Recent German Environmental Literature: Writing Environmental Change and Catastrophe

Leigh Anthony Dehaney, “Sülo Reactor Scape,” June 15, 2007

thebmag, “Another Nuclear Winter,” Dogern, Germany, December 3, 2005

German writers are tackling the complex question of writing the environment in diverse narrative forms that provide a human scope for planet-scale issues. 

The wild returns to the city and takes over, sea-creatures aided by hidden aliens fight back against industrial damage to the oceans, massive natural-cultural catastrophes occur with nuclear explosions, radioactive poisoning, industrialization, the extinction of animals and/or all human beings, or the slow melt of glaciers filling the oceans: what inspires so many recent German-language authors to write tales like these? In this time of climate change and rapid environmental alterations by human activities, we are seeing ever more radical global ecological changes, strange natural-cultural catastrophes, and wild weather.

Many of these environmental changes are so big and they come with such daunting implications for human culture and our fellow species that many people remain blind to them altogether or in denial for ideological reasons, and yet authors from around the world are, and have been, tackling the complex question of writing the environment in diverse narrative forms that provide some kind of human scope for these planet-scale issues or issues of such complexity as to be invisible. How can we write about changes too big to see even if the local impact is overt; how can we grapple with an inhuman scale; and how can we bring to light the obvious drama right in front of us that dissolves behind ideologies which determine ecological changes to be irrelevant? Do we write for “nature,” as a part of nature and ecological systems (water, air, etc.), or simply about nature, including other species but also the geological formations blasted away in such practices as mountaintop removal mining? Such questions resonate ever stronger during this era of human impact across the earth, a time when the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history is underway due to human activities and development, as Elizabeth Kolbert has written in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014). Indeed, the International Commission on Stratigraphy is currently deliberating whether to name our current geological era the “Anthropocene,” as documented in trace levels of human industrial and nuclear activity found in soils across the entire planet. 

Joining the ever-growing list of international literary works addressing the broad array of environmental issues emerging—exploding—in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are numerous German-speaking authors. Although there are many strategies for tackling tales of environmental “change,” let us focus here on three broad categories of these German tales. The first detail some form of the return or revenge of the wild. The second category revels in shattering catastrophic events, including nuclear explosions and various forms of the “end of nature” or the end of the world—or of oil—that serve as wake-up calls or warnings about the future. Third, and in contrast to the second category, is the personal experience of the “slow violence,” as Rob Nixon calls it in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), that is not the media-inspiring devastation and active violence of death and mayhem which garners so much short-term attention but rather the longer, slower, and ongoing processes of melting ice, a warming climate, spreading radiation, dying species, acidification of the oceans bleaching and thus devastating entire coral reefs, the encroachment of pollution in air, land, and water, and the poisoning of urban children with water or air pollution that takes years to accumulate in their systems. 

1.

Our first category of German-language stories are almost fun: they provide a rather absurd sense of justice as the nonhuman, the wild or a diverse spectrum of species, and even plants start to “fight back” against human impact on “nature” in Avatar-style dramas (James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster film in which the Na’vi and “Eywa,” or Pandora’s “mother nature,” join together to resist the colonial/imperial forces of human miners seeking “unobtanium”). In a 1982 short story from the Swiss satirical author Franz Hohler, “The Recapture,” for example, the eagles have mysteriously returned to the city. Hohler drily portrays the traumatic and catastrophic re-“wildering” of metropolitan Zurich into a thick jungle as if “nature” had finally decided that enough is enough. The tale opens as the anonymous narrator gazes out the window at the mountains only to spot a golden eagle on a TV antenna across the way. He notes that the eagle couldn’t have escaped from a zoo or aviary since such birds usually have clipped wings and this bird swoops freely through the city—it must be wild! The Zurich population initially celebrates the eagle, following its nest-building with rapt attention that only increases when more eagles soon follow. In fact, the eagles helpfully rid the city of pesky urban rats. 

