The Countryside as Destruction, Nostalgia and Re-invention

The Countryside as Destruction, Nostalgia and Re-invention: The German Case

By Peter Lang


Clues to understanding the importance of the German countryside in relation to German society are not difficult to find, but often are overlooked, given the monumental cultural role of German cities like Berlin, Cologne or Munich. Yet there is a rich legacy that is deeply linked to the countryside: the 19th century German Romantic landscape painting movement, the emergence of the Swiss-German lebensreform (life-reform) movement, the German New Wave cinema, the Post-war Dusseldorf school of photography, to give just a few historic examples. Then there is the more recent revival of industrial landscapes brought to life through the combination of industrial archaeology and recreation.

The German countryside is an uber subject, a very complex and multi-layered landscape with many deep roots. In much of my own work, however, I focus on divisions, borders, green lines, post-conflict zones, geographical ruptures, enclaves and islands. For me, this split perspective works with Germany’s historic post-war geopolitical divide, between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West—the FRG, and the German Democratic Republic in the East—the DDR.

I consider the Cold War era when two Germanies lived side by side as establishing a sort of dialectical map with a unified past and a re-unified present. In substance, German re-unification, as difficult as this societal project has been to achieve, brought about a greater European Germany. For the moment, the objective of this discussion is to chart, from a cultural perspective, some of the more significant transformations that have shaped the way German society today identifies with the “unfolding” countryside.


My colleague, who grew up in Munich, wanted us to detour to Spreewald, just an hour south of Berlin, a popular Eastern vacation retreat known for its extensive water canals, black alder forests and the Spreewald pickles, a regional delicacy. She remembered her grandparents’ photos of vacations spent in this Venice of the north, most likely taken before the war.

FRG Deutschmarks had become the single German currency. But it wasn’t the novelty of the money that caught my attention, but instead the billboard advertising for cigarettes.  I was shocked to see that the most prominent billboards along our route were selling the relatively expensive cigarette brand “West,” which was running a campaign entitled “Test the West.” The blunt slogan, in English, was meant to sound like a teaser, a cynical invitation to leave everything behind and the better life the West had to offer.

1987 Ad Campaign Test the West, Scholz & Friends (copyright requested)

When I visited Berlin in early July of 1990, the political unification of the two Germanies was still underway. With my (West) German colleague from New York University, we decided to make a road trip through the dissolving East Germany, to drive down to Dresden and then on to Weimar. We took off on our trip not long after the West German government concluded its first important step towards the merging of the two Germanies, by implementing the monetary union.

My colleague, who grew up in Munich, wanted us to detour to Spreewald, just an hour south of Berlin, a popular Eastern vacation retreat known for its extensive water canals, black alder forests and the Spreewald pickles, a regional delicacy. She remembered her grandparents’ photos of vacations spent in this Venice of the north, most likely taken before the war.

Deutschmarks had become the single German currency. But it wasn’t the novelty of the money that caught my attention, but instead the billboard advertising for cigarettes.  I was shocked to see that the most prominent billboards along our route were selling the relatively expensive cigarette brand “West,” which was running a campaign entitled “Test the West.” The blunt slogan, in English, was meant to sound like a teaser, a cynical invitation to leave everything behind for the better life the West had to offer.

The great art historian, writer and situationist T. J. Clark made a similar trip through the former East Germany some two years later, but the disconnect was still evident. He succinctly remarked that the West cigarette advertising campaign represented “Capitalism staking out its territory.” (T.J. Clark, lecture, Philadelphia, 13/10/2014). Despite the clear political gains for those who had lived under the DDR regime, from the Western perspective, they were not so much new citizens as they were new consumers.

Berlin, Grenzübergang Bornholmer Strasse, Hans Peter Lochman, 10 November 1989. Wikimedia Commons

I wasn’t expecting this trip to be a typical holiday excursion. My parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors from Hungary. Most of our relatives lost their lives in German run concentration camps following mass deportations from Hungary very late in the war. I also experienced firsthand what life was like under the communist rule- I was a frequent traveler to many of these countries while they were under Soviet domination. Just the summer before I spent time in Budapest, and found the city overflowing with East Germans. The first breech in the iron curtain would take place in Sopron along the Hungarian-Austrian border on August 19, 1989, when a pan-European picnic effectively opened the border fences to many of these same Germans.

Biking around the country roads, it was hard to imagine that time hadn’t stopped in Spreewald. In the mid-nineteenth century, the region became a popular site for visitors coming from Berlin, and landscape painters celebrated its idyllic vistas.  Spreewald had its peculiarities, the local inhabitants were of Slavic origin, referred to as Sorbs, they historically enjoyed a degree of autonomy.  When we visited in mid-July of 1990 the picturesque forests, neatly cultivated farmlands and meandering canals did indeed seem timeless.

