Watch on the Rhine

At the close of his introduction, David Blackbourn, Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University, summarizes his new book as follows:

This is a book about transformation on an epic scale. In the eighteenth century, German-speaking Europe looked so different from the way it looks today that many parts of it would seem entirely alien if we could travel back in time…. The Conquest of Nature describes a series of dramatic changes in the physical environment over the last 250 years. I try to show how they were linked to absolutism in the eighteenth century, to revolution and nationalism in the nineteenth century, to Nazism, communism, and democracy in the twentieth century, and to war in almost every period. And I want to suggest, finally, that attitudes toward nature went through as many changes over those 250 years as the natural world.

Combining natural history with human history across 250 years is no small task, even when confined almost wholly to what Germans thought and did. Blackbourn exhibits admirable mastery of the technical side of his theme and looks always for losers as well as for winners as landscapes altered. He is also alert to unintended consequences and to the conservation of catastrophe. For higher dikes, straightened channels, drained moors, and new dams diminished the frequency of flooding but also increased its destructiveness whenever artificial restraints failed.

For me, at least, the best part of the book comes in the early chapters, which deal with Frederick the Great’s reclamation of the lower Oder River valley in the eighteenth century and with the reshaping of the upper Rhine in the early decades of the nineteenth. These were two major undertakings that have a clear history and distinct geographical focus, which more multifarious undertakings like reclaiming moors, building dams, and Nazi schemes for remaking Polish and Russian landscapes, and Green politics in postwar Germany, all lack.

Blackbourn’s story begins when Frederick II of Prussia (reigned 1740– 1786) started a new scale of state intervention in water management. There was nothing new in the idea that reclaiming wetlands could increase agricultural production, sustain growing populations, and benefit state revenues. Such efforts dated back to the Middle Ages and took place principally in the Low Countries, especially Holland. What Frederick did was to apply Dutch expertise on an enlarged scale. Noble English landowners had brought the same skills westward a century earlier by importing Dutch experts to supervise draining of the fens. There, Blackbourn tells us, he spent his earliest years, surrounded by the sight and smell of saltmarsh—a fact that made this book uniquely “personal.”

Frederick too had direct experience of marshland when, at age eighteen, his angry father exiled him from court and ordered him to supervise royal estates in the lower Oder valley and learn “economics from the ground up.” This acquainted the youthful Frederick with down-to-earth agricultural routines and brought the Oder’s waterlogged swampland to his attention. Few European rulers had any similar barnyard experience, and …

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