Cold War Ecology: Forests, Farms, and People in the East German Landscape, 1945-1989

Cold War Ecology: Forests, Farms, and People in the East German Landscape, 1945-1989

by Arvid Nelson

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East Germany, its economy, and its society were in decline long before the country’s political collapse in the late 1980s. The clues were there in the natural landscape, Arvid Nelson argues in this groundbreaking book, but policy analysts were blind to them. Had they noted the record of the leadership’s values and goals manifest in the landscape, they wouldn’t have hailed East Germany as a Marxist-Leninist success story. Nelson sets East German history within the context of the landscape history of two centuries to underscore how forest and ecosystem change offered a reliable barometer to the health and stability of the political system that governed them.
Cold War Ecology records how East German leaders’ indifference to human rights and their disregard for the landscape affected the rural economy, forests, and population. This lesson from history suggests new ways of thinking about the health of ecosystems and landscapes, Nelson shows, and he proposes assessing the stability of modern political systems based on the environment’s system qualities rather than on political leaders’ goals and beliefs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130300
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Series: Yale Agrarian Studies Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Arvid Nelson is lecturer and assistant professor adjunct, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and trustee of the Smith Richardson Foundation, Inc., a leading foundation in global security and foreign policy studies.

Read an Excerpt

Cold War Ecology


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10660-2

Chapter One

Prologue It is base to receive instructions from others' comments without examination of the objects themselves, especially as the book of Nature lies so open and is so easy of consultation. -William Harvey

In March, Berlin can be cold, open as it is to northeastern winds that blow in unchecked from the Urals across the lowlands of the North European Plain. Overcoats and shoes comfortable in Hamburg or Frankfurt did not keep out the freezing wind sluicing across the deserted train platform despite the morning's brilliant sunshine and dryness. But at least travelers shivered above the street, clear of its pall of furnace gases and greasy exhaust fumes. And the street noises dulled as they drifted up against the constant wind, which almost drowned out the coughing of car and truck engines, the pounding of burnt-out bearings, and the sputtering complaints of jackhammers and generators deployed in desultory repairs below. And yet, despite the cold and filth-the sheer poverty of prospect and habit-I was exhilarated just to be in the East's Lichtenberg Station, on my way to eastern forests. Westerners could not have made theslow trek from the West to this poor district a few months earlier, and certainly could not have traveled unescorted into the forests around Eberswalde some twenty-five miles northeast of Berlin, my destination.

The Lichtenberg station agent hesitated to sell me the cheap passage to Eberswalde, checked unconsciously by the institutional memory of control. East German bureaucrats had always stood out among the East bloc for their prim coldness, their intolerance of dissent, and the sly, sharp business practices of their finance and trade officials, such as the shadowy "louche Stasi Colonel," Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, so different from the Hungarians' openness and humor, the Czechs' gentle world-weariness, or the Poles' independence and anger at Russian, rarely "Soviet," power. The station agent hesitated, visibly trying to remember if it was still forbidden to sell such a train ticket to a foreigner, then, with a shrug, grudgingly passed my ticket under the window grille.

"You must go to Eberswalde. You must talk to Dr. Joachim," urged Professor Richard Plochmann, a senior West German forest historian and policy scholar widely respected in West and East Germany. Many assumed that the Party leadership had created a radically new forest, even if it was on the brink of collapse, changing East German foresters themselves. Dick Plochmann thought differently, as did most older West German foresters who remembered their shared schooling before the war and exchanges in the early 1950s before the Party leadership forbade contact. Most of all, they remembered that modern forest ecology was born at Eberswalde in Prussia, the intellectual center of forest science before the Second World War. They also recognized that forests are long-lived ecosystems with high levels of inertia. So change was unlikely to be as absolute as the Party leadership's rhetoric and ideology forebode.

I made my way to Eberswalde on a cold, early March morning in 1990, memories of the cold war and the Wall still powerful. An ancient coal-fired locomotive pulled the short line of carriages to Eberswalde, past old brick roundhouses, water towers, and coaling stations which graced the rail yards. Narrow, cobbled roads lined closely with poplar and lime trees ran through fields and small towns unmarred by the garish advertising posters, brightly lit filling stations, and convenience stores which blight West German villages. The modern world seemed far away, not immediately recognizable even in the monotonous fields of the collective farms or in the serried ranks of the People's Forest.

Arriving in the industrial town of Eberswalde itself meant an abrupt return to urban grime. I supposed I would find the Research Institute on the town's edge, where the Eberswalde forest began. Local maps were useless; as in most East bloc countries, they often did not show important government buildings. The station and dingy buffet were deserted, so after waiting a few minutes for a taxi, I trekked through Eberswalde's streets looking for signs to the Forest Research Institute, meeting only glum Soviet soldiers. I found the institute compound fairly soon, at the end of a once-grand boulevard lined with shabby villas and a deserted inn, the remains of the resort Berliners thronged to before the war for weekends in the forest.

