Hamburg’s Große Flut (‘Great Deluge’) is firmly anchored in German public memory.1 A wealth of monuments, high water marks and a plethora of documentary films, media outlets and personal testimonies from contemporary witnesses keep the incidents that occurred in early 1962 alive. During the night of 16 to 17 February, a massive storm flood shook the young Federal Republic to its foundations. Hailing from the North Sea, storm front Vincinette, the victorious, forced massive tidal waves into the lower reaches of the Weser and Elbe for several hours, washing away vast areas along the coastline between Cuxhaven and Geesthacht and causing billions of deutschmarks of material damage. Once the tidal waves crashed through dykes and embankments, a chain of events took its course that triggered what disaster experts consider the most devastating natural catastrophe in modern German history.2

The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg suffered the most. More than 12,500 hectares – approximately one fifth of the entire urban landscape – were submerged. The water masses trapped more than 100,000 residents; over 15,000 lost their homes and 315 people lost their lives. One area accounted for most of the fatalities: within hours, Wilhelmsburg, a working-class district surrounded by two branches of the Elbe, was literally drowned. Here, the flood caught many local residents by surprise, and transformed the river island into a watery grave. Despite unprecedented rescue efforts, help came too late for many. After the water receded, emergency services reported 222 people dead or missing.3

So much for the undisputed history of events. The figures arguably paint a picture of a mainly local event. The inundations’ physical impact and its destructive outcome were restricted to specific geographic areas located in a high-risk zone, in which natural hazards pose an enduring threat. Within the North Sea’s sphere of influence, life is and has always been shaped by the rhythm of high and low tide. Storm winds, downpours and high waters are very common. Accordingly, Hamburg’s environmental history is that of a distinctive ‘disaster culture’.4 Municipal archives are replete with reports and popular tales of the city’s struggle with the elements that at least go back to the Middle Ages.5

However, floods are never limited to a specific place. In both their origin and their outcome, they transcend particular spaces. Like the River Elbe itself, which mutates from a small source in the Czech mountains to a river that reaches a length of 1245 km, covering a watershed of more than 148,300 km2, the ‘Great Deluge’ had humble origins. A deep low-pressure system and strong west winds was all it took to send Vincinette on her way to Hamburg. Once there, the storm’s gusts transcended all cultural, political and national borders, as did the waves that it pushed into the German Bight and down the Elbe River.

If the impact of the flood was not confined to a small segment of Hamburg, what does this mean for its history? That history has been told countless times and is well remembered, but it, too, should be explored in dimensions that transcend the immediate and the local. Looking more closely at the storm’s wider causes and impact brings some interesting new storylines to light. Many transgress the conventional dualisms that modernity has drawn between nature and culture, between memory and history, between the nation and the city, while others add the interplay between cityscape and natural environment to the human drama. These storylines have been propelled by nature’s agency as much as by different historical voices, actors and political institutions. Varying perceptions, overlapping plots, counter-narratives and conflicts shape (and reshape) the catastrophe’s diverging interpretations.6

Whether in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg or further afield, and whether fifty years ago, today or tomorrow, reckoning with the history of the flood of 1962 is a constructive practice. Who remembers the events, how and upon what grounds are crucial considerations comprising more than one layer of ambiguity. Therefore, disaster memories can only exist in the plural. Various forms of remembrance operate on different temporal and spatial scales, ranging from the deep past to the future and from the most local to the unbounded global. The question remains, however: if every catastrophic event has ramifications much wider than its immediate context, and if differing plots and competing memory actors co-evolve over time, how exactly does this affect the scale and scope of disaster memories?

Between the Tides: Northern German Cultures of Disaster

A single answer does not exist; only approximations and interpretations are possible because memories relating to Hamburg’s ‘Great Deluge’ oscillated between heterogeneous actors and different locales, feeding on many sources. According to David Blackbourn, German waterscapes turned incrementally into ‘a screen on which a changing society projected its hopes and fears’.7 In that regard, well-established Northern German ‘cultures of disaster’ proved to be a common framework. Literary works such as Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter or Detlev von Liliencron’s ballad Trutz, blanke Hans are examples of narratives grounded in long-held common myths about the dangers of living in a harsh climate at the mercy of storm tides and flooding. They are testimony to a longstanding appreciation of the agency of nature in this hazard-prone area.8 Since premodern times, withstanding the seemingly untameable elements shaped the lives of many coast dwellers. Theirs was a frontier mentality: the shoreline resembled a ‘space of confrontation’, where nature and culture literally clashed with each other.9Heimat was the land wrested from a hostile sea. Ever since its foundation in the Early Middle Ages, the settlement that later became the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg was part and parcel of this landscape, and its cultural memory was inscribed into its geomorphology. Despite being located more than 120 km inland, its residents pictured themselves as active constituents of a ‘coastal society’.10

The oldest and most visible memory topoi of this struggle are dykes. Building these embankments served a double purpose. On the one hand, they protected the marshlands physically and made permanent settlements possible. At the same time, they were of high symbolic value. Dykes drew a line between culture and mistrusted wilderness. Until the early twentieth century, every landowner in flood-prone areas was legally responsible for erecting a floodwall. Neglect would end in loss of possession. As a traditional proverb put it: Wer nicht will deichen, muss weichen (‘anyone who does not build a dyke has to leave’). A line of artificial walls that reaches seven to nine metres above sea level still surrounds Hamburg today. For the people living behind these protective barriers, however, another saying from premodern times defines their prevailing attitude towards the North Sea: ‘mind the next flood!’11 The long arm of the North Sea, the Elbe River, had simply brought too many calamities for residents to be able to forget about them. The number of both levees and memorials speak clearly of this awareness.

