What to Read: New Book on the Bavarian Forest National Park

This is the first of our reviews of new publications related to our project interests. To read about our own project publications, please see the Publications page on this website.

The Bavarian Ur-Wald: History, Politics & Nature in the Bavarian Forest National Park

by Graham Huggan

Urwald der Bayern: Geschichte, Politik und Natur im Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald. Ed. Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020

The appearance of this comprehensive volume commemorating 50 years since the establishment of the Bavarian Forest National Park (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald) in 1970 is serendipitous. The essays contained within it offer some illuminating perspectives that will be highly relevant to our project as it moves forward over the next couple of years. As might be expected, the overall tone of the volume is celebratory, and the park, which is now visited by well over a million people every year, is largely seen as a resounding success in both economic and ecological terms. At the same time, the individual essays, as well as Marco Heurich and Christof Mauch’s excellent introduction, point to the contemporary as well as historical challenges involved in managing the park – a contested space which has been assembled around deeply contested terms. For one, in spite of the Urwald of the title, the Bavarian Forest is not technically speaking ‘primeval forest’; nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘wilderness’ (Wildnis), although both of these terms continue to play an important role in how the park is seen and acted upon, as a popular symbol of the regenerative properties of the wild.   

The essays also make clear that the park has been a political project, and that politics has a continuing role to play in confronting such challenges as mass tourism, invasive species, and accelerated climate change. Key political as well as ecological questions raised here include whether nature is best left alone or adapted to human needs and interests; whether large national parks such as the Bavarian Forest should be managed according to conservationist or preservationist impulses; and what is meant – and to whom – by the multifaceted and, in some respects, historically troubled term ‘national park’.

Another issue concerns the implications that the national park has for particular (nonhuman) species – both those in need of protection and those seen as threatening the biodiversity of the park. A case in point here is the popular motto ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ (‘let nature be nature’) adopted by the Bavarian Forest’s first director, Hans Bibelriether, whose retrospective closes the volume. The motto, since extended to Germany’s other national parks, has been used to justify a policy of non-intervention. Its best-known instances revolve around the spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) that has alternately been seen in the Bavarian Forest, but also other national parks affected by it, as a valuable ‘natural disturbance’ agent and as a vicious pest. The romantic echoes of ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ are in potential conflict with the day-to-day demands of park management; they also highlight popular public perceptions of what a protected area ‘should look like’. As Thomas Michler and Erik Aschenbrand’s essay here convincingly shows, preservationist slogans such as ‘Natur Natur sein lassen’ have the kind of mass appeal that can have valuable knock-on effects for conservation. However, they also have the potential to create or consolidate romanticized misunderstandings, even systematic erasures such as the rounding up and eviction of Indigenous peoples to make way for some of the US’s most celebrated national parks.

That such conditions tend not to apply in Europe is no reason not to remain vigilant. It also reminds us, as Bernhard Gissibl mentions in his essay, that national parks are effectively transnational or even global entities, and that their histories, however much they may reflect particular national interests, repeatedly collide and intersect. While the entire volume is of relevance to our own project, special mention should be made here of an informative chapter by a member of our own research team, Pavla Šimková, on the fraught political history of park management on the park’s ‘Czech side’, the adjoining Šumava national park, and what the effects of these historical legacies are for current transboundary management practices. An equally wide-ranging chapter by Martin Müller and Nadja Imhof explores the symbolic as well as material importance of altered landscapes where not-always-wished-for transformations, such as those engineered by the bark beetle, have been produced by natural means.

The slightly opaque term ‘natural means’ is itself open to question, and one of the many valuable insights of this volume is that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, whose meanings have in any case never been stable, are inextricably entwined. The contributors and editors have produced a book which, in addition to being readable in its own terms, also raises many of the questions that our own project asks. I suspect that, as does this book, our project will leave many of those questions unanswered; but perhaps that’s only fitting for the inherently but also productively contestable status of its primary research locations: national parks.

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