Imagined Soil

Neal Ascherson

  • The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn
    Cape, 497 pp, £30.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 224 06071 6

‘All history is the history of unintended consequences, but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment,’ David Blackbourn writes, in this magnificently compelling, vivid and often pioneering book. Its subject is Germany’s struggle to subjugate its landscape, above all its waters, over the last 250 years. But its implications apply to the contemporary world, to the gigantic struggles over the future of Amazonia or the Yangtze basin as much as to penitent thinking about what ‘development’ has done to the lands of the Danube, Dnieper or Rhone.

At the heart of these conflicts is lasting confusion, afflicting Green activists as much as governments committed to the ‘development’ of natural resources, about how to understand the relationship of the human species to its environment. Few people still use the language of Genesis, granting man ‘dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth’. Gone, too, is the confidence of 20th-century totalitarianism, invoking ‘iron laws of history’ to justify the re-engineering of landscapes and biospheres in the name of human progress – another way of asserting the right of ‘dominion’. And yet shadows of those old beliefs survive and continue to muddle minds. The notion of human ‘trusteeship for the natural creation’, for example, is benign in intention and often in consequences, and yet perpetuates the claim to a sovereign, supra-natural status for the human race.

And aspects of Green thinking, curiously enough, replicate the dogma by insisting on human responsibility for all that goes ‘wrong’ in seas and rivers, for the rise and fall of species and the alteration of habitats. This is not to underestimate the devastations and exterminations wreaked on the planet by human agency over the last ten thousand years. But the ‘total responsibility’ approach remains anthropocentric. It implies an unreal idea of ‘the balance of nature’, as if land and water environments had achieved a steady and unchanging ecology which human intervention ‘upsets’. This in turn leads to misleading assumptions about ‘restoring’ that supposed balance. Of course it is good that so much energy now goes into re-creating river and marine wetlands, into planting trees in denuded highlands or conserving endangered species in savannahs or rainforests. But, to state the obvious, the planet’s biosphere (‘nature’) has never stood in immemorial balance but in continuous change, global and local. It was not human activity but the ceaseless interaction of ecological events that turned the Black Sea deeps lifeless and poisoned, or induced Atlantic herring to vary their migration routes, or wiped out the megafauna of Australia. To put it in the Genesis idiom, the natural environment is not the Garden of Eden but ‘the river which went out of Eden to water the garden’, and that river cannot be dammed. To ‘restore’ a local ecosystem is in reality to create a new one, hoping that it will be more to contemporary human taste.

All these approaches, from noble to catastrophic and sometimes both, find illustration in Blackbourn’s study of recent German history. And the book is also a significant contribution to new ways of writing about the human past. Environmental history can no longer be the history of the environment. Instead, Blackbourn suggests, we should recognise that societies reveal their changing nature most clearly in the way that they address the ‘natural’ world around them.

In the 19th century, there arose ‘the belief that group and national destinies were shaped by geophysical features (and by climate)’. This determinist approach ignored reality. It was formulated in Germany at the very time when human agency was furiously attempting to change German destiny by overcoming those ‘features’. It survived into 20th-century academic thinking: witness the American archaeologist Betty Meggers, who produced her ‘theory of environmental limitation’ to explain why the indigenous peoples of Amazonia could never achieve settled cultivation (a theory exploded by her younger rival Anna Roosevelt, who demonstrated that they had done just that). The point of the new historiography, as practised by Blackbourn, is twofold. It is, first, to use the notion of ‘cultural landscape’ to undermine the distinction between ‘man’ and ‘nature’. Blackbourn points out that ‘pristine nature’ is irretrievably lost in most of Europe (and on much of the rest of the earth’s surface). Many landscapes treasured for their ‘unspoiled wildness’ in fact derive from human interventions in the past; the bare hills of the Scottish Highlands, for example, are not ‘natural’ but the result of medieval wars, forest felling to supply iron furnaces and shipyards, and the Clearances. Second, Blackbourn’s approach asks not only what communities and governments did to their rivers, forests and moors, but what they thought they were doing, and how their actions fitted into the ideologies of the time.

