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The myth of the wild German forest

Sabine Oelze db
August 30, 2019

As Amazon rainforest is decimated by widespread fires and logging, we can look to a long German tradition of burning and clearing woodlands — and solutions that have included systematic replanting and forest management.

a canopy of trees seen from below
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a famous Roman senator and historian, was the first to write about the forests in the land of the ancient Teutons, a Germanic tribe. His brief study Germania founded the myth of the eerie forest that housed barbarians and robbers alike — a forest so dense that it helped the Teutons keep the Romans off their backs.

But even in the first century AD, these forests were by no means virgin forests, said Hansjörg Küster, professor of Plant Ecology at the Institute of Geobotany at Leibniz University Hannover.

"The Germanic tribes farmed, too," he told DW, adding that crops planted in a forest won't get enough sunlight. Humans changed the face of the forest long before Tacitus came along, he says. But to the Romans, it was a hostile-looking jungle.

Read moreFrom destruction to rejuvenation: When forest fires are a good thing

Cornelius TACITUS
Roman hisotiran Tacitus shaped the idea of the mythical, dense German forest Image: picture alliance / akg-images

The limit to Europe's forest-clearing

The kind of land clearing that is currently devastating the primeval Amazon rainforests has existed in Europe for more than 7,000 years. Wood was urgently needed to build ships and houses, for smelting iron ore and to make glass. Demand increased until the late middle ages and early modern times.

"In the 17th and 18th centuries, forests in Central Europe were down to a minimum," says Küster, adding that Europe had the same problem Brazil has today.

People realized something had to be done, and since then forests have been systematically replanted with an eye to sustainability.

Nature conservation as we know it today is based on German forestry laws and management, including a tradition of replanting, Küster said. That's something to be proud of, he added — even if German forests are now struggling in the face of climate change. 

Read moreGermany's forests on the verge of collapse, experts report

Cultural differences

The forest is still today regarded as a symbol of German identity, celebrated over the centuries by poets, writers and painters. Other European cultures that also have dense forests have a more distanced relationship to their woodlands.

Forests appear in folk songs and myths. It's interesting, Küster notes, that Father Christmas allegedly lives at the North Pole in most countries while his German counterpart shows up come Christmas time from "deep in the forests."

Gemälde Wald
"The Chasseur in the Forest" Image: picture alliance/Heritage-Images

In the early 19th century, the myth of the "eerie forest" emerged once again. As Napoleon's troops marched toward Germany, citizens thought to plant trees along the borders to France, hoping the French would get lost in them just as the Romans did so long ago — after all, says Küster, "both spoke a Romance language, and consequently they knew nothing about the forest." As a result, the German forest was glorified even more.

The Romance period marked the height of arboreal mythology. In 1774, German painter Caspar David Friedrich painted a lost French soldier in a painting entitled The Chasseur in the Forest. It shows a lone man in the forest, tiny, peering around at the tall, tall trees.