Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After eight years of construction, the Kiel Canal was opened to oceangoing vessels sailing between the Baltic and North Seas. The canal’s construction demonstrated the ability of the new German Empire to carry out a large-scale project, and with the buildup of the German navy in the two decades following the canal’s opening, the massive engineering project was a sign of Germany’s arrival on the world stage.

Summary of Event

The irregular geographic configuration of northern Europe, with the Baltic Sea virtually cut off from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, made inevitable the linking of the two seas with a canal. Until that time, seagoing vessels had to navigate around the Danish peninsula and through the difficult passage of the sound between Denmark Denmark;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] and Sweden, Sweden a distance of about five hundred miles. The vast growth of oceangoing shipping after 1500 made the elimination of that trip one that engaged many minds. Kiel Canal Germany;Kiel Canal Canals;Kiel Canal Baltic Sea;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] North Sea;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] [kw]Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens (June 20, 1895) [kw]Kiel Canal Opens, Germany’s (June 20, 1895) [kw]Opens, Germany’s Kiel Canal (June 20, 1895) [kw]Canal Opens, Germany’s Kiel (June 20, 1895) Kiel Canal Germany;Kiel Canal Canals;Kiel Canal Baltic Sea;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] North Sea;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] [g]Germany;June 20, 1895: Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens[6040] [c]Transportation;June 20, 1895: Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens[6040] [c]Engineering;June 20, 1895: Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens[6040] [c]Economics;June 20, 1895: Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens[6040] [c]Trade and commerce;June 20, 1895: Germany’s Kiel Canal Opens[6040] Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal]

The eighteenth century was the great age of canal building, so it is hardly surprising that a plan emerged at that time to link the Baltic with the North Sea across the southern reaches of the Danish peninsula. The land through which such a canal would have to pass, the duchies of Schleswig Schleswig and Holstein Holstein , were governed by members of the Danish royal family. In 1784 a canal was built between Kiel on the Baltic and the town of Tönning on the shores of the Elbe River north of Hamburg, the great North Sea port. Known as the Eider Canal, it utilized the Eider River, which flowed across much of Schleswig-Holstein. In 1785 it was opened to international traffic, but it was quite shallow, required three to four days to pass through, and comparatively little use was made of it.

The picture changed during the 1860’s, and for several reasons. First, as a result of several wars fought in that decade, Schleswig-Holstein was added to the kingdom of Prussia. In 1871, Prussia became the core of the new German Empire, which was rapidly industrializing and eager to become a major European power. Second, oceangoing shipping was expanding quite rapidly in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the new German Empire aspired to play an important role in the world economy. Third, nations with large private freight and passenger traffic believed they needed to protect those national assets by the building of a navy. Navy, German All these factors came together to renew interest in a new, and bigger, canal through Schleswig-Holstein Holstein Schleswig , connecting the two northern European seas.

Fireworks illuminate the sky during celebrations at the opening of the Kiel Canal.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Local support for a new canal was strong. In 1868 a Kiel Canal construction committee submitted a proposal for a canal to the legislature of the North German Union, a predecessor organization of the German Empire proclaimed in 1871. This petition was passed on to Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] in his capacity as chancellor, a role he was also to occupy in the empire. In the 1870’s commercial interests in Hamburg took up the cause, particularly the ship-owning interests.

Shipping companies made contact with Bismarck, who favored the canal. Opposing the canal were the military authorities, notably General Helmuth von Moltke Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] , the architect of Prussia’s victory over France in 1870. Moltke argued that the costs of building such a canal would be too great and would detract from military expenditures. Bismarck, however, who saw the canal as a way of winning the support of conservative agricultural interests and the growing class of large industrialists, defied Moltke’s opposition. Bismarck’s great coup was winning the support of the emperor, the elderly William I William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] , who argued that completion of the canal was an urgent military need. The imperial support enabled Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] to win the approval of the Reichstag Germany;Reichstag for the construction of the canal in 1886.

