In our class tonight on Environmental History: “Nature, Space, and Place,” we’ll be discussing David Blackbourn’s, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany.
Our class posts discussion points and reviews on our student-powered blog. My review of The Conquest of Nature is below, and also at this link on the class blog: Nature | Space | Place: “A Patina of Naturalness”.
Book Review: The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany, by David Blackbourn.
The Conquest of Nature, written by David Blackbourn, is a masterful work of environmental history. Published in 2006, The Conquest of Nature details the transition of Germany from a conglomeration of kingdoms in the mid 1700s into a modern nation-state. Blackbourn’s ability to marshal a wide variety of sources, from census records to works of literature, gives The Conquest of Nature a robust and weighty feel. The sheer depth of Blackbourn’s research is impressive enough, but the scope of such a national history, especially one with such dark interludes during the twentieth century, lends a sense of awe. The history of modern Germany and the country’s national identity are entangled in the landscape of the region. By examining the relationship of technology and the environment, the negotiation between people and nature, and the contemporary perceptions of geographic position in an increasingly globalized worldview, the history of Germany is shown as a story of both hope and despair, promise and sacrifice.
Rather than deriding the decisions of the past, Blackbourn is careful to understand the historical viewpoints of the German people regarding the environment. Too often the modern perspective of environmentalism has chastised historical actors for their short-sightedness and the unintended consequences which beset the present. The modern divisions of environmental space, such as urban, suburban, and rural, were not so neatly compartmentalized in the German past. The memory of the land was one of suffering, hardship, and turmoil, and only very recently, since the 1970s, has the environment been seen as an integral part of human existence rather than an enemy to be conquered.
As in David Biggs’ work on the Mekong Delta titled, Quagmire, the inhabitants of the countryside were well aware of the precariousness of their existence. Memories of wilderness were fraught with hunger, through poor agricultural yields, and deathly disease from pestilent swamps and marshes. Rivers and streams were arteries of trade and human travel, but connectivity also allowed a commingling of ecosystems. Quagmire illustrated how the Vietnamese dealt with an invasive water hyacinth, a Western byproduct of human migration, while in comparison Germans fought the Canadian water weed after it escaped the botanical gardens. Nature could be packaged and displayed in small, controlled settings, but wider environmental protection was far from the minds of Germans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was no fondness or nostalgia for the natural past. Nature was forbidding and fickle, and with the positing of human control through the ideas of the Enlightenment, mastering the Rhine and taming the Oderbruch were seen as true possibilities.
However, in a time when the basic natural laws and principles were discovered in seemingly quick succession one of the most elemental, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s third law of motion), seemed to be forgotten. Much as in Emerald City (2007), an environmental history of Seattle by Matthew Klingle, straightened rivers focused their velocity on under-constructed dikes and banks. These rivers were fed by the mountainsides which, shorn of their trees and vegetation, channeled rain and melting ice into torrents. Germans viewed the resulting floods as a “moral judgement,” their mystical qualities expressed through the phantom ringing of church bells, often the only harbinger of impending destruction (Blackbourn, 127). The inability to see cause and effect through environmental activities focused theories on the supernatural, instead of the interconnectedness of ecosystems. Environmental change was beyond the normal scope of human activity, centering instead on a generational, centennial, or even greater timescale.
The religious aspects of the environment were apparent in the biblical qualities of natural disasters, and also in the perception of human intervention. Through literary works, Blackbourn discussed the historical viewpoints of untainted nature, that areas without a human presence were seen as a “garden of Eden” (Blackbourn, 73). This, however, proposed a defeatist position regarding the negotiation between humankind and nature, for as Blackbourn states: “When we write about human impact on the natural world, we should recognize that we are dealing with the interaction of two dynamic systems” (Blackbourn, 74). This is not a point at which to completely release history from the faults of greed and ill-conceived plans, it is instead a reconciliation of humankind’s limitations and potential. The nostalgia for an arbitrary point in a more perfect past, or a cultural amnesia which ignores the long history of people and the natural world only leads away from a more productive and healthier future.
Blackbourn’s environmental history shows that Germans have been divided from Europe, divided between themselves, and divided from nature, but none of these relationships were entirely separated. With the advent of the telegraph and the steamship, technology compressed both time and space highlighting and strengthening these divisions, but never severing them from one another. The period of National Socialism and the horrors of the Nazi regime were built on the collective memories of a “green” and verdant Germany. Conquering nature also meant conquering the people that made the land their home, but such an intense desire for control also coincided with an even greater fear of uncertainty. The Conquest of Nature illustrates how the road to “German racial superiority” was also littered with “German anxiety” (Blackbourn, 322).
The Conquest of Nature is an environmental history, but it is also the story of the German people. Geography was no longer “destiny,” but in breaking free of the restrictions of place and space through technology, the certainty of geography was eroded as well (Blackbourn, 176). Blackbourn has not only used the environment as a lens with which to understand modern Germany, but he has shown how the development of a modern nation-state shaped, and was itself shaped by, the very land on which it stands.