The people’s enthusiasm wanes somewhat when local cats also fall prey to the majestic predatory birds. Not long after the eagle families have fully established themselves within city limits, an enormous buck with twenty-four-point antlers finds his way briefly into the city. He is a harbinger of what is to come: three months later, innumerable deer invade the streets en masse, blocking traffic and bringing total chaos in the city. “Everywhere motors were turned off and only the sliding and scraping of the hundreds of hooves on the asphalt could be heard. From time to time a window broke or a car got scratched, but people kept quiet as church mice. Policemen ran in front of the herd, trying to warn people. The zoo director advised them to avoid using loudspeakers to prevent setting off panic among the deer, since what they feared most of all was that the herd would stampede” (Franz Hohler [2016-01-19], At Home: A Selection of Stories, Kindle edition). 

The government finally commences a massive hunt, but to no avail. These and other more violent eradication efforts fail, leaving the local populace no choice but to strive for a new resilience based on adjusting, adapting, and even accepting their feathery and furry neighbors—at least until the wolves arrive and begin hunting. And then the bears enter the city. They bring otters and, strangely, non-European venomous snakes. But the shocking return of the animals is nothing in contrast to the final overwhelming of Zurich by rapidly growing, seemingly invincible plants devastating the infrastructure: “This threat came from plants, especially from two varieties. The first was ivy that suddenly started growing incredibly fast. During a single night it could grow from a garden to the middle of the road, and if it was cut in the morning it was already at the edge of the sidewalks by the evening” (At Home). At the end of “The Recapture,” Zurich has become a green, flower-filled jungle, aggressive and unmanageable in this tale of what we might call “reverse vegetal colonization”: instead of human beings conquering and controlling plants with agriculture (and thus, in many theories of human culture, the beginning of culture itself), the plants explode and retake the area, covering and undermining human structures with unstoppable greenery. As human activities reshape the world, bringing pollution, expanding development, and the sixth mass extinction event on earth, authors like Hohler imagine alternative outcomes with irony.

Such tales of “nature striking back” against human transformations are a popular variant of environmental themes in recent German-speaking literature. Another story in this category of “reactivated” nature is Frank Schätzing’s best-selling eco-thriller novel The Swarm (2004; Eng. 2007), in which sea creatures fight back against destructive human activities, that is, they strike with the aid of deep-sea aliens who have long been hiding in the oceans fully unbeknownst to the human beings. Whales topple boats, barnacles overcome ships, seafood poisons restaurant guests, and aquatic chaos overwhelms the earth even on land—there is water everywhere, after all. The Swarm, a science fiction adventure reveling in dramatic catastrophes, asserts that the pollution of the oceans and broad-scale environmental damage of our industrial undertakings will produce a direct response from “nature” in the form of belligerent nonhuman life-forms asserting their own agency and right to exist. In its vast 900 pages, we find a full array of battles and of human responses, ranging from confused scientists, Indigenous activists, animal-rights defenders, and delusional denialists all trying to understand and handle nature’s new activism. Indeed, nature in The Swarm acts as a collective much like in Cameron’s Avatar, in which devastation to Eywa finally awakens synchronized action of all living things against the destructive mining practices. Of course, fantasies that nature will take on a moralistic and unified persona to counter human impact may suggest we need not act on our own human initiative. 

In contrast, Karen Duve’s grim novel Rain (1999; Eng. 2003) portrays endless precipitation that brings an onslaught of unconquerable slugs. In this case, the rain might be heightened by climate change, but that remains unclear as does any clear understanding of the weather in general. There is no purpose and no collective in Duve’s novel, just a ceaseless continuity of rain that wears down the newly married couple Leon Ulbricht and his wife, Martina, who leave urban life in Hamburg for the Mecklenburg countryside, thus they move into the former East Germany during post-Reunification politics, hoping for a writer’s pastoral paradise. What they find is isolation, mud, and two strange sisters who live in the swamp and eventually “adopt” Martina. Duve doesn’t suggest that nature is fighting back for any particular reason, in contrast to Schätzing, but it is clear that the ooze of the swamp wins. 

