n° 5 novembre 2014 : La géographie de l'époque napoléonienne:

Forests against France. An important impetus for German forest plantations in the 19th century

Hansjörg Küster

Abstract: The French model of treating woodlands propagated by Colbert and others was only adopted in some parts of Germany. This concept, often applied in France up to the present day, includes the management of coppices with standards. This means that some large trees were protected for a long time to receive timber for constructing houses. In Germany, many foresters were convinced that conifers should be planted. In the early 19th century large parts of Germany were subdued by Napoleon and his troops. In this period, the idea was proposed to plant large woodlands along the French border. It was assumed that the French as speaking a Romance language could have the same problems as the Romans to act against Germans inside dense woodlands.

Key words: conifer forests, forest management, Caspar David Friedrich, battle of Leipzig



Woodlands are differently managed in France and Germany, so that it is very hard to compare them: In France, coppices with standards are very common, whereas in Germany many dense conifer forests were planted. This leads to differences in landscape character, and it is hardly possible to compare French and German woodlands from an economic point of view. There were many ideas in Germany, why forests were planted. These ideas are discussed in this paper. Some ideas were connected with economic deliberations, others were culturally determined: One reason to plant forests in Germany was to protect the land against French aggressors.

I. Exploitation or over-exploitation of German forests

Germans normally regard the Roman Tacitus (56-117 AD) as the first who wrote an essay about „their country”: the „Germania“. Tacitus described the life of Germanic tribes, their economy and their environment. He mentioned large woodlands and bogs. These were exotic elements of an environment for Romans, as large bogs did not exist in the Mediterranean area, and many woods were already cleared for timber production in the Antique era.

There were many conflicts between Romans and Germanic tribes. It was sometimes assumed that the Romans failed with acting in the vast Germanic woodland, because they were not able to operate in dense woods. This cannot be true, but it was certainly difficult for the Romans to build up an infrastructure in Central Europe without a river net which could be used as a transport network. West of the Rhine such a network could be established, as it was possible to build up connections between the river systems as e.g. between Rhone and Rhine or between Mosel and Seine. Building up an infrastructure was much more complicate east of the Rhine, and, indeed, Romans failed to connect rivers like the Rhine, Weser and Elbe by overland roads crossing the “vast woods” as mentioned by Tacitus.

During the Middle Ages, when civilization expanded into many parts of Europe large parts of woodlands were destroyed in the same way as in Mediterranean countries before, from the period of classical Antiquity onwards. The demand of wood and timber was enormous inside each civilization: Wood was the only available fuel, and timber was the major house building material. There are several attempts to illustrate this by statistics and maps. But this is always misleading. Exact statistics about the demand of timber and firewood are not available. Exact information is also not available from maps, as ancient woodlands differed a lot from modern woodlands. This becomes evident from the fact that ancient woodlands were normally grazed by livestock, whereas modern woodlands are not. Therefore modern woodlands are much denser than ancient ones and cannot be compared with ancient woodlands.

In the 17th and 18th centuries it became more and more evident that it was necessary to protect woodlands against over-exploitation. Authorities formulated rules in order to protect woodlands, and citizens were encouraged to plant trees. The most well-known publication in this respect was published in the beginning of the 18th century: In 1713, exactly 300 years ago, Hannß Carl von Carlowitz published his epoch-making work “Sylvicultura oeconomica” in which he formulated the principle of sustainability in forestry: It should only be allowed to remove at maximum that amount of wood and timber from a piece of woodland which was growing on the very place during the same time period (Carlowitz 1713). Carlowitz is often regarded as the “first forester” in Germany, but he had another profession: He was “Oberberghauptmann” and had to care for all mining activities in Saxony including the Erzgebirge. “Erzgebirge” means “Ore Mountains”; this hilly area was one of the most important mining areas of the world during some phases of the middle Ages. In the 18th century, it was not a problem to find enough ores but rather to get enough wood for the smelting furnaces. And therefore Carlowitz had to care for the future of woodlands. In his book, he mentioned just at the beginning, that Tacitus described the vast Germanic woodlands; he wanted to convince his readers that such woodlands should be planted again. There were experiences in Germany in woodland plantations since the Middle Ages; in 1368, Peter Stromer possibly was the first entrepreneur who propagated pine seedlings in the Nürnberger Reichswald (Küster 2008). Writing about the protection of woodlands Carlowitz had exclusively economic goals. To have enough wood was enormously important for mining as well as for timber trade on rivers, which was very important along the rivers Rhine, Neckar, Main, Weser, Elbe and their tributaries: Timber was cut in German woodlands and sold in areas where timber was short, such as in the Netherlands. This was one of the most important sources of money for many German dukes; during the 18th century large castles were built with the money which was earned by timber trade, such as in Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg, Karlsruhe and Mannheim (Küster 2008).

