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.

The gains were palpable. The new channel opened broad stretches of fertile river bottomland for agriculture; malaria disappeared and navigation became much easier. At the same time, salmon and other kinds of fish soon vanished from the Rhine and so did gold sifted from gravel banks by hand in ways almost unchanged for two millennia. That Rhine gold existed apart from Wagner’s opera came as a surprise to me, but according to Blackbourn, official records show that “almost 320 pounds of gold went to the Karlsruhe mint in the thirty years from 1804 to 1834.” This shrank to a negligible quantity by 1874 when official records ceased to be kept. The gold was now almost entirely inaccessible.

While construction continued, judgment of Tulla’s achievements remained overwhelmingly favorable. More recently, industrial pollution and changing sensibilities provoked environmentalists to criticize “the abject canal, the symbol of ‘outdoor geometry'” that Tulla’s Rhine had become. Moreover, serious floods in the 1980s and 1990s meant that “no one now doubts that the risk to downstream cities like Koblenz, Bonn, and Cologne has increased substantially.” As a result, the large-scale effort to protect against flooding along the upper Rhine enlarged the danger downstream, just as had been happening locally on a far smaller scale when Tulla set out to tame the river. Blackbourn concludes that Tulla was not really a master of waters, but a “sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Blackbourn goes on to write about the “Golden Age: From the 1848 Revolution to the 1870s.” Among numerous changes in the landscape, he highlights the construction of an artificial harbor and naval base at Wilhelmshaven on desolate swampland along the North Sea coast; the drainage and agricultural colonization of peat moors across much of the north German plain; and the redesign of ports, rivers, and canals to accommodate steam navigation. He also devotes attention to the ways rising German nationalism encouraged these projects, and he writes of “the darker side of progress” that began to emerge as peat and coal smoke befouled the air, and industrial wastes began to besmirch Germany’s inland waters.

Too much was happening in too many places to make this period easily comprehensible. And especially when dealing with the draining of moorlands, Blackbourn often fails to make it clear where action was taken and what difference it made. In general the book’s maps—reproduced from contemporary texts—are hard to decipher.

Nonetheless, Blackbourn has interesting things to say about the “Golden Age” in general. He writes:

Enthusiasm for the technological by-products of human ingenuity was infused with a moral passion that it would be hard to exaggerate. Nothing better expressed this buoyant optimism than the almost magical properties attributed to steam power, which meant the steamship as well as the railway…. And it is true that the steamship was a key to the changing shape of German rivers, just as it was a key symbol of the age.

In the 1860s timber rafts still floated down the larger German rivers as they had for centuries; but by 1900 such obstacles to steam navigation had disappeared. On the Rhine,

in 1840, three times more tonnage was carried downstream than upstream; by 1907 the proportions were reversed…. Although the goods carried on German rivers doubled in the years 1840–70, their share of all inland transportation fell because the railways grew faster. Only enormous investment in river regulation and canals after 1870 allowed inland shipping to regain a larger share.

This was also the age when the “business of leisure” took a watery turn in Germany, as hundreds of spas began to compete for patrons. Travel times and costs were drastically reduced, thanks to steam power, yet

one irony of the decades that preceded unification is that, at the very moment when improved communications were stitching the future nation more closely together, there was a growing tendency to foster local identities.

Blackbourn argues that “a distinctly German pride in modern scientific accomplishments” was a way of disowning Germany’s older identity as the “land of poets and dreamers.” And, he says, pride in overcoming older geographical restraints by dint of new scientific skills soon turned into “an imperialism of the imagination, an outburst of cultural confidence that was a prelude to the political and economic imperialism that would be such a central aspect of Germany after the 1880s.”

Generational shifts in the climate of opinion are real enough, but whether they arise within separate nations, as Blackbourn implies, or run across national borders depends on patterns of communication that are difficult to discern. I question whether he is right to treat Germany as a self-contained intellectual entity. German imperialism may be better understood as part of parallel developments in French, British, and even in American and Russian societies. After 1870, the goal of overcoming longstanding inferiority in cultural prestige to both the French and the British seemed within the reach of Germany and that prospect, it seems to me, may have mattered more than anything internal to Germany itself.

