The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn - review by Abigail Green

Abigail Green

Political Landscaping

The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany


Jonathan Cape 497pp £30

The Germans like to see themselves as lovers of nature. Ever since the hero of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting bestrode the mountains in his frockcoat and walking-stick, they have prided themselves on their unique sensitivity to the landscape in which they live. At the turn of the nineteenth century this love of nature spawned a generation of conservation societies and hiking fanatics. Thirty years later, the vegetarian Führer of the Third Reich passed a series of ecologically motivated laws that formed the basis of German nature preservation for decades to come. Even today, hikers sing the praises of ‘Green forests, German forests’ – and anyone who has spent any time there will tell you that German recycling is second to none. David Blackbourn’s highly original and thought-provoking book turns this myth on its head. He demonstrates that from the 1740s to the 1960s German history was as much about the subjugation of nature as it was about political mastery and military might. 

His story opens with the draining of the Oder Marshes, an achievement that prompted Frederick the Great to boast: ‘Here I have conquered a province in peace.’ It was the first of many projects, which saw hundreds of thousands of acres reclaimed from the wilderness of North German wetlands to

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RLF - March