Roundtable on The greenest nation on trial: German environmentalism in perspective

Co-hosted by the Institute for German Studies (IGS) and BISEMEHat the University of Birmingham

February 24, 2015


  • Axel Goodbody (University of Bath)
  • Silke Mende (Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, Paris)
  • Frank Uekötter (University of Birmingham)

Environmentalism is a wonderful word. Everybody knows what it means, until someone asks you to define it. It’s obviously about a set of ideas and certain groups, formally organised or otherwise, that call themselves “environmental”, but it is about so much more. It’s about what we eat, how we move around, and even what we see as the good life. In short, it’s about everything. But then, it’s hard to have a serious debate about everything.

This panel explored these questions through the discussion of a single country, namely Germany, and the different paths towards its environmental history. It took its start from Frank Uekötter’s 2014 book, The Greenest Nation? A New History of Germany Environmentalism. But unlike a typical book presentation, speakers were not invited to heap praise on the monograph. The goal was to reflect on the conceptual challenges that the “green Germany” implies: on ways of writing about environmentalism, and about what should be in a history of environmentalism.

As it turned out, all participants shared a sense of disaffection with traditional histories where leagues and political decisions are center stage. We need to look at further issues, and not just because they are also “green”. For example, Silke Mende pointed out that 1968 deserves a place in the history of German environmentalism, not because it was thoroughly green (it wasn’t, in her judgment) but because it was a bridge towards environmental activism. The GDR presents a similar problem. Histories of environmentalism need a wide context, and the East German trajectory needs it even more.

As one of the leading authorities on German environmental literature, Axel Goodbody noted a number of omissions. Where is Herbert Marcuse, or Ernst Bloch, or Carl Amery? Heidegger has won international acclaim in environmental philosophy, and yet he was missing from Uekötter’s book. The same held true for Ludwig Klages and his passionate Meißner address, Hermann Hesse, Wilhelm Raabe, and some others. And what about Christa Wolf and her book Störfall? Goodbody also suggested a reference to the East German green activist Reimar Gilsenbach who founded a unique circle for discussions on environmental literature. Uekötter took diligent notes with a sense of remorse, tempered by awareness that he will have a chance to correct these omissions. Uekötter is currently working on the German edition of the Greenest Nation, and the roundtable, as well as subsequent discussions with panelists, were a great help in this regard.

The Greenest Nationcenters around three field: politics, civil society, and culture and life. Understood in the intellectual tradition of Pierre Bourdieu, all three fields had their own actor groups, codes of conduct, and modes of interaction, and the book discussed their change over time as well as their interrelations. But, Goodbody wondered, why did the author choose these three fields? Can’t we call the media a distinct field, too? The significance of the media became clear in many places throughout the book, but it never received a systematic treatment. Uekötter was a bit defensive, acknowledging the need for more attention while expressing a weariness of an inflation of fields. Goodbody acknowledged that this was a balancing act: many fields would end up diluting the conceptual focus that it provides. But then, the cultural field as defined by Uekötter was truly large – basically a kitchen sink where everything that does not fit into either the political or the civic field ends up.

One of the mysteries of environmentalism is the political color change during the seventies. Whereas conservation had traditionally tilted towards the political right, the environment became a distinctly leftist topic. But how? Uekötter stressed the political opportunism of an embattled left, but maybe that was not the full story. Goodbody pointed to the key role of leftist thinkers such as Marcuse and Bloch while Mende urged to take fears and group allegiances seriously. She also pointed out that the topic challenges a periodization in decades. The leftist takeover began well before 1980.

The place of East Germany is arguably the thorniest part of a German environmental history. It is now clear that the disaster narrative of 1989/90 is only one aspect, and one that people put center stage for political reasons. It was part of the indictment of the disappearing GDR, and one of the few indictments that did not loose its vigor over time – rather unlike consumerism and democracy. Mende suggested to stress that both countries shared environmental fears. But did they? The environmental toll of socialist rule was a topic in Western broadcasts before 1989, but it always had an element of alteration. For environmentalists concerned about the toll of capitalism, it offered a quantum of solace to realize that socialism screwed up in even more spectacular fashion.

Goodbody missed a sense of regionalism in the narrative, and specifically a discussion of what he described as a revival of regionalism since the 1970s. The Greenest Nationnotes the regional diversity of German environmentalism and even found it one of its defining feature, but it made no attempts to elaborate: an abbreviated discussion tends to foster unfortunate cultural stereotypes. Furthermore, after seven years in Bavaria, Uekötter has arguably lost his license to speak neutrally about German regionalism.

Much of the discussion centered on the peculiarities of German environmentalism. Can we identify a German tradition of cultural despair? And what about the discussion about an eco-dictatorship that started in the 1970s and tattered out in the 1990s? But then, the sphere of ideas is more ambiguous than concrete policies. The German nuclear exit is singular among the countries of the West – though not as exceptional when one realizes that in addition to the safety concerns, there is also a business case against nuclear power that makes for lukewarm interest in a nuclear revival.

And then there is the topic that fascinates Germans: separating trash. It is difficult to understand the German penchant for recycling without a reference to patriotic sentiments – a type of everyday assertion that, by virtue of diligently disposing of trash, Germany deserves a prime spot on every environmental best-of list. But then, recycling is about more than properly separated garbage. It is probably best to view recycling as a type of performative environmentalism that is obviously dear to the heart of many Germans – one more case in point for a broad understanding of environmentalism.

But where does all this leave us? Histories of environmentalism leave scholars on a slippery slope, as environmentalism is no closed chapter – quite the contrary, the future of environmentalism is more open than ever. All scholars stressed the merits of ambiguities, though some were more eager to suggest an upbeat tone than others. Maybe a revised understanding of progress or concepts of environmental modernization can supply a grand narrative? These concepts may also help in mainstreaming environmental history.

In the meantime, Germans will likely continue to embrace an identity that stresses environmental merits. Whether that is a deserved fate remains to be seen, and the discussion offered many different insights in this regard. But then, the general tone is one of curiosity of bewilderment rather than fear, and that means something for discussions of German patriotic sentiments. Germans surely had worse focal points for nationalism throughout their history. Nobody is afraid of a German who separates his trash.