This holds true for Hamburg in particular. The dykes never isolated the Hansestadt from its environment. On the contrary, Hamburg has always been an ‘amphibious city’.12 The Elbe, the Alster Lake and a vast network of tributaries and canals drive its history, culture and prosperity. Hamburg’s rise to one of Europe’s leading port locations rested in particular upon its close connection with surrounding water regimes. Throughout an eventful urban history, there was always one constant: local self-conceptions and identities never limited themselves to modern distinctions between the environmental and cultural realm. Instead, they were characterized by an existence ‘lived on the edge and in-between’.13

Inevitably, devastating floods formed an essential part of this interplay, and even the most solid levees could not defy the elements for good.14 Major catastrophes such as the ‘Saint Marcellus’ Flood’ (1362), the ‘Burchardi Flood’ (1634), the ‘Christmas Flood’ (1717) and the ‘New Year’s Flood’ (1855) epitomized the downsides of co-evolution with coastal nature. It was the ‘Great Hallig Flood’ of 1825, however, that affected Hamburg in a particularly memorable manner. Drowning more than 800 people and rising to 5.24 m above high tide, the water levels it caused became the benchmark by which the city measured the altitude of its dyke protection.15

Against this backdrop and particularly from a historian’s perspective, Northern Germany’s post-disaster littoral landscape is more than ‘ripe for interpretation and intervention’.16 Monuments, mural reliefs, dyke constructions and old myths underpin a memory archive from which affected societies interpret recurring cataclysms. In Hamburg, notably, high water marks (Fig. 1), most commonly attached to bridge piles or riverine buildings, are common visual reminders of these emergency states. As ‘site[s] of material memory’, they offer ‘both physical and symbolic sustenance’.17

Figure 1. 

High water marks commemorating the ‘Great Deluge’ and one of its successors from 1976 (Image by the author).

The actual impact of these artefacts and grand narratives, however, often remains unclear. What story exactly does a high water mark in Wilhelmsburg tell? Who would understand it? And why might anyone even want to listen? These questions are difficult, maybe even impossible to answer. The combination of environmental hazard, social vulnerabilities, resilience patterns and cultural adaptation strategies generate highly variable disaster outcomes, as well as contrasting repercussions and long-term effects.18 What can be analyzed, conversely, are the actors and actions that translated the natural catastrophe into a collective tale. Who ‘made’ flood memories? At what scale? Which intentions drove them? Why were interest groups pushing for local commemoration? Who argued from a national perspective? How did narratives intermingle? And which platforms and media formats attracted public attention?

Memory Floods: Remembering Natural Disasters

In the search for answers, I will argue that local and national memory patterns interacted simultaneously and reciprocally. In what follows, various connecting factors such as commemorative discourses, cultural demands and politics of remembrance serve as evidence of a colourful ‘post-history’ of the 1962 flood.19 This approach neither advocates an ‘end of history,’ nor does it proclaim a fixed canon in the sense of histoires au second degré.20 Disaster ‘post-history’ and the concomitant memory practices, I argue, materialize in these kinds of interactions.

Disaster memories are thus best described in terms of the entanglement of varied networks, in which different stakeholders continuously negotiate objectives and content in their respective contexts and within a transactional dynamic. Reading these traces, ‘it becomes possible to assess the extent to which legacies of the catastrophic events lingered on after the material impact had been overcome and generational change had turned lived experience into cultural memory’.21 Whether these multidirectional transfers confine themselves to small snapshots, expand to encompass broader horizons or interact on different scales, depends on both the actors involved and their power to define the long historical process that is disaster memory.

Whereas historians used to show little interest in these contexts, recent research tends to understand floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts or heat waves as more than just momentary disruptions. Students of the Environmental Humanities plead for a more nuanced reading, emphasizing the lasting effects of disasters and the ‘long duration’ of cumulative hazard experience.22 Against this backdrop, it soon becomes clear that natural catastrophes are both embedded in and defined by historical processes. Even though an earthquake might only last for a few seconds, subsequent relief measures, corrective actions and rebuilding efforts certainly outlive its short physical impact. In the longer term, old certainties are often replaced. In the aftermath of disaster, traditional coping mechanisms can suddenly seem outdated and established conceptions of risk have to be reconsidered.23

In this regard, remembering is of particular importance, because memories possess a structural dimension that can encompass both the suddenness and the slowness of natural disasters. Not only do memories unfold along spatial and temporal axes, they also constitute a web of potentially collective references to which individuals or groups can relate emotionally. That is why vivid recollection depends on circulation. Communication between initiators and recipients, shared motives, common values and interactions are major drivers behind any given culture of remembrance. All of these expressions can be explored by environmental historians, albeit only insufficiently from a macro-perspective alone.

