The Flat Part of Europe

Quick. When I mention Germany, what kind of landscape comes to mind? Mountains, the big rivers, castles on hills, Neuschwanstein (which falls into “all of the above”). And lots of trees, probably pines, pines on hills, that sort of thing. In other words, Bavaria, the Black Forest, Heidelberg, and similar sites. Actually, more of Germany is rather flat to rolling, while northwestern Germany is pancake flat. In part because it got pancaked by ice, and covered in river sediment after the ice ages ended. It is closer to Holland than to Bavaria in terms of topography, and can be forested, grassy, swampy, or all of the above at once.

This is a place were you have water castles, castles defended by complicated series of moats and marshy stretches. Until the 19th century there were also a lot of grave mounds, dating back to the neolithic and Copper and Bronze Ages, with Iron Age sites just for variety (and because some graves were re-used). Many of those have since been plowed flat, or had their stones liberated for monuments and building material. This is where brick gothic architecture dominates, because stone had to be imported. If you visit the extensive marshlands, the remnants of even greater wetlands and swamps, you can appreciate why this is called Low Germany. People became herders and traders because that was about the only thing they could do with the soggy landscape for quite a while.


From Schleswig, just east of Niedersachsen. Still flat.

The rivers tend to meander, especially the Elbe.

A truly unrelieved landscape. You can imagine what happens when a storm from the North Sea backs up the water.

The region does have hills, but no mountains to speak of. The glaciers that came down from Scandinavia, and up from the Alps, flattened everything on the North German Plain, with a few notable exceptions. They left behind a waterlogged and lumpy landscape that was not well-drained until after the 1700s. This is where Charlemagne and the Saxons fought several times, where the pagans resisted conversion, where brick cities and trade dominated life. It is also the part of Germany that looked west to Britain and north to Scandinavia in language, economy, and culture. The dirndle is not worn up here. Instead there is a stronger Dutch influence.

Keep in mind, before the 20th Century, the timbers were covered to protect them.

Some things are universal – a castle owner with lots of funds and lots of space. The castle chapel in Celle, Germany.

One festival version of local costume. Note the man’s coat – not anything like you’d find in Bavaria or the Tyrol.

I don’t think I’ll look for a version of this to bring home.

I suspect this tradition (seen below) dates to the mid-1800s, at most to the 1700s. Although the woman in the center could step into a Breughel-the-Younger painting and no one would blink.

Working clothes, not festival clothes.


11 thoughts on “The Flat Part of Europe

  1. No, I don’t picture mountains when Germany is mentioned. Germany doesn’t HAVE any mountains. At best they have some timbered, rolling hills, and calling them hills is kinda stretching it.

    • Far southern Germany gets to claim part of the Alps. They are not Fourteeners, but they were a pretty substantial barrier for a goodly number of things.

      • Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little, I wouldn’t by any means call the Alps in Germany real mountains, but the do qualify as decent foothills.

      • With multiple peaks exceeding 9000 feet and some with prominence well over 7000 feet, they’re definitely “real mountains” in my book. That’s greater prominence, though less maximum elevation, than the Teton Range in Wyoming.

      • Part of our problem seems to be our definition of mountains, to me the word implies not only height/elevation difference, but a significant area also. While the Alps as a whole certainly qualify the tiny tidbit that is in Germany is such a small area I find it hard to cut that tidbit off and call them mountains. I could show you areas locally that are as rugged and while with slightly less prominence still significant (up to 5000 feet) that I would not call mountains, because there simply isn’t enough area of them. They are just some rugged hills.

  2. The only two hills in Berlin were made of rubble from the war. They’re 80 meters high – that’s a lot of destruction.

    The surrounding country is so flat that you can see Poland from there.

    • M.M. Kaye wrote that the British officers called them “Staff College Hill” because a recurrent assignment in class was to take a hill.

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