The Conquest of Nature

David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature:  Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).  Paperback:  $13.46 at

Awareness of environmental issues has grown more prevalent in the last half century and as a result, many historians are beginning to focus their attention on the environment as well.  In the past, while historians claimed that they focused on both time and space in their works, the consideration of time (moments in history) always seemed to outweigh that which was dedicated to space (nature and landscape).  David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature attempts to reintroduce landscape into the history of humanity.

While Blackbourn’s book is an environmental history, he argues – rather convincingly – that there is no such thing as an environmental history that is separate from a history of politics, economy, military, or society.  In a way slightly reminiscent of Fernand Braudel, Blackbourn depicts how the environment helps to shape the course of human action.  Unlike Braudel, however, Blackbourn only feels that landscape helps to shape the actions of man, because, as his book points out, very rarely in history have humans simply settled for the land that Nature provided them.

The chapters of Blackbourn’s book are arranged both chronologically and thematically.  Each chapter covers roughly one century and focuses on a particular hydrological project that was prominent during the time.  The book opens with Friedrich the Great’s reclamation of the vast Oderbruch swamps during the eighteenth century.  Blackbourn points out that, despite Friedrich’s claim that “I have conquered a province in peace” (pg. 40), the purpose of the land reclamation was for its colonization by Prussians.  Furthermore, the shape of the project (as were nearly all land reclamation projects) was incredibly militaristic; over one thousand workers had to be protected by nearly as many Prussian soldiers from local villagers who opposed the project.  In the remaining chapters, Blackbourn goes on to discuss Johann Gottfried Tulla’s “taming” of the Rhine River (the mighty river was straightened, shortening it to a quarter of its original length), the large scale dam projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the environmental policies of the National Socialist regime, and ends with the present day situation in Germany.

One point that is made clear throughout the book is Blackbourn’s assertion that politics (the world of man) and nature never exist in separate spheres; they are in constant interaction.  Those in power control the reclamation projects, and thus the land itself.  Under the Nazis, the connection of people to the land (Blut und BodenBlood and Soil) was made explicit and given a racial twist.  Furthermore, for the National Socialists and their supporters, the conquest of land was always tied with the conquest of peoples.  However, the book shows how the environment can also have an effect on politics.  Blackbourn first demonstrates that larger and older geographical developments (he points to the last ice age and the development of Jade Bay) greatly influence exactly what humans can do.  In a more specific example, he argues that the horrid environmental situation in the German Democratic Republic helped bring about its eventual downfall.  Most recently, in disputes over waterways and dams, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic have called on the European Union for mediation.

However, more enlightening than the facts provided within the book is Blackbourn’s argument that the prevailing attitudes towards “the conquest of nature,” (that it is a sign of marvelous human progress and, adversely, that it is simply the expansive destruction of nature by humans) are both over-simplified.  Despite claims from more modern environmental movements, the mindset of the past two hundred years, namely that nature was something that should be “shackled,” “tamed,” or “conquered,” led to environmental projects that were not all destructive.  Draining of marshes significantly lowered the threat of some diseases such as malaria, while the rerouting of rivers offered flood protection; both projects created more arable land which granted a better food supply.  Of course, conversely, such projects also had negative consequences that their champions did not foresee: biodiversity shrank or disappeared as native species died off or fled; this also had consequences for humans, such as fisherman who made a living on fish that were no longer there; by the eighteenth century, bears, lynxes, and wolves in Prussia were hunted to extinction in attempt to rid the reclaimed land from vermin; the swifter moving waters of northern, “tamed” rivers only meant more frequent floods for people living to the south.

This tug-and-pull, two-sided approach is not simply a way for Blackbourn to avoid choosing a stance.  It is his way of demonstrating that the course of history is never simple.  In his own words, it is Blackbourn’s attempt to put the friction back in history.  More importantly for this particular book, Blackbourn hopes to accurately portray “the contradictions of Germany’s passage into modernity” (pg. 13).

Another point that Blackbourn stresses throughout his book is that the idealized notion held by Romantics of a lost, pristine Nature was just that, idealized.  Blackbourn poses a short, yet significant question:  Just how “natural” was Nature?  He succeeds in his attempts to show that humans have never existed outside of “Nature” and humankind has affected its environment for all of its history.  The unadulterated Nature – the rolling hills and virgin forests – that Romantics longed for was but a snapshot in time, a snapshot that, though the Romantics themselves did not admit or even realize, was also a product of human intervention.  Blackbourn then ties this idea into his discussion of the current German attempts to “renaturalize” nature, that is, to restructure rivers into their “natural,” meandering shapes, reintroducing marshes and wetlands.  He argues that while such tactics may have positive effects (as well as negative consequences), the very concept – and even the vocabulary – of “renaturalization” is problematic because it suggests a “natural” state that never existed.

Blackbourn utilizes a wide range of sources that extends beyond the typical archival papers that historians often rely on; his inclusion of diaries, works of literature, novels, and even post cards portrays the impact of nature on German culture and folklore, which, indeed is an important theme in his book.  This wide range of sources, combined with Blackbourn’s eloquent writing style, allows this history to read more like a work of literature itself.  The Conquest of Nature serves as a masterful example of how historians in the future should approach environmental history and integrate it into History at large.

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