The Elbe was recorded by Ptolemy as Albis (Germanic for "river") in Germania Magna with its source in the Asciburgis mountains (Krkonoše, Riesengebirge or Giant Mountains), where the Germanic Vandalii lived.
The Elbe has long been an important delineator of European geography. The Romans knew the river as the Albis; however, they only attempted once to move the Eastern border of their empire forward from the Rhine to the Elbe, and this attempt failed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest 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.
Since the early 6th century the areas east of the rivers Elbe and Saale (which had been depopulated since the 4th century) were populated by Slavic tribes called the Polabian Slavs, to which Charlemagne granted sovereignty in 804. After Charlemagne's death in 814 Saxons invaded Slavic territories, exterminating the Slavs and successively destroying their states and culture, followed in 10th century by Gero and in the 12th century by the Wendish Crusade, annihilating also the catholic Duchy of Kopnik, a vasal to Poland, which eventually became Berlin—the German capital.
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 North 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 Westphalian 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 Union 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 Germany and West Germany.
During the 1970s, the Soviet Union stated that Adolf Hitler's ashes had been scattered in the Elbe following disinterment from their original burial site.