This is true both in the actions of the indefatigable slugs who march onward through Leon’s flooded garden, toward the house, defying his desperate days of trying to remove and exterminate them, in response to which they ooze across the porch, spreading their antenna as if in “V” for victory. We again see the power of the ooze at the end of the novel when the couple’s house finally sinks into the muck undermined by the constant dampness. Leon responds by running out into the depths of the swamp, lost, alone, and in his bathrobe. He falls face-first and decides to allow himself to sink into the warm, wet embrace (the clearly feminine implications of the swamp and the two swamp sisters are hilariously awful) and purposely breathes in the mud in a final moment of fatal nature encounter. His wife returns to the city and burns her father’s yellow Audi, suggestively now herself “fighting back” but rather aimlessly. Bad weather dominates, and the fecund morass seems to undermine patriarchal powers like inexorably spreading black mold. The slugs live on. Nature resists. 

Nature fighting back is an old story, but these recent environmental stories have a new twist of unprecedented and demented human power inspiring nature to respond rather than the ancient gods or “natural spirits” infusing the physical world with energy and action.

Yet what exactly is nature, then, in these tales of bad weather, swarming gastropod mollusks, alien-aided sea creatures, and plants run amok? We might understand nature in these texts as radically altered life-forms so changed by human activity that they reveal themselves to be a threatening agency or active force with new energy; in other words, as a kind of monstrous nature-culture hybridity. These new forms of nature share, however, aspects with the most ancient tales in epics and fairy tales based on oral traditions describing quests on which the heroes encounter dangerous waters, monstrous beasts, fearsome predators, and animistic nature more generally, much of which has a personality and full agency. Nature fighting back is an old story, but these recent environmental stories have a new twist of unprecedented and demented human power inspiring nature to respond rather than the ancient gods or “natural spirits” infusing the physical world with energy and action. 

2.

While Hohler’s, Schätzing’s, and Duve’s stories document creative visions of nature resisting and animals returning (and plants rebelliously thriving in urban environments), other recent German works focus instead on massive anthropogenic (humanly-caused) catastrophes. The spectacle of warning tales looms large in literature; certainly this is not unprecedented. There are plenty of older narratives of disaster—“natural” disasters or “divine punishments” both ancient and modern. I describe here instead tales of humanly created catastrophe like nuclear explosions. It bears reiterating that these stories share much with older tales of floods and earthquakes even while there is a dramatic change: the scope of human impact is new. That is, only recently have we acquired the ability to remove mountaintops for mining, explode nuclear weapons to devastate entire regions, and slash entire rain forests covering continents or even alter, inadvertently, the entire planet’s climate. Yet in many instances, these very “modern” tales nevertheless retain characteristics of older narratives typical since the Scientific Revolution that present nature not as active and agentic (as in many ancient tales) but rather as naught but passive matter upon which we wreak havoc (or shape, if thinking in positive terms). Hence, nature in these texts tends to be more a passive victim or landscape that humans actively devastate. I focus here on several novels responding to the 1986 nuclear disasters of Chernobyl.

Narratives portraying horrific disasters run the risk of appearing to be “catastrophe porn”—visions reveling in the violence and devastation as alluring spectacle rather than a critique of current conditions or warning about the future.

