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The River Elbe ( ; ; Low German: de Ilv) is one of the major rivers of Central Europe. It originates in the Krkonose Mountainsmarker of northwestern Czech Republicmarker before traversing much of Bohemia (Czech Republicmarker), then Germanymarker and flowing into the North Seamarker at Cuxhavenmarker, 110 km northwest of Hamburgmarker. Its total length is .

The Elbe’s major tributaries include the Vltava, Saalemarker, Havelmarker, Muldemarker, Schwarze Elstermarker, and Ohremarker rivers.

The Elbe River basin, comprising the Elbe and its tributaries, has a catchment area of , the fourth largest in Europe. The basin spans four countries, with its largest parts in Germany (65.5%) and the Czech Republic (33.7%). Much smaller parts lie in Austriamarker (0.6%) and Polandmarker (0.2%). The basin is inhabited by 24.5 million people.


In the Czech Republic

The Elbe rises at an elevation of about in the Krkonošemarker (also known as Giant Mountains or in German as Riesengebirge) on the north west borders of the Czech Republic. Of the numerous small streams whose waters compose the infant river, the most important is the Bílé Labe, or White Elbe. After plunging down the of the Labský vodopád, the latter stream unites with the steeply torrential Malé Labe, and thereafter the united stream of the Elbe pursues a southerly course, emerging from the mountain glens at and continuing on to Pardubicemarker, where it turns sharply to the west. At Kolínmarker some further on, it bends gradually towards the north-west.

At the village of Káranýmarker, a little above Brandýs nad Labemmarker it picks up the Jizeramarker.

At Mělníkmarker its stream is more than doubled in volume by the Vltava, or Moldau, a river which winds northwards through Bohemia. Although upstream from the confluence Vltava is longer ( against ), has larger discharge and larger drainage basin, due to historical reasons (at the confluence the Vltava meets the Elbe at almost a right angle, so it appears as a tributary) river continues as Elbe.

Some distance lower down, at Litoměřicemarker, the waters of the Elbe are tinted by the reddish Ohřemarker (Eger). Thus augmented, and swollen into a stream wide, the Elbe carves a path through the basaltic mass of the České Středohořímarker, churning its way through a deep, narrow rocky gorge.

In Germany

Shortly after crossing the Czech-German frontier, and passing through the sandstone defiles of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the stream assumes a north-westerly direction, which on the whole it preserves right to the North Sea.

The river rolls through Dresdenmarker and finally, beyond Meißenmarker, enters on its long journey across the North German Plain passing along the former border of East Germanymarker, touching Torgaumarker, Wittenbergmarker, Dessaumarker, Magdeburgmarker, Wittenbergemarker, and Hamburgmarker on the way, and taking on the waters of the Muldemarker and Saalemarker from the west, and those of the Schwarze Elstermarker, Havelmarker and Eldemarker from the east. In its northern section both banks of the Elbe are characterised by flat, very fertile marshlands, former flood plains of the Elbe now diked.

Soon the Elbe reaches Hamburgmarker. Within the city-state the Elbe has a number of branch streams, such as Dove Elbe, Gose Elbe, Köhlbrand, Northern Elbe (Norderelbe), Reiherstieg, Southern Elbe (Süderelbe). Some of which have been disconnected for vessels from the main stream by dikes. In 1390 the Gose Elbe (literally in ) was separated from the main stream by a dike connecting the two then islands of Kirchwerder and Neuengammemarker. The Dove Elbe (literally in ) was diked off in 1437/38 at Gammer Ort. These hydraulic engineerings were carried out to protect marshlands from inundation and to improve the water supply of the Port of Hamburg. After the heavy inundation by the North Sea flood of 1962 the western section of the Southern Elbe was separated becoming the Old Southern Elbe, while the waters of the eastern Southern Elbe now merge into the Köhlbrand, which is bridged by the Köhlbrandbrückemarker, the last bridge over the Elbe before the North Sea.

The Northern Elbe passes the Elbe Philharmonic Hallmarker and is then crossed under by the old Elbe Tunnel marker, both in Hamburg's city centre. A bit more downstream the Northern Elbe and the Köhlbrand reunite to form the Lower Elbe stream south of Altonamarker-Altstadt, a locality of Hamburg. Right at its beginning the Lower Elbe is passed under by the New Elbe Tunnel marker, the last solid road link crossing the river before the North Sea. Leaving the city-state the Lower Elbe then passes between Holstein and the Elbe-Weser Triangle until it flows into the North Sea at Cuxhavenmarker. Near its mouth it passes the entrance to the Kiel Canalmarker at Brunsbüttelmarker before it debouches into the North Sea.


