Germany's Nature. Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History

By Goodbody, Axel | German Quarterly, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Germany's Nature. Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History


Goodbody, Axel, German Quarterly


Lekan, Thomas, and Thomas Zeller, eds. Germany's Nature. Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 266 pp. $54.95 paperback.

This book makes a welcome contribution to German environmental history, a field currently attracting unprecedented attention. Since the publication of Raymond H. Dominick's authoritative account of the German environmental movement (1992), the trickle of studies appearing in English has become a torrent, with Mark Ciok's "eco-biography" of the Rhine (2002), Thomas Lekan's Imagining the Nation in Nature (2004), the collection of essays Nature in German History edited by Christoph Mauch (2004), and, most recently, David Blackbourn's Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (2006).

As Lekan and Zeller note in their excellent introduction, the increasing number of publications on the topic in the English-speaking world contrasts with the continuing gulf between German politics and scholarship in the field. When one thinks of a Western country with a strong environmental record, Germany will be among the top contenders. Yet it is comparatively weak when it comes to research in environmental history. (The same is incidentally true of environmental literary and cultural studies.) The principal reason is the persistence of the valorizing link between nature and American national identity after it was broken in Germany through the negative association of landscape discourse with reactionary political tendencies (a legacy, of course, of the cult of nature in the Third Reich). Leading environmental historians in Germany such as Rolf Peter Sieferle, Franz-Josef Brüggemeier and Joachim Radkau have tended until recently to focus on the impact of industrial technologies, pollution and urbanization, rather than addressing issues of landscape ecology. However, here too, as in America, the blanket dismissal of conservative critiques of modernization since the 19th century in the decades after the second World War is now being subjected to critical revision.

The focus in Lekan and Zeller's book is on landscape, defined as an interface between nature and culture, physical environment and collective imagination. The contributors examine the ideologies and cultural values that have shaped Germans' relationship the with the land over the past century and a half, going beyond already extensively researched subjects such as the environmental movement, Green politics and the Third Reich. Forests and waterways, cars and roadway networks, even natural history museums are taken as sites for the exploration of the Germans' often contradictory perceptions and transformations of the natural landscape. Environmental changes are shown to be conditioned by processes of cultural negotiation and social contestation, and environmental debate to be driven as much by social anxieties and ideological constructions as by physically defined problems. …

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