Blackbourn concludes that ‘for most of the period covered by this book the idea that nature should be shackled held sway, and the “conquest of nature” in Germany was all too closely linked to the conquest of others.’ That does not quite do justice to the subtlety and complexity of his own work. It’s perfectly true that the plans for taming waters and reclaiming land in the east, starting with Frederick II (‘the Great’) and culminating in the nightmarish SS preparations to transform the Pripet marshes into a Germanic Ontario, almost all used the language of conquest, colonisation and war. In the west, though, the three centuries spent ‘rectifying’ or canalising the Rhine, the draining and settlement of the North German moors or the building of the great dams around the Ruhr were usually justified in terms of improvement, convenience and progress. It’s true that these works were accompanied, especially after the founding of the empire in 1871, by a great deal of imperial bombast about German genius and the need to catch up with and overhaul France or Britain. But the connection between the civil ‘conquest of nature’ and military conquest was not as explicit in pre-1914 western Germany as it was in Prussia, or in the Nazi period.

Five case-studies compose the book. The first, to which Blackbourn constantly returns, is the draining and colonisation of the Oderbruch. This is the once-vast wetland region on the lower Oder, whose shrunken remnant now lies in the Land of Brandenburg along the modern Polish frontier. The second is the ‘taming of the wild Rhine’, launched in the early 19th century by the visionary engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla. Then comes the attack on the ‘wastelands’ of the North Sea coast: the reshaping of the Jade inlet into the naval base of Wilhelmshaven and the draining and settlement of the high peat moors. A chapter (‘In the Wonderland of Technology’) describes the hugely popular cult of dam-building, led by Otto Intze, ‘Grand Master of German Dams’, intended to provide drinking water for the growing cities, to fill the new canal network, to control river flooding by barrages on the headwaters (a conspicuous failure in the long term) and – later – to provide hydroelectricity. Blackbourn’s tour de force, though, is his section on Nazi environmental thinking and the General Plan for the East: the euphemism for draining the Pripet marshes, exterminating their inhabitants and replacing them with German family farms.

Blackbourn divides the German ‘conquest of nature’ into three phases, each linked to dominant ideologies ‘and to war in almost every period’. The first, in the 18th century, expressed ‘enlightened despotism’, above all Prussian. The second, in the following century, drew its inspiration from revolution and nationalism. The third, in the 20th century, came to be driven by Nazism and Communism. Common to all three was ‘the basic idea that nature was an adversary to be manacled, tamed, subjugated, conquered’.

The imagery was warlike from the start. James Dunbar, from Scotland, wrote in 1780: ‘Let us learn to wage war with the elements, not with our own kind.’ Frederick II, looking out over drained marshes, announced: ‘Here I have conquered a province with peaceful means.’ It was in 1743 that he launched his grand offensive into the Oderbruch, but although he did not resort to the use of cannon, his ‘peaceful means’ involved widespread coercion, the militarisation of the labour force and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people living in the marshes.

In Frederick’s time, marshlands were regarded as sinister, useless places, breeding malarial vapours and sheltering not only dangerous wild beasts but primitive human beings beyond the reach of law. Today, we would treasure the lost Oderbruch as one of the marvels of Europe. On its way to the Baltic, the river frayed into countless shallow channels and lagoons, into swamps, shoals and muddy islands. Twice a year, it flooded up to ten or twelve feet deep, nourishing a dense cover of waterlogged bushes. Here lived ‘an almost unimaginable range of insect, fish, bird and animal life’, including wolves and lynxes. Blackbourn has the sense to rely heavily on the travel writings of Theodor Fontane, the most lovable and observant of German writers, who explored the drained Oderbruch in the 1850s and collected memories of pre-reclamation times. Fontane was told of the enormous shoals of countless species of fish, of pike hordes so dense that they could be scooped up in buckets, of crayfish which escaped the hot summer shallows to swarm in trees from which they could be shaken down like plums. And he wrote also about the old inhabitants. They were not Germans but Wends, Slavs who had survived in the marshes since the Germans colonised the fertile land almost a thousand years before. The Wends lived on mounds hidden in the swamp, their huts encircled by ramparts of cow-dung which kept out the floods and served as pumpkin beds.

