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«Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set: The Nature Conservation Movement in Post War West-Germany (1945-1960) Astrid Mignon Kirchhof Institute ...»

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Author: Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon; Title: Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set

Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set:

The Nature Conservation Movement in Post War West-Germany


Astrid Mignon Kirchhof

Institute of Modern and Contemporary History, Humboldt University Berlin


In 1945 the American military government initiated a wood campaign in

Grunewald (a large forest area in the south west of Berlin), in which 1000

workers felled trees for firewood, which was then distributed among Berlin households (Firewood Procurement 1). Residents in other regions of Germany were also supplied with firewood – or they stole it from the forest, which was considered a “wood crime.” Especially after the first cold winter in 1946/47, the theft of wood increased dramatically. The Allied Forces reacted to the shortage of wood with forest clearing. Conservationists were critical, pointing out that in other parts of Germany, not even the ancient oak trees had been spared (Gallasch 14).

On December 5, 1947 the Association for the Protection of the German Forest (SDW)1 was founded to prevent the total eradication of the forests across Germany after suffering wartime destruction, overuse and firewood logging. At the inaugural meeting, the organizers called out for people to appeal to the economic rationality and the political discretion of the victors Vol 2, No 1 and point out that, according to the Hague Laws and Customs of War on Land, the victors are only allowed to be beneficiaries of the German national wealth but they are not allowed to touch its assets. The Nuremburg trials have shown that the victors consider it a particularly serious charge when occupying forces exploit the full the economic potential of the occupied country for their own purposes without consideration of international law. One might hope that an appeal to the sense of justice of the English people, who have given the world such concepts as “gentlemanliness” and “fair play,” may not be in vain. As Gladstone once emphasized, we must therefore point out again and again that whatever is morally wrong cannot be good politically. (SDW, “Management Board Meeting” 2)2 In subsequent years, the occupying forces faced harsh criticism from the German people3 for their widespread deforestation practices even though it Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald All translation from the German are my own.

The issue of forest clearing was only one topic among many for the broader public, as is © Ecozon@ 2011

–  –  –

seems that the Allied Powers, especially the Americans, used the wood resources quite responsibly. Trees were not felled indiscriminately; in fact, the Allied command monitored the clearances closely and by no means did they always allow increases in the firewood contingents (LAB 1). Critics of the so-called “wood crimes” came from all levels of society: forestry commission staff, active conservationists, ministry employees, politicians as well as the general population, and a cross-section of this was reflected in the SDW membership.

The uproar revealed a projected sense of powerlessness and expressed

that many Germans felt that they were the actual victims of National Socialism:

“seduced by Hitler, conquered in war and finally exploited by the occupying forces” (Engels, Naturpolitik 53). Accusing the Allies of destroying nature fit perfectly into the picture. Moreover, the deforestation meant the destruction of an alleged national cultural symbol. The images, impressions and convictions that were articulated around the forest had their roots in the 19th century. Here, nature had a soul, and the pastoral region was depicted positively in contrast to urban life. The forest in particular was – based on the idea of Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus – declared as the myth of German origin. Nature in general and the forest in particular thus became a national symbol.

After National Socialism, a mythical belief in the forest became obsolete.

However in the 1950s, a notion and image of Heimat [“homeland”4], based on the popular assumption that the German people’s character was shaped by the landscape it had settled, remained widespread. Still, the post-war discourse on nature and the function of the forest was up to date, since it clearly reflected the current political situation.

This article examines the hypothesis that the nature conservation Vol 2, No 1 movement in post-war Germany, which included nature conservationists, certain politicians, and concerned citizens, was not only a culturally critical movement, but also had modern aspects that kept it abreast of the contemporary political situation of post-war Germany. To illustrate this duality, this article adopts both a social-historical approach to analyse the social involvement of SDW members, and a cultural-historical approach to investigate the wave of Heimatfilms in the 1950s. German research on the history of nature conservation and environmentalism after 1945 has taken off in recent years, evident for example in the records of the Berlin municipal administration and local newspapers.

Forest clearing was thematicised here often in relation to firewood, in connection with shortages of combustible fuel, cold snaps, coal supply and the establishment of a central agency for wood acquisition, particularly in reaction to the extreme winter of 1946/47.

As Celia Applegate points out: “the term Heimat carries a burden of reference and implication that is not adequately conveyed by the translation homeland or hometown. For almost two centuries, Heimat has been at the center of a German moral—and by extension political— discourse about place, belonging, and identity” (4).

© Ecozon@ 2011 ISSN 2171-9594 Author: Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon; Title: Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set with a clear focus on the 1970s and 80s. This article therefore concentrates on the period directly after the war, which is still underrepresented. It looks at the images of the forest and Heimat that the nature conservation movement produced and considers how the movement interacted with the Allied environmental politics, furthered having the youth as target group and approached gender questions.

The body of this article is divided into three sections. The following section (2) will explore how the myth of German origins developed and how the notion of Heimat was constructed socio-culturally in the 19th century. This overview provides the background on the roots of the post-war discourse.

Historical sources are not used here but literature is reviewed to create the setting for the following sections. In sections 3 and 4, post-war Germany will be the focus of the article. An examination of the political impact of the SDW will be analyzed to elucidate the social measures taken in reaction to a perceived threat to a national symbol. Which traditional notions were adopted and how did people at the time react to the political circumstances of post war Germany?

