Rolf-Peter Sieferle: It’s the ecology, stupid!

It is twenty years since The White Horse Press published Sieferle’s important work The Subterranean Forest. In this short opinion piece Michael Karl reflects on the life of this eminent, but controversial, historian.

The Subterranean Forest by Rolf Peter Sieferle is a seminal text in environmental history

One need not work as a historian by profession to be aware of the time passing – tempus fugit. Old folk (like myself) can easily remember a political slogan that won the candidate a major election in the early 1990s: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ Another pretender to the throne was successful with the optimistic slogan ‘Yes, we can!’, as even young folk can recollect in our present time. And just recently we witnessed, didn’t we, two hair-raising occurrences that bear the potential of changing the course of history: The Fridays for Future movement and the coronavirus pandemic, which in Germany may lead not only to a possible chancellery of yet another woman, but a fairly young and relatively inexperienced politician (Annalena Baerbock). When Rolf Peter Sieferle (1949–2016) was coming of age, it was in a totally different world – of Cold War, of a divided Germany and a globus split in two halves with – in Germany and France at least – combat-like disagreements among two generations – the war-participant fathers and the postwar sons and baby-boomers. 

Sieferle shared the intellectual curiosity of (t)his generation and became Professor of History at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland – rather late in the course of his career, publishing from 1984 to 1997 several books – on Enemies of Progress (Fortschrittsfeinde, 1984), Ecosystem and Population Growth (1990), The Conservative Revolution (1995) and Looking back at Nature (Rückblick auf die Natur, 1997). The White Horse Press published an English translation of Sieferle’s 1982 book The Subterranean Forest (C.H. Beck, Munich) in 2001. A reviewer remarked: ‘If anyone is still wondering what environmental history has to offer, this is the book they should read.’ 

Sieferle and his fellow German contemporaries did not read Goethe or Fontane but immersed themselves in their younger days in the writings of Marx and Engels ‘as students … in search of an explanation for imperialism, for capitalist exploitation and for alienation.’ Sieferle earned his university degree in 1977 with a Ph.D. Thesis on Marx – ‘Die Revolution in der Theorie von Karl Marx’ and as late as 2006 he returned to the subject with a introductory book Karl Marx zur Einführung (Junius Verlag, Hamburg). 

In 2001 Sieferle reviewed a book by John Bellamy Foster entitled Marx’s Ecology. Materialism and Nature, taking the opportunity to reassess his own intellectual growth since his doctoral thesis some 25 years before: ‘When environmental issues claimed public concern from the late 1960s the Marxist tradition provided no help at all … Marxists were not more but even less ready to deal with ecological problems than other people. Marx’s dialectical naturalism (!) was of no use … His critique of political economy played no role for ecological economists who tried to incorporate contemporary energetic theories which Marx and his successors had completely ignored.’ 

Sieferle retired from teaching in 2012 and did not at all share Chancellor Merkel’s optimistic, Obama-like view concerning the migration crises in 2015, when Europe and above all Germany were hit by a huge wave of refugees rarely seen before (‘Wir schaffen das!’ is the German version of ‘Yes, we can!’). He prepared the publication of two highly controversial books in the aftermath of the migration crises and was found hanging from a beam in the loft of his villa in Heidelberg in September 2016 (perhaps mainly due to a severe, life threatening illness rather than anything else). 

The two books are nonetheless documents of depression and despair. Das Migrationsproblem (2017) deals with the incompatibility of social security systems within the confinement of nation states and the mass influx of immigrants from overseas, who can rightly be entitled to stay and to claim social benefits, and the ensuing public controversies over the distinction between migration at random by (later so-called) lifestyle-migrants seeking a better future for the likes of them and those whose lives are in fact in real danger because of war, famine or terrorist acts. Sieferle compares the hapless and helpless dealing with the crises by the Merkel government with someone who heats his house full blast while at the same time opening all the windows (p.29) 

I haven’t yet seen an accomplished or well-done book on the really complicated issue of neoliberalism, but I suspect that Sieferle was on his way to writing one: ’Es sind die Globalisierungsgewinner, die im Eigeninteresse für eine multikulturelle Gesellschaft plädieren’ (p.22). One can understand though, that critics find this easy prey, and place the originator next to the devotees of conspiracy theory, which unfortunately cannot be repudiated by Sieferle ́s second ‘last book’ entitled Finis Germania (Schnellroda, 2017), consisting mainly of fragments and short essays and hinting in the same direction. 