Narratives portraying horrific disasters run the risk of appearing to be “catastrophe porn”—visions reveling in the violence and devastation as alluring spectacle rather than a critique of current conditions or warning about the future. Andreas Eschbach, popular German science fiction author of optimistic eco-thrillers depicting the quest for solar energy in space like Solarstation (1999, not translated), and alternative, agricultural sources of energy after the end of “Peak Oil” (Burned Up,from 2007, not translated), has written several tales that incorporate the interest of looming or past massive disaster but avoid the problematic celebrations of apocalyptic demise. His short stories in the ironically titled collection A pristine World (2008, not translated) such as “Quantum Garbage” and “Humanic Park” serve as two examples. The aptly named tale “Quantum Garbage” opens with the narrator preparing himself for the impending end of the world, which he has (inadvertently) brought about. The action began after he completed his doctorate in physics but could find only low-level work as a technician in a particle accelerator facility. One evening he and his fellow mechanics accidently discovered a force field that spontaneously and unexpectedly emerged from the high-energy technology. This field made everything that one put into it disappear, entirely, into another dimension or somewhere else in the universe. It was a perfect solution for waste! Indeed, the force field could be broken into endless other pieces, all of which conveniently swallowed unlimited quantities of garbage, waste, radioactive matter, dirty diapers, and food scraps. 

Almost immediately, the narrator transformed his life from having a low-level tech job as a mechanic to the savior of the entire world and one of the richest men on the planet in that he provided a means of eliminating, instantly, all pollution. No irksome industrial or personal waste problems remained! Nor did his sleazy brother who initially used the force field to eliminate his competition, mafia style, until the narrator pushed him, too, into the field and became the sole owner. This success was wonderful for a while, at least until he eventually noticed a very slight change: the force field was requiring a bit more energy to function. After some calculations, he realized that this amount would increase exponentially until the inevitable occurred: all that stuff, garbage, waste, lint, excrement, and industrial toxic dumps (and dead bodies) would suddenly return from the “beyond” or other dimension in one massive return, or undumping, thereby covering the entire earth with a singular waste explosion. The narrator closes the story, counting down the remaining seconds while drinking from his wildly expensive wine stores. No escape is possible from the inexorable laws of thermodynamics and garbage.

Eschbach’s other short tale, “Humanic Park,” is told from the future perspective of a group of schoolchildren (futuristic insect-beings now dominating earth) visiting the re-created human beings in a zoo enclosure, mockingly revising Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990), with its re-created dinosaurs. Celebrating the human beings as “path-breakers” who shaped the world for insects, the teacher explains that the increased temperatures from global warming, the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the excessive pollution conveniently wiped out most all other species including human beings themselves, but left a perfect world for the ever-larger insects. The irony for the enthusiastic teacher, named “Peria-230767,” is that no one can explain why human beings undertook such projects and brought about their own demise. Nevertheless, the insect lords remain eternally grateful for the world-shaping that made it possible for them to grow and take over without any pesky competition.

Hohler, too, has a satirical tale about the end of the world, in this case, a poem that he has recorded in German (see his collection mentioned above, At Home, for a translation). Hohler describes the end of the world as already being underway. It begins, however, with the extermination of one single species of beetle on a rather small island in the South Pacific. Everyone is glad, initially, to be rid of such an annoying beetle that brought awful itching when it stung and was always covered with filth. And yet one day a single species of bird also disappeared, for it relied on the beetles. Then a species of fish died, a small one, but one that depended on the excrement of the birds falling into the ocean for its nutrients. The process continues in a cascading tale of death, one species at a time, until it encompasses the world in an ever-growing series of disasters. The poem ends when the narrator asks: and when will this begin? “That makes most of the scientists scratch their heads—they say in ten, in twenty years perhaps in fifty or even only in a hundred but as for me, I have my own way of looking at it. The end of the world, ladies and gentlemen, has already begun.”

The challenge to readers is to participate in the attempt to perceive these imperceptible yet dangerous environmental changes while accepting the high technology and medical use of radiation to save lives.

