Wilhelm Raabe’s 1884 novel Pfisters Mühle was famously inspired by an actual court case in the city of Braunschweig in the 1880s. Raabe’s novel is often hailed as German literature’s first “Öko-Roman,” although as I have indicated in a prior post, that is by no means uncontested. Be that as it may, the novel is responding to a significant moment in German environmental history. Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the volume of trash and untreated human waste dumped into rivers and streams was the most pressing pollution problem, particularly in the cities. With the rapid industrialization of Germany, the byproducts of industrial production predictably eclipsed urban sewage as a source of woe. The degradation of the water, in turn, meant that mills, baths, and other commercial establishments that depended on the water downstream were effectively put out of business. The result was a series of so called “Wasserprozesse,” or “water trials” at the end of the 19th century. Most of these trials were suits brought by commercial enterprises seeking to recoup profits lost from industrial pollution. Pfisters Mühle dramatizes (or more accurately, under-dramatizes) the trial of the real mills in the villages of Bienrode and Wenden against the beet sugar factory Rautheim, all of which are now located within the Braunschweig city limits.
Here’s a bit of interesting history.1
- Braunschweig was a major center of beet sugar production in 19th century Germany. The first factories began operation in the 1830s, and by the 1860s the industry was a cornerstone of the city’s economy. The production season began in September, after the harvest, and lasted until late January or February.
- Beet sugar production produces an incredible amount of waste water. The processing of a single beet for sugar produces 30 to 40 cubic meters of waste water. In the 1880s Rautheim would have processed about 25,000 tons of beets during the campaign, pumping out around a million cubic meters of waste water. And Rautheim was just one of many in the Braunschweig area. Some factories tried to dilute the byproducts of sugar production, but this only increased the consumption of water and put further pressure on the overall supply.
- German cities began building filtration facilities in the 1860s, but the technology was often regarded as too expensive to be worth the allocation of city resources, and so they remained uncommon for decades after the technology was developed. Braunschweig maintained filtration facilities to protect the water quality in the Oker river, which runs directly through town and provided the city with most of its drinking water, but these were ill equipped to handle the growing volume of waste from the beet sugar factories. Rautheim maintained a small sewage farm on its premises, but this was not nearly enough to absorb all of the waste, and so most of it went into the Wabe stream, which drains into the Schunter, all of which are part of the Oker river basin.
- The denizens of Braunschweig began noticing the decline in drinking water quality around 1880. During the campaign of 1884-1885, shortly after Pfisters Mühle hit bookshelves (where, unfortunately for Raabe, most of the copies stayed), pollution from the beet sugar factories overwhelmed the city’s filtration facilities, and the drinking water supply collapsed. This became a regular occurence until 1895, when the city finally expanded its purification system.
- In January of 1891 the factory at Broitzem attempted to clear its waste water by releasing iron salt into its waste water. This apparently cleared the water of the byproducts of beet sugar production, but gave Braunschweig’s water a red-brown color, meaning that nobody could do their laundry without staining all of their clothes.
- In Pfisters Mühle, it is the smell of the water that drives away most of the mill’s guests and employees. The waste water from beet sugar production contains a considerable amount of hydrogen sulfide. The bacteria beggiatoa feeds off of the hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is also the gas often responsible for the offensive odor of human flatus.
In Raabe’s most famous novel Stuffcake (1889) we learn that Heinrich Schaumann is financing his amateur archaeology by renting out some of his arable land to the local beet sugar factory. When I taught that novel, I made sure to draw the students’ attention to this. Later that semester I was as surprised as they were when W.G. Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn falls into a conversation with a beet sugar farmer who pointed out “the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and th history of art” (194).2 Sebald’s novel links this to the global networks of exploitation that evolved out of European colonialism, a problem that also lurks in the background of Raabe’s 1889 novel.
1. See Behrens, Christian. Die Wassergesetzgebung im Herzogtum Braunschweig nach Bauernbefreiung und industrieller Revolution: Zur Genese des Wasserrechts im bürgerlichen Rechtsstaat. Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, 2009 Hamburg.; Blasius, Rudolf, and Heinrich Beckurts. “Verunreinigung und Reinigung der Flüsse nach Untersuchungen des Wassers der Oker.” Deutsche Viertelsjahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27.2 (1895): 337-60.; Kluge, Thomas, and Engelbert Schramm. Wassernöte: Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers. Aachen: Alano, 1986.; Uekötter, Frank. Umweltgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. München: Oldenbourg, 2007.
2. Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1998.