The Elbe has been navigable by commercial vessels since 1842, and provides important trade links as far inland as Praguemarker. The river is linked by canals (Elbe-Seitenkanalmarker, Elbe-Havel Canalmarker, Mittellandkanalmarker) to the industrial areas of Germany and to Berlinmarker. The Elbe-Lübeck Canalmarker links the Elbe to the Baltic Seamarker, as does the Kiel Canalmarker, whose western entrance is near the mouth of the Elbe. The Elbe-Weser-Schifffahrtsweg connects the Elbe with the Weser.

By the Treaty of Versailles the navigation on the Elbe became subject to the International Commission of the Elbe, seated in Dresden.The commission was staffed with two representatives of Czechoslovakia and one representative of Anhaltmarker, Belgiummarker, Francemarker, Hamburg, Italymarker, Prussiamarker, Saxonymarker, and the United Kingdom each, with Czecholosvakia and the German states being those, whose territory was crossed by the Elbe and thus competent for maintaining navigation installations. Cf. Der Große Brockhaus: Handbuch des Wissens in zwanzig Bänden: 21 vols., completely revised ed., Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 151928-1935, vol. 5 (1930): Fünfter Band Doc–Ez, article: 'Elbe', pp. 400seqq., here p. 402. No ISBN. Following the articles 363 and 364 of the Treaty Czechoslovakiamarker was entitled to lease its own harbour bassin, Moldauhafenmarker in Hamburg. The contract of lease with Germany, and supervised by the United Kingdommarker, was signed on February 14, 1929 and will end in 2028, since 1993 the Czech Republic holds the former Czechoslovak legal position.

Before Germany was reunited, waterway transport in Western Germany was hindered by the fact that inland navigation to Hamburg had to pass through the German Democratic Republic. The Elbe-Seitenkanal (Elbe Lateral Canal) was built between the West German section of the Mittellandkanal and the Lower Elbe to restore this connection. When the two nations were reunited, works began to improve and restore the original links: the Magdeburg Water Bridge now allows large barges to cross the Elbe without having to enter the river. The often low water levels of the Elbe do not hinder navigation to Berlin any longer.


The biggest Elbe island of Wilhelmsburg between the Northern and the Southern Elbe in Hamburg

Outer Elbe (estuary)

Lower Elbe

Between Northern and Southern Elbe (Norderelbe/Süderelbe)

Middle Elbe

Upper reaches



The Dolní Žleb Ferry.
The Wörlitz Coswig Ferry.
The Zollenspieker Ferry.
The Elbe is crossed by many ferries, both passenger and car carrying. In downstream order, these include:

Many of these ferries are traditional reaction ferries, a type of cable ferry that uses the current flow of the river to provide propulsion.


First attested in Latin as , the name means "river" or "river-bed" and is nothing more than the High German version of a word ( ) found elsewhere in Germanic; cf. Old Norse river name , Swedish "river", Old English river name , and Middle Low German "river-bed".


The Elbe was recorded by Ptolemy as (Germanic for "river") in Germania Magna with its source in the mountains ( , or Giant Mountains), where the Germanic lived.
The Elbe passing Dresden.

The Elbe has long been an important delineator of European geography. The Romans knew the river as the ; however, they only attempted once to move the Eastern border of their empire forward from the Rhinemarker to the Elbe, and this attempt failed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forestmarker in 9 AD, after which they never seriously tried again. In the Middle Ages it formed the eastern limit of the Empire of Charlemagne. The river's navigable sections were also essential to the success of the Hanseatic League and much trade was carried on its waters.

The Elbe delineated the western parts of Germany from the eastern so-called East Elbia, where soccage and serfdom were more strict and prevailed longer, than westwards of the river, and where feudal lords held bigger estates than in the west. Thus incumbents of huge land-holdings became characterised as East Elbian Junkers. The Northern German area north of the Lower Elbe used to be called Albingia in the Middle Ages. When the four Lutheran church bodies there united in 1977 they chose the name North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Other, administrative units were named after the river Elbe, such as the Westphalianmarker Elbe département (1807–1813) and the Lower Elbe département (1810), and the French département Bouches-de-l'Elbe (1811–1814).

In 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, Nazi Germany was caught between the armies of the western Allies advancing from the west and the Soviet Unionmarker advancing from the east. On 25 April 1945, these two forces linked up near Torgau, on the Elbe. The event was marked as Elbe Day. After the war, the Elbe formed part of the border between East Germanymarker and West Germanymarker.

During the 1970s, it was widely believed that Adolf Hitler's ashes were scattered in the Elbe, by the Soviets.

See also


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