Frederick put an end to all that. The marshes were drained, a new straight bed was dug for the Oder, its labyrinth of side-channels was blocked off, and miles of dykes were reared to keep the river in its place and protect the farms now being laid out with geometric precision across the Oderbruch. Thousands of German farmer-colonists were brought in and planted in little red-roofed farmhouses. The shy Wends melted away as the waters dried up. Fontane thought he could recognise Slavic headscarves in a few villages on the fringes of the Bruch. But the old life had gone.

The soil of the reclaimed land was rich. The colonists made money and gained a reputation for being big spenders with no manners. Frederick, their enlightened despot, announced that ‘whoever improves the soil, cultivates land lying waste and drains swamps, is making conquests from barbarism.’ Here, already, was an association of ideas with a long life ahead of it. Germans were conquerors and civilisers. Slavs, like the meek Wends and the far less biddable Poles, were barbarians. Later nationalist visionaries were to construct a geopolitical ideology of race and pseudo-Darwinian ‘rights of the fittest’ out of that contrast. Looking greedily towards the Pripet marshes, the Nazi planner Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann declared in 1942 that ‘the spirit and energies of the human races are distinguished from each other in the landscape with the sharpness of a knife.’ The Slavs were indolent, the Germans industrious, the Jews parasitic. The Poles, he said, chose to live in ‘a sterile wasteland . . . concealed by vapours and gases, permeated by nauseating waterways, so that one believes oneself in a grey and eerie landscape of the underworld, not in a place of earthly human habitation’. Here, as Blackbourn says, was ‘a powerful mental connection between race and reclamation’. To drain the Pripet region and plant Germanic colonies, as Frederick had done in the Oderbruch, was also to drain away unhealthy races. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitsdienst, used the image of reclaiming wetlands to describe the slow eastward push of armed German farmers (Wehrbauern), planted as one human dyke after another to resist ‘the storm-flood of Asia’.

In the Oderbruch, two centuries before, the Prussians soon discovered that ‘storm-floods’ were not eliminated by building dykes and draining marshes, but merely transferred downstream. On the upper Rhine, Tulla’s huge diggings and embankings of the early 19th century had dire effects which were to multiply over the next 150 years. By straightening and narrowing the channel, and abolishing floodplains, he accelerated the Rhine’s flow and precipitated disastrous flooding further down the river. So began what Blackbourn calls ‘a hydrological two-step’, in which each community on the middle and eventually lower Rhine built new embankments and pushed the problem downstream to its neighbours until, by the mid-20th century, 85 per cent of the floodplains had been lost and the velocity of Rhine spates was doubling every 20 years. The ‘rectified’ torrent ended the salmon, shad and sturgeon fisheries by scouring away the shoals where the fish spawned. It also carried off the gravels bearing the famous ‘Rhine gold’, the alluvial flakes washed down from Switzerland (in 1830 the Rhine provided the Baden treasury with 13 kilos of gold, reduced to less than 100 grammes a year by the 1870s). The old image of the river as a place of rich wildlife and human diversity passed away, to be replaced – with the coming of the paddle-steamer – by the tourist’s panorama of ‘romantic’ gorges between Cologne and Mainz.

