- The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany
After reading into the new literature on North America’s western rivers while resident at Stanford University in the early 1990s, David Blackbourn decided to return to material aspects of German history. Here, he investigates the hubris of Germans who sought to dominate nature and create new landscapes. Analyzing projects to drain swamps and control rivers provides Blackbourne with a way of investigating the exercise of power, not least because the poorest and weakest were the losers. In an endless flight forward, engineers and state officials kept promising new solutions to overcome damage caused by older solutions. In the process, they created more disastrous (even if less frequent) floods and eventually significant pollution. In the case of dams, aesthetics provided no injunction against building new ones, only ideas about how to improve nature.
During the 1700s, Prussians drained swamps, especially along the Oder. The military played a significant role, as did colonization. In the early part of the 1800s, changes wrought to the Rhine below Basel opened up land for cultivation but also began to precipitate a dead river. Drainage provided new opportunities for opening up territory around Wilhelmshaven to provide Prussia with a port on the North Sea, but “progress” was increasing pollution and environmental degradation. Then dam building carries the story from the 1880s to World War II, as engineers regularized the flow of rivers for industrial and urban purposes, reservoirs were created, and people were displaced. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Nazi regime developed plans for revising nature in territories to the east. Although these were never carried out fully, Germans who had fled from the east after the war remembered a once-natural landscape that had been worked over as part of long-term efforts to dominate nature. Blackbourn ends his narrative with the rise of environmentalism.
Although investigating material culture provides a good focus for reevaluating German history, Blackbourn conceives of technology as a kind of rationalizing force that one can either support or oppose. He fits contending interests into only two categories: winners and losers. His agents displayed either reason or romance, and too much hubris meant too much support. Still, Blackbourn notes that plans for imposing order on nature, and their implementation, were not the same everywhere. Along the Oder, around Wilhelmshaven, and in newly conquered territories during World War II, there was significant latitude. In general, however, German hubris could not gain credibility because German dams did not fail.
Merely identifying winners and losers and stressing hubris do not explain different paths of development, as Blackbourn seems to suggest. [End Page 216] Nevertheless, his book should be useful to anyone interested in environmental issues and the ways in which Germans thought about nature as they sought modernization.
Dr. Todd writes about large technological systems and teaches the history of science and technology at the University of New Haven.