A comprehensive account of the 1962 flood simply does not exist. I therefore suggest ‘localizing’ as well as ‘pluralizing’ the ‘Great Deluge’s’ histories of collective remembrance. And if we understand ‘memoryscapes [as] heterogeneous and shaped by social relations through different memory practices’, the challenge is not to determine whether the natural disaster is a national, regional or provincial lieu de mémoire, but how to locate its memory patterns and communities.24 Such a task involves naming the actors involved, deciphering their motivations, identifying conflicts and history politics, and also decoding plots, symbolic references and physical manifestations of commemoration. Furthermore, it has to be noted that disaster ‘post-history’ not only evolves in different spatial contexts and environments, but also incorporates shifting temporalities. The way that the catastrophe was remembered changed over time since various memory actors were constantly adjusting narratives to respond to present demands. The flood signified something different in Wilhelmsburg than it did in Bonn, and it transported other contents in the 1960s than in the 1980s or 2000s.

In other words, disaster memories co-evolved over manifold domains. Accordingly, this article focuses on exchange processes and the interferences, relationalities and interchangeable dimensions of disaster commemoration. This makes it possible to conceptualize the ‘Great Deluge’s’ afterlife as a multi-layered, still-evolving mosaic in a space that is not exclusively national or local, but ‘betwixt and between’ – in the exchange between history and memory, nature and culture, state and city and other modern dualisms.25

Grounding Memory

A first piece of this mosaic can be found in central Hamburg (Fig. 2). On 26 February 1962, more than 150,000 people gathered in front of city hall when Federal President Heinrich Lübke called upon ‘all German citizens’ to offer commiserations: ‘Faced with a disaster which can only be compared to the horrific bombings of 1943, we have to stand together and let solidarity prevail’.26 Addressing the grieving public directly, he continued: ‘A sacrifice was claimed from our nation and we have to answer for this loss as a united nation’.27

Figure 2. 

Memorial service in front of Hamburg’s city hall (Image: StAHH, 7201, Flut 1962).

This vigorous appeal set the tone for the first official version of flood memory. According to the German head of state, nature’s ‘destructive forces’ had indeed brought calamity. Ten days later, however, they manifested themselves as an almost purifying force on German memories of wartime: ‘In the face of disaster [a commitment to] help and rescue broke through’.28 Hamburg’s public servants became the heroes in this plot. Police officers, firefighters, doctors, emergency response units – including the Red Cross, Technisches Hilfswerk (Federal Agency for Technical Relief, THW) and the only recently re-established Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) – as well as thousands of volunteers, embodied shining examples of national solidarity. Dramatic turns of phrase quickly emerged as key terms in public debate. The flood was considered either a ‘stroke of fate’, a defining ‘moment of truth’ or the forming of an ‘emergency community’.

As a welcome side effect, these metaphors transformed a complex mélange of unequally distributed vulnerabilities and risk miscalculations into a comprehensible success story of social cohesion. As Otto Friedrich, who headed an independent expert committee investigation into the catastrophe, stated proudly: ‘The eager willingness to help proved wrong all those detecting an affluent neglect’ in German society. Given that ‘citizens from all over the Federal Republic stood by their neighbours in need’, his report continued, the response to the disaster would once and for all prove the ‘vigour of a democratic system when challenged with a state of emergency’.29

To many ears, these words sounded familiar. This was because federal politicians also used them abundantly when commemorating World War II. Paradoxically, Operation Gomorrha, a firestorm raised by the allied Air Forces in July 1943 killing 42,600 civilians and leaving large parts of Hamburg bombed to pieces, served as a positive example in this regard.30 But what first seems counterintuitive in fact offers a striking insight into the ambivalent workings of a disaster culture.31 Of course, everybody remembered the horrors of war. Yet simultaneously, mutual solidarity, heroic rebuilding efforts and the idea of general catharsis had also entered the cultural inventories of post-war Germany. In not quite twenty years, collective memory had successfully rewritten history. The same tools were now imposed on the most recent cataclysm. Reconstruction efforts became the centre of attention and the ‘Great Deluge’ metamorphosed into a second Stunde Null (‘Zero Hour’). In the early 1960s, this metaphor was frequently used by the German public, media and politicians to define the immediate aftermath of World War II as not only an absolute break with the Nazi dictatorship but the ‘beginning of a new, better Germany and of a more optimistic phase in European history’.32 And Hamburg’s memory actors were convinced that there was a strong need for a clean sweep after the catastrophic Große Flut as well.