While these short stories predict massive and total annihilation of large species on earth, the novels reacting to the 1986 Chernobyl explosion like Christa Wolf’s Accident (1987; Eng. 1989) and Gudrun Pausewang’s Fallout (1987; Eng. 1997) seek to mediate the more “local” event of nuclear catastrophe that only impacted two continents into personal and individual narratives. Wolf’s nuclear tale contrasts the strange experience of knowing that one’s garden in Germany has suddenly been transformed from a pleasant escape providing food and enjoyable dalliances in greenery into a toxic waste site—though everything looks exactly the same. Indeed, radioactive fallout covered much of Germany and Europe; people were told to stop eating all fresh food and cease drinking milk for several weeks. Wolf narrates in the first person, comparing this invisible, devastating poisoning of her surroundings with horrific radioactivity to the (fictional) experience of her brother currently in the hospital with brain cancer who receives radioactive treatment to save his life. The challenge to readers is to participate in the attempt to perceive the imperceptible yet dangerous environmental changes while accepting the high technology and medical use of the same or similar substances to save lives.

Less ambiguous and nuanced is Pausewang’s youth novel, Fallout (or, in a literal translation of the German title, The Cloud). Imagining another event just a year later after Chernobyl, this one a local German explosion in Grafenrheinfeld, Pausewang joins in the antinuclear activism of the 1980s in Germany. She writes the tale of young Janna Berta and her little brother, Uli, whose parents are traveling when the explosion occurs. The young teenager and her brother must attempt to flee on their own; chaos ensues with terrible traffic, lack of government aid, and approaching rain clouds laden with radioactivity. Uli is finally hit by a car as they attempt to flee, and Janna leaves his body in a field of flowers, slowly moving with various families away from the danger zone—much too slowly, as it turns out. The rest of the novel tracks her radiation illness and the slow, painful death of many children left in lingering pain, alone, vomiting, hair falling out. When relatives come, Janna Berta cannot adjust to life in Hamburg where her aunt lives and where no one wants to talk about the disaster. Even her grandparents deny there was any real disaster, much like, the novel implies, many older Germans sought to avoid talking about World War II and the Holocaust. In the end, Janna Berta joins other recovered survivors to protest any further nuclear development in Germany. Gut-wrenching descriptions of dying children, absent government, and unanswered questions about how long one should avoid spinach and milk frame the novel. 

3. 

Although Pausewang’s Fallout can be classified as a nuclear catastrophe novel, or a depiction of fast, horrific violence that devastates ecological systems and our bodies, the second half of the book actually works to document what Rob Nixon has defined as “slow violence”—those processes like radiation poisoning and system pollution that take a while—days, weeks, even years—and slowly alter the world as radically as explosions and floods but get overwritten and ignored precisely by being less “spectacular” and without the fascination of sudden catastrophes. Other examples of texts presenting ongoing disasters that garner little attention include Monika Maron’s novel, Flight of Ashes, from 1981 (Eng. 1986) that documented the daily tons of ash spewed out by the coal plant in Bitterfield, Germany, in the former East (German Democratic Republic). The novel was forbidden in the East, but Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt am Main printed it. 

In 1979 Max Frisch published a little volume that also addresses the slower, daily changes that come with environmental alterations: Man in the Holocene, published in English on May 19, 1980, by the New Yorker. This short novel follows the older Mr. Geiser who fades along with his Swiss mountain village that is slowly washing away with increased rain and massive rainstorms that never end.

Cornelia Franz’s novel is simultaneously a tale of humanly caused change to the world and a story of the need to accept personal guilt for a single act of violence. / Courtesy of DTV Publishing
Cornelia Franz’s novel is simultaneously a tale of humanly caused change to the world and a story of the need to accept personal guilt for a single act of violence. / Courtesy of DTV Publishing

