Horticultural Hate: The Mystery of the Forest Swastikas

Whatever the truth may be, the story began to make waves well beyond the region. French reporters suddenly appeared in Zernikow, eager to fly over the heath to see the swastika for themselves. The daily Le Figaro published an article on the forest formation that reportedly led then-French President Fran├žois Mitterand to call his German counterpart, Roman Herzog. Soon thereafter, the German president began pressuring the local forestry office to get rid of the offensive symbol.

A Scramble to Remove Trees

The effects were immediate. In 1995, forestry workers armed with chainsaws made their way to the copse of larches and cut down 40 trees. They reported back to their supervisors that the symbol was now unrecognizable, and the commotion surrounding the Kutzerower Heath quickly subsided.

But the forestry workers were badly mistaken. It took five years before their error was discovered, but in 2000, the news agency Reuters published photos of a bright yellow and clearly visible swastika in the forest near Zernikow -- even if the edges were a bit frayed. And the media response was once again immense. Even the Chicago Tribune wrote about it, noting that the swastika forest was not helpful for a region that had already become notorious for racist violence.

In fact, officials started becoming increasingly worried that the place could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. This prompted the Agriculture Ministry of the eastern state of Brandenburg to plan drastic measures. In 2000, Jens-Uwe Schade, a ministry spokesman, told Reuters that the intention had been to cut down all the trees in the area. But the BVVG, the federal office in charge of property management, blocked the plan because ownership of some of the property was in dispute and only gave the green light for state forestry officials to cut down 25 of the trees.

This was done on the morning of Dec. 4, 2000. Forestry workers had to be very careful about choosing which trees to cut down and about making sure that the swastika was no longer visible. They also had to cut the stumps just a few centimeters above the ground so that they could no longer be viewed from the air.

Fads and Fables

However, planting swastikas in forests wasn't something that only happened in the Uckermark. As Jens-Uwe Schade already explained in 2000, this had become "a fad among National Socialist foresters" during the Nazi period.

For example, already in the early 1970s, US soldiers complained to the government of the state of Hesse after finding not only a huge swastika on the southern slope of a spruce forest near a place called Asterode, but also the year "1933" formed by larches. A similar symbol reportedly caused a major stir in Jesberg, in northern Hesse, when it was discovered in the 