Official commemoration effectively merged biased hindsight and the politics of remembrance. Consequently, although a regional event, the flood developed almost instantly into a matter of national concern. A phalanx of state officials, news editors, church representatives and victims’ associations quickly reached an agreement: confidence and self-belief had to define disaster discourse by all means. So when president Lübke went on stage to express his condolences to the 150,000 people gathered in front of him, he actually had a bigger audience in mind. The Federal Republic’s head of state was also appealing to his ‘fellow countrymen’ watching the memorial service on television or listening to the radio. For Lübke, disaster relief meant above all a belief in national unity; he was using the flood to think big. His final words were dedicated to ‘our sorely afflicted brothers and sisters in the Zone (Soviet Occupation Zone, then the German Democratic Republic) and Berlin’, who ‘like our fellow citizens we mourn today, are neither deserted nor forgotten’.33

In sum, flood memory revealed a close connection between established master narratives and the progression of ‘post-history’, which in combination ‘played a powerful configurative role and [gave] meaning to the current state of emergency’.34 Bit by bit, a complex web of causality morphed into a simple stroke of fate. Untangling its root causes proved less important. Similar to the aftermath of World War II, when the horrors of National Socialism were blurred over the course of the ‘economic miracle’, a fresh, unburdened take-off seemed possible once more.35 Hamburg’s First Mayor Paul Nevermann, who had spoken just before President Lübke, took the narrative even further. The city would soon regain its old glory, rising ‘like a phoenix from the ashes’. Eventually, Nevermann was convinced, ‘we will shoulder the losses of so many’ together and ‘embrace all the grief-stricken in our community’.36

Following the first public commemoration ceremony, a sense of ‘erase and replace’ enveloped the city. Memories that did not fit fell through the cracks. Failures in flood control and deficient evacuation efforts in Wilhelmsburg played only a marginal role in the memory of the event. Untamed nature had simply overwhelmed an innocent community of fellow citizens and in doing so exposed the community’s strength of spirit. This ‘spirit of common destiny’ extended far beyond municipal borders – and not only in the eyes of Hamburg’s First Mayor and the Federal Republic’s President.37

National Commemoration: Coming to Terms with the Flood

Considered a matter of national concern, the flood’s impact was also debated in the Bundestag (German Federal Parliament). On 22 February 1962, with Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer present and every seat in the plenary assembly taken, Carlo Schmid, vice chairman of the Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary, professed: ‘The burden of the calamity hitting the North Sea Coast must not be put on the victims’ shoulders alone. In North and South, West and East, the German people have to carry this burden together – and we will carry this burden together!’38 Everybody in the room applauded. Christian Democrat and presiding officer of the parliament Eugen Gerstenmaier agreed with the previous speaker from the opposing SPD party. All political actors, he assured, would do everything in their power to ‘make the necessary possible’.39

While in Bonn MPs were discussing disaster relief, in Hamburg rescue efforts continued. Carrying out its first ‘humanitarian mission’ on German soil, the Bundeswehr in particular drew high praise.40 ‘No one’, several newspaper comments predicted, ‘will speak about [anonymous] armed forces anymore. People will speak of our Bundeswehr’.41 The Ministry of Defence gladly took up the thread. ‘Herculean efforts were demanded and gladly offered’, a brochure headline read. Another publication stated that soldiers had ‘often [been] the only ones still able to reach out to the families trapped by water’.42 What these eulogies of course failed to mention was the violation of the constitution that any domestic military operation necessarily implied. For the flood disaster offered an almost perfect opportunity to present the troops as the ‘nation’s protectors’.

Supreme Command was convinced that rescue operations in the inundation zone had the potential to ‘consolidate relationships’ between soldiers and civilians: ‘The Bundeswehr established itself as a trusted friend in need … Its relationship to the citizens of our country has been deeply strengthened’.43 This growth in reputation was highly appreciated. Ever since its proclamation in 1955, Germany’s rearmament had remained a fiercely disputed topic.44 Instrumentalizing the Bundeswehr’s battle against nature was free of any belligerent encumbrances associated with the Third Reich’s recent wars of aggression and, if anything, ‘prov[ed] the need for standing armed forces in this country’.45 In the light of recent events, German soldiers, whether preparing for combat against the immeasurable powers of nature or against communist regimes, regained their ‘good reputation’.

Local voices joined in. Army reports coming from the floodplain consistently painted a glowing picture: ‘So many positive reactions somehow took us by surprise. They even came from districts notoriously known for their previous antagonism against our troops’.46 Interestingly, though, it was less the spectacular rescue efforts that evoked respect than the service members’ modest demeanour and how they referred to their task as a mere corollary of a general commitment to the Federal Republic. With the popular parable of the Good Samaritan in mind, Bundeswehr headquarters even began to run a professional image campaign.47 After deployments in Hamburg ended, the army’s public relations department published a press release, in which specially selected authors confirmed that, although the storm flood had been overcome, the ‘disaster operations [would] stay alive in collective memory’.48 The Verband Deutscher Soldaten (Association of German Soldiers) even went so far as to attest to a ‘dam breach in the nation’s feelings toward the Bundeswehr’.49 Since nobody objected, collective remembrance fully adopted these success stories. Adding to the allegories of mutual solidarity and governmental support like those that Mayor Nevermann and President Lübke had drafted for the public, a veil of camaraderie and gratitude was drawn over the disaster, where the flood waters had still to recede.