Carlowitz was not the only writer who wrote about protection of woodlands during his era, but he became famous for that. After his book had been published a lot of activities were started to protect woodlands or to plant new forests inside Germany. Foresters were trained in forestry schools. Textbooks were published in which the public was trained how to protect and how to manage woodlands. Foresters became very important officers inside states or other authorities.

II. Forests as “German landscapes”

The French model of treating woodlands propagated by Colbert and others was only adopted in some parts of Germany. This concept, often applied in France up to the present day, includes the management of coppices with standards. This means that some large trees were protected for a long time to receive timber for constructing houses. In their vicinity small trees and bushes were regularly cut to receive firewood. Managing a coppice with standard (“Mittelwald” in German) was only possible with broad-leaved trees such as oak and hornbeam. Inside Germany, coppices with standards according to French examples were managed e.g. inside the dioceses Mainz and Würzburg, and there they still can be seen today. In consequence of different forestry practice it is not possible to compare French and German woodlands. Their characters are totally different as well as the productions of wood and timber.

In Germany, many foresters were convinced that conifers should be planted. Pine and spruce are fast-growing trees, they grew even on over-exploited stands, and their timber has a low specific weight so that the trunks could be easily transported on water. This was not easily possible with trunks of broad-leaved trees; their timber has a higher specific weight so that they sink during rafting. Therefore air-filled barrels had to be included into a raft of oak trunks to avoid sinking. This was not necessary when rafts from conifer trunks were constructed. In total, conifer planting promised higher profit.

In the early 19th century large parts of Germany were subdued by Napoleon and his troops. Napoleon was first adored for his revolutionary ideas against monarchies, but later on more and more regarded as an aggressor who prevented Germans to think of forming a new German state. In this period, the idea was proposed to plant large woodlands along the French border. It was assumed that the French as speaking a Romance language could have the same problems as the Romans to act against Germans inside dense woodlands (e.g. Weyergraf 1987).

After the „Völkerschlacht bei Leipzig“ (battle of the nations) in 1813, in which Russians, Swedes, Germans and Austrians succeeded to beat the French troops the German painter Caspar David Friedrich designed his famous tableau “Der Chasseur im Walde” (the chasseur in the wood) (fig. 1). On this picture a beaten French soldier gets lost inside a German forest. He is walking, but it should be noted that normally a chasseur is riding on horseback; his horse is absent. The environment, covered by a thin snow cover, is desolate which is also stressed by the darkness inside the wood. These facts are normally recognized by art historians, but it is also very important to stress that exclusively spruce trees of the same age are visible on the picture. This means that contemporaneous people looking at this picture probably understood what was depicted on this picture: Trees were planted, perhaps to keep French soldiers outside Germany. The plan of planting trees against the French sounds ridiculous today, but the message of Friedrich’s tableau was clearly understood by contemporaneous people.

Figure 1 Caspar David Friedrich: Der Chasseur im Walde, 1814

During the Vienna congress, in which Europe was designed in a new way after the era of Napoleon, many Germans wanted to form a new national state. This was not possible because it was not clear who should be the leader inside such a nation, the Habsburg Austrians or the Prussians. After this, the Germans could only concentrate on the aim of developing “German nature” rather than a new German state. It was clear to a broad public that the “German nature” was woodland, as dense woods protected Germans against Romans and other Romance languages speaking people such as the French. Up to the present day, many Germans are convinced that woodlands do not exist in France, and they think that the French do not understand to live in and to manage forests. This idea is influenced by passing through the fertile areas in northern France. Large woodlands as in the Landes and in Burgundy are not known by many Germans.

Not only for economic, but also for cultural reasons it was widely accepted by the German public that it was necessary to propagate woodlands during land reforms in the 19th century. The rural landscape was designed in a new way. Important principles of the German land reforms were e.g. the separation of woodland and grazing areas as well as connecting acres to form larger fields (so-called “Koppeln”). The separation of forests and grazing areas led to an intensification of cattle- and horse-breeding on the one hand, and to the protection of forests on the other hand. Trees could develop without damage by livestock which had been frequently the case in grazed woodlands which had existed before.