These stories of daily ecological struggles, bad weather, and impending change lay the groundwork for the more recent texts that grapple directly with climate change. As two final examples, I mention Ilija Trojanow’s well-known 2011 climate-change (or “cli fi”) novel, Zeno’s Lamentations (Eng. 2016; reviewed in the September 2016 issue of World Literature Today); and Cornelia Franz’s 2015 climate-change novel Ins Nordlicht blicken (Looking into the northern lights). Both Trojanow and Franz humanize the melting of ice and the general impact of climate change on individual lives. For Trojanow, the life affected is that of Zeno Hintermeier, glaciologist from the Alps who lost all hope—and his marriage and university position—when his own glacier, beloved object of study for his entire career, melted away entirely (the novel’s title, EisTau, literally translates as “Melting Ice”). He finally resorts to traveling through the Antarctic on cruise ships as the ice expert lecturing to rich tourists about the beauty of ice and snow, to no avail. In a complex narrative with three narrative strands weaving the early life of Zeno with his final season in the Antarctic and his final sea voyage leading to his death, Trojanow ends with despair. Zeno pirates away the cruise ship, leaving all the tourists on the ice while he sails off to the middle of the sea and dives into the water in a final suicidal gesture that finally connects him to the icy waters he loves. Zeno is neither particularly sympathetic, nor does he convince his cruise-ship tourists to understand climate change. Whether the novel itself, on the other hand, succeeds, is another question: Trojanow brought climate change into numerous literary, cultural, and media discussions. This result is certainly noteworthy but perhaps less indicative of a widespread influence on German culture since most Germans, including business groups and politicians, accept climate change as a fact and are seeking to act accordingly. 

As a final example, Cornelia Franz’s novel about the warming of Greenland is simultaneously a tale of humanly caused change to the world and a story of the need to accept personal guilt for a single act of violence. Pakkutaq Wildhausen, a young man with German and Greenlandic heritage, slowly comes to terms and accepts his responsibility for the murder of a Philippine ship worker in his youth. We read his story with two timelines, one in the past (2011) that tracks his teenage journey away from Greenland back to Germany where he had lived as a young boy, and the other trip in the opposite direction, as he travels back to Greenland in the “present time” (2025) after establishing himself as a sculptor in Germany. Both of these tales finally lead us to the truth: Pakku had killed a man in that first 2011 journey so as to avoid discovery when he snuck aboard the ship MS Alaska to escape his life on the island. In 2025 he returns to Greenland to find his father (who has since died), and accepts the massive changes that have brought warmth and bees to the previously icy land. The fact that the entire novel is about both climate change and an individual coming to terms with guilt—exposed only at the very end of the novel when the two stories meet—suggests that Franz links climate change itself to a cultural problem of needing to face our own complicit choices and “guilt.” Pakku provides a positive model in this issue: he turns himself in to the police, pays a fine, and accepts the guilt, thereby finding a new connection to Greenland, its fate, and its connection to his world. 

* * *

This sampling of recent German-language novels, short tales, and poems addressing climate change, nuclear catastrophes, and altered landscapes evokes a world in change. There are many other texts exploring environmental themes such as the 2011 Fukushima disaster, pollution and health issues, and the death of forests (Waldsterben), but the works I consider here provide insight into three typical strategies for grappling with our current ecological developments. The first strategy seeks a voice “for” or “of” nature characterized by various visions of nature fighting back. The second plays with the typical fascination with catastrophes by documenting and reflecting on actual events, predicting future disasters, and/or by distracting readers and audiences with outlandish spectacles. The third strategy faces the challenge of portraying the “slow violence” of gradual yet ultimately devastating changes to weather, climate, land, water, and bodies through time that garner much less attention. By attending to these three kinds of stories, we experience an array of ideas emerging from the Age of the Anthropocene when human impact on the earth’s ecosystems has become global and inescapable. Living in the Anthropocene paradoxically means that we, on one hand, understand through science and cultural knowledge that we are fully part of (and influenced by—not above or outside of) natural flows of water, air, and energy, and yet, on the other hand, that we are now simultaneously altering these systems on a massive scale. Narrating life in this “new” world that we are inadvertently shaping is a task for authors, artists, politicians, scientists, and each one of us. 

Trinity University

Heather I. Sullivan is professor of German and comparative literature at Trinity University. She is co-editor of German Ecocriticism in the Anthropocene (2017); The Early History of Embodied Cognition from 1740–1920 (2016); and of special journal issues on ecocriticism in New German Critique (2016), Colloquia Germanica (2014), and ISLE (2012).