote on a new parliament. In the election campaign, the ruling national-conservative coalition is stirring up sentiment against Europe, Germany and the German minority in the country. This does not catch on everywhere, because more and more Poles are rediscovering the German heritage in Silesia and West Pomerania. And make sure that it is not forgotten.

German on the Oder Where histories merge Kim Maurus

At the end of our journey lies the beginning of the Oder. There, a trickle splashes. From a concrete pipe, which is attached to the side of the well, a thick icicle has formed underneath. In dark spots, grass peeks out of the snow around it, it is under water. From a distance, shots echo at irregular intervals. "You're just going to the source?" a policewoman had asked suspiciously from the car window on the way there. The source of the Oder is located in a military area in the east of the Czech Republic. Very few people know that the river originates on Czech soil. But it was precisely here that a lot should be extracted from him.

Czech conservationists "This nonsensical project is finally dead"