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Book Review


Blackbourn, David. The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [paperback] 2007). 466 pp., $22.76.

     David Blackbourn has added clarity to Germany's history by viewing it through the prism of humanity's changing attitude toward the natural world. He has drawn on extensive experience and knowledge to create this wonderfully readable book about intervention in the German landscape. As he narrates the local life and the physical changes made to the fens of East Friesland, the plains and meanders of the Upper Rhine, and the eastern marshlands, he allows the reader to visualize the landscape and understand the society and development of Germany in a new way.

     Blackbourn begins with 18th Century Prussia and the ideas and dictates of Frederick the Great. Using the watchwords "order, measure, discipline," and adhering to the Cartesian view that men are "the lords and masters of nature," Frederick believed that by taming marshes and waterways he was conquering barbarism. He used contemporary scientists and mathematicians such as Euler and Bernoulli, as well as the Prussian bureaucracy, statistics, and the army to achieve his goals. Canal construction and the redirection of water had to be done through backbreaking labor in an inhospitable climate. Frederick caused the glacial landscape around the Oder and Warthe Rivers to be transformed from a wilderness into a garden. He then ordered it colonized. Blackbourn evaluates the changes that Frederick wrought and illuminates process and outcomes. Through reference to diaries, maps, paintings and poetry he brings the entire scene to life.

     If you travel the Middle and Upper Rhine now, you probably won't realize that at the end of the 18th century a hydraulic engineer named Johan Gottfried Tulla conceived a grand scheme to straighten the Upper Rhine in an effort to control the periodical floods that inundated fields, pastures and whole villages. In his second chapter, Blackbourn describes Tulla's vision and its hydrological, social and political background. Fear of floods was a fact of life in the Upper Rhine Valley. Drowned villages and underwater church bells that were believed to predict yet more ruin were the stuff of legends that included the Rhine gold that was in fact more than the dragon treasure of the sagas or the theme of Wagner's opera. Gold mining and panning were a source of considerable income for the river communities as late as the 19th Century. Blackbourn outlines the opposition of some of Tulla's contemporaries to his titanic plan for straightening the river, and describes the short and long-term consequences of the engineering.

     In the 19th Century, when German unification was imminent and Prussia dominated Central Europe, politicians and engineers began to look at the western regions. Blackbourn calls this era of massive construction projects, including the naval port on Jade Bay, canal building and the taming of the moors, and the new era of ocean-going steamships, the "Golden Age". Though most everything still had to be constructed without modern machinery, German methods and results finally caught up with those of the Dutch, who had been reclaiming land from the sea for centuries. Once again, Blackbourn paints with words. The beauty as well as the slash and burn agriculture of the fens, the frontier-like life in the mud of Wilhelmshaven, and the curious and growing intercontinental connections between this outlying and poor province in the form of the Atlantic trade routes and the Canadian weeds clogging the waterways seem to forecast future prosperity for the people of Oldenburg and East Friesland.

     In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German engineers began to design and build dams, which seemed to be more spectacular than canal building, river straightening, and marsh draining. At the same time, the "lords of creation" ideology was called into question, and greater value was put by some on the importance of understanding nature instead of dominating it. But in this period the engineering challenges remained interesting to many, and issues of flood protection were joined by consideration for the benefits of navigation and hydroelectric power. There was also a conflict over water and a growing fear of turning the German landscape into a vast steppe.

     No book about Germany could skip the politics and policies of the Nazis. Here, Blackbourn shows how history and literature were construed by the Nazis to support their racist ideology and their claim to lands in Eastern Europe. According to them, the Teutonic Knights had first taken up the fight to tame the marshes in the East, and subsequent history "proved" that it was the Germans who had turned wasteland into gardens, thereby making those lands a German birthright. Poles were blamed for not doing the same in the vast territory known as the Pripet Marshes. Some writers have even suggested that the Nazis were the predecessor of the "Greens." The Nazis brought ethnic Germans out of the Baltic states and Southeast Europe for the purpose of colonizing conquered tracts of Eastern Europe, while the displaced Poles, Jews, Gypsies and others were murdered, deported and left to starve, or used as slave labor. Not much positive came from this Nazi colonization. The end of this story is of course the human tragedy of the Eastern Europeans and the Holocaust, and the massive destruction of the landscape, canals, bridges and dams in the final phase of the war.

     Blackbourn's final chapter deals with post-war Germany. In addition to the devastation of the war, the West German countryside suffered the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of refugees who needed food, land and fuel. Thus disappeared the moors of East Friesland. Cities and infrastructure had to be rebuilt and the economy revived. Nature and society paid a price in the form of pollution: artificial fertilizers, metal sediments, and toxic chemicals poisoned the water, while factories spewed out fumes that were the source of acid rain. Fish and birds disappeared. Lovely rivers like the Mosel were channeled for navigation. All this growth in pollution was on a grander scale in East Germany. In the community of Bitterfeld the water became as acidic as strong vinegar. Blackbourn tells the story of the evolution of an environmental movement in both Germanys that was instrumental in "renaturing" the landscape.

     How does this wonderful book apply to World History? Blackbourn takes up many themes that directly relate to World History, including colonization, migration, diffusion of ideas, trade and technology. Many of the elements of the book lend themselves to comparative studies. Most of all, Professor Blackbourn has produced a book that stands as model of good practice in history. It is special because he was able to weave in so many other disciplines in his exploration of this topic in order to provide unusual clarity and interest. I would put this book in the hands of good secondary students to expand their general knowledge. I would recommend it to teachers of history as an example, and an enjoyable one, of good practice. I would encourage students and researchers to follow up topics that lend themselves to comparative analysis, such as colonization, migration, land reclamation, dam building, etc. Blackbourn's discussion and analysis in his Epilogue provokes deeper thinking about the German experience as well as about the nature of our common environmental dilemma.


Carol Adamson
Stockholm International School, Emeritus


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