Blackbourn also tells us that dam building was the leading feature of water engineering between the 1880s and World War II, but here I found a familiar pattern. The engineers who designed German dams were masters of their art and sure of its worth; yet they were faced with a chorus of critics who opposed their desecration of “Nature.” As everywhere else, large new dams had multiple uses. In Germany, where irrigation was seldom a consideration, this meant chiefly flood control, urban water supply, and the generation of electricity. As everywhere else, new dams drowned formerly inhabited sections of many river valleys, and created scenic reservoirs that were used for fishing and boating and other forms of recreation. All too obviously, dam failure risked wholesale disaster downstream. But German standards of construction and inspection meant that “no German dam has failed since the modern era of dam-building began” until 1943, when British airplanes breached two dams by bombing them, with predictable and catastrophic results.

When he comes to the Nazi era, Blackbourn writes of Hitler’s grandiose strategies to “design the whole landscape of the east in the German image.”

Whether the planners were using time and motion studies to design the model farmhouse kitchen or applying central place theory to determine the site of new settlements,…or insisting that tree and shrub plantings be aligned on north-south and east-west axes…nothing was apparently too small or too large to escape their attention.

All this was justified because, according to Himmler: “It is not enough to settle our race in these areas and eliminate people of an alien race. Rather, these spaces have to take on a character that corresponds to the nature of our being.” These extravagant plans came to nothing, though Nazi authorities temporarily planted something like one third of a million ethnic Germans, expelled from Soviet lands in 1940–1941, on expropriated Polish farms.

Nazi plans for rescuing the Polish landscape from Slavic Schlamperei remained racial and technocratic dreams. Yet there was a strong countercurrent in Nazi thinking, since conservation of natural landscapes was central to their Blut und Boden mystique. When the party first came to power the government issued laws against mistreatment of animals, for protecting woodlands, and a “pathbreaking Reich Law on the Protection of Nature, which long remained the basic legal framework for nature conservation in both postwar German states.”

In 1941 Hitler also ordered “existing German moorlands to be preserved because they had favorable climatic effects.” Blackbourn even suggests that Hitler may have vetoed plans for draining the Pripet marches in Eastern Poland and Belarus, “at least in part on environmental grounds.” He continues:

This raises a question about the balance between the conquest of nature and nature conservation in National Socialist policy, and how each was connected to race and military conquest. Were the National Socialists really environmentalists under the skin, murderous forerunners of the present-day Greens?

Blackbourn answers his question by describing how the Nazis likened the Slavic East to the American West, equating Poles, Jews, and Russians with American Indians, peoples destined to be swept aside. So when Nazi armies were advancing, Hitler authorized his deputy in Poland to make the Vistula valley “as German as the Rhine valley,” and in 1941 he himself declared, “The Volga must be our Mississippi.” Even when the tide of war began to turn against him, Hitler clung to the analogy by equating struggles against partisans with “the Indian Wars in North America.” I found it a surprise, and a sobering one, to learn how influential American examples of ethnic cleansing were in Nazi ideology and practice.

Blackbourn then describes how the immediate postwar years in Germany were chaotic, with millions of refugees from the East moving into what soon became a divided country—part Communist, part not. Refugees who had lived in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe long cherished what Blackbourn calls “the sustaining myth of the German east,…which told how Germans had found a ‘wilderness’ and made it bloom”; and, he says, “This ‘fractured landscape of memory’ persisted through the old Federal Republic.” Similarly, longstanding policies of draining wetlands to expand food production and building dams were pursued “at a pace never seen before.” The German “miracle” of commercial and industrial recovery, however, intensified pollution. Then, during the 1970s vigorous ecological resistance arose to ambitious tinkering with natural water flows. “The German—or least the West German—way with water began to change.”