German forests were not only material objects but also connected with ideas. This becomes clear in Grimm’s Fairy Tales which were first published in 1812. These stories have very important roots in France as is widely acknowledged, but the woodlands mentioned there with all their wild beasts such as wolves and bears are associated with Germans and German culture commonly all over the world. Germans do not know that their thinking about woodlands as the environment of Grimm’s fairy tales might be different from that of other peoples. This can be demonstrated by a story which is told inside my family. My grandfather, who was a bookseller, was asked by a British officer after the Second World War which books he would recommend to build up cultural awareness in Germany again. My grandfather mentioned Grimm’s fairy tales as the most important book which could help in this case. But the British officer did not agree: “Oh no, that’s too much wood.” My grandfather did not understand this answer, and indeed, it is very hard to understand which cultural meaning woodland could and can have inside different communities such as the British, the French and the Germans.

III. The progress of forestry in modern Germany

Since the beginning of the 19th century the proportion of woodlands inside Germany was enormously enlarged. Again, it would be misleading to present statistics or maps to demonstrate this, as woodlands of the 19th century had another character than woodlands of the present day. Many areas which were fields or grazing areas before are forests today. This becomes evident not only by comparing maps and pictures, but also by detecting remnants of plough ridges on the land surfaces below planted trees. Remnants of Medieval fields can be detected in very many German forests (fig. 2). Up to the present day it is often feared that the stock of wood inside Germany could drop. It was and is suspected that an over-exploitation of forests during the Nazi regime could have pushed back forests, as well as clearances during the French occupation after the two World Wars. But such activities which certainly took place did not have a marked effect on the overall developments according to the statistics: The stocks of wood were always growing inside Germany. This can be illustrated by an example from Baden in southwest Germany. From 1862 to 1965, the stock of wood was increasing by 52 percent per hectare in the state forests and even by 87 percent per hectare in the corporate woodlands which belong to the municipalities (Weidenbach 2001). This difference is not necessarily evident from maps as the woodlands of 1865 and of 1965 are indicated in the same way on contemporaneous maps, instead of the fact that the characters of the woodlands of the 19th and the 20th centuries were different. This difference is not indicated on a map. Therefore it is not helpful to compare historic and present maps directly.

Fig. 2 Forest on former farmland

It must be understood from a cultural viewpoint why the phenomenon “Waldsterben” had a very strong impact on public opinion in Germany. In the beginning of the 1980s it was assumed that trees suffered from acid rain so seriously that German woodlands could be destroyed (fig. 3). Pollution contributed to the formation of acid rain and therefore also to the “Waldsterben”, but it was by far not the only reason for the bad state of woodlands. In many cases it could be seen that especially spruce plantations had negative effects on the environment: Especially old spruce trees were infected by fungi which were distributed by bark beetles. They prefer thick and old trees. The larger spruce trees grow up, the more both stems and roots are moved by the wind, so that the contacts between roots and the soils become less intensive. Therefore these trees are not able to uptake enough water and mineral nutrients, so that they are endangered to “die”. Others were destroyed by storms. But it was also measured that the rain became more and more acid by pollution. Because they wanted to protect woodlands, Germans were strongly convinced to buy filters for their cars and furnaces; the Green Party started to become powerful in German parliaments, and special Ministries for Environment were founded. Standards of politics and standards of industry were changed after a lot of debates about environmental problems which also influenced other countries where the “Waldsterben” was not a major topic of the agenda. By the discussions about acid rain and the “Waldsterben” it can be demonstrated that the protection of woodlands is still one of the major topics in the German society. It becomes very clear that woodlands are not only an economic topic or can only be understood as an object of natural sciences. Cultural implications which are connected with woodlands are most important. It must be acknowledged that parts of the landscape such as woodlands or coasts or rocks are not only elements of a natural environment but are mainly understood as cultural elements in the broad public. Dependent from education the meanings of environmental elements can differ a lot. “Woodland” and “forest” are not only statistic terms which can be objects of calculations or names of ecosystems. It is much more important to know something on their cultural meaning in different countries.

Fig. 3 Spruce affected by acid rain, and even more by bark beetle


Carlowitz, H.C. von,, 1713, Sylvicultura oeconomica. Leipzig.

Küster, H., 2008, Geschichte des Waldes. Von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart. 3rd edition, München.

Weidenbach, P., 2001, Waldbauliche Ziele Im Wandel. Wirtschaftliche, soziale und kulturelle Rahmenbedingungen der Waldentwicklung seit 1800. Der Bürger im Staat 51(1), 30-38.

Weyergraf, B., 1987, Deutsche Wälder. In: B. Weyergraf, Waldungen. Die Deutschen und ihr Wald. Berlin, 6-12.


Figure captions

Fig. 2: Planted forest on former farmland: On this site open land existed up to the 19th century. A spruce forest was planted afterwards, but the acres from earlier farming are still visible below the trees.

Fig. 3: Spruce affected by acid rain, but even more by bark beetle.


Photos: H. Küster.


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