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Fascism and Conservation

Excerpted from Sandra Cheney’s Nature of the Miracle Years: Conservation in West Germany, 1945-1975

After 1945, those responsible for conservation in Germany resumed their work with a relatively high degree of continuity as far as laws and personnel were concerned. Yet conservationists soon found they had little choice but to modernize their views and practices in the challenging postwar context. Forced to change by necessity, those involved in state-sponsored conservation institutionalized and professionalized their efforts, while several private groups became more confrontational in their message and tactics. Through their steady and often conservative presence within the mainstream of West German society, conservationists ensured that by 1970 the map of the country was dotted with hundreds of reserves, dozens of nature parks, and one national park. In doing so, they assured themselves a strong position to participate in, rather than be excluded from, the left-leaning environmental movement of the 1970s. Learn more.

The Inheritance: A Mixed Legacy for Postwar Conservation

Protecting Landscapes and Living Space under National Socialism, 1933–1945

After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, many preservationists accepted the dictatorship for pragmatic reasons. They hoped that a strong central government might pass a nation-wide preservation law, a long-standing goal that repeatedly ran aground in the partisan struggles of Weimar democracy. Generally speaking, middle class preservation groups did not resist National Socialist coordination (Gleichschaltung), though the degree to which they responded to Nazification ranged from outward conformity to outright support. Groups based in predominantly Catholic areas were less compliant, such as Bavaria’s Isar Valley Society and the Rhineland’s Eifel Society. While these organizations were left alone to pursue their traditional agenda, the socialist Friends of Nature was dissolved in March 1933, an indication of the fate that awaited high-profile groups ideologically at odds with the regime. Although several powerful Nazis vied for control over preservation groups, the competition ended in favor of Hermann Göring in 1935. But Göring paid little attention to these organizations because of his more pressing duties as Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and head of the Four Year Plan (1936–1940) to revive the economy.

Leading preservationists’ level of participation in the Nazi Party was comparable to other professional groups until 1939, after which their numbers appeared to have been higher. Yet it is difficult to determine the extent to which individual preservationists supported National Socialist ideology because of the perceived and real pressure to express goals in Nazi language. Yet several ideas associated with Nazism offered preservationists hope that the state would elevate the cause of protecting nature. The regime’s call for a return to Germanic cultural traditions sounded familiar to preservationists who shared with the Nazis the desire to see Germany rise to national greatness again by overcoming the forces that supposedly had contributed to the crisis of Weimar: liberal parliamentary democracy, Marxism, selfish individualism, crass materialism, and deviation from tradition in art and architecture. At least in rhetoric, some Nazi ideologues echoed the ambivalence toward modernity and scorn for mass culture expressed by many preservationists with greater or less emphasis since the late nineteenth century. Nazis and some preservationists also shared the view that national revival depended on firmly anchoring Germans in their native land and traditions—sources, they contended, of spiritual strength that united people in a national Volksgemeinschaft. But preservationists were a rather elitist lot and had difficulty imagining camaraderie with the majority of Germans who lacked their idealism and devotion to the green cause. In terms of practical, modernist-sounding measures, the regime’s concern to implement centralized planning (Raumordnung) appealed to preservationists who hoped to participate more in decisions over land use. But only some approved of the racism and anti-Semitism that were central to Nazi ideology. In general, attention to ideology provides only a partial explanation for the instances when preservation and Nazism converged. Also at work, Frank Uekötter emphasizes, was opportunism and preservationists’ willingness to look to party officials to achieve what goals they could, even if doing so in some cases implicated them in the regime’s ruthless policies.

After initial uncertainty about the fate of nature protection, preservationists found reason to be hopeful when Göring, as Reich Master of the Forest, personally ensured passage of the Reich Nature Protection Law (RNG) in 1935, bringing about long-awaited legal uniformity in protecting nature. The RNG has been examined in several studies, but a brief overview of its important provisions is in order here because the law remained in effect after 1945. The RNG must be seen in the context of the regime’s efforts to centralize the laws of the Reich and as part of Göring’s eff ort to implement conservation-related legislation between 1933 and 1935, which included the protection of animals and the promotion of ecologically sound forestry. Yet, conservationists quickly learned that enforcement of these laws was uneven and often lax.