The politics of remembering became increasingly important. Helmut Schmidt, Hamburg’s commanding police senator and therefore the person in charge of all joint rescue operations, refused to classify the flood as a national state of emergency. From his perspective, the exact opposite was true. Rational decision-making, tactical rescue missions and fully trained ‘helpers in uniform’ amounted to a functioning state. An effective government apparatus and a shared risk community were features the young Federal Republic should identify with. Just as in his hometown, where ‘everybody stood together’ to master the perils of water, the future Chancellor admonished, ‘we Germans will have to stand together in order to overcome the dangers caused by the division of our country’.50 During a ceremony in honour of the soldiers who died in disaster assistance, Schmidt was convinced that the recent floodwaters had ultimately ‘uncover[ed] the true moral core of our people’.51

Sometimes it seemed as if certain memory actors almost welcomed the ‘Great Deluge’. For Helmut Schmidt and others, the natural catastrophe, which came less than twenty years after the end of World War II, resembled a wake-up call. In the course of economic prosperity and Westbindung (‘Western orientation’), high-ranking politicians of all parties used its commemoration to contrast the nation’s bright future with its inglorious past. Guilt was transformed into destiny, and nature proved to be an ideal variable for the ‘blame game’.52 In contrast to the aggressive warfare of the Nazi-era Wehrmacht, a battle against nature was free of the associations of empire and expansion. This time, innocent German civilians were simply steamrolled by the forces of wind and water. Given the pre-existing discourses of victimization around the firebombing of Hamburg, declaring the Bundeswehr a ‘helper in need’ and its rescue efforts a ‘humanitarian mission’ therefore provided a welcome opportunity to demonstrate the Federal Republic’s commitment to the Western alliance and its shared values.53 Within the scope of national memory politics, remembering the flood along World War II memories of solidarity turned out to be a fruitful – though a highly selective, adjusted and instrumentalized – match.

The idealization of the 1962 disaster response even got to the point where memory of the event could be pressed into service in calling for a reunited Germany – in both the political and symbolic meaning of the word. An evaluation of East German press coverage came to the conclusion that the GDR’s reigning Sozialistische Einheitspartei (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, SED) instrumentalized the events for political agitation on their part. State department officials detected a ‘cynical and unbridled propaganda campaign’.54 Hence the decision to provide journalists with as much material as possible to underpin the Federal Republic’s engagement in disaster relief. The prime objective of this campaign was again twofold: to acquit executive authorities from any responsibility while simultaneously reassuring the public that the potential for flooding on the Elbe was under full control.

These interpretative patterns spread mostly undisputed. Considerably more discomfort, on the other hand, arose from an alleged lack of state support for flood victims. Both federal and Länder governments had guaranteed financial aid for all disaster victims. A concrete plan how to act on that promise was nonetheless lacking. However, a detailed schedule plan for financial recovery was precisely what people living in the flooded areas expected from state officials. It quickly became clear that Hamburg’s budget could not cover the expenses alone. Instead, Senate and Bürgerschaft (Hamburg’s legislative assembly) pushed for a federal solution. The parliamentarians unanimously pressed Ludwig Erhard, acting Federal Minister of Economy, and his cabinet to ‘accept the overall disaster burden’ and offer interest-free loans to claimants.55 With regard to the failure to pay compensation to victims of water damages, Hamburg’s administration explicitly expressed its impatience. ‘Goodwill is not enough’ finance senator Herbert Weichmann publicly announced.56 He demanded action.

With populist statements like these, Weichmann and other members of the Social Democratic Party attached particular importance to controlling the discourses of ‘post-history’. While traditionally being in government in Hamburg, the SPD had never been able to gain the majority in the Bundestag. Herbert Wehner therefore identified disaster relief as an ideal opportunity to enhance the party’s profile. A leading figure within the party hierarchy and long-term member of the Federal Parliament, Wehner was also an elected representative of Hamburg’s southern districts, namely Wilhelmsburg and other neighbourhoods that were ravaged the hardest by the storm flood. In accordance with his dual function, he wondered ‘whether German politics [together with] a strong German community might be able to develop a new form of public spirit’. Undoubtedly a desirable ‘common task’, this would require intensified physical as well as psychological coping mechanisms. For him, the most important task of disaster memory consisted of a new social contract: one that redefined ‘lived solidarity’ as a ‘necessary political virtue – political in the truest sense of the word, not in the sense of party interests’.57 Of course, the subtext clearly implied another message: Who, if not the Social Democrats, was best equipped to provide that change?

