Celebrating the Kiel Canal’s 125th anniversary

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This month we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the world’s most frequented artificial waterway. Read about the engineering feat, the historical background of construction, and its commercial significance.

It all began with a trick. The Kiel Canal would never have been built if Bismarck hadn’t exploited the first German Kaiser’s love of the navy to obtain permission to build a canal between the North Sea and the Baltic. 125 years after its completion and official opening on June 21, 1895, the Kiel Canal is still a vital transport link for international shipping and an important factor in North Germany’s economy.

Alternative to Skagen

Throughout his long career, Bismarck was always a shrewd politician. His role in German unification under Prussia’s leadership is well documented. Less well known is the decisive part he played in enabling the Kiel Canal to be built. In the 1860s, the only waterway between the North Sea and the Baltic was the Eider Canal. It connected Kiel and Rendsburg from where vessels could sail to and from the North Sea on the River Eider. By the mid-19th century, this waterway was becoming too small and its many locks made for time-consuming passages. The only alternative for ships bound to and from the Baltic was the dangerous journey around Cape Skagen at the northern-most point of Denmark. Hundreds of shipwrecks testify to the risks this much longer route involved.

Tricking the Kaiser

Unfortunately, key figures in the German establishment were dead against the idea of a canal between the Baltic and the North Sea. In 1873, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of first the Prussian and then the Imperial German Army, attacked the canal plans in the German Parliament: “Gentlemen, for whom are we actually building this canal? Instead of constructing a canal for our Fleet, we could build a second Fleet!” Bismarck could not win this war of words, but a simple trick did the job. As he knew that Kaiser William I was mad keen on his nascent navy, Bismarck simply told him that the canal was a “military necessity” to enable the German Fleet to sail from “the Baltic to the North Sea at any time – without having to pass Danish cannons”. The Kaiser agreed to the canal’s construction and even traveled to Kiel for the groundbreaking ceremony in 1887 – at 90 years of age and shortly before his death. The real reason why Bismarck wanted the canal was not so much the benefits it would bring to shipping or the German economy, but the prestige unified Germany could gain from such a stupendous engineering achievement.

An engineering feat

In that Bismarck was certainly right. In the eight years, it took to complete the nearly 100-km long, up to 9-metre deep and up to 67-metre wide canal between Kiel on the Baltic and Brunsbüttel near where the River Elbe flows into the North Sea, over 82 million cubic metres of earth were excavated using steam-powered diggers or sheer muscle power. At peak times nearly 9,000 workmen were employed on Germany’s biggest building site. Many of them were what we would now call economic migrants from places as far away as East Prussia and Italy. The work was dangerous. Around 6,000 accidents were recorded and 90 workmen died. Technically, the construction work was equally challenging. The canal was dug in soft sand or marshy soil and the dams of sand often collapsed before they could be bricked up. As the land to the west of the selected route was lower than the water level of the canal, vast areas of the surrounding land would have been flooded if any canal dam had burst. But nothing untoward happened thanks to careful planning and engineering skills of Otto Baensch, the canal’s chief engineer. His skills and the backbreaking work of thousands enabled the canal and the locks at both ends to be completed on time and in line with the budgeted 156 million gold marks. Ironically, by the time the canal was finished, it was already too small for military purposes. The great naval race between Germany and Britain was leading to ever-larger naval vessels and the first Dreadnought-class battleships in the early years of the 20th century were far too big to pass through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, as it was known in those days. But in a way that didn’t matter because the true significance of the canal was as a passageway for commercial shipping.

Commercial significance

In 2019, a total of 83,476,501 tonnes of cargo were transported on the Kiel Canal, 4.59% less than in 2018. 28,797 ships passed through Canal, an average of 78 per day, but down from just over 30,000 ships the year before. The decline in cargo and shipping traffic reflects last year’s downturn in Baltic Region economies, the longer-term impact of EU sanctions against Russia, the decline in freight rates on North Sea-Baltic trades and lower bunker prices. The volume of freight and the numbers of ships passing through the canal are likely to be significantly lower in 2020 as a result of the corona pandemic and the dramatic fall in the price of crude oil, which makes the Skagen route a much less expensive alternative. Nevertheless, the Kiel Canal’s significance as the shortest route between the North Sea and the Baltic, a passageway that saves ships around 250 nautical miles and a significant amount of time, is undisputed. The most frequent vessels to transit the canal nowadays are bulk freighters and general cargo vessels followed by tankers and containerships. Containerised cargoes, petroleum products, and chemicals account for nearly 80% of the total freight volume. The canal is also a key element in Germany’s transport network and the economy of its most-northerly state, Schleswig-Holstein, where almost 3,000 jobs are directly dependent on the canal.

Regular expansion work

To maintain the Kiel Canal’s viability as a passageway for commercial shipping it has regularly been expanded and the infrastructure improved. The first extension to accommodate bigger ships began only 12 years after the canal’s completion and took from 1907-1914. Not only was the canal deepened and widened; two major road bridges and one mainline rail bridge – now an architectural icon – were also built across the canal. The second major extension period began as long ago as 1965 and continues to this day. The fifth lock currently being built in Brunsbüttel at a cost of €860 million is due to open at the end of 2026. One of the smaller locks in Kiel is to be replaced at an estimated cost of €315 million and a second road bridge in Kiel should cost around €68 million. In addition, €500 million has been put aside by the German Transport Ministry to widen the canal at strategic points.

This June’s 125th anniversary is being celebrated in subdued fashion at a time of heightened uncertainty. How will a recession of historic dimensions hurt the canal? Will the continued low price of bunker oil induce shipping lines to switch permanently to the Skagen route? Will the frequent passage delays caused by moribund locks lead to more ships deciding against the Kiel Canal shortcut? Questions nobody can yet answer, but one thing is certain: the Kiel Canal can be proud of its contribution to shipping over the past 125 years. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to assume that the “shortcut logic” will continue to convince tens of thousands of ships a year to take this ecologically sensible shortcut through what is still the world’s most frequented artificial waterway.