Let’s wind the clock back to 1816 for a moment. In the wake of the devastating wars and upheavals of the Napoleonic era, people in Europe are craving stability. But it is not to be: the continent is on the verge of famine of long-forgotten proportions, social turmoil and waves of refugees. It is all caused by a climate disaster that leaves the contemporary population scratching their heads. South-west Germany is hit particularly hard by the “Year without a Summer”.

A monotone roar of thunder resounds over Upper Swabia, getting louder and louder and echoing rhythmically to form a wall of sound. Within a few short moments, the last glimmer of light fades from the sky before black clouds unleash torrential rain, followed by sleet, onto the hopelessly saturated ground below. Forks of lightning that split the sky in two like shiny swords complete the ominous natural spectacle.


The year 1816 is barely four months old and the people of Upper Swabia are already facing a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. The region has been plagued by weeks of extreme weather, with temperatures hardly inching above freezing. There is still a chance of salvaging some of the harvest and averting the looming famine – if only spring would hurry up. All hope is in vain: in the months that follow, the rain falls and the wind howls without mercy – and snow even falls on the Swabian Jura mountains in July. It eventually becomes clear that the entire harvest will be ruined. The consequences are fatal, not just for this region on the fringes of the Alps, but for all of central and western Europe.

However, the southern German states – particularly the Kingdom of Württemberg (to which Upper Swabia belongs) and the neighbouring Grand Duchy of Baden – suffer more than most. Unlike today, the regions were amongst the poorest in Europe in the early 19th century. The failed harvests of recent years, Napoleon’s wars and the exploitation of these states under French rule have taken their toll on Baden and Württemberg. And they are now faced with yet another failed harvest – one that is unusually severe and that affects all major crops: fruit, wine and grain.


The failed harvest is followed by hunger and chaos. Grain prices go through the roof, cattle perish or have to be slaughtered as a last resort, and people start looting. Soon, the entire supply system collapses. In their plight, people attempt to make bread from straw and tree bark. They start eating moss and grass. The number of deaths rises and rises; in Württemberg, the death rate even exceeds the birth rate in 1816/17, which is extremely unusual for the period. This is followed by mass emigration: hordes of people leave what is now south-west Germany, heading primarily for Russia and the United States. Baden and Württemberg are faced with exodus.

What’s more, no one has any idea why the summer has failed to materialise. The rural population, in particular, turns to supernatural explanations, seeing the extreme weather as a punishment from God. But no one has any idea that the dreadful weather might possibly be caused by a natural disaster on the other side of the world. Nonetheless, a huge eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano on the island of Sumbawa (now part of Indonesia) in April 1815 is to blame for the plight currently experienced in Europe.


When compared with the monumental eruption of Mount Tambora a year earlier, the severe thunderstorms witnessed in Upper Swabia in the spring of 1816 might be seen as little more than a bit of static. When Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Lieutenant-Governor of Java (which included Sumbawa at the time), heard the deafeningly loud eruption, he thought a cannon was being fired in the immediate vicinity. At the time, however, Stamford Raffles was some 800 kilometres away from Tambora. For more than a week, the volcano sprayed such huge quantities of rock, magma and gas – in the form of giant columns of fire towering up to 43 kilometres into the sky – that it was only half its previous height once the eruption had subsided. It is now clear that this was one of the largest eruptions in modern human history.

The effects of this natural disaster were immense: more than 70,000 people were killed on the island of Sumbawa and the nearby island of Lombok. The eruption also caused a tsunami that reached the densely populated island of Java on 10 April. It is estimated that some 100,000 people lost their lives in the floods. Over the months that followed, a similar number of people across south-east Asia died from disease.


Another consequence of the eruption of Tambora was that huge quantities of sulphuric gas were released. These entered the atmosphere, bonded with moisture and airborne particles and crossed the skies in the form of aerosol clouds. In 1816, these clouds arrived in the northern hemisphere, where they stayed put and absorbed large amounts of sunlight. As a result, the weather in Europe went haywire.

Of course, the people of Baden, Württemberg and the rest of the continent were not aware of any of this. Although news of the eruption of Tambora had reached the upper echelons of European society, nobody made the connection to the extremely odd weather in Europe. At any rate, there were more urgent issues than studying the causes: large swathes of the continent had been plunged into chaos. Prices spiralled further out of control, many people were left destitute and, from about 1817 onwards, the towns and cities were full of beggars. Anti-Semitism also flared up: Jews were vilified as “corn Jews” and accused of hoarding corn; in 1819, there were even violent attacks on the Jewish population in many places.

The dire famine, however, also gave rise to a fresh start in some areas. Having ascended to the throne of Württemberg in October 1816, William I instigated sweeping reforms to put agriculture on a more professional footing. He also ordered the drawing up of a new constitution, reformed the administration and reduced government debt. As a result, Württemberg became an emerging nation under William’s reign.


One of the few rays of light to emerge from the years of famine was the great art produced against the backdrop of the catastrophic climate. They sky portrayed in Caspar David Friedrich’s masterpiece “View of a Harbour” (which was painted in Greifswald) only glows in such fascinating colours because the eruption of Tambora really did transform Baltic Sea sunsets into radiant, golden spectacles. The after-effects of the eruption are also to thank for a classic work of literature. English writer Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland, where the weather was so gloomy that an unusually dark plot took shape in her mind. The story was eventually published as the novel “Frankenstein” in 1818. Had the people of Upper Swabia (who were not living far from Switzerland) been given an insight into the ghoulishly morbid thoughts of Mary Shelley, they would no doubt have been able to relate.