Razor wire, a high fence, and a cleared strip circled the institute grounds, the only entrance running past a guard post and formidable gate where a uniformed armed guard demanded my papers. I gave him Dr. Hans-Friedrich Joachim's letter of invitation, and he withdrew to announce me. In a short time I saw Dr. Joachim's spare frame; he walked quickly across the institute's dusty forecourt, dressed in civilian jacket and tie rather than the Forest Service's military-style uniform. The guard unlocked a narrow side wire gate, and I passed through to meet Dr. Joachim, who, perhaps out of habit, waited on the inside to greet me and take me to his small office behind the institute's main building.

Dr. Joachim, who had planned to retire, was instead taking over as the institute's codirector and moving into an office in the main building. A generous, kindly man of high intelligence, he agreed to help with my research. Many had already judged that the Party leadership and Marxism-Leninism were responsible for East German forest decline; certainly their aggressive management and industrial and farm pollution had pushed the forested ecosystem to the brink of economic and ecological collapse. Although their responsibility was clear, their pretensions of control and mastery of radical change would not prove out-they never had the competence. A better explanation of the cause would follow from study of East German forestry in its historical and cultural contexts, as appropriate for its long biological and economic lives. Two hundred years of human agency led to the near collapse of the East German forest, with the Party leadership unwittingly playing a minor, if destructive, role in the struggle. More important, the landscapes of East German forest and farm, and the vast frontier and forbidden zones, witnessed the true qualities of "real, existing socialism" and testify to the costs to the East German people in the constant dearth of the "thousand little things" and in East Germans' forty years of penance for National Socialist crimes, penance served as the Soviet Union's frontline state and its principal Warsaw Pact ally. Months later as I walked in the forest with Robert Hinz, the new director of Brandenburg's forests, we came upon members of a local men's chorus who nervously asked him, "Herr Forstmeister, is it true that the communists destroyed our woods?" Hinz replied, "The Church's Brandenburg forest is over 400 years old-What does forty years of communism mean next to that?" Comforted, the men respectfully touched their hats and continued their Sunday walk.

Over the next year I saw the barriers and controls left over from the Party's rule disappear-the brittle guard at the institute's main gate evolved into a cheerful porter dressed in a misbuttoned sergeant's surplus tunic dating, clearly, from the time of Elvis Presley's army service. People could move in and out of the institute compound freely, the closed gate and razor wire gone. Foresters no longer locked their inventories and management plans in the safes standard in every office. Copier locks and logs also disappeared. Gradually Party members lost their defensiveness, no longer rationalizing their hard management by appealing either to the principles of Marxism or to their true goals of a Swedish-style socialist state. One idealistic Party member explained with unintentional irony his service to the rigid and destructive system: "I had to be optimistic, I was a communist." Sheepishly, senior foresters recovered their footings in science, sometimes pulling from a bottom drawer or the back of a bookcase prewar natural histories and romantic tracts on forestry. The stiff East German forest bureaucracy and the forest itself blended into the liberal West German structure with remarkable smoothness.

Two years after I first traveled to Eberswalde, I walked through the institute's pine forest to Dr. Joachim's house for a last Sunday afternoon with his family before I returned home. East Germans cherished Sundays with family and friends, often sharing a Haydn concert on an old radio set after breakfast followed by a long walk on forest roads and late afternoon tea, a retreat into their most intimate circle. I was not accepted at once, and in time only because they took pity on an outsider marooned without the family and friends necessary to survive in the cold, monochromatic East German society. My life gradually fell into a rhythm of long workweeks punctuated by privileged, warming Sundays with generous colleagues and their families. Such reflective, intimate Sundays endured in the early days after reunification, the call of Western consumer culture still distant.

The forest roads and streets were empty, but on this Sunday I did not miss the roar of struggling engines and grinding gears from Soviet army trucks and jeeps clambering in, out, and across the oil-dressed ruts they ground deep into the old cobbled forest roads. In my daily walks through the forests that girdled the institute I was more likely to surprise a motorcycle courier or a short, heavily clothed soldier from Central Asia or Mongolia than I was to meet an East German. These soldiers always seemed more surprised than I at meeting, turning back abruptly to their barracks deeper in the woods. By 1992 these sightings were less frequent as the 400,000 Soviet, now Commonwealth of Independent States, soldiers beat their awkward retreat east.

The Eberswalde forest I walked through, with its tall, old trees and clear understory, mirrored the classic German forest of myth-park-like openness, dense ranks of uniform stems clear of lower branches, high canopies of loosely bundled needles puffing out soft green against the brilliant blue sky. Outwardly, the trees looked healthy, no worse than those in West Germany. Apart from forests on higher elevations in the Erzgebirge on the Czechoslovak border or in the worst industrial areas in the south, it was difficult to see evidence of forest death, Waldsterben, or of mismanagement.

Dr. Joachim and his wife, both in their mid-sixties, lived alone on the second floor of the villa of Alfred Möller, dean of the institute in the early 1920s and the most influential forest scientist of the twentieth century. A fine villa in the Biedermeier style, the house sat comfortably back from the street. Tall conifers of the institute's arboretum rose above the claret-colored tile roof and the white mullioned windows set into earth-colored stone, framing the garden and house. The finery of most prewar buildings in Eberswalde's once affluent suburbs had faded through neglect and the lack of materials, but the serenity of the old villa's setting, its footings on the arboretum margins, and the Joachims' care lent it luster.