Patchwork Memories and Local Disaster Politics

Flood memory and the politics inherent to it continued to cross jurisdictions. On multiple occasions, local frameworks merged with regional, national and sometimes even foreign affairs. Memory-making involved heterogeneous, but nevertheless interconnected administrative levels. Consequently, remembering the flood had effects that far exceeded the bounds of its physical ‘hazardscape’.58 Newspapers praising soldiers and their humanitarian spirit and politicians emphasizing a ‘community of fate’ reflected the major topoi in official retrospectives. By no means a mere backdrop anymore, nature and its hazards had moved to the forefront of public discourse.

The Große Flut brought about consensus. Memory cultures, however, to a certain extent depend on friction. Once conflicts over insurance issues, financial aid and dyke protection ceased, the flood began to lose its significance. As most contemporaries saw it, full employment maintained the nation’s cohesion considerably more conveniently than natural disasters. Controversial debates about the Neue Ostpolitik (‘New Eastern Policy’ of détente with Soviet-bloc countries) or Notstandsgesetze (‘German Emergency Acts’, a constitutional amendment assigning the federal government full control in the event of a crisis, including natural calamities), barely affected disaster memory patterns. Technologically enhanced dykes and increased mitigation management seemed to have solved the hazard problem for good, and material damages in Hamburg had mostly been repaired. With no visible traces left, the flood and its impact gradually faded away.

However, those who had experienced its devastating effects at first hand refused to forget. In Wilhelmsburg and its neighbouring districts, local residents initiated their own forms of commemoration. Some actor groups began to archive eyewitness accounts, others published personal memoirs or even erected memorials, most notably a pair of steles intended to ‘honour the dead and to remind the survivors’, and a bronze relief dedicated to ‘those who lost their lives in order to save others’.59 North of the Elbe, at Ohlsdorf cemetery, where most flood victims had found their resting place (Fig. 3), a committee of surviving dependents sponsored a stone sculpture in the form of a broken dyke to commemorate the Deluge’s tenth anniversary (Fig. 4).

Figures 3 and 4. 

Ohlsdorf cemetery in 1962 and 2012 (Images: Staatsarchiv Hamburg, 7201, Flut 1962 and by the author).

Here, collective remembrance transitioned into a phase of ‘fine-tuning’. Remembering the flood became more and more detailed. By now almost extinct in national discourse, a new dynamic unfolded ‘on site’ when informal memory agents began to question established narratives. Post-disaster reappraisals developed new branches, not only at Ohlsdorf cemetery, but in other places too. Memories fragmented into contradictory components. National, regional and local narratives no longer necessarily operated on the same level.

But how did it come about that, ten years after the flood and a decade of harmonious commemoration, remembering the disastrous events in Wilhelmsburg took on a new meaning, diverging from the meaning it had in Hamburg’s city hall? This was mainly because the peripheral district took no part in Hamburg’s success story. South of the Elbe, post-disaster history revealed its many downsides. In contrast to the ‘mainland’, the river island’s recovery had never gained momentum. Following the devastation of 1962, Senate and Bürgerschaft created the fatal impression that ‘Hamburg has written [Wilhelmsburg] off’.60 The Legislature even passed an act that would have transformed the district into an industrial facility. In the face of massive protests, the plan was never realized, but the message was clear. For Wilhelmsburg, complained a frustrated district official shortly before the flood’s twentieth commemoration anniversary, the ‘catastrophe set a downward cycle in motion, under which [we] still have to suffer’.61 There simply was no ‘phoenix from the ashes’ story to tell. What took place here was in fact a second, far more protracted disaster.62

All of this, however, formed part of a larger trend. Not only flood memories, but cultures of remembrance in general underwent a significant transformation in the 1970s and 1980s. Strukturwandel (‘structural transformation’), the first signs of a global economic crisis as well as a bundle of environmental and socio-political dilemmas, led to widespread concern and, by extension, a fundamental questioning of historical narratives that merely recounted the ‘whitewashed’ accounts of policymakers. These shifts sparked protest and lifted a new generation of historical actors onto the public stage. Social movements, anti-nuclear groups and environmental activists, to name just a few such actors, put emphasis on shaping both the nation’s past and present from the bottom up.63

In Wilhelmsburg, Karl Homfeld, founding member of the Notgemeinschaft der Flutgeschädigten (‘Emergency Association of Flood Victims‘), identified a direct connection between structural socio-economic change, a lasting disaster impact and fading memories. A memoir he published under the programmatic title Die große Flut von 1962: Zerstörung und Wiederaufbau von Wilhelmsburg (‘The Great Deluge of 1962: Destruction and Reconstruction of Wilhelmsburg’) meticulously listed all failures from which the river island had suffered since Vincinette broke through the dykes: a lack of political attention, deterioration of housing, a considerable exodus of old-established residents and increased social tensions.64 For him, commemorative events on the ‘mainland’ kept on sweeping these darker sides of ‘post-disaster’ history under the rug of soap-box oratory. The much-vaunted community spirit and lived solidarity, it seemed, had long been forgotten. The floodwaters may have left the island, the disaster, however, stayed on.