The RNG created a uniform, nationwide bureaucracy for preservation, establishing offices for nature protection at the national, provincial, and local levels. It also built on the practice started by Conwentz in creating advisory boards (Naturschutzstellen) that existed parallel to preservation offices. Heading up the advisory boards were honorary commissioners (Beauftragter), some of them active in nature protection already. The RNG elevated the former Prussian Agency for the Care of Natural Monuments to the Reich Agency for Nature Protection, which was housed under the Reich Forest Office. Schoenichen stayed on as the agency’s director until he fell from grace in 1938. He was replaced by his long time rival, Hans Klose (1880–1963), whom scholars characterize as “a consummate opportunist” and “a skillful tactician” with a pragmatic view of what preservationists could accomplish. After 1945, the bureaucratic apparatus established by the RNG remained in place, though primary responsibility for Naturschutz devolved to the new West German states.

When it was passed in the 1930s, the RNG was a model preservation law. The RNG extended protection to rare or endangered plants and nongame animals, natural monuments and their surroundings, nature reserves, and “other landscape areas in open nature.” Although the first three categories had been the subject of previous legislation in various states, the provision for protecting parts of the countryside was new and broadly defined, extending the possibility of protection to “groups of trees,” ravines, hedges, parks, and cemeteries. RNG continued to emphasize aesthetics in determining what merited protection, but also acknowledged the importance of scientific, historical, and cultural criteria.

In the postwar era, some preservationists heralded the RNG as a “decisive turn” for conservation, while a younger cohort viewed it as an unfortunate obstruction to the development of a more effective strategy for managing nature in an urban, industrial society.56 The latter group had not had a hand in drafting or lobbying for national legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, and thus had difficulty viewing the RNG as an achievement. Those who were involved in nature protection before the law’s passage, however, were enthusiastic about the portions that created the possibility for broader planning responsibilities: paragraphs 5, 19, and 20. Paragraph 5 enabled officials to protect the countryside from intrusions that would despoil its scenic beauty or threaten flora and fauna, while paragraph 19 allowed officials to remove “disfiguring changes” that harmed nature or detracted from its “full enjoyment.” Paragraph 20 required authorities to consult preservation officials before approving construction projects that might significantly alter “the open landscape,” a measure with a precedent in state laws passed before WWI to prevent the “disfigurement” (Verunstaltung) of “outstanding landscapes.” Frank Uekötter illustrates that preservationists were at least sometimes consulted as per paragraph 20, and their involvement resulted in the occurrence of less intrusive actions. Yet examples at the regional and local levels also show that preservationists’ recommendations often were ignored. Also disappointing was paragraph 6, which exempted from the law those areas vital to the armed forces, transportation, river navigation, and the economy. An attempt in 1942 to amend the RNG to protect “the entire German landscape as the living space of the German Volk,” and to give preservation officials more authority in guiding development failed.

Another weakness in the RNG that handicapped conservation after 1945 was the reliance on honorary commissioners to conduct the daily work of Naturschutz. In their volunteer posts, commissioners continued the pedagogical emphasis traditionally associated with nature protection, working with party officials, the Hitler Youth, the Labor Service, foresters, teachers, community leaders, and police to encourage public support for preservation. Th is educational activity was familiar to many commissioners who came from the teaching profession and typically had training in biology, botany, or geography. In general, commissioners lacked sufficient time, training, and funding to handle the volume of administrative work now associated with their honorary position. As a result, they struggled to limit damage caused by the regime’s development initiatives—a steady refrain for postwar conservationists as well.

West German conservationists understandably argued that the RNG was not a Nazi law, but the culmination of years of work. And yet passage of the RNG was facilitated by the dictatorship, which enabled influential Nazis like Göring to pursue matters of personal interest as state policy—until preparing for and fighting war made it inconvenient. The bill became law not after parliamentary deliberations but after Göring intervened personally to approve it and to claim responsibility for preservation. By centralizing the administration of Naturschutz under the Reich Forest Office, the RNG promised greater uniformity in efforts to protect nature. Yet central control weakened state governments’ traditional hold on preservation and potentially limited locals’ ability to influence bureaucratic decision making. The law reflected a significant increase in the power of the state. It sanctioned the expropriation of property without compensation (paragraph 24), an authority that enabled preservationists to establish an unprecedented number of nature reserves in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In general, however, they preferred to work out amicable settlements with property owners, invoking the power they might wield with paragraph 24 when they encountered resistance. The RNG also allowed for dispossession in order to establish “Reich nature reserves” (which Göring sometimes claimed for his personal use), and it created an office to oversee expropriation and resettlement (paragraph 18). In short, dictatorship made it easier and cheaper to put land in state hands, ostensibly to protect nature for the benefit of the mythical Volk. Most troubling of all, in trying to implement the RNG in conquered territories, preservationists linked the law and their activities to the regime’s racial and genocidal policies.