BEDM7J Historic photograph, boat trip in the Spreewald Forest

The Spreewald after the war served as a destination spot for an Eastern population whose travel options were heavily restricted. The picturesque countryside and tranquil canals were put to use like a vacation internment camp. But it would have taken some time and effort to return this region back to idyllic nature: the Spreewald during the war became a fierce terrain for combat during the Soviet siege of Berlin in April of 1945.  A series of major battles were fought in and around Halbe. This region became one of the largest wartime burial grounds in Germany.

Yet the picturesque landscape came back, bridges were rebuilt, canals repaired and cucumbers pickled–“same as it ever was,” to use a poignant line from the Talking Heads ( Once in a Lifetime, 2005).  In a relatively quick manoeuvre UNESCO recognized the Spreewald as a biosphere reserve in 1991. The celebrated recreational character of this region would also inspire the creation of one of the largest indoor theme parks in Europe, “Tropical Islands Resort,” inaugurated in 2004. Housed at the time in the largest hangar structure in the world on the grounds of a former Luftwaffe airfield, Tropical Islands represents a futuristic climate-controlled form of mass entertainment.

This trip beginning in the Spreewald region back in 1990 would have a formative impact on my understanding of the German countryside. It was here that I observed firsthand how history, current events and landscape could converge into something much larger than any singular experience.


A good counterexample to the Spreewald, set in what once was West German State, is the Neanderthal Valley.  The Neanderthal Valley is practically in Dusseldorf’s backyard, where the Dusseldorf Art Academy has its home, as well the setting for the early 19th century Dusseldorf School of painting. The Valley gains both its name and notoriety from the earliest discovery of the Neanderthal man, whose ancient skeletal remains were found in a cave inside a limestone quarry in 1856. The best depictions from the time of the original site, representing the beauty of the valley, waterfalls and cliffs were captured by the Dusseldorf school painters. The famed cave and surrounding landscape literally disappeared over the next 150 years—but there is more than sufficient visual material remaining to get a good idea of what the landscape would have looked like.

E4RNKB prehistory, cave, entrance of the Little Feldhof Grotto, Neandertal, Germany, wood engraving after drawing, 2nd half 19th century, Neanderthal, North Rhine-Westphalia, Additional-Rights-Clearences-NA. Image shot 1850. Exact date unknown.

Homo Neanderthal lived between 600,000 and 300,00 years ago, and died out about 30,000 years ago. For quite some time this stock of ancient people was stigmatised for being less than human, but recent science now sees this population as hearty, competitive and intelligent. The Neanderthals were probably a lot like their Homo Sapiens counterparts, looking after each other, producing tools, developing a spoken language, burying their dead, keeping a tidy home, they cooked vegetables and applied medicinal plants. They took care of their injured, and possibly played musical instruments. Our knowledge of the Neanderthal man seems to be mixed between as much fact as myth, but we attribute to this seemingly extinct humanoid species a portion of the Eurasian gene pool.

Around the turn of the 19th century the burgeoning school of painting emerging at the Dusseldorf Art Akademie looked to the Neanderthal valley for inspiration. The artists, above all Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and his mentor Carl Friedrich Lessing, succeeded in leaving some lasting pictorial testimonials.

“The gorge, today destroyed, with its roaring stream Düssel, the steeply sloping rocks and the lush vegetation deeply impressed the painters. Apart from a few travel reports, their drawings and paintings are the only testimonies to the former Neanderthal ( ).” The whole characteristic valley and underground caverns were subsequently wiped clean by the 19th century mining industry. The kind of artists that thrived in this milieu were basically painting these subjects into obsolescence. In other words, these artists were expressing their nostalgia for the panoramas that stood before them but that were nonetheless in the process of vanishing before their eyes.

PJMC2C Neanderthal with the Neanderthal prehistoric man, in the background the Neander Valley, Hochdahl, Erkrath, Lower Rhine, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Yet the loss of these landscapes seems to have only cemented their symbolic value. The deep attraction to these landscapes in West Germany would play a major role in the shaping of a younger generation of artists, filmmakers, photographers, who were seeking to leave the war devasted and rubble strewn cities for more unfamiliar frontiers. These countryside landscapes would become the amazing backdrops for cinematic contemplation adapted by the pioneers of the German New Wave cinema.

Of the three leading New Wave directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Wim Wenders’ gaze on the German countryside left the most stirring impressions. Between 1974 and 1976, Wenders conceived his Road Trilogy. He directed “Alice in the Cities,” “The Wrong Move,” and “Kings of the Road.” The first was set in the United States, and captures the unexpurgated experience of travelling across the U.S.. This became, in an entirely German context, the premise for “The Wrong Move,” a film about an aspiring writer who leaves his hometown in the north and gathers around him travel companions on a trip without any clear destination. The main scenes were staged around the Elbe River, inspired in part by the great landscape artist Caspar David Friedrich. (  )

Wim Wenders, Falsche Bewegung, Rüdiger Vogler and Hanna Schygulla in Wrong Move
(West Germany 1975) by Wim Wenders
© Wim Wenders Stiftung 2015

In Wim Wenders stream-of-conscious meandering the “Kings of the Road,” a three-hour ode to the life of wanderlust, the Rhine makes its entrance into the narrative, as do so many other bleak landscapes and destitute country towns. Infused with American and English pop music, the kind you could hear on the airwaves broadcast from the American military bases stationed in Germany, these films abandoned the earlier tropes of urban angst and alienation and literally ran free and wild through the countryside. “Kings of the Road” is an abject performance in aimlessness and spontaneity. The movie itself was mostly filmed unscripted.