The final part of this article examines the role of the Heimatfilm [“homeland film”] and uses a case study to demonstrate how modern aspects and tradition are also reflected in it. Sections 3 and 4 analyse some contemporary sources (1945-1960) that have received little scientific attention, in particular the SDW’s Jubilee publications, as well as contemporary articles in nature conservation newspapers, the daily press, correspondence with government offices, a speech by a nature conservationist and the Heimatfilm “Der Förster im Silberwald.” The latter was based on the Heimat novel of the same name by nature conservationist Günther Schwab.

Vol 2, No 1 th Nation, Nature and the Forest Myth in 19 Century Germany5 Beyond the social conflicts and class differences of the industrialization period in Germany – wars, social change and technical revolution – a romantic th image of the forest developed in the 19 century at a time of rising nationalism.

German writers and scholars attested to a notion of continuity, proposing that th Germans at the beginning of the 20 century shared a common identity with the old Germanic tribes (Lehmann 4). Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian and senator (ca. 58 CE – 120 CE) reported in his Germania on the primeval forests in the Germanic north and the tribes living between the Rhein The following overview provides background information and looks at current research on the “forest myth“.

© Ecozon@ 2011 ISSN 2171-9594 Author: Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon; Title: Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set and Weichsel Rivers, along with their habits and customs.6 In the 19th century, the German Romantics surrounding Jacob Grimm were the first to academically cite Germania as a historical source in their efforts to construct a history of the German people. Subsequently and through the first half of the 20th century, German scholars, folklorists and teachers taught Germania as historical fact and origin myth (Mertens 37-101, Schama ch. 2). For Germany, the so-called “belated nation” that was unified as late as 1871, this claim to a constant national identity over hundreds of years old was of particular, unifying significance.7 Nature conservation was particularly relevant in this context, as it allegedly protected the roots of the national character and thus the stability of society. The links drawn between national identity and nature by the conservative social theorist, Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897), were crucial here. Riehl was convinced that national character could only be preserved through environmental responsibility and conservation. In his writings he turned against the philosophy of the French Enlightenment that saw the fundamentals of nationhood in written constitutions,


natural rights and the protection of private property. Instead, Riehl maintained that national character “emerged organically, from the topography and culture of a particular territory” (Lekan 6). According to Riehl, national character was formed by the natural surroundings and the people’s interaction with it. People were emotionally tied to their regional landscape, perceiving it as their Heimat. Many conservationists hoped that individuals would feel tied to their Heimat as members of a community, as Germans– instead of seeing themselves as citizens of an abstract state structure (Lekan 7). The tie to Heimat would be strengthened by walks through the nature, allowing a spiritual connection to the forest, rivers and mountains. The forest in particular, according to Riehl, shaped Vol 2, No 1 the German landscape. Fearing that urbanity might supplant the concept of “forest, meadows and waters” [Wald, Wiese, Wasser], Riehl launched an attack on the urban civil society as being far removed from nature. Riehl and writers such as Ernst Moritz Arndt criticised the secularisation of the metropolis, and stood up an idyllic mountain forest (Bergmann 1-10, 32-49), portrayed as a place of peace and relaxation and a symbol of human harmony with nature (Lehmann 5).

Through this intellectual turn, the Germans became the “forest people” [Waldvolk] of Europe. Other cultures, especially the English and the French, Since Tacitus contrasts the honorable customs of the Germanic people with the immoral lifestyle of the Romans, one may assume that Germania should not merely be understood as an ethnographic writ, but also as commentary on Roman society at the time.

As Thomas Lekan points out, “Heimat provided a framework for negotiating the differences between national, regional, and local identities in German society, in which Rhinelanders, Swabians, and Saxons retained their provincial distinctiveness while contributing to the German nation as a whole” (7).

© Ecozon@ 2011 ISSN 2171-9594 Author: Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon; Title: Contemporary Ideas in a Traditional Mind-Set may have liked their parks and flower gardens, and the Germans were no exception here. But they also had something unique: the German forest (Lehmann 6). Whereas in England, France or Italy the opinion that human supremacy over nature was unrivalled prevailed, in Germany there was a growing notion that national culture was determined by nature (Johler 86).

According to Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, in the wilderness of the Germans’ forests lay not only the roots of their national past, but also their strength for the future (Lehmann 6).

Educating the Youth

Following the founding of the SDW in Bonn in 1947, regional branches of the association were opened throughout Germany. SDW members campaigned against economic, social and military influences that could negatively impact the forest. Such negative influences included construction projects in the forest, violations by undisciplined residents, and military exercises of the occupying forces (Borsdorff 2). To implement its political goals, the SDW developed successful networking strategies, especially at the political level and in the municipal administrations, by securing politicians from all parties in important functions of the association. Politicians from local, state and federal levels like mayors, senators, ministers, the federal chancellor and the federal president became board members and patrons not only of the SDW but also of other nature conservation associations.8 Notable members included Henrich Lübke, a Christian Democrat and the second Federal President, who was appointed as patron of the SDW in 1961. Hans Ehard, a politician from the Christian Social Union of Bavaria and Bavarian premier, was elected president of the association (Hornsmann 7). Politicians helped further generate publicity for conservationist Vol 2, No 1 efforts by writing for association newsletters and brochures such as Unser Wald [Our Forest] and Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege [Nature Protection and Landscape Conservation].

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