Encouraged by the RNG, preservationists sought broader planning responsibilities as they watched the Reich Labor Service implement “inner colonization” by building dams, draining wetlands, and straightening streams—all part of the regime’s battle for economic production and rural modernization. But their influence remained limited when compared with landscape and garden architects whose professional standing improved through involvement in land reclamation and major engineering projects like the Autobahn. In the mid 1930s, the garden architect Alwin Seifert (1890–1972), a strong-willed and dedicated conservationist with völkisch views, was able to publicly attack the Labor Service, due to the client-patron relationship he had with high-ranking Nazis and fellow Bavarians, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and Inspector General of German Roads, Fritz Todt. Nor did it hurt that Seifert’s criticisms were expressed in racial terms: reckless reclamation, he claimed, threatened to degrade Germany’s landscapes into “Asiatic steppes,” a term he used to evoke images of an infertile landscape presumably suited only for Slavs, whom he viewed as racially inferior.

Garden and landscape architects such as Seifert tried to make themselves useful to the regime by pledging to make land use practices less environmentally destructive and by promising to heal Germany’s “sick landscape,” as they said in the language of racial hygiene. Toward this end, landscape and garden architects borrowed methods from plant geography to make their work more scientific and to strengthen their small, but growing profession. Specifically, they accepted the climax theory of plant succession, which was developed in the 1930s by the American Frederic Clements, but also was evident in the research of Professor Reinhold Tüxen, the internationally respected German botanist who remained influential after 1945. According to this theory, the most natural landscapes were those in which “native” vegetation (i.e., species that had been found in an area for centuries) existed in a “climax state” of equilibrium and would remain in such a state over the long term if climate, soil, and other environmental conditions were left undisturbed by humans. Botanists and plant geographers, or “plant sociologists” as they were then called in Germany, considered “native” species to be “more natural” than “foreign” ones because the former were considered hardier and capable of existing in a steady state for centuries under the right conditions. In their struggle for influence with high-ranking Nazis, Seifert and other landscape architects infused these contemporary ecological views with racial meanings, demonstrating ideological correctness by pledging, in Lekan’s words to “restore the primordial Lebensraum of Germany, the unique habitat in which the race was formed and from which it drew its strength.”

Confident in their work and effective in using the support of Hess (until he fled to England in 1941) and Todt (until he died in a plane crash in 1942), Seifert and other landscape architects lessened the invasiveness of some river regulation measures and hydroprojects in southern Germany and Austria. They also hoped to extend their infl uence in the eastern conquered territories, taking over duties that belonged to preservationists. From their heightened social position, they looked down upon honorary commissioners whom they regarded as amateurs with little to contribute to planning decisions.69 Th is competition between landscape architects and preservationists persisted into the 1960s, though in less dramatic form. Moreover, it resulted in the long term administrative separation of two potentially complementary endeavors, creating yet another hindrance to effective conservation after 1945.

Like landscape architects, preservationists were opportunistic. But even the Reich Agency Director Hans Klose admitted during the war that his political ties with Nazi higher-ups were weaker than Seifert’s.71 Nonetheless, preservationists hoped to benefit from Germany’s eastward expansion. Württemberg’s Hans Schwenkel and Bavaria’s Otto Kraus concluded that access to more territory in the east would reduce the need to drain wetlands within Germany. But they were wrong; land reclamation in the Old Reich (Germany’s borders as of 1937) continued at a rapid pace. Others anticipated that the additional space might improve the chances of establishing more reserves in the Wartheland in Poland and in the Caucasus. Lutz Heck, Berlin Zoo director and head of preservation in the Reich Forest Office, initiated planning for several national parks, including in annexed Austria and Bohemia. Schoenichen, an ardent supporter of racial ideology, considered creating a national park in Bialowieza Forest—after Polish inhabitants had been removed. For his part, Klose proposed erecting national parks in Germany’s former colonial possessions. Such visions, motivated by opportunism, and in cases like Schoenichen and Schwenkel, by fanatical racism, further illustrate how preservationists worked within the system to take advantage of chances that came their way. But by tolerating and sometimes actively supporting the Nazi regime, they condoned conquest and genocide, compromising the moral principles they had vaunted for decades.