In a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung responding to this article, I tried to defend Sieferle by arguing that his notion of the ‘end’ or the ‘abstraction’ of the German people was not primarily related to migration – the easy assumption of critics with a political agenda – but was a more profound philosophical notion of the devaluation of the individual human spirit amid the ‘advance of new technostructures’. The individual was reduced to a ‘cipher within a structure’. Sieferle dreaded – and saw occurring around him –  a ‘posthuman space’ in  which ‘nobody takes up a special space anymore, but everyone moves in environments in which the same artifacts always occur in different constellations’. Sieferle`s untimely death by his own hand in 2016 was due to severe illness (cancer that endangered his eyesight) rather than anything else, but depression and despair in the face of the massive influx of migrants and the presumed connection with the neoliberal agenda quite possibly stirred up an intolerable brew he could no longer bear.

For those who can read German, I offer below an extract from my letter to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

 ‘Auf Seite 69 von FINIS GERMANIA, einem letzten kleinen Werk des verstorbenen Historikers Rolf Peter Sieferle (1949-2016), wird die Bedeutung des Titels erklärt: „wenn die Deutschen vollständig verschwunden, d.h. zu abstrakten ́Menschen ́ geworden sind.“ Es ist also nicht in erster Linie die Zuwanderungswelle, die den sympathischen Spätbürger Sieferle quälte, sondern etwas anderes, etwas (jedenfalls sprachlich) weniger Greifbares. Dieses Andere führt (jedenfalls bei mir) dazu, dass ich Sieferles letztes kleines Buch immer wieder konsultieren und einzelne Textpassagen (gewiss nicht alle) gerne kanonisiert sehen möchte. Ich schätze also nicht so sehr den polemischen Sieferle, der von einer „intellektuellen Verschnullerung“ schrieb (S.76), sondern den blitzgescheiten Analytiker funktionaler, mithin globaler Gesetzmäßigkeiten und Zusammenhänge, in denen das spätbürgerliche Individuum zerrieben wurde. Denn genau davon handelt FINIS GERMANIA. Die Rede ist zum Bei- spiel von Strategien „der Sinnlichkeit im Namen der Jugend, der Gesundheit, der Fitness“, die „ein Glück hic et nunc“ versprechen. Aber Sieferle sieht (leider) in „dieser Aufwertung des Leibes eine Abwertung des Geistes.“(50f) Ein mens sana in corpere sano kann er nirgends mehr erkennen. Eher erkannte er im „Vordringen neuer Technostrukturen“ das Hinschwinden von „Persönlichkeit“ im alteuropäischen Verständnis. „Funktionale Kategorien rückten in breiter Front vor. Der Einzelne wurde zu einer Chiffre innerhalb eines Gefüges.“(51ff) Bei Sieferle geht es aber noch ein wenig auswegloser: „Die Strukturen der Systeme sind für die Individuen so unentrinnbar wie ein Magnetfeld für Eisenspäne.“(41) Für kanonisch, wenn auch für nicht jedem verständlich, halte ich auch, abschließend, die folgende Textpassage: „Der postanthropomorphe Raum ist aus der Perspektive des ́Menschen ́ fragmentiert und zugleich standardisiert. Individualität ist in ihm eher die Ausnahme (…). Niemand nimmt mehr einen besonderen Raum ein, sondern jeder bewegt sich in Umgebungen, in denen immer die gleichen Artefakte in unterschiedlichen Konstellationen vorkommen (…). Seine ́Erfahrungen ́ sind so beliebig und in Massen produziert wie die Waren, mit denen er sich umgibt. Er hängt in einem umfassenden Netz, dessen Zuckungen er weiterleitet.’ (S.55)

Addendum: Some Problems with Sieferle ‘s last book Migrationsprobleme

There are first of all problems of language and translation. Is it really possible to trans- late Heidegger into English? Or will a native English speaker rather think: ‘when did the first teutonic cavemen decline their grunts’? As far as I know there is (not yet) a single effort to translate Arno Schmidt’s splendid book Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas – a suicidal mission even for German-speaking readers. Pace Darwin: perhaps we don’t know whether there have been attempts, because so far all attempters have perished in the endeavour? Or consider two philosophers I met at the University of Constance who have won a considerable reputation, but – as far as I know –not a single book (of the many they have written) has been translated into English.[1] The same is more or less true of two other intellectual heroes of the Germans – Jürgen Habermas (Philosopher) and Hans-Ulrich Wehler (Historian). 

