Forgotten Extremes: Environmental Historical Reminders on the Path to Resilience

Translation by Ellen Yutzy Glebe of a contribution in German to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (20 July 2021)
by Martin Bauch, Hans-Rudolf Bork, and Adam Izdebski


The statements of those affected by the terrible floods in Germany this summer and the politicians who represent them uphold a long historical tradition: “No one could have ever imagined anything like it. … The water is higher than it has ever been. … It has never risen so suddenly.” Almost word for word, these reports echo accounts of comparable events in medieval and early modern chronicles, except perhaps in that the modern versions refer less frequently to divine retribution. Indeed, fringe commentators have mentioned the flooding along the Ahr in 1804 and 1910—events which might have had similar dimensions—with the aim of casting doubts upon the science of anthropogenic climate change. To accept that argument at face value, however, is turn a blind eye to the correlation between the origins and increasing frequency of such extreme weather events with global warming, a correlation upon which attribution studies are working to shed light. The infrastructural adjustments, on the other hand, will likewise come much later, if they ever prove feasible and adequate at all.

Within the realm of contemporary public consciousness, there is a general lack of long-term environmental historical memory. As a result, communities are unaware of which spaces might be at risk despite their having remained unscathed by natural disasters for decades or even centuries. In modern Germany, for example, there is no significant collective memory of extreme meteorological events before the North Sea flood in Hamburg in 1962, for hardly anyone remembers local or regional natural disasters that predate that event.

Research on past geophysical events was long an academic niche in the historical sciences that was hardly conducive to advancing scholars’ careers. Even now, those who want to study the history of climate, weather, and flooding in central Europe rely to a significant degree on the diligent work of a hobby meteorologist, the bank clerk Curt Weikinn (1888–1966), who spent decades collecting excerpts from historical sources, producing tens of thousands of handwritten cards. Pioneers in the academic field of climate and weather history—scholars in the disciplines of history, meteorology, and geography—have built upon Weikinn’s collection and others like it; on the other hand, it was a singular occurrence that a major power company financed historical research in Italy and France within the context of expanding nuclear power programs. In the case of Italy, the historical study of earthquakes that emerged from that research and spans events stretching over two millennia played a significant role in the decision to reject the use of atomic energy for civilian purposes.

For a long time, extreme hydrological events garnered much less attention than these seismic catastrophes, even in flood-prone central Europe. Instead, risk assessments for flooding were based on data collection using modern scientific instruments, which fatally limited the historical depth of these studies. In 2011, Swiss climate historians impressively demonstrated that flooding along the High Rhine had been much more pronounced before the modern age and that the calculations upon which the safety margins for infrastructure development in the region had been based relied on data from a relative “disaster gap” (Christian Pfister).

An urgently needed expansion of this analysis to include data compiled using historical methods and going back a full thousand years presents a major opportunity for the academic field of history to produce relevant practical knowledge. Academic history programs, which provide scholars with methodological breadth (especially in the auxiliary disciplines like paleography under constant threats of budgetary cuts) and epochal depth even predating 1800, are uniquely suited to produce specialists who can transform premodern records into climate historical data. Despite the progress pioneering studies have made, much remains to be done; climate history is still far from established within university departments and research institutions. By dovetailing expertise from the humanities and the natural sciences, scholars can understand the extremes of the past and assess their meaning for the future much better than when using any single disciplinary approach. Because human societies and their environments are integrated socio-ecological systems, research in this field needs suitable institutional foundations, like, for example, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland, which fosters fundamental research on these questions and presents results in a form that is accessible to stakeholders and the public to facilitate informed decisions.

High-water marks of the Main on the archway of the southern entrance of the town hall (via the so-called Red Building from the late Renaissance era) in Würzburg. Photograph: Martin Bauch

In fact, however, the premodern era and research in this field can contribute more to the ongoing discussions about rapid, anthropogenic climate change than just data for climate models. Medieval and early modern cities marked flood levels in prominent locations like churches and bridges to remind passers-by of the past water levels. All those born after these events were confronted on a daily basis with the potential danger inherent in the rivers along which they lived. In modern times, flood levels are still marked, but these markers have become much less obvious and are generally less prominently placed. Furthermore, they rarely record levels as far back in time as they should. High-water marks have a counterpart in the so-called Hungersteine (lit., hunger stones) which mark particularly low water levels and are mostly found in the Elbe, where their visibility was striking during the drought of 2018. When the water receded from one such stone in the city of Děčín in northern Bohemia, its inscription became legible: “When you see me, weep.”

Premodern communities, however, had even more striking methods of imparting citizens with collective memories, namely religious processions, like that in Frankfurt to commemorate St. Mary Magdalene’s Flood. Residents there processed every year through those neighborhoods which had been inundated in July 1342. That flood was perhaps the most significant geophysical event of the last millennium in terms of how it changed societies and landscapes in central Europe. Humidity from the Mediterranean moved north over the Alps and returned to the earth as rain for days. The few extant high-water marks from that period record flood levels of a sheer volume far beyond anything that is known for recent decades. The long-term damage was dramatic. Devastating erosion washed the fertile topsoil from entire areas, often exposing barren rock that had been deeply buried before. Many fields could no longer be tilled and new forests grew in their stead. Interdisciplinary studies have confirmed the loss of some thirteen billion metric tons of soil in July 1342, a third of the total soil lost over the last thousand years! The erosion that resulted from the flooding in 2021 will be slight in comparison.

While the processions to commemorate the flooding in Frankfurt continued to keep the memory of this castastrophe vivid for nearly two centuries, similar processions in other cities enjoyed even greater longevity: in 1923 residents in Erfurt were still processing to a mass grave where victims of a famine caused by excessive rainfall were buried in 1316/17. In the premodern era, such performances, contemporary religious mentalities, and public visibility all contributed to an abiding awareness of historical disasters. We would do well to adopt these methods from our forebears. The potential of such performative processions in mobilizing populations even today has been amply demonstrated by the Fridays for Future movement. High-water marks might once again be granted the prominent locations which they once occupied.

A collective awareness of the risks our environment has posed and continues to pose and how our ancestors overcame these is just one element in making our society more “resilient” in the face of anthropogenic climate change. Discussions about how we should adapt deal primarily with changes in infrastructure, and indeed the concept of resilience stems from engineering: it is a property describing how materials can absorb external shocks while retaining their functionality. Drawing on this original meaning, a variety of disciplines have adopted the concept, including ecology, economics, and psychology.

The field of environmental history, too, has reframed long established topics of historical research to analyze the socio-ecological resilience of entire political systems. Significantly, these studies have found that resilience is not an intrinsic social characteristic. It can be lost, but it can also be cultivated, both by making adaptive changes to infrastructure but also by fostering awareness of the historical climate changes and epidemics that afflicted previous generations and how past societies responded to these challenges. Such knowledge could be encouraged through revisions to school curricula and informative exhibitions for public consumption, but also through more locally targeted “climate histories”— objects and inscriptions that might bear witness to local climatic events, to raise awareness both of risks and successful responses. For central Europe, we have a rich body of source material available to illuminate the historical possibilities as well as traditional and yet-to-be-developed methods of cultivating collective memory. Our society—faced with the urgent necessity of adapting to anthropogenic climate change—would do well to look back over our shoulders more intently than recent generations have been accustomed to doing.


About the Authors:

Martin Bauch leads a research group on medieval climate history at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig with financial support from a Freigeist Fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation.

Hans-Rudolf Bork studies changes to the soil, both human-made and natural, at the Institute for Ecosystem Research at Kiel University.

Adam Izdebski investigates European and Mediterranean environmental history at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

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