Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands (Environmental History of Germany) / Hans-Rudolf Bork

Umweltgeschichte DeutschlandsIn his new book Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands (Environmental History of Germany), Hans-Rudolf Bork, PI of the ‘Cluster of Excellence ROOTS’ at Kiel University and member of the subcluster ‘Socio-Environmental Hazards’ (Link), illustrates the manifold relationships between people and their environment. This book consists of 260 stories, ranging from Roman lead pollution in the Eifel to the “Fridays for Future” movement. The volume presents diverse narratives from numerous fields of research and epochs, including, for example, an explanation of how aurochs, bear and wolf disappeared in Germany and corn, tobacco and potatoes arrived. The reclamation of the large bogs from Lower Saxony to Bavaria and the large floodplains of the Rhine and Oder with the subsequent unexpected negative effects on the environment and the people living there is also addressed. One account describes how whale oil from bowhead whales illuminated Hamburg and how these giant mammals have almost become extinct. The era of oil, which continues until today, follows.

Illustrated with 182 figures and supported by a large glossary, the book addresses selected environmental histories of Germany, spanning from the storm tides that made the occurrence of malaria in the North Sea marshes possible to the locusts that destroyed harvests or farmers who colonised the last near-natural landscapes of Central Europe under great hardship: bogs disappeared.

This volume presents a cross-section on the environmental history of Germany from a wide perspective, discussing significant developments in the human-environmental relationship from many different angles. For instance, while the coal and steel industry darkened the cities over the Ruhr and Saar, the structure and use of the landscapes changed, also due to the division of the commons. Ever larger canals were built in order to be able to ship goods more efficiently, while in February 1784, Ludwig van Beethoven fled from the great winter flood of the Rhine. Germans also studied the environment abroad: Alexander von Humboldt explored Latin America and Amalie Dietrich hunted plants and animals in Australia for Johann Caesar Godeffroy.

Scientific advancements, economic development and the industrialisation of Germany are impressively described in this anthology, highlighting their influence on nature and society. For example, industrial enterprises with high pollutant emissions became unpopular in the cities and had to move, only to subsequently pollute suburbs and rural areas. Many discoveries, for example in medicine and biology, provided advancement for human society. For instance, spotted fever and cholera were rampant in urban contexts. Scientists, such as Robert Koch, helped to determine the pathogens of such infectious diseases, whereas Carl Sprengel and Justus von Liebig discovered the importance of plant nutrients. Other advancements in agricultural chemistry reformed agriculture once again, for example, the synthesis of ammonia and mineral fertilisation by Fritz Haber in the early 20th century, making harvest yields explode. Synthetic insecticides were also developed. In light of improper use, some of these seminal developments also resulted in detrimental effects for nature.

Further narratives in Bork’s book also deal with the expansion of transport systems. New railroads and road networks both connected and divided the land, whereby the sealing of soil surfaces continues incessantly. Early on, Carl Benz applied for a patent for the first carriage without horses, while Theodor Lessing founded an anti-noise association. In the course of the First and Second World Wars, Germans devastated many landscapes, Otto Bayer synthesised polyurethane and Kok-Saghys was intended to replace natural rubber, for which “research” was carried out in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

After the Second World War, fields in the West were reallocated and in the East collectivised. The post-war West German economic miracle was based on oil and gas, but air and water pollution had serious consequences for both German states, while highly toxic chemicals were let into the Rhine and caused the death of fish. These detrimental effects on the environment led to subsequent laws that have been passed to improve water, air and later soil quality, to preserve biodiversity and reduce noise.

Scientists continued to study and warn society about the exploitation of nature by humans. Bernhard Grzimek denounced cruelty to animals through factory farming, whereas Bernhard Ulrich vehemently warned about forest decline (Waldsterben). Consequently, air pollution control measures have been installed to prevent further forest dieback, and on a social level, the Green party was founded in West Germany.

During recent decades, Klaus Hasselmann identified man-made climate change. Further current incidents effecting landscapes and society are mentioned as the outcome of human-environment exploitation. For example, large floods on the Oder, Elbe and Danube, which were only made possible by changes in the landscape and its utilisation by humans, aggravate people living on the banks of these rivers. Trees are snapped over by storms en masse because forest officials planted tree species in monocultures – mainly for economic reasons – that are not very stable against extreme weather events. Further negative effects resulting from environmental and species exploitation are mentioned in this volume, for example, that cattle are affected by BSE and birds by the H5N8 virus, free bisphenol is found in the blood of mothers, antibiotics have been verified in groundwater and surface waters, and a disease threatens to cause ash tree distinction. Despite such developments, diesel-powered vehicles (still) transport Germans through the landscape.

Why do we often not react, act wrongly or (too) late? What is to be done? How can a future with healthy people and even better social conditions be achieved? For people who decide to assume environmental responsibility and live in an “intact” environment, a deep understanding of the past is necessary, and thus of the diverse human-environment relationships and their driving forces. Once this has been achieved, we can turn the existing uncertainty about human impact and environmental change into confidence. Moreover, we can look forward with joy into a future that is characterised by respect, precaution, empathy and a deep positive knowledge of human-environmental relationships.

You can find a detailed review of the book by Udo E. Simonis (in German) here: link

Umweltgeschichte Deutschlands (Environmental History of Germany) by Hans-Rudolf Bork, Springer (2020), 408 pages, 182 illustrations (in German).


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions