The German Forest
My friend, the tree
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 identityIn 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 longingIn 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 SocialismThe 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.”