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Germany’s beloved forests threatened by environmental destruction

Published on June 26, 2009

Germans have always had a fascination and love for forests and trees.

In the works of such writers as Rainer Maria Rilke, trees stand undaunted in the mysterious German forest, permanently providing shelter and succour, wilderness and nature.

Virtually every German town has woods on its outskirts, originally planted to provide timber for construction.

As one forester put it: "The woods are not some remote ideal to be approached in literature or hiking boots but an intimate part of even the most urbanized life."

"Forest fascination" is associated with the nation’s treasury of sagas and fairy tales, where robbers hide out in the woods; bad wolves devour grandmothers and little girls in red-riding hoods; and children lose their way in the woods and stumble into the hands of evil witches.

Mythical glorification of the ranks of trees first reached its zenith in the songs, prose and paintings of the Romantic period. The Nazis were likewise obsessed with the forest.

In 1935, Hitler’s deputy Hermann Göring, from his forest hunting retreat, said: "We have become used to seeing the German nation as eternal. There is no better symbol for us than the forest, which was and always will be eternal. The eternal forest and an eternal nation – they belong together."

Black Forest: autumnal scenary
Black Forest: autumnal scenary – Photo tillwe

An escape, wasting away

In a decimated Germany after World War II, Germans still kept heading to their beloved forests.

"It was there," said Berlin journalist Klaus Hartung, "that the German soul was able to exhale everything that it had inhaled during the history of Germany."

By the late 1970s, the decline of the forests had become apparent. In the 1980s in Bavaria alone, 2.5 million hectares of woodland were visibly damaged by pollution.

Vast numbers of trees in the fabled Black Forest of Baden-Württemberg were under threat. The German word to describe this phenomenon is Waldsterben, “forest death.”

One-third of the western part of the country’s surface area is forestland.

The shock ran deep when reports became commonplace that the spruce and fir were dying. Acid rain, an airborne poison that originates in factories, power plants and automobile engines was blamed.

The chemical reaction that produces acid rain is still not fully understood. We do know, however, that when the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen are brought down out of the atmosphere by rain, the resulting liquid renders both water and soil unable to support tree life.

Fighting back

Groups such as the German Association for the Protection of Forest and Woodlands have campaigned to save the woods.

Dozens of other environmental groups, including Robin Hood, the Black Forest Union and the Freudenstadt Action Unit Against the Dying Forest, were dedicated to saving trees.

Black Forest: roots in rock - Photo tillwe
Black Forest: roots in rock – Photo tillwe

"The damage to our forests is dramatic,” former Chancellor Helmut Kohl warned Bundestag (German Parliament) 20 years ago. “Our forests are of inestimable importance for the water cycle, for our climate, for our health, for our recreation and for the identity of the German landscape. If we do not succeed in saving our forests, the world in which we live will be changed beyond recognition.”

Since then, an environmental revolution has happened. Humans have taken measures to reduce their impact on the earth. Power plants’ smoke is filtered and catalytic converters have been installed in cars, reducing emissions.

Germany’s Green Party has helped bring about change. Now Germany is the global market leader in wind and solar energy, and is a pioneer in climate policy, hosting regular, lively debates on environmental policies.

This does not mean the nation’s forests are now suddenly glowing with health. The latest tree vitality measurements in German forests reveal that the picture remains grim, due to the influence of climate change and drought.

But now at least more attention gets paid to the problem.

Clive Freeman/DPA/Expatica

Photos credit: tillwe; Fugue; extranoise