The German Forest
My friend, the tree

Much more than just trees
Much more than just trees | Photo (detail): © Smileus -

The German forest has been sung in song, described and rambled through. At least in Germany, it has for centuries been a place of longing, myth and a symbol of identity. Has this changed today?

“At the edge of a large forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. ...” Thus begins the well-known German folk tale Hansel and Gretel. The forest plays a major role in the story. The children are abandoned there and must find means of surviving in order to be saved.

German folk tales were collected and written down in the nineteenth century by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, quite in the spirit of high Romanticism, which attached especial importance to folk poetry and its myths and legends. Romanticism was the cultural epoch that charged the forest with national significance in society and the arts. In consequence of the wars of liberation against Napoleon (1813 – 1815), Germany began to define itself as a nation. The myth of the forest, of the forest as pure nature in contrast to the urban civilisation of France, became the German ideal.

Two events that took place (or were supposed to have taken place) in German forests became the nuclei of the new nationalism: the Battle of the Teutoburger Forest (9 BC) and the murder of Siegfried by his adversary Hagen during a hunt described in the medieval epic The Song of Nibelungs (13 AD).

Expression of national identity

In the nineteenth century much was done to stamp these tales, and so too the “German forest” as an identity-establishing symbol, in the cultural consciousness. In 1809 Heinrich von Kleist wrote the drama Die Hermannsschlacht (Hermann’s Battle). In 1875 a colossal “Hermann Monument” was dedicated to the nation. From 1850 to 1860 Friedrich Hebbel worked on what was to become a ten-hour drama Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs). And in 1876 in Bayreuth Richard Wagner premiered his sixteen-hour operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. Invariably, the scene of these cultural productions was the forest.

The forest as the place of irrational longing

In 1821, in his opera Der Freischütz (The Marksman), the composer Carl Maria von Weber had already made the forest the at once daemonic and sacred scene of a love story. Here we can see how much of the irrational resonated in the invocation of the forest. For all the previously mentioned works were produced long after the German forests had been turned into useful areas and been robbed of their “mysteries” for purposes of economic exploitation. Perhaps it was to save the idyll from this reality that Adalbert Stifter set his story Der Hochwald (High Forest), published in 1842 and another building block of the German “forest consciousness”, nearly two hundred years in the past, in the days of the Thirty Years War.

The “marching forest” of National Socialism

The identity-establishing myth of the German forest was exaggerated beyond all measure during the Nazi period. Characteristic of this was, for example, the documentary film Ewiger Wald (Enchanted Forest) of 1936. The directors Hanns Springeraund and Rolf von Sonjewski-Jamrowski intone a sentimental hymn concocted of nature shots and enacted scenes. The commentary vigorously thunders: “Eternal forest – eternal people. The tree lives, as do you and I. And it strives for space, as do you and I...”.

In Ewiger Wald there are perfidious cross-fades of rows of trees into rows of soldiers in the army of the Prussian king Frederick the Great. In his main work, Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power)(1960), the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti considers this metaphor critically: “The crowd symbol of the German was the army. But the army was more than the army: it was a marching forest. In no other modern country has the feeling for the forest remained so alive as in Germany. The rigidity and the parallelity of standing trees, their density and number, fills the German heart with a deep and mysterious joy.”

The German forest as sphere of media reaction

Whether that is really the case is another matter. But in this passage it becomes particularly clear that the “German forest” is neither a purely natural phenomenon nor a merely botanical formation, but rather a social emotion. Even after its real devastation in the Second World War, the German forest could contribute culturally and on an emotional level to coping with historical trauma. Especially in West Germany, it dominated the genre of sentimental regional films (“Heimatfilm”) in the form of consoling nature and the reassurance of an idyllic world. Titles such as Das Schwarzwaldmädel (The Black Forest Girl) (Hans Deppe, 1950), Der Förster vom Silberwald (i.e. The Woodsman from Silver Forest) (Alfons Stummer, 1954) and Und ewig singen die Wälder (The Forests Sing Forever) (Paul May, 1959) show that the forest served as a medial sphere of reaction on the big screen.

Between reality and myth

Since the beginning of critical theory after the defeat of Nazism, for which the year 1968 may stand as a symbol, the myth of the forest no longer remained unquestioned. While many Germans still demonstrated their keen affinity in the 1980s by loudly expressing their fears of forest dieback (which might be anticipated in Alexandra’s song Mein Freund, der Baum ist tot (My friend, the tree, is dead) from 1968), artists such as Joseph Beuys in his documenta action 7000 Eichen – Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung (700 Oaks – City Forestation instead of City Administration) (1982), and Anselm Kiefer in his early paintings such as Parsifal and Notung (both 1973), which show wooden boards as building material for German memory storage, disenchant the forest motif of its erstwhile Romanticism, at least artistically.

How the woods still rustle

The love of many Germans for “their” forests remains untouched by these provocations to this day. If we credit the ethnologist Albrecht Lehmann, the German national self-image is still nourished by the forest: “The Germans are the people of the forest par excellence”, he maintained in 2001 in his essay Waldbewusstsein und Waldwissen in Deutschland (i.e. Forest Consciousness and Forest Lore). While not all Germans would want to subscribe to this, a non-fiction work, Das geheime Leben der Bäume (The Hidden Life of Trees) by the ranger Peter Wohlleben, did succeed in climbing to top place on the best-seller lists. Forest schools, nature trails and woodland cemeteries are booming. Forests walks are considered healthy as a contemplative leisure activity, during which now and then the globally known esoteric cultural practice of “tree hugging” is celebrated. And of course the German version of the augmented reality game Pokémon Go takes its users into the forest. As an authentic place of longing the German forest primeval has endured even into the digital age.

Discuss with us

The German forest is part of the Germans’ national identity. Would you agree with that? Is there a similar relationship between nation and nature in your country? What is your favorite landscape?