Preservationists experienced a degree of normalcy in their largely bureaucratic work in the early years of war. But as the conflict wore on, their influence weakened, despite the RNG, despite 400 new nature reserves to add to the 400 or more in existence before 1935, despite the 1,100 local, sixty-eight regional, and fifteen higher-level nature protection agencies throughout the Reich and annexed areas. Preservationists were crippled by limited funding, their perceived amateurism, and a series of decrees issued by Göring between 1942 and 1944, which restricted preservation and prioritized the war. After such disappointing results, it is not surprising that preservationists after 1945 depicted themselves as victims of the regime, particularly when their experiences contrasted with the career advancements of landscape architects, who carved out a niche for themselves designing living space in the East.

Although Seifert’s team of landscape architects hoped to have influence in the East, they had less leverage than their colleagues working with Seifert’s rival, the Berlin Professor Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, a non-party member who served under Heinrich Himmler, head of the Reich Commissariat for the Strengthening of Germandom (Reichskommissariat für die Festigung deutschen Volkstums, or RKFDV), an organization responsible for ethnic cleansing in the annexed territories of western Poland.74 The RKFDV’s aim was to strengthen the Reich by repatriating people of German ancestry to the newly incorporated lands, but only after expelling those of an “alien race” who threatened the “German Volksgemeinschaft.” Nearly ten million people lived in the 90,000 square kilometer area, most of them Catholic or Jewish Poles. Between 1939 and 1940, one million of them were brutally expelled and either deposited further east in the General Government of Poland or, if Jewish, placed in ghettos. Their forced removal eventually “made room” for an estimated 300,000 ethnic Germans, who, on average, received land confiscated from two or three Polish families. Th is racial resettlement project was viewed as only the beginning of a much larger, constantly evolving plan—General Plan East—which envisioned transforming vast “empty” space further east into an agrarian Volksgemeinschaft for Aryan settlers, though only after evicting the current occupants.

Eastward expansion opened up new possibilities for spatial planning, a government competency that became more institutionalized in the 1930s, not only in Germany, but in other industrialized nations as well. In the face of public works programs that consumed resources and visibly disfigured large areas, and intent on expanding Germany’s “living space” in the East, the Nazi Regime established research institutes and offices to carry out comprehensive territorial planning. The Reich Agency for Spatial Planning, established in 1935, oversaw twenty-two regional associations throughout the Old Reich. Here, planning was implemented in a pragmatic way, though with increasing support for the Four Year Plan and war. In the eastern conquered territories, however, Himmler’s RKFDV pursued a racialized variant of spatial planning that was guided by General Plan East.

Himmler appointed the leading agronomist and SS member Konrad Meyer to oversee the design of landscapes and settlements within the RKFDV planning office. Other influential individuals were Erhard Mäding, officer for landscape care in the RKFDV, and Wiepking-Jürgensmann, chair of the Institute for Landscape Design at the University of Berlin as of 1934, and special commissioner to Himmler in questions of landscape design. The image of the “Germanic landscape” that informed their experimental plans was orderly, garden-like, and modern in contrast to the supposedly “degraded,” “neglected” “wilderness” of the East. In their ideal landscape, fertile fields lined with hedgerows alternated with open meadows, orchards, and woodlands, while dunes, moors, and old-growth forest remained as remnants of “primeval” nature. Tidy farms and quaint villages built in regional architectural styles blended into surrounding countryside. Attractively designed structures for small-scale industry were contained; clean, ordered cities of between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants were surrounded by small gardens, forming a seamless organic link with the countryside. Hydroplants, dikes, and irrigation ditches using the latest technology would, according to Mäding, reveal German planners’ unique ability to “follow nature and harvest the reward of a greater mastery over it.”