Setbacks could not dampen German enthusiasm for the ‘conquest of nature’. If it were true that geography and geology had shaped all national destinies until now, then Germany would be demonstrating greatness of spirit in breaking through the old constraints to shape a new destiny for itself. Man, and especially German man, was becoming master of the earth. In the same way, the conquerors saw no contradiction in the new notions of the environment being advanced by German scientists, notions which we would now understand as warnings about the results of uncontrolled development. Ernst Haeckel produced the idea of ‘ecology’ in 1866 to define the relationship of organism to environment; August Möbius and others wrote of the unity of ecosystems and the unpredictable effects of human intervention; Ernst Rudorff, an (unwitting) father of the German conservation movement, peevishly attacked the deforming of landscapes for trivial convenience. Friedrich Engels, no less, wrote: ‘Let us not flatter ourselves too much with our human victories over nature. For every such victory revenges itself on us.’ But it is probably true that until the 20th century, technical progress and the overcoming of nature were liberal and left causes in Germany, as much as imperial ones. The spirit on the left was that of Friedrich Harkort, writing in the 1840s: ‘The locomotive is the hearse that will carry absolutism and feudalism to the graveyard.’ Critics of the grand landscape makeover, Engels excepted, were mainly nostalgic, ruralist conservatives.

As Blackbourn relates, dam-building became a focus of German self-congratulation in the 1890s and the early 20th century. The Urft, Eder and Möhne dams were built before 1914, to vast popular enthusiasm. ‘Dam tourism’ developed, and a genre of ‘dam journalism’ offered ‘articles through which the vocabulary of “huge” and “giant” ran like a red thread’ . With this came for the first time claims that dams were not merely engineering triumphs but ‘cultural’ works. The Möhne was alleged to ‘fit wonderfully into the natural scenery’.

This was not just an argument that engineering works could be aesthetically pleasing. It was the germ of an approach developed, powerfully but ambiguously, by the Nazis after 1933. Blackbourn’s examination of Nazi environmental thinking, murky and contradictory as it was, forms the core of his chapter on ‘Race and Reclamation’, the colossal and fortunately unrealised plan for the transformation of the Pripet region in the old Polish province of Polesie (now in Belarus). It is the most suggestive and fascinating section of his book.

For Nazi ideologues, the traditional contrast between ‘natural’ landscape and sites of development or settlement was old-fashioned. They decided to collapse it. Starting from the idea that the ‘right’ sort of development should be considered ‘cultural’, they went much further. The distinction between natural and non-natural should no longer be defined by the mere fact of human intervention. Instead, the distinction should be what Nazis called ‘political’ – in other words, racial. A landscape shaped by a race destined by inexorable laws of nature to dominate was ‘natural’. The environment in which inferior races lived was in contrast degenerate and backward. Where Germans had shaped the earth, they had done so ‘in harmony with nature’. Konrad Meyer, the leader of the fanatically confident team in charge of the Pripet plan, wrote:

If the new living spaces of the settlers are therefore to become a new home, the planned and close-to-nature design [Gestaltung] of the landscape is an essential precondition. That is one of the foundations for the securing of Germandom. It is not enough to settle our race in those areas and eliminate people of an alien race. Rather, these spaces have to take on a character that corresponds to the nature of our being.

The war turned against the Germans before the plan could be put into effect. The only detail to be carried through was the ‘elimination’ of the Jews. (As early as August 1941, the SS had murdered some fifteen thousand Jews in the Baranowicze-Pinsk area of Polesie alone.) No marshes were drained, and few German settlers arrived. But had the General Plan for the East been realised, only a Nazi eye could have recognised the new landscape as ‘natural’. On the reclaimed marshland, a Frederican chequerboard of squared-off fields and identical villages would have appeared. The Large-Scale Green Plan set aside conservation land in each village, ordained the planting of deciduous trees and proposed to convert poor arable fields into pasture, in order to prevent desiccation after drainage. Nazi development policy was often enlightened in detail. It is startling to learn from Blackbourn that Hitler himself launched a plan to generate energy with windfarms (but this was in 1942 and nothing came of it), and that – apparently – he ordered the cancellation of the Pripet scheme in late 1941 on environmental grounds, fearing that it would create a dustbowl (Versteppung).