But I consider the scenarios for this kind of road adventure already in place. The German countryside was not made of all-natural landscapes, but a hodgepodge of terrains, including riverscapes, mountain valleys, country roads and desolate towns, and the ever-present traces and scars of industrialization, commercialization and a sprawling modern infrastructure.

Cinema aside, the all-important contributor to Germany’s visual culture remains the Dusseldorf Art Akademie, whose role as a sort of imaginative divining rod continues focusing on the city’s backyard and beyond to produce some startlingly original and hauntingly fated reflections on the local landscape. By the late 1950s the Dusseldorf Akademie spawned this time an original school of photography, led by the brilliant couple Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher. You can easily draw straight line from the Becher’s photographs to the burgeoning interest in industrial archaeology, a sort of after-product of the couple’s obsessive documentation of factory water towers, hoists, cranes, and other industrial artefacts that contributed to their impressive reputation.


The Dusseldorf Akademie would also become the home for a significant conceptual art movement led by Joseph Beuys, Fluxus member, and jack-of-all trades artist, perhaps one of the most important international artists of the post-war era. At the Akademie, Beuys was an influential teacher with slyly shamanistic powers. Joseph Beuys’ long fascination with nature influenced a generation of students who would go with him into the surrounding countryside on his many artistic explorations.

The culture that emerges from this broad swath of countryside nestled between the Rhine and Ruhr valleys is a curious one indeed. As modern industry, infrastructure and communications networks grow exponentially, so does the number of structures no longer efficient or practical that become abandoned or stagnant. This region begins to accumulate immense deposits of industrial ruins. Gaining momentum in the fifties and early sixties a growing number of young artists, photographers and filmmakers go into these regions on the prowl, searching for a new Germany, to escape the nation’s dark past.

Zollverein, Essen, Peter Lang Photo Archive 2003
Zollverein, Essen, Peter Lang Photo Archive 2003
Duisburg-Nord Landschaftspark. Peter Lang Photo Archive 2003
Duisburg-Nord Landschaftspark. Peter Lang Photo Archive 2003

And then of course there is the ultimate manifestation of this industrialization turned archaeology, with the original celebration of the Homo Neanderthal himself, or herself, with their own dedicated museum building that is designed to probe deeper into our human origins and into who we really are. Industry is a force of destruction, but in the debris that follows lies the bare and existential reasons for our existence.

DD8MK5 The Neandertal Museum, which is located between Mettmann and Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia. Picture from 23 August 2013.

These two scenarios, the Spreewald region and the Neanderthal Valley, are, as we have seen, defining examples helping us to better understand the post-war evolution of the German landscape. Looming on the horizon in the coming chapter of this exegesis, is the epic geo-political transformation following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. This aftershock will boldly rearrange the relationship between the city and countryside throughout the newly unified Germany.

For now some basic questions persist. How best to distinguish these pre-modern and modernizing forces, and subsequently how best to make sense of this relationship between the historic countryside and its radical transformation. One of the conclusions so far is the evident perception that the sense of nostalgia arrives well before the disappearance of a memorable landscape or landmark.

But it is already possible to speculate about the difference between Spreewald region and the Neandertal Valley. The Spreewald region’s watery and bucolic legacy as a successful 19th century recreation park continues into our times. The logical step was to move indoors: the Tropical Islands Resort is only another iteration of Spreewald’s lush wetland environment albeit entirely enclosed within a mechanically controlled interior. It could be argued that the DNA of the Spreewald countryside exists in a time warp, where it remains forever a paradisiacal playground for visitors and vacationers. Not surprisingly, there are similarities between these resorts where time stands still and memorial resting places, also heavily present in this same landscape, where time is also eternally suspended.

The Neanderthal Valley, on the other hand, was a sort of natural landscape much admired by Dusseldorf Akademie painters that would subsequently disappear through the machinations of a constantly expanding mining industry. Nonetheless this perpetual notion of disappearing landscapes and panoramas somehow guarantees these environment’s vitality. The Neanderthal valley from this perspective, has its DNA make-up configured from wild and unnatural landscapes. In an unexpected twist, what evolves through entropic forces is far more a transformative experience than that which stagnates in a forever wonderland of permanent vacation. Hence the reason why the Neanderthal valley never quite goes away, at least for the artistic imagination.

This is a quandary Alois Reigl author of the Cult of the Modern Monuments, knew very well. Reigl drew the line between restoration and conservation favoring the later: the landscape of Spreewald is a land restored, the Neandertal Valley is a land permitted to continue as ruins.


This essay is part of the Hinterlands+. A program designed by LABLAB and funded by Goethe-Institut Schweden.