The ecological movement started among German conservatives who “disliked the ‘domination’ of nature as much as they disliked communism or American rock and roll.” Continuities with Nazi sensibilities were apparent in “an ‘avocado syndrome’—green on the outside, but with a ‘brown,’ or Nazi, kernel.” But that strand of opinion was too weak to prevail when

a motley collection of environmentalists, Marxist groups, feminists, anarchist Spontis, urban communards, and anti-consumerist simple-lifers created the Green Party at the end of the 1970s. That was the decade when nature conservation was transmuted into ecological awareness and completed a rapid political migration from right to left.

Hence, when a governing coalition of Social Democrats and Free Democrats took power in 1969, a Federal Office for the Environment was set up and new laws and policies soon followed. As a result,

the rivers of the Federal Republic became much cleaner from the 1970s. Oxygen levels rose; insects, molluscs, and fish returned. West Germany’s success in cleaning up its waters (and its air) paralleled what other affluent western societies achieved in the same years. The decline of the coal and steel industries made this easier than it would otherwise have been. More impressive, perhaps, is how the Federal Republic was able simultaneously to forsake nuclear energy while scaling back hydro-electric projects, through more efficient use of existing energy resources coupled with investment in alternatives.

By contrast, the East German government, like other Communist regimes, had a dismal environmental record before its collapse. Industrial and agricultural pollution were unrestrained; and when a small number of East Germans tried to emulate the post-1970 environmental movement, so powerful in West Germany, they were systematically harassed by the secret police.

Blackbourn concludes artfully with an epilogue that returns to the Oder valley where his story began. The lower stretches of that valley lie in Brandenburg, at the heart of the former East Germany. Dikes were well maintained in the Czech and Polish regions until the summer of 1997, when heavy rains upstream and the rising water pressure combined to create an imminent risk of flood. The newly united German government responded strenuously. For three weeks daily TV reports concentrated national attention on the Oder flood—30,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians were mobilized to fight it. Blackbourn says widespread concern about the flood was “credited with dismantling (at least temporarily) the ‘wall in the mind’ that still divided East and West Germans.”

More significantly, Brandenburg’s environmental minister, Matthias Platzeck, who had been principally responsible for containing the flood, said afterward:

A real catastrophe was avoided here only because 650,000 hectares were flooded along the upper reaches of the river. Without this unwitting retention, water levels would have risen considerably higher. Brandenburg’s flood-threatened areas would not have had the slightest chance.

Since most of the actual flooding had taken place along their own sections of the river, Czech and Polish government officials were well aware of the same fact. So was a private “coalition of more than thirty environmental, conservation, and leisure organizations in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic,” not to mention the European Union, which became “a key broker in working out a more environmentally sustainable future for the Oder valley.” As a result, international collaboration to reforest upland areas and to “renature” some parts of the flood plains so they could better retain flood-waters got underway. Accordingly, Blackbourn arrives at an optimistic conclusion:

The policy now being pursued is not only friendlier to the environment but promises a greater degree of true security to most people who live along the Oder…. The policy will succeed only by agreement between Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic under the umbrella of the European Union. Both of these truths should be a source of pleasure to the rest of us, however, because for most of the period covered by this book the idea that nature ought to be shackled held sway, and the “conquest of nature” in Germany was all too closely linked to the conquest of others.

Not conquest, then, but collaboration both with nature and among neighboring governments and peoples is what Blackbourn recommends. No one can disagree, at least when water management is in question. Hydrodynamics and gravity cannot be conquered, though their manifestations can be altered within limits. Those limits have to be recognized. In this country we have yet to learn that lesson, as the fumbling government response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates. The Germans are wiser, thanks to their defeat in World War II as much as to their experience in dealing with recent floods. I would like to believe that Americans could learn from them; but Blackbourn’s book is unlikely to achieve that result, no matter how instructive and informative it was for me and will be for everyone else who reads it.

This Issue

June 22, 2006