After 1945, 12 million Germans were driven out of lands they had often inhabited for centuries. ‘Slavdom’, in the shape of the revived Polish state, advanced to the Oder. Most of the expellees from what was now Polish territory were dumped, almost penniless, in what was to become West Germany, where (with government encouragement) they often soothed their loss with sour fantasies of return. As Blackbourn shows, they also preserved in their well-subsidised expellee culture a version of the ‘sustaining myth’, the belief that the German relationship to the earth and nature existed on a plane of synthesis inaccessible to other races. ‘The refugee writers who tended the flame still wanted it both ways,’ Blackbourn comments. ‘Germans had a special feeling for nature, but they also had a special talent for shaping the land.’ A writer remembering the lost homeland in East Prussia invoked the ‘miracle’ that ‘East Prussia became cultivated land yet remained entirely nature. Here civilisation and the natural existed side by side without one damaging the other.’ With this went a self-pity projected onto the imagined soil left behind. On German fields abandoned to Slavs, a jungle of weeds was supposed to be spreading, rivers were silting up, floods were pouring through neglected dykes, the steppes of Asia advancing.

The sudden arrival of the expellee millions cost West Germany most of its surviving moorlands and large tracts of forest, cleared and drained to provide homes and farms for the newcomers. That and the demands of the Economic Miracle produced a new onslaught on the environment. More rivers were reduced to polluted, concrete-lined canals; eutrophication from artificial fertilisers and detergents killed the remaining fish; more hydroelectric dams were built. In East Germany, the Plan for Implementing the Transformation of Nature stunted the forests of Central Europe with acid rain and soused the land with effluent (in Bitterfeld, the ground-water acidity reached a level between vinegar and battery acid).

Then, in the 1970s, the tide which had run one way since the days of Frederick the Great turned at last. For Blackbourn, the tipping point came in 1969, when the new coalition government led by the Social Democrats adopted the ecological cause. I would add that this was part of a worldwide panic after the revolutionary upheavals of 1968. In America and Britain as much as in West Germany, ‘the environment’ offered a cause that seemed leftish and yet diverted energies from the direct attack on political structures. It worked, and in Germany the passion of the young revolutionaries began slowly to flow down this new channel which led to the forming of the Greens. As Blackbourn notes, the 1970s were the decade ‘when nature conservation was transmuted into ecological awareness and completed a rapid political migration from right to left’.

Blackbourn ends his book where he began: in the Oderbruch. Since German reunification in 1990, a certain amount of ‘greening’ has gone on, and the Oderbruch is now often referred to as a place ‘where nature is still intact . . . a natural paradise’. But it is not. The quiet river is the old drainage-cut dug by Frederick II’s men, and the yellow carpets of helleboraster are a recent invasive species. Even the disastrous Oder flood of 1997, which inundated the cities of western Poland and almost overwhelmed the Oderbruch, had immediate causes which were human rather than natural: fresh deforestation and wetland destruction in the Czech and Polish catchment areas.

In his final chapter, Blackbourn reflects on the illusions attending human efforts to shape the environment. The Oderbruch, as it exists, is

hard to justify rationally, a small, thinly populated area that lies well below the normal water level of a river that is a permanent threat to its existence. After more than 250 years, however, this new land has acquired the patina of age . . . I would not wish it returned to the ‘wilderness of water and marsh’ that existed before the reclamation, even if such a thing were possible.

And it is not possible. A few pages earlier, he writes: ‘What is at stake here is not “untouched” or “intact” nature, but the question of “renaturing” the Oderbruch – what this might mean and how far it might go.’ The way towards wisdom, he implies, is to recognise that we cannot ‘restore’ nature, or stop it changing. Instead, we can for a limited time alter a landscape to suit our needs or our pleasure. After that, the landscape will take back the job of its own unpredictable alteration. The ‘conquest of nature’ can never amount to more than an armistice.