Thomas Lekan, Thomas Zeller, eds. Germany's Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. vii + 266 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-3667-5.
Reviewed by Dorothee Brantz (Department of History, SUNY Buffalo)
Published on H-German (April, 2007)
The Culture of National Landscapes
Much like nature, "landscape" is an amorphous concept that has been used in so many contexts that its meaning seems exceedingly difficult to decipher. On the one hand, there are many types of landscapes such as natural, urban, industrial, imperial, or even imagined landscapes. On the other hand, the term landscape is often deployed interchangeably with nature, the environment, or space as if all of these terms were identical, which, of course, they are not. The etymology of the term landscape is itself a complicated story that reveals different meanings dependent on which context one investigates. As Denis Cosgrove has shown, we need to distinguish between two principle meanings of the term, one referring to landscape as closely associated with the idea of scenery and the other to landscape as property. Thus, a landscape serves both as an aesthetic category and as an embodiment of property rights. Moreover, John Brinckerhoff Jackson has identified landscapes as "a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence." Consequently, they are intricately linked to historical transformations. Whereas one might argue that some fuzziness with regard to the definition of terms allows for a more creative engagement with language, it might also stand in the way of scholarly communication because it obfuscates the meaning of ideas to a point that preempts intellectual debate. In an effort to promote rather than preempt such scholarly debates within the field of environmental history, Thomas Lekan's and Thomas Zeller's edited volume offers an assessment of how the term "landscape" has figured into the study of environmental history.
In their introduction, Lekan and Zeller contextualize the conceptual and ethical challenges surrounding the notion of cultural landscape, which has had a complicated history in Germany, where it has been linked to varying ideas about Heimat, Romantic aestheticism, Geopolitik, völkisch nationalism, National Socialist racism, and nature protection. Maintaining that historians have not paid sufficient attention to changing conceptions of landscape, Lekan and Zeller's volume seeks to "offer innovative approaches to environmental-historical analysis and to spearhead intellectual engagement in German environmental history beyond the Green movement and the recent environmental past, to uncover the enduring yet ever changing cultural patterns, social institutions, and geographic factors that have sustained Germany's Nature over the past two hundred years" (p. 2). To that end, they have assembled an impressive group of young and established environmental historians from Germany and the United States who investigate a broad range of issues involving the creation, transformation, perception, and conservation of German cultural landscapes.
The main part of the book is divided into three sections and nine individual essays, each of which examines a distinct historical dimension of how Germans have engaged with their natural environments. Following James C. Scott's paradigm of "seeing like a state," the first section centers on how environmental projects, particularly the regulation of rivers and forests, were used to mobilize national sentiments in Germany and its colonies. Joachim Radkau opens this section with a programmatic essay that calls on environmental historians to pay closer attention to the history of institutions and how institutional frameworks have helped or hindered the implementation of environmental policies. Arguing that the most important differences among nations lie on the level of institutions rather than national mentalities, Radkau advocates a more institution-centered approach to environmental history in order to overcome culturally over-determined arguments, especially when it comes to the supposed German love for nature.