In the meantime, on the other side of the Elbe, Hamburg’s Grün-Alternative Liste (‘Green Alternative List’, GAL), a branch of Germany’s newly founded ecological party Die Grünen, became an outspoken advocate of an ecosensitive flood memory. Heinz Spilker, one of nine parliamentary party members elected into Hamburg’s Bürgerschaft in 1982, legitimized his resistance against river deepening and pollution with reference to the disaster that had occurred twenty years ago. ‘Nature does not strike without a reason’, he summarized the GAL’s position: ‘If at all, it strikes under certain conditions. And these conditions have been created in the wake of 1962’.65 Even climate change and the question of whether dyke protection could handle the expected increase in rising waters and extreme weather events entered the debate. As environmental concerns gained further public attention, remembering the flood became a highly political endeavour once again. Accordingly, the Elbe regained its role as a formative memory actor.

It is important not to lose sight of these correlations outside of contexts that are merely cultural or symbolic. Nourished by a combination of socio-economic and environmental challenges, a certain distrust in grand tales of solidarity and social coherence emerged in Hamburg. Local initiatives began to approach the memory issue proactively ‘from below’. More and more ‘localized’ forms of remembering surfaced in public. No longer suppressing histories of neglect and despair, in the 1990s and early 2000s new monuments – a ‘wave wall’ in Francop (Fig. 5), a memorial stone in Waltershof and a number of exhibitions as well as private chronicles – added further nuance to the ‘Great Deluge’s’ legacy.66 Even at official anniversary ceremonies, contemporary witnesses and their personal mementos moved to the centre of public attention. The ‘pluralization’ and ‘localization’ of flood memories and the critical voices they raised did not mean, however, that official interpretations were completely replaced. Rather, they became significantly extended.

Figure 5. 

‘Wave wall’ memorial south of Elbe in Hamburg-Francop (Image by the author).

History Recovered

Thirty years after the flood, this meant that memory narratives of solidarity, community spirit and will-power regained their integrative potential. Ultimately, collective memories can only express what their protagonists want them to reflect.67 And even disaster victims who had suffered under governmental failures and federal shortcomings wanted to remember their individual success stories. The productive friction all memory cultures depend on resurfaced. While on the local level oral history accounts and private initiatives still focused on personal biographies, anniversaries and official commemoration routines guaranteed broad media coverage. In spite of the differences, official and informal memory actors looked for common denominators. In this regard, stories of voluntary help, local cohesion and rebuilding the neighbourhood no longer fiercely contradicted tales of national harmony and camaraderie. On the contrary: they went hand in hand and completed one another.

This was also the case when Elisabeth Kiausch, who had witnessed the deluge as a young woman and later became the speaker of Hamburg’s parliament, brought disaster memory back onto the same international stage her predecessors Nevermann, Lübke and Helmut Schmidt had utilized in the 1960s. When asked to speak during the Senate’s reception at the occasion of the flood’s thirtieth anniversary, she explicitly connected local memories to the gigantic Bangladesh cyclone that had killed at least 145,000 people and left as many as ten million homeless in Southern Asia the year before.68 Kiausch called on her audience to put their own experiences into perspective and to provide humanitarian assistance. The city’s ongoing commitment to ‘our Eastern neighbours’ in a reunited Germany would already set the right example: ‘This is both the experience and obligation of the flood disaster’.69

Such a remarkable shift must be attributed to the collapse of both the GDR and the Soviet Union and the repercussions this caused for German memory politics, which in the early 1990s began to emphasize the importance of national solidarity with the ‘victims’ of state socialism. Local politics played its role too. Kiausch’s global references did not spring forth from attitude, nor were they the result of accident: they offered a welcome distraction from a complex challenge that burst into memory discourses in the 1990s. Hamburg’s ongoing efforts at dredging the Elbe caused massive protests as well as heated discussions about the extent to which these construction works would increase the flood risks for the city’s riverine communities. In focusing on the bigger picture, Hamburg’s authorities hoped to soothe critical voices that accused the Senate of having learned the ‘wrong lessons’ from disaster.70

External stimuli continued to influence both local scope and (trans) national scales of remembrance. Severe inundations along the Rhine in 1993, then the Oder in 1997 and finally the Central European flood crisis of August 2002 revived the events of 1962.71 Even natural disasters occurring thousands of kilometres away influenced local memory. Hamburg’s media extensively covered both the trail of destruction the Indian Ocean tsunami left behind in December 2004 and the damage hurricane Katrina left in her wake twenty months later.72 Once again, the different levels and scales of flood memories intertwined. Memorials ‘on site’ and disaster iteration from ‘outside’ manifested a multifacetedness in a geographical as well as a symbolical sense. ‘Think global, remember local’ became the new motto both among contemporary witnesses in Wilhelmsburg and authorities in the Senate.

