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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 shortly before succeeding to the throne Frederick wrote: “Making domain lands cultivable interests me more than killing people.” Blackbourn wryly remarks: “He was to end up doing a good deal of both” and, though Blackbourn does not say so, the spectacular success of some of his agricultural innovations—especially systematic propagation of potato raising among the peasants of Prussia—sustained and permitted his no less spectacular military successes.

Drainage of the Oder marshes, begun in 1747, was another success, though only after Frederick put the work “on a military footing” and dispatched 950 soldiers to supplement 250 civilian laborers who were digging a new canal to bring the river more directly to the sea. The main canal was finished in 1753, and when water flowed through it for the first time Frederick proudly announced: “Here I have conquered a province in peace”—one to match Silesia, which he had already acquired by war. In fact, however, the task of recruiting, transporting, and establishing thousands of settlers, who came to Prussia from other parts of Germany, lasted throughout his reign. To supervise such work Frederick habitually relied on royal agents, who rode roughshod over local authorities and every other obstacle in his name. The long campaign eventually succeeded. Despite much initial suffering and some strenuous local opposition, settlers drained extensive marshlands and turned them into fertile fields. “Confusion,” Blackbourn says, “was the signature of the reclamation and colonization projects, as Frederick’s passion for quick results clashed with regular bureaucratic procedures.”

Completion of the Oder canal came just a year before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (between 1756 and 1763), when, year after year, Russian, Austrian, and French armies criss-crossed Prussia, once even capturing Berlin. As usual, these invading armies supported themselves by confiscating stores of grain wherever they went. Yet Prussian peasants survived and with them the Prussian state, thanks to the potatoes recently grown on fallow grain fields at Frederick’s command. Campaigning in the Rhineland six years before his accession, Frederick probably noticed how leaving potatoes in the ground to be dug up only as needed preserved Rhineland peasants from starvation despite wholesale requisitioning of their stores of grain; and on coming to the throne he decided that Prussian peasants needed the same safeguard. Without that foresight, it is hard to believe his armies and government could have survived the ravages of the Seven Years’ War.

Blackbourn does not mention how the spread of potato fields changed the Prussian (and, soon, the entire north European) landscape; nor does he show how later changes, like the spread of sugar beets and of chemical fertilizers, did the same. But his theme is water management, not agricultural improvements, so it is wrong to fault him. Still, leaving out what was surely Frederick’s most important impact on north European landscape and society seems regrettable to me.

As if to make up for that, Blackbourn is especially adept at recognizing unforeseen and unintended consequences of water engineering and the colonization of newly drained landscapes. Draining the Oder marshes put an end to the occupancy of the same terrain by fishermen and fowlers. It extinguished some native plants and animals and, above all, made subsequent flooding more destructive. Like the age-old struggle against weeds, artificial restraints on flowing water committed its human beneficiaries to an unending struggle against natural laws—in this case, not the natural diversity of plants but gravity and hydrodynamics. Accordingly, major Oder floods occurred “in 1754, 1770, three times in the 1780s,…again in 1805, 1813, 1827, 1829,” and so on as recently as 1997.

Here is how Blackbourn sums up the first phase of his story:

The wetlands of the North German plain were physically transformed in the second half of the eighteenth century…. This was, in the first place, a dramatic chapter in the history of human intervention in the natural world, with damaging effects on the ecology of the region as well as complex implications, both benign and less benign, for the growing human population. The transformation also shows us how power operated…. The alchemy that turned water into land in Frederician Prussia revealed where the lines of power ran in the late absolutist state. Finally, the disappearing marshlands represented a nature onto which human emotions were projected, as if onto a screen. These episodes were perceived as conquest, the taming of a dangerous foe, but they were also starting to be seen as the sundering of a harmonious natural world, as loss.

Romantic regret for a vanishing “Nature” increased in the nineteenth century as the scale of human intervention continued to magnify. Rechanneling the upper Rhine was the principal early example of what could be accomplished by large-scale engineering. Blackbourn writes:

This was the largest civil engineering project that had ever been undertaken in Germany. The Rhine between Basel and Worms was shortened from 220 to 170 miles, almost a quarter of its length. Dozens of cuts were made, more than twenty-two hundred islands removed…. Well over a billion square yards of island or peninsula were excavated and 160 miles of main dikes constructed containing 6.5 million cubic yards of material.

These accomplishments are truly impressive, especially in view of the fact that “at least through the 1850s it was human muscles wielding picks, shovels, spades, and buckets that did most of the work. The other main source of energy was horses.” But the German population was increasing rapidly, thanks largely to eating more potatoes, so the labor needed for hoeing potatoes in fallow grain fields, as well as for taming the Rhine, for coal and iron mining, and for incipient industrialization, was not hard to find.

Moreover, by the 1820s systematic technical training had raised German technology to new levels. Blackbourn accordingly has much to say about the career of Johann Gottfried Tulla (1770–1828), son of a Lutheran pastor, whose monument in Karlsruhe, his birthplace, proclaims him “The Man Who Tamed the Wild Rhine.”

After graduating from the local Lyzeum, for the next eight years Tulla used state stipends to study mathematics and hydraulic engineering, traveling widely in Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, meeting experts, observing recent engineering works, and stopping occasionally for periods of formal academic instruction. Unlike the noblemen who had supervised Frederick’s water engineering and resettlement projects, Tulla and his like were specialists who got their hands and boots dirty as a matter of course, and knew every detail of what had to be done and why. Their authority rested not on personal connections with the sovereign but on professional competence. Accordingly, on his return to Karlsruhe in 1796, Tulla had to demonstrate what he had learned by taking an oral examination. He impressed the examiners, and next year was appointed “a state engineer with primary responsibility for Rhine construction works in the Rastatt district.”

His career advanced rapidly. After another subsidized tour to study hydraulic engineering in France, he became senior engineer with the military rank of captain and took “responsibility for river construction works throughout Baden.” Baden’s western border was the Rhine. Tulla soon realized that small-scale diking and drainage simply diverted the Rhine floodwater to adjacent locations; in 1809 he sketched a scheme for wholesale “rectification” of the troublesome Rhine; describing how he thought the river ought to be “directed into a single bed with gentle curves adapted to nature or…where it is practicable, a straight line.” Blackbourn comments:

This artificial bed would significantly shorten the length of the Rhine and speed the flow of water, causing the river to cut a deeper bed, thereby protecting riverside communities from flooding and allowing the former marshland to be cultivated as the water table fell. A uniform width of between 650 and 800 feet was to be established along the “corrected” river. This amounted to a remaking of the Rhine.

France bordered Baden on the other side of the river, and Tulla’s ambitious plan was accepted “despite some French skepticism.” But the overthrow of Napoleon halted everything in 1814 and subsequent territorial rearrangements meant that Baden had to negotiate treaties with Bavaria as well as with France before Tulla’s plan or anything like it could be acted on. So actual work started only in 1817 and was not completed until the 1870s, long after Tulla’s death in 1828.

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