To transform these racially driven visions into reality, the RKFDV issued comprehensive guidelines in 1942 for use by lower level officials. Drafted by Wiepking-Jürgensmann, Mäding, and Meyer, among others, the recommendations relied on research of several individuals, not all of whom embraced Nazi ideology. The guidelines contain suggestions that continue to hold relevance from the standpoint of ecology. However practical these comprehensive measures were, they cannot be divorced from their historical context. As Robert Proctor has shown in his study of the Nazi campaign against cancer, advanced scientific research yielded useful insights, yet was motivated by the desire to protect Germans’ racial health. Similarly, landscape architects’ vision for elevating landscape care to an all-encompassing planning discipline was justified in terms of Nazi racial policy and contingent upon territorial conquest and ethnic cleansing. In cultivating a healthy living space that would endure for all time, these particular landscape architects contended, they were strengthening the racial health of the Volk and sustaining it for eternity. Furthermore, if resettled Germans felt at home in their new surroundings, their innate love of nature would enable them to form strong ties to the land, making them willing to die in its defense.

The conquest of territory in the east and the centralized authority made possible by dictatorship enabled landscape architects to strengthen their profession, making it central to spatial planning. Mäding proposed the adoption of the vague concept “Landespflege,” directly translated as “land cultivation,” to leave no doubt that the field was going beyond aesthetic landscape design to take on comprehensive planning duties. In the occupied Eastern territories, Mäding believed that landscape architects would have total freedom to transform conquered space into a “perfect community,” a work of art. Yet one of the few model towns they built in Kreis Saybusch in Upper Silesia required the brutal expulsion in 1940 of over 17,000 Poles. Beyond this, war prevented landscape architects from doing little more than planting shelterbelts and establishing nurseries for use when the fighting ended.84 Such a dismal performance made it easier for them to distance themselves from the genocidal policies of the regime they actively supported and to eventually continue their professional careers in the Federal Republic.

National Socialists’ goal of building up a racially pure Volk that would be self-sufficient had required industrial expansion, environmental degradation, war, conquest, and genocide. Yet the Nazis’ exploitation of forests, soil, water, and other resources did not put an end to the illusion that Germans had a unique attachment to nature. On the contrary, the claim continued to be made in more subtle ways during the occupation and early years of the Federal Republic by conservationists and prominent political figures who found it useful in setting themselves apart from a rapacious dictatorship and in justifying opposition to occupation policies that seemed designed to exploit the German landscape, and by extension, to weaken the German people.

During the Third Reich, the synchronization of nature preservation and landscape care had been uneven. As the experiences of preservationists and landscape architects make clear, ideas considered ecologically valuable by today’s standards are neither inherently Nazi nor inherently good. They can be adapted to conform to the political system in place and manipulated by social groups to increase their influence. After 1945, conservationists tried to preserve the sound ideas and practices developed before and under National Socialism, and pledged to promote them in conformity with democracy. In the new democratic order, they proved to be ideologically flexible on the surface and yet remained conservative in their understandings of state and society. Racialized definitions of “landscape” disappeared, and not only because such views had been discredited: at war’s end, Eastern Europeans expelled Germans from their populations, forcing them back into a country that would be 75 percent of its prewar size but far more homogeneous ethnically.

Nationalistic understandings of landscapes continued to be used well into the 1950s. For an even longer period, the view persisted that restoring health to landscapes would strengthen the physical and psychological health of the people. Only in the 1960s did conservationists begin to revise this view, acknowledging that the country’s unhealthy landscapes were the result of economic inequalities and disorderly land use. In response, infl uential conservationists once again sought greater involvement in spatial planning. Unlike in the 1930s and 1940s, however, they supported officials’ goals to use this technocratic policy tool to promote constitutional guarantees of freedom, social equality, and security.

In resuming their work in the trying years of the Allied occupation, conservationists had a troubled legacy with which to work. They hoped to preserve the legal and administrative foundations for protecting nature that had been set forth in the RNG and subsequent ordinances, and were determined to strengthen their involvement in decisions about land and resource use, a goal that largely failed under National Socialism because of the regime’s Four Year Plan and war of conquest. In the wake of total defeat, the most active conservationists worked immediately to implement the practices associated with landscape care. Rather than break with this tradition because some of its most prominent representatives had used its competencies to support the regime’s genocidal aims, conservationists suppressed its association with conflict on the Eastern Front and promoted its scientifically based practices as the most effective means to prevent “terrible chaos” on the devastated home front.

Cheney, Nature of the Miracle Years “Chapter 1: The Inheritance: A Mixed Legacy for Postwar Conservation,” NATURE OF THE MIRACLE YEARS: Conservation in West Germany, 1945-1975. 27-38.

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