And disaster memories keep on diversifying. In the course of the most recent urban development goals, Hamburg’s long-neglected river island, once at the epicentre of the ‘Great Deluge’, gradually seems to be leaving behind its disastrous past. When the Bürgerschaft announced a ‘leap over the Elbe’ in 2004, Wilhelmsburg turned into a focal point for spatial planners and their concept of a ‘growing city’.73 Lighthouse projects in this regard have been the Internationale Bauausstellung (‘International Building Exhibition’, IBA) and the Internationale Gartenschau (‘International Garden Exhibition’, IGS) that both took place between 2007 and 2013. Even the Behörde für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt (‘Agency for Urban Planning and the Environment’, BSU) moved to the other side of the river. Since then, several billion Euros have been invested into infrastructure, dyke protection, conservation projects and cultural activities, leaving a profound mark on Wilhelmsburg’s physical appearance. More importantly, however, they changed its image. After fifty years of ‘slow disaster’, the island’s renaissance ultimately led to its official integration into the ‘inherent logics’ of Hamburg’s ‘phoenix narrative’.74

Remembering the flood has thus returned to its origins. Today, however, references to the ‘Great Deluge’, its immediate impact and its long ‘post-history’ can be found at all levels and across all segments of society. That national narratives often differ from local memories is hardly surprising. It is, in return, far more revealing to explore how they are nonetheless interconnected and co-evolving. When national media outlets commemorated the flood’s fiftieth anniversary with TV specials and newspaper headlines celebrating the heroics of Helmut Schmidt and the Bundeswehr soldiers, contemporary witnesses and their descendants in Wilhelmsburg commemorated the same heroism. And when local residents and critics of river deepening articulated their concerns about suppressing future flood risks, politicians in the Bundestag and the federal ministries made emphatic assurances that the lessons from 1962 would never be forgotten.

Memories of the Große Flut, it appears, are well integrated into public awareness. However, flood memories are both asymmetric and non-linear. Monuments, anniversaries and two high water marks along the Elbe riverbanks do not constitute a vivid disaster culture. Like any narrative, remembering depends upon the imagination, desires and practices of multiple agents to persist across time. What these storylines will look like in ten, twenty or fifty years from now is almost impossible to predict, as tomorrow’s contents will vary considerably depending on both individual and collective contexts and emotions. Only one thing is clear: processes of remembering and forgetting will continue to shape the 1962 flood’s entangled history.


Generations of historians, sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and novelists – from Maurice Halbwachs, Aleida Assmann and Astrid Erll to Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, George Santayana and W.G. Sebald – have reflected upon memory and its cultural manifestations.75 Their reflections show that the act of remembering, whether it is performed collectively or as an individual, does not work like a hermetically sealed vault in which history is simply filed. Looking at the interconnected post-histories of the ‘Great Deluge’ in 1962, its effects on Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg and the young Federal Republic, four points may be added to this basic premise for all memory (and disaster) cultures.

First and foremost, disaster memories are elastic. Margins are flexible and determined by the ever-changing demands of those actors who provide content and define limits. Secondly, disaster memories do not respect the past. Collective remembering is invariably political, and its actors constantly adjust history to their present needs and concerns.76 Thirdly, while far from monotonous, cultures of disaster remembrance conform to certain rules and are developed along place-specific trajectories. But they do not unfold in a vacuum. Rather, fourthly, they co-evolve along an axis of dialectical tension. The temporal rhythm and spatial circumstances of these interrelations are defined by their respective historical actors, their historical preconditions and, ultimately, by the interplay of nature and society.77 As structural, social and economic changes affected patterns of remembrance, so did altered hydrologies and ecological awareness.

As environmental histories of Northern German disaster cultures show, this tensile relationship fostered a sense of overlap between different historical stages and their diverse modes of recollection. Any hierarchical order of complexity proved highly volatile. National myths constantly correlated with local cultures, and vice versa. A transfer was always possible in both directions, and it is particularly interesting how the urge to remember success stories formed a common impulse for all memory parties involved.78 As a case in point, Hamburg’s flood memories always had a dual function: a normative one, in the sense of an official guideline on how to remember, and an interactive function as an exchange platform betwixt various temporal and geographical dimensions, and between different stories told and untold.

Remembering the disastrous event may not always have determined public discourse. But memories had a part to play, for they referred to much more than just a night in February 1962. They were connected to the Elbe, Wilhelmsburg’s dykes and, of course, the monuments and places of remembrance embedded in the coastal landscape. At times, they were noticeably affected by transregional or even international events; sometimes they addressed exclusively local issues.79 Constantly oscillating between these levels of reflection, plural flood memories accommodated particular impulses as both a stimulus and a corrective, stabilizing their structures in a dynamic equilibrium of ‘localized relationality’.

Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg and Germany itself have changed greatly since 1962. More than fifty years after the flood swept over the North Sea Coast, some memories have disappeared, while many others continue to thrive. The ‘Great Deluge’ continues to be a sort of Stolperstein, a ‘stumbling stone’, over which one trips time and again. This is because specific tensions stayed in place and because one big question remains unanswered: what happens if disaster strikes again?