Now with Rolf Peter Sieferle (1949–2016) there is an additional problem that he is a re- presentative of economic history and he wanted to cover not only the old days but also the actual and future world of globalisation. Is that the reason why his text is so full of really complicated words like:

  • gesinnungsethischer Multikulturalismus (conviction ethical muliculturalism?) 
  • ochlokratisches ‘Prädatorentum von unten’ (ochlocratic predatorship from below?) 
  • Deutschsein heiß, an seiner Auflösung zu arbeiten (being German means working at one’s own dissolution/liquidation/termination?) 
  • technischer Fortschritt im Medium von Suchbewegungen auf Märkten (technological progress by way of searching processes in global markets?) 
  • eine nihilistisch erschöpfte Gesellschaft (a society exhausted by nihilism?) 
  • Steuerungsdysfunktionen der Ökonomie (?) 
  • Ersetzung der eigenen Nation durch einen humanitären Universalismus (subsitu-ting one’s own nation by humanitarian / human rights universalism?) 
  • Tribalisierung und Clanifizierung europäischer Gemeinden (tribalisation + clanisa- tion of European communities?) 
  • Stammeskulturen (tribal culture inclusive tattoos, piercings, prole drift + cargo cult?) 
  • Ochlokratie hat sich im Medium des Wirtschaftswachstums entfalten können (och- locracy could prosper in the wake of economic growth?) 
  • Frauen in der Öffentlichkeit nur als wandelnde Zelte gesehen (Muslim men have seen women in public only as walking tents?) 

What kind of a historiography is it that uses (and consists only of) such chunky bits of terminology? No storytelling, no narrative, no fate, no individuals? Is it because economic or global historiography can only be written in such a way? Flowery words, empty words, no access to the senses, empty rhetoric, grandiloquent? 

Natalie Zemon Davies, an unusually gifted historian to be sure, would have turned away in disgust mainly because: ‘Eine in abstrakten Begriffen abgefasste Geschichte vermittelt mir nichts. Ich kann Abstraktes nicht begreifen’.[2]

Another approach to understanding the (post-)modernity shock by a lot of right-wing Germans of Sieferle ́s generation would be to take it as a reaction of a spiritual horror vacui that came about mainly by the fundamental claims of the global consumer society unbound: anything goes (and with anything they actually mean anything: there are no limits – no borders but also no taboos). Sieferle, who wouldn’t wear jeans or t-Shirts, found this shocking and the very notion of a ‘swinger-club’ would have made him faint (and me too!). Nietzsche’s Christian ‘Krankengott’ would have been substituted by a Prometheus unbound and the human body – in Franciscan teaching over centuries known and referred to as ‘brother donkey’ (frater asinus) – is the ultimate goal of all neoliberal and postmodern belief and beyond all historical reflection. Imagine the pupil Sieferle travelling to Rome on a school trip and having conversation with a priest – in Latin! 

In constitutional law we have witnessed the emerging of so called ‘rechtsfreie Räume’ (lawless spaces?) ranging from attacking police forces and young females on the Kölner Domplatte (Cathedral square at Cologne) over New Year to global tax evasion by multinational companies. In the area of constitutional law there is also a rather depressing saying by a famous German constitutional judge (Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde) which to my suprise is also known in the English speaking world (as Böckenförde-dilemma): ‘The secularised liberal state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.’ 

From the point of view of Sieferle (and others), who in the 1970s started as social historians and wanted to understand and explain what happened to the country after 1930, this is hard stuff to swallow because (among other things) they have studied fervently the fate of the Weimar Republic, incapable of finding ways of dealing with the anti-democratic impetus of the Nazi-party NSDAP, the whole country fell prey to after 1933. 

Finally: in my teacher’s view it was a ‘very clever’ move in intellectual warfare to get rid of the German tradition of Bildung altogether and replace it by the notion of competence and functional skills so that really everybody understands the paramount obligation to be a little cog in a gigantic wheel of global ‘Lieferketten’ (supply chains). Nobody is permitted to stay at home, to read and study, because everybody has to contribute to economic growth; there is no happiness without growth, the depletion of the world’s resources or climate change notwithstanding. Konrad Paul Liessmann from Vienna called it the ‘Theory of Uneducation’ – the Pied Piper of Technopoly leading mice away from the humanities right into the arms of money, business and technology. 

[work in progress 8 June 2021] 

After studying three humanities subjects (History, Politics and Literature) at the University of Konstanz and postgraduate employment with the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG) Michael Karl completed a teacher training course, worked at various High Schools and has been retired since 2020. Email: karlmichael3@t-online


[1] I am speaking here of Jürgen Mittelstraß (b.1936) and my fellow contemporary Martin Seel (b. 1954) without whom my life would have been poorer and my brain less complicated. May be Mittelstraß was wrong after all when he argued in his book Leonardo-Welt that technology exists and develops in contrast to human nature, whereas Robert Spaeman (and Heidegger?) told us very early that technology is the very essence of humankind’s naturalism. 

[2] Natalie Zemon Davies, Der Kopf aus der Schlinge, FfM (S. Fischer) 1991, p.44f (engl. Titel Pardon Tales, Stanford 1987/91) 


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