The canal, which actually begins at the Kiel harbor at Holtenau, runs for 98.7 kilometers (61.3 miles) to Brunsbüttel on the banks of the Elbe River, northwest of the port of Hamburg. Besides two double locks, which were completed in 1892 and sit at each end of the canal, there are no breaks in the passageway from the Baltic to the North Sea. The original plan called for a minimum depth for the canal of 8.5 meters, a minimum width at the bottom of 22 meters, and a breadth on the surface of 58 meters. The radius of turns could not be less than 250 meters, but at the request of the German navy during construction this figure was increased to 1,000 meters, and the length of various bends in the route was increased from 250 to 450 meters. At midstream the depth was increased to 9 meters, and the breadth on the surface was expanded from 58 to 67 meters. These changes reflect the growing interest, which had been fueled by the new emperor William William II (emperor of Germany) [p]William II (emperor of Germany)[William 02 (emperor of Germany)];and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] II, in the construction of a powerful navy Navy, German to challenge the British navy.

The construction of the canal was entrusted to a special commission created by the Reichstag in 1886. The route was divided up into four (later five) administrative sections. The first of these was responsible for the construction of the double locks at the Elbe end of the canal, and the remainder were assigned appropriate segments to direct construction work. Large excavators dug the canal, and more than seven thousand workers were hired, including masons, machinists, and blacksmiths. The canal cut across four rail lines, four major roads, and numerous smaller ones. The rail lines entailed the construction of bridges, both fixed spans and those with turning segments, as did the major roadways. Pilots would be required on vessels traversing the canal, but the commission ordered lights on the banks to guide the pilots. Steam engines Steam engines were placed at each end of the canal to power dynamos that would light up the lights.

Construction was completed in 1895 at a total cost of 156 million marks, some 900,000 marks below the amount budgeted, but the Reichstag added another 1.7 million marks to pay for the elaborate dedicatory ceremonies on June 20, 1895. Emperor William William II (emperor of Germany) [p]William II (emperor of Germany)[William 02 (emperor of Germany)];and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] II, grandson of the emperor who had lent his support to the creation of the canal, presided over the ceremonies, and he immediately christened the canal the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal, in honor of his grandfather. The dedication began in Hamburg and wound up with a parade of vessels passing through the canal for more than eight hours. The following day, in Kiel, a cornerstone was laid that was patterned after the cornerstone laid by Emperor William William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Kiel Canal[Kiel Canal] I at the opening eight years earlier.


The Kiel Canal was touted as a major construction achievement, comparable to the Suez Canal. Later commentators also likened it to the Panama Canal. The canal was, however, not without its negative aspects.

Despite the canal’s broad dimensions, many ships still ran aground on the banks or collided with concrete embankment structures. In an effort to avoid changing elevations, the canal had been planned, and built, to run largely along the route of the eighteenth century Eider Canal, whose route in turn had been dictated by the need to use natural waterways wherever possible. These circumstance contributed to many of the accidents that plagued the early years of the canal’s operations.

Although the canal saved vessels traveling between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea some five hundred miles, the saving of time was much less, because ships had to move at very slow speeds through the canal. Because oceangoing ships continued to grow in size throughout the twentieth century, the canal has since required two expansions. By the late twentieth century, however, many vessels were much too large to fit through the canal, so its usefulness has diminished.

The construction of the canal served as concrete evidence of the growing industrial, commercial, and naval power of the German Empire. It was justified in part by the needs of the new German navy, which in turn contributed to the growing estrangement between Germany and Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century, an estrangement that led to World War I. As trade became more global, the importance of the traffic on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea lessened, and the canal served relatively fewer users. It demonstrated both the capabilities and the pride, some would say hubris, of the new German Empire, leading shortly to the empire’s collapse in World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Imperial Germany, 1850-1918. New York: Routledge, 2001. A well-written and richly detailed account of the German Empire. Has only one specific reference to the canal, but it provides good background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, W. O. The Rise of German Industrial Power, 1834-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Contains the most extensive information in English about the canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lagoni, Rainer, Hellmuth St. Seidenfus, and Hans-Jürgen Teuteberg, eds. Nord-Ostsee-Kanal. Kiel, Germany: Wachholtz Verlag, 1995. Commissioned by the German Transport Ministry, this book, graced with many photographs, contains exhaustive information about the canal. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Vol. 3 includes “The Period of Fortification, 1880-1898,” detailing Bismarck’s role in creating the canal.

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