Apostles of the Alps: Mountaineering and Nation Building in Germany and Austria, 1860-1939

Apostles of the Alps: Mountaineering and Nation Building in Germany and Austria, 1860-1939

Apostles of the Alps: Mountaineering and Nation Building in Germany and Austria, 1860-1939

Apostles of the Alps: Mountaineering and Nation Building in Germany and Austria, 1860-1939

Synopsis

Though the Alps may appear to be a peaceful place, the famed mountains once provided the backdrop for a political, environmental, and cultural battle as Germany and Austria struggled to modernize. Tait Keller examines the mountains' threefold role in transforming the two countries, as people sought respite in the mountains, transformed and shaped them according to their needs, and over time began to view them as national symbols and icons of individualism.



In the mid-nineteenth century, the Alps were regarded as a place of solace from industrial development and the stresses of urban life. Soon, however, mountaineers, or the so-called apostles of the Alps, began carving the crags to suit their whims, altering the natural landscape with trails and lodges, and seeking to modernize and nationalize the high frontier. Disagreements over the meaning of modernization opened the mountains to competing agendas and hostile ambitions. Keller examines the ways in which these opposing approaches corresponded to the political battles, social conflicts, culture wars, and environmental crusades that shaped modern Germany and Austria, placing the Alpine borderlands at the heart of the German question of nationhood.

Excerpt

“European history in great outlines seems to be shaped by fights for the Alps or against them,” wrote the German Jewish author Arnold Zweig in 1939. Witness to Hitler’s assumption of power, Zweig went into exile after the Nazis took over Germany and later found his way to Palestine in the 1940s. As the Third Reich’s maelstrom of destruction swelled, he looked from afar to the Swiss mountains, the “stronghold of democracy,” to preserve civilization: “Nature has formed a barrier against the aggression of Fascism from the South and Nazi tyranny from the North. The sense of freedom, now lost in Tyrol and the High Tauern, defends itself and the European civilization, though modern aviation and radio have given to the dictatorships undreamt-of possibilities. The watch on the summits of the Alps creates the last hope and safeguard of modern democratic civilization and freedom in the middle of Europe.” Zweig’s portrayal of the Alps as bastions of liberty echoed the sentiments of eighteenth-century naturalists and philosophers who first attached civic virtues to the Alps, as well as nineteenth-century mountaineers who claimed relief from life’s woes on their climbs. To these (mostly) men, the tough Alpine landscape promoted independence. Lofty meadows and stony palisades cultivated and protected democracy. The chill glacial air seemed to inspire peace. In their and Zweig’s formulation, nature defined and gave meaning to nationhood.

Zweig conceded, however, that freedom and tranquility did not thrive on all the peaks. The Austrian summits had fallen, with the help of technology, to oppression. He recognized that humans could deliberately shape the environment’s physical landscape and discursive meaning. Romancing the mountains also stirred darker dreams. Here the brutal terrain somehow fostered cruel politics. Canyons and crags apparently nurtured and sheltered fascism. Hitler’s minions likewise saw the importance of controlling Alpine aeries for their own agendas. Struggling up the slopes hardened bodies for battle, and subjugating mountains whetted appetites of conquest. Gazing out across sweeping vistas aroused . . .

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