Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 9 November 2011

The Cultural Impact of Dikes on People Living at Germany’s North Sea Coast

By Sünje Schwarz


The need for protection from the North Sea, especially during storm surges, lead to the necessity for dikes as the region lacked natural protection from the sea. There are countless tales of devastating storm surges, the Rungholt saga being only one of them. Since dikes are vital for the protection of human life and economic resources, the North Sea is always present in the mind of the people of the North Sea region and its dangers are visualized through the dikes.


The people of the German North Sea coast have always had to defend themselves from the sea, especially during storm surges. These storm surges are a common event and people had to take action to protect themselves from the catastrophic devastation these storm surges are capable of. This not only shaped the landscape but also the people, who inhabit the North Sea coast regions.

During the Pleistocene times, the North Sea coast was not covered with ice. As a result, glacial outwash deposits formed the landscape and the sea is fairly shallow. Since natural protective structures, such as cliffs, inlets, or other natural protective structures are missing from much of the North Sea coast; the locals had to find another ways to protect themselves (Sterr, 2008).

Dwelling mounds were the first ways people tried to protect themselves from the North Sea in the 4th and 5th century. However, as a result of increasing population, agriculture became more and more important. Technological advances enabled the people along the North Sea coast to build the first dikes in the 11th century and use the very fertile marshlands for agriculture. But the building of dikes presented another problem to the people at the North Sea coast: Although their land was now protected from the sea, the plentiful rain had no place to drain. To solve this problem, the farmers formed an association that enabled them to build ditches and tidal outlets, which would drain the water at low tide but prevent water from coming in at high tide. Because this prevented mud deposits behind the dikes, these mud deposits were now seaside, leading to a rise in land. This new land, called a “Koog”, was in turn enclosed by dikes and used for agriculture (Rieken, 2005).

It is important to note that the dikes underwent an evolutionary process to arrive at the current design and height (Dust, 2010). While the first dikes were a mere 3 feet tall and only protected the crops during the summer. In the 13th century, the first dikes, designed to protect the region year round from the sea, were built (Rieken, 2005). In the 17th century, the dikes reached a height of over 12 feet and today’s dikes are almost 29 feet high, 23 feet higher than the regular high tide, protecting the entire area year round (Dust, 2010).

But history is filled with storm surges and dikes that couldn’t withstand the force of the water, leading to catastrophic devastation. Almost every generation has had to experience such a storm surge and the memories are passed on, ensuring awareness of the danger the people live in day in and day out. These storm surges are defined as periods of time with very high water levels, usually caused by very strong winds (Jakubowski-Tiessen, 1992). One of the most recognized stories every kid grows up with is the Rungholt saga. Rungholt was a city on a North Sea island. It is believed the city was destroyed during the “Marcellus flood” of 1362.  Poet Detlev von Liliencron’s poem “Trutze nun, Blanker Hans” (“Now obstinate, bare Hans”) is known in essence to all people in the area, whether they had to memorize the poem during their elementary school days or whether they learned about it from their parents. The expression “Bare Hans” is a metaphor for the North Sea that is still commonly used today (Mauch & Pfister, 2009). For a long time it was unclear whether the city of Rungholt actually existed or whether it was nothing more than a myth. However, archeologists have confirmed its existence in the 1920’s and 1930’s when remaining fragments of houses and wells were discovered (Dust, 2010). Another very famous piece of literature is “Der Schimmelreiter” (“The Dyke Master”) by Theodor Storm. This novel tells the fictitious story of Hauke Haien, a man with a vision for a new, better design for dikes. When he assumes the position of dikegrave, he can build the new dike although much of the village was against the design.  But when, during a storm surge, an old part of dike breaks and claims the life of the family, he takes his own life and rides his grey horse into the raging sea. His dike, however, prevails (Findlay, 1975).

The storm surge of 1717 is another example of a devastating flood surge, which flooded the entire marsh region in the county of Dithmarschen, destroying approximately 10 miles of dike along the coastline. Normally, the bells in the churches sounded to warn the population of impending danger but in the case of the storm surge of 1717, the storm surge came so fast and unexpected that warnings were impossible for most of the region. A quarter to half of the population in the areas impacted by the storm surge was lost. Recollections of the event are eerily similar to what many people had to experience during the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan in recent years. The storm surge of 1962 was the latest storm surge that caused widespread devastation and deaths (Jakubowski-Tiessen, 1992).

As a result, the North Sea is always present in the mind of the people of the North Sea region and its dangers are visualized through the dikes. Everyone knows how important the dikes are, not only for the protection of human life, but also for the economic sustainability of the region. This region has not only seen entire cities vanish as a result of storm surges, but other cities have lost their wealth and status because a storm surge destroyed important trade goods and shifted access to harbors (Herrmann, 2008).

But the dikes and the constant fight against the unforgiving North Sea, have inevitably shaped the character of the people inhabiting the coastal area. The people feel very much connected with the nature surrounding them, and use a very pragmatic approach to coexist with the North Sea (Meyn, 2007). In other areas of Germany, the people of the North Sea are not only known for their love of freedom, they are also known as public-spirited, rough, steadfast and distrustful towards anyone who wants to change the way things are done (Allemeyer, 2008).

Today, rising sea levels and coastal protection stress the importance for dikes, as these low-lying areas are at high risk for flooding. In addition to flooding from the seaside, the terrestrial drainage from the inland is utterly important. Increasing the height of the dikes is only one way to combat the problems that rising sea levels as a result of climate change bring. Ultimately, people may be forced to retreat further inland, to areas that are higher and to give the North Sea a greater opportunity to weaken during a storm surge (Sterr, 2008).

In conclusion, living at the coast forever shaped the people of the North Sea region and their relationship is signified by the dikes that are meant to protect them.





Allemeyer, A. L. (2008). »Kein Land ohne Deich..!«.Lebenswelten einer Küstengesellschaft in der frühen Neuzeit (Veroffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte). (1 ed.). Goettingen, Germany: Ruprecht Gmbh & Co.

Dust, U. (2010). Die Geschichte der Sturmfluten an der Nordsee. Munich, Germany: GRIN Verlag.

Findlay, I. (1975). Myth and Redemption in Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter. Papers on Language & Literature, 11 (4), 397.

Herrmann, E. (2008). Schauplätze der Umweltgeschichte, Werkstattbericht. Goettingen, Germany: Universitaetsverlag Goettingen.

Jakubowski-Tiessen, A. (1992).Sturmflut 1717, Die Bewältigung einer Naturkatastrophe in der frühen Neuzeit. Oldenburg, Germany: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag.

Mauch, H., & Pfister, H. (2009).Natural disasters, cultural responses, case studies toward a global environmental history. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Meyn, J. (2007). “Mit dem Meer wird man geboren”: vom Leben an der Küste Nordfrieslands. Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag.

Rieken, E. (2005). Nordsee ist Mordsee. Muenster, Germany: Waxmann Verlag.

Sterr, H. (2008). Assessment of Vulnerability and Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise for the Coastal Zone of Germany. Journal Of Coastal Research, 24(2), 380-393.


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