Now, late in spring and my work and research in the former East Germany nearing its end, I walked quickly out of the security of the orderly pine forest and approached Möller's villa in bright sunshine. I had visited the Joachims often in the past two years, but always in the suddenly darkening twilight of the cold and wet north European winter. I took great comfort from their warmth, living as I was in a seedy and expensive rented room above a shuttered-up pub. As I came nearer in the midday sun, for the first time from the main street and not from the arboretum, I saw a waist-high meadow filling the front garden, a shapeless sea of flowing textures and earth colors. The meadow's lack of formal structure after weeks in East Germany's pine plantations and well-ordered archives startled me. I felt rootless, bereft of the clear signs and comforting borders which ordered the forest behind me.

But as I walked a bit farther and stood square against the formal, worn façade, a four-foot-wide, closely mown path of rich green-blue turf revealed itself as a safe passage through the center of the meadow's disorder. Dr. Joachim saw me at the same time, rose up from the small garden at the side of the house where he was working, and came forward to lead me toward his front door, moving athletically despite his age. The pleasure of garden work in the sudden warmth after weeks of rain and sleet showed in his smile and pale blue eyes. Over the past two years we had seen together the uncertainties of reunification melt away as Western institutions swept before them the old system. The new liberal market economy doomed East Germany's industry, freeing the landscape overnight from its Augean loadings of gas, dust, and particulate. The new free market in forest products also meant the end of harvesting in the exhausted stands, and foresters could resume the century-long task of restoring a close-to-nature forest ecology.

We stopped halfway down the path to look deeper into the meadow, the high sun behind our backs illuminating the suddenly airy and spacious interior reaches as we leaned forward. Taller grasses and sedges, wood millet and fescue filled the overstory. Purplish poverty grass spoke to the dryness of the northern lowlands while native weeds, such as the beautiful, invasive sand grass Calimagrostis and knapweed, added rich texture and color as well as the resonance of a wilder habitat. Wildflowers of all heights thrived in the sunlit understory-columbine in violet-blue, white, and red; white-flowered wood anemone; and yarrow burst chaotically among the gray-green shafts of grass and sedge. Oxeye daisy, yellow archangel, and kidney vetch added diverse shades of yellow. Wind and changing sunlight created a constantly emerging structure of height, texture, and color as diverse wildflowers and grasses native to woodland and heath mixed and clashed. Our small effort had called forth a new, deeper picture.

My first impressions, after all, were not far from the mark. There were no real borders within the woodland meadow; plants mixed by chance into random patterns of color, height, and species, each blending seamlessly into the other. Where the suburban garden pleases the eye with its ordering of nature and clearly defined borders-the English enclosure-this meadow was more truly a community of plants given space to grow together rather than a collection of plants shoehorned into discrete niches to fulfill the designer's aesthetic vision.

We withdrew to the house, both elated at the pleasure we took in his garden within the relentless order of the state forests surrounding us. We went on with our afternoon walk and early supper, no longer talking of meadows and the natural forest but of Dr. Joachim's experiences as a young student of ecology at the University of Berlin before the war. After army service on the Russian front and homecoming to the terrible winter of 1946 and near starvation, he resumed his studies at Eberswalde and began a promising career as a forest ecologist and professor. In the late 1950s the Party selected him and other promising young scholars to join East Germany's delegation to the UN's International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) conference in Rome. The Party leadership viewed the Rome conference as an opportunity to promote their political and economic achievements, and it therefore issued orders not to discuss problems in East German forestry or to criticize the government and to report to the secret police all contacts with West Germans. Dr. Joachim gave a West German colleague a lift to the train station after the conference ended and did not report it. But one member of the East German delegation did not fail in his duty and turned him in. Dr. Joachim was ordered to account for himself upon his return from Rome. In the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and in the midst of one of the Party's episodic spy hunts and purges, Dr. Joachim could not satisfy his interrogators.


Excerpted from Cold War Ecology by ARVID NELSON Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Paul V. Ellefson

Nelson directly addresses how bankrupt political systems and inept political leaders can destroy the health of forests and the communities that depend on them. A lucid and invigorating book.—Paul V. Ellefson, University of Minnesota

Daniel Yergin

In a fascinating and original study that blends ecology and politics, Arvid Nelson uses East Germany's landscape, its mismanagement of its forests, and the Party's ‘war on the land’ as a window to help us understand the still-astounding collapse of communism. In so doing, he also makes clear why environmental devastation is one of the truly lasting legacies of communism and its ‘scientific socialism.—Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Prize and of The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy

Thomas E. Lovejoy

This is a truly remarkable book, one that provides an insightful view through a forest/forestry lens of one of the fatal flaws within East German communist economic policy—the failure to take either environment or natural resource management into account.—Thomas E. Lovejoy, president, The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment

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