The German Forest. Cultural History, Mythology, Ecology (International Conference)

deadline for submissions: 
May 1, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
National University of Ireland, Galway
contact email: 


The German Forest. Cultural History, Mythology, Ecology

Interdisciplinary Conference

National University of Ireland, Galway (15th-16th October 2021)


Around 90 billion trees are currently growing in Germany, covering 32 percent of the country’s total area. However, when we speak of the “German Forest” we do not usually mean an area used for forestry within specific state borders. Even Wikipedia refers to the German Forest as a cultural term and explains: “The German forest was a phrase used both as a metaphor as well as to describe in exaggerated terms an idyllic landscape in German poems, fairy tales and legends of the early 19th-century Romantic period.”

The appearance of the German forest has continually changed over the centuries; it has a history deeply imbricated with its significance as an economic factor. Forests were cleared to create settlements and they were exploited, partly as pastures for cattle but mainly to meet the immense demand for construction and firewood. The discipline of forestry established around 1800 initiated large-scale afforestation in the course of which supposedly profit-yielding monocultures emerged that were meant to optimize the wood-based productivity of the forest and to guarantee “sustainability.”

While literary naturalists praise the natural, sublime beauty of the woods, numerous myths of the forest, which have prevailed from the era of early human settlement until today, include the dark, Gothic and uncanny side of nature. Not only German, and other European folktales but also Native American legends depict the woods as haunted sites that house spirits and ghosts but also as places where challenges are overcome and into which a person might enter and emerge as somebody else. These human ideas of the woods as sublime spaces are transnational, but especially immanent in German and Austrian literature. Ludwig Tieck’s Der blonde Eckbert, the text that gave birth to the German Romanticism movement in 1797, shows the forest as a place where enlightened and magical thinking collide, where Waldeinsamkeit, the forest’s solitude, is both a refuge and a prison, and where the slightest transgression of its enforced isolation unleashes murderous forces that oscillate without closure between insanity and the supernatural; a topos that has clear references to medieval literature such as Parsifal or Buile Shuibhne.

The classic Romantic trope of connection to the forest also reflects the mental states human beings develop when they encounter the culturally constructed entity of the woodland. This is equally manifest in current cultural practices from “forest bathing” therapies, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, to the ubiquitous manipulation of Gothic tropes in contemporary media.

The environment of the magical fairy tale forest that might transform into a dark and uncontrollable wooded hinterland is a backdrop for various film and popular television genres, such as the suspense thriller, the supernatural horror and the Gothic horror. Many contemporary works in these genres draw on historical depictions of the fairy tale forest to explore environmental issues such as deforestation and pollution. Recent examples illustrate the broad international interst in “uncanny” forests: La Forêt (France 2017), Zone Blanche (France 2017), Dark (Germany 2017) Stranger Things (USA, since 2016), and Jordskott (Sweden, since 2015). In Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten (2016), a forest threatened by the construction of a wind park features as a space in which a small village community destroys itself in an entanglement of patriarchal traditions, xenophobia, competitive environmental concerns and capitalism.

On the other hand, forests also feature heavily as recreational spaces and so-called “eco-tourism” hot spots for contemporary Neo-romantics who may suffer from burnout and a general lack of enthusiasm for “civilisation”; yet they rely on the amenities of managed hiking trails. Tourists favourably inclined to the woods may feel “in harmony with nature” and experience renewed strength within such elaborately designed “wildlife”, while also being protected from its dangers and discomforts by conveniently located sleeping and sanitary facilities and their own expensive equipment. Such facilities allow customers to consume the forest as a product and lead to the realisation of a deeper unconscious drive towards the wild, regarded as the antipode of civilisation and its discontents without the risks of being existentially exposed to it. This staging of wilderness is, in its very nature, a simulacrum.

The theory of ecopsychology supplies a productive paradigm for understanding mental well-being in a cultural landscape suffused with re-imaginings of nature as unspoiled wilderness, devoid of human civilisation. While people increasingly feel the effects of climate change, pollution and ecological losses (of both land and species) in their daily lives, these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being and have recently been linked to a range of negative mental health disorders, such as depression, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress.

The conference seeks to shed light on the cultural significance of the German forest from a plurality of perspectives and historical focal points. We are especially interested in studies on works portraying German forests from an external perspective and in comparative approaches exploring how the German forest as a cultural construct differs from other cultural and national images and imaginings of the forest. 

We invite twenty-minute papers (in English or German) focusing on the following (or similar) topics:

  • the German forest and its ideological load (Romanticism, Nazi propaganda)
  • the forest as heterotopian space
  • the (cultural) history of the forest
  • forestry as cultural practice
  • the forest as habitat/biotope
  • forest animals
  • the forest and its human inhabitants – wood-fellers, foresters, charcoal burners, bandits, hunters, poachers, adventurers
  • hunting and gathering
  • the forest and Heimat
  • crime and the forest
  • the forest as habitat
  • forests, climate change, sustainability
  • the death of the forest, the forest under threat
  • reforestation, protection of the forest, biodiversity
  • the forest as/in myth; the forest as fairy tale
  • the forest in literature, opera, film and visual media
  • the iconography of the forest
  • the forest as a challenge for educators/ forest kindergartens / forest playgrounds / nature trails
  • the forest in children’s literature
  • the forest in documentary films; the portrayal of the forest in popular discourse
  • the portrayal of the forest and forest narratives in cultural comparison
  • the portrayal of the German forest in the literature and media of other countries


Please forward a 300-word abstract and a short bio by 1 May 2021 to:

Conference fee for face-to-face participation (including coffee breaks, one lunch and wine reception): 30€; reduced conference fee for postgraduates: 15€

In view of the uncertain development of the pandemic we are planning the conference as a hybrid event (face-to-face and online).

Organising committee: Deirdre Byrnes, Tina-Karen Pusse, Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa, Michaela Schrage-Früh