Notes on David Blackbourn’s “Conquest of Nature”

“The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany,” by David Blackbourn tells the story of how Germans transformed their landscape over the course  of 250 years.[1] The modification of the landscape included reclaiming marshes, draining wetlands, stream restoration, and dam construction. These hydrological projects, Blackbourn informs, changed the face of the land and embodied the ushering in of the modern Germany to come.

Blackbourn in writing about how landscape shaped modern Germany details a metanarrative of how Germany developed as a nation state.  He describes two views of  Germany’s modernity story in terms of internal improvements. Blackbourn writes:

“Call them the optimistic and pessimistic approaches, one an account cast in the heroic mode, the other a modern morality tale of just deserts. The first tells a straightforward story of progress. Growing human control over the natural world meant new land for colonization and more food to support a growing population…”[2]

Here Blackbourn introduces readers to the ways that Germany’s landscape modification efforts were interpreted through history. The pessimistic version is outlined in greater detail here:

The “conquest of water led to a decline in biodiversity and brought damaging invasive species…Hydrological projects also wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge: carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.[3]

The author notes that neither framing is sufficient for showing the complexity of the German conquest of nature…

Ultimately Blackbourn is concerned with “the long-term consequences and manipulating and mechanizing Germany water sources” and in so doing provides a more complete historical account of past.




[1] David Blackbourn, The conquest of nature water, landscape and the making of modern Germany(London: Pimlico, 2007). 2

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 11

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