The second essay, by Rita Gudermann, focuses on the role of hydraulic engineers in agricultural amelioration projects like the draining of marshes, the streamlining of riverbeds and the construction of canals in nineteenth-century Prussia. She convincingly demonstrates how engineers pursued two goals with these projects--to turn lowland plains into profitable agricultural lands while also forging their own professional identity and authority in Germany's emerging nation state. By portraying water as a potential threat to civilization, hydraulic engineers offered their own expertise and technology as the most viable solution; however, they also had to realize that their attempts at ordering nature, though large-scale, were frequently misguided if not outright destructive. In addition, they encountered continuous resistance from local farmers who laid their own claims to the use of these lands. As Gudermann argues, despite apparent discrepancies between technicians' theoretical claims and the practical implications of lowland amelioration schemes, which generated conflicts with civil servants and within the engineering community, most engineers nevertheless continued to insist on the progressive nature of their work, especially in light of Germany's industrial advancement towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Michael Imort's essay traces the symbolic meaning of forests and their changing use during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to explain the cultural formation of German "forest-mindedness." The first part of his essay investigates the cultural construction of the forest into the national landscape of Germandom through the writings of a number of intellectuals and forest professionals. Linking this transition to the rise of völkisch discourses revolving around the alleged racial essence of the German Volk, Imort proceeds by examining the impact of this ideology on the practice of forestry, and particularly the notion of the Dauerwald, in the twentieth century. While this essay provides an interesting introduction to the writings of certain foresters, the author tends to fall back on grave generalizations; for example, when he claims that "Germans celebrate the evident order, straightness, and tidiness of the managed forest landscape as an embodiment of 'typically German' characteristics" (p. 56).
One of the essays that ventures beyond the strict confines of Germany's landscapes is by Thaddeus Sunseri, who examines the role of forestry in the German imperial imagination and colonial policy in German East Africa. Although most scholars have tended to view colonial forest policy as a progressive harbinger of civilization because they primarily focused on the colonists' rhetoric, Sunseri's compelling account centers on the actual practice of forestry. He analyzes the ways in which Germany's colonial forestry policy was subject to ecological circumstances as well as shifts in administrative paradigms, most notably the shift from the promotion of white settlement to a focus on cash crop production after 1906. Sunseri demonstrates that although colonizers had arrived with their own understanding of scientific forestry, they quickly realized that it could not be readily implemented due to local resistance and labor shortages, both human and animal, but also because natural circumstances were not conducive to it (p. 85). Moreover, colonial administrators increasingly backed away from ideas about scientific forestry and conservation because they decided that East African forests could not be made profitable for the metropole (p. 101).
Moving away from the centrality of the state, the second section turns to the cultural landscape of home and how it was inscribed in emerging modes of transportation and scientific representation. Rudy Koshar examines a surprising venue for nature appreciation: the rising popularity of automobiles and the ways in which driving and the representation of driving fostered the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Demonstrating that cars were not perceived in contrast to nature but rather as a way to access nature, Koshar argues that this newly emerging automobile culture conflated nature and technology, pastoralism and technological determinism. According to Koshar, it also recast cars as organic machines that were viewed as an extension of the human body leading to a new symbiosis of car and driver. This thought-provoking analysis leads him to conclude with the somewhat astonishing question: "if in modern industrial and civil societies we are what we drive, what happens when shortsighted policies become so preoccupied with the environmental costs of driving that they lose sight of the other civic contributions of the car?" (p. 132).
Turning to the more stationary phenomenon of German natural history museums, Susanne Köstering explores how underlying display paradigms based on Linnean taxonomic systems shifted to bio-geographical and environmental exhibits at the turn of the twentieth century. She convincingly argues that this shift did not just reflect new notions of taxonomy and preservation practices, but also changing sociocultural conceptions of nature, which manifested themselves most notably in the growing popularity of displaying animals in bourgeois family units and as representations of the German homeland or Heimat. Ultimately, however, such displays, according to Köstering, served to compensate for Germany's vanishing nature and to reassure urban museum-goers that the natural landscape was intact and alive (p. 154).
The third section of this volume focuses on the politics of conservation between 1880 and 1970. Ferdinand Schmoll investigates the rise of the German bird protection movement, which he considers the avant-garde of nature conservation. Asking how the movement reflected differing cultural notions of nature, he argues that while early debates about bird protection revolved primarily around human needs rather than the intrinsic value of birds, after 1900 bird advocates like Ernst Hartert increasingly rejected this instrumental view and instead insisted that birds had to be protected for ethical and aesthetic reasons. This new emphasis on the ethical protection of birds found expression in campaigns against the use of bird feathers in women's hats and food taboos for songbirds. Schmoll's essay makes a persuasive case for how wild bird protection campaigns attested to the re-enchantment with nature and a form of conservation that centered on the protection of birds for their own sake.
John Alexander Williams' essay traces the effect of changing political ideologies on the bourgeois conservation movement by focusing on the time period from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Rejecting conventional anti-modernist arguments, Williams maintains that the majority of nature conservation advocates were forward-looking thinkers who sought to popularize nature conservation and turn it into a national discourse centering on homeland studies, which required the redefinition of regional particularisms into a unifying national concept of Heimat. However, this concept remained vague and hence could be exploited in numerous contexts. Whereas the nineteenth-century nature conservation movement tended to be anti-proletarian, anti-urban, and anti-mass society, in the early twentieth century its emphasis shifted to anti-foreign, racially motivated (antisemitic) notions of the homeland. Consequently, nature conversation was easily absorbed by the National Socialist movement, yet Williams also insists that the Nazis undermined the nature conservation movement because they were only interested in nature protection as long as it did not interfere with their economic, imperialist, and militarist goals.
Finally, Sandra Chaney's essay investigates the history of nature conversation in East and West Germany during the three decades following World War II, a time period that has received little scholarly attention thus far. In her nuanced comparison, she demonstrates that even though both German states inherited a common tradition with regard to environmental conservation, each pursued a distinct postwar path that, at least to some extent, mirrored their general political orientation. In the West, certain legacies of the Third Reich continued, particularly with regard to legal measures and the employment of commissioners, but an intensification in the number and activities of civic organizations also occurred, due to mounting distrust of state intervention. Starting in the 1960s, concerns for nature conservation increasingly shifted to debates about Umweltschutz, which centered on counteracting pollution and the unnecessary waste of natural resources. While nature conservation was organized regionally in the West, in the East it was integrated into the centralized state. In East Germany, nature conservation was subsumed by the state's socialist ideology, which posed capitalism as the biggest threat to the environment. Moreover, East German nature protection discourses were couched in distinct socialist notions of Heimat that increasingly clashed with the state's ambition to industrialize and the related perpetuation of pollution.
Overall, these essays offer compelling insights into the transformation of German landscapes throughout the last two centuries. As several of the essays make clear, these transformations were often closely tied to contentious political debates and socio-cultural disagreements. Perhaps some of the authors would have done well to take Joachim Radkau's point that historians should be careful not to overemphasize cultural categorizations more seriously, because at times, one wonders to what extent these supposedly "German" ways of engaging with the environment could also be located in other national contexts. This point leads to another question. Environmental history is usually viewed as a forerunner in the historiography of transnationalism. As a field of inquiry it tries to overcome the limitations of the nation-state in part because environmental problems do not stop at political borders, but also because many developments regarding the treatment of nature occurred simultaneously in a number of nations. For example, the reconfiguration of museum displays that Susanne Köstering's essay examines also took place in France, the United States, and Britain at the time, which raises the question of how "German" these developments really were. A more international perspective would help us comprehend the underlying transnational tendencies that often lie beneath such developments in environmental policies and approaches towards landscape modification.
In recent years, a number of collected volumes about German environmental history have been published. One can only hope that comparable volumes about French, Italian, and British as well as non-European notions of landscape will soon be forthcoming, so that we can gain a better comparative understanding of this important subject matter. Lekan and Zeller's book goes a long way in initiating such a debate. They have done an admirable job in putting together a collection of essays that articulate the complexity of human engagements with their natural surroundings. Just as the editors intended, the volume provides an excellent introduction to this topic, which should be of interest not only to scholars and students of environmental history, but also to a larger academic audience and anyone who wants to know more about the changing nature of German landscape history.
. Denis Cosgrove, "Landscape and Landschaft," Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 35 (2004): 61.
. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 8.
. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Dorothee Brantz. Review of Lekan, Thomas; Zeller, Thomas, eds., Germany's Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.