The forest nation: Why trees are at the heart of the German soul

The English language doesn’t know a word with the same meaning as the German “Heimat”. The translation as “homeland” doesn’t remotely touch the emotional charge of its German counterpart, which makes the current rebranding of the interior ministry as “Heimatministerium” quite awkward. The German nation has a history of division – the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a patchwork of hundreds of small independent monarchies, and the very idea of a nation state, leave alone a republic, was a dream far out of reach.

In this lack of unity, the lack of a reliable German identity, “Heimat” became a vision and a matter of the heart. This might have been one reason for the murderous nationalism that turned Germany into a major aggressor twice in the 20th century, but we cannot follow this thought without going further astray. You will already be wondering what all this has to do with the German forests.

Nature as an ideal, forest as a symbol

The answer lies in the period of romanticism, a cultural era that brought a revival of nostalgia, individualism and nature all over Europe. As an answer to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, romanticism was emotional, often corny and backward facing towards an idealized idea of medieval times. In Germany, it was accompanied by a more rational smaller sibling: The Vormärz, named after the March revolution of 1848, leading to the first attempt to install a German parliament and a national government with humanist and democratic ideas.

“Vormärz” translates as “Pre-March”, and the writers and intellectuals that belonged to this movement introduced strong political and social engagement into their work. Their social criticism, however, was often embedded in lyric and prose that resembled romantic literature, with all the emotional, lofty references to nature and truth – so much that the famous contemporary writer Heinrich Heine addressed it in his poem “Wahrhaftig”:


Wenn der Frühling kommt mit dem Sonnenschein, Dann knospen und blühen die Blümlein auf; Wenn der Mond beginnt seinen Strahlenlauf, Dann schwimmen die Sternlein hinterdrein; Wenn der Sänger zwei süße Äuglein sieht, Dann quellen ihm Lieder aus tiefem Gemüt; — Doch Lieder und Sterne und Blümelein, Und Äuglein und Mondglanz und Sonnenschein, Wie sehr das Zeug auch gefällt, So machts doch noch lang keine Welt.


When the Spring comes in and the sun is bright

Then every small blossom beckons and blows ;

When the moon on her shining journey goes

Then stars swim after her through the night.

When the singer looks into two clear eyes

Then something is stirred and sweet lyrics arise . . .

But flowers and stars and the songs just begun,

And moonbeams and eyes and the light of the sun,

No matter how much such stuff may please,

One can’t keep living on things like these.

(translation by Hal Draper, 1982)

It was Heine and his fellow writers in the Vormärz-movement who turned the German forest, idealized in the romantic literature, into a symbol of German identity, as a stark contrast to French urbanity and the industrialization of the British Empire.

The German Oak became a symbol of strength, resilience and reliability. The historical Germanic tribes of ancient times were forest people in the descriptions of the Roman conquerors who struggled to win against the “barbarians”. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which Germanic warriors destroyed three Roman legions, created an ancient Roman trauma comparably to the loss of the Vietnam war in the 20th century and was now turned into a historic myth, celebrated with monuments like the famous Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold. Heinrich von Kleist, another famous author of the time, wrote a famous play about the battle (“Die Hermannsschlacht”) that stirred up Anti-French sentiment during Napoleon’s reign.

Well known to the English speaking world are the works of the Brothers Grimm, introducing the forest as a place of magic, mystery and fairy tales.

Famous German forests

The Teutoburger Forest isn’t the only legendary German woodland area. Most English people will know the Black Forest cherry cake – most Germans are more familiar with the Black Forest itself, an intriguing mountain range in the South of the country and a favourite tourism area. In the Northeast of Germany the Harz has a similar footprint in terms of natural beauty and tourism, in West Germany the Eifel and the valley of the rivers Rhine and Moselle are favourite goals for hikers and nature-lovers. A true gem of pristine beauty is the “Sächsische Schweiz” (Saxonian Switzerland) close the to the city of Dresden in the very East of Germany.

This is the birthplace of modern forestry. It was here that Heinrich Cotta initiated forestry as a science in the Royal Saxon Academy of Forestry and later at the University of Dresden. His ideas of treating forestry as more than just “timber production” are still at the core of the modern philosophy of sustainability, involving long-term seeding and the creation of dedicated forested areas for economical and ecological reasons (although this term was not yet coined in his time).

Cotta’s very own description of his life sounds like an echo of romantic literature: “I am a child of the forest; no roof covers the spot where I was born. Old oaks and beeches shade its solitude and grass grows upon it. The first song I heard was of the birds of the forest, my first surroundings were trees. Thus my birth determined my calling!”

Even long before Germany became a unified country, forestry turned into a nation-wide priority, with forests being open to the public from the early 19th century when the first nature reserves were established, including a sophisticated network of hiking routes and inns for travellers. Spending time in nature was seen as an important school of character.Social as well as political organisations made outings into nature an important part of their programs.

With the growing value of untouched nature, conservation became a topic in the early 19th century. It was driven by outstanding scientists like Alexander von Humboldt, who travelled the world and wrote “Kosmos”, a monumental book describing nature as a complex and interwoven system. He even hinted at man-made climate change based on his explorations around the globe, although of course he had no idea of CO2 and the industrial revolution had not burned enough fossil fuels to change global temperatures in his time.


Despite this love for nature, Germany has a reputation as an industrial powerhouse and is densely populated with vast urban areas. Cars and the Autobahn are a major driver of German identity nowadays (no pun intended). It was in the 80s when these contradictions collided and it became obvious that the forests would not be able to survive the impact of ecological destruction and technological emissions. Car traffic was identified as one of the main reasons for forest dieback – Waldsterben. Trees got sick and died without an obvious reason in huge numbers, whole forests vanished.

The solution was a technological one: Reduction of emissions and the introduction of catalytic converters reduced the impact of road traffic on trees and nature. The problem isn’t solved entirely, and with climate change there are new challenges ahead. In 2018, the conflict between industrial requirements and nature conservation came back to the forefront of political discourse, when one of the last primeval forests in the country fell victim to open pit mining for coal, amidst often violent clashes with protestors.

The future of German forests isn’t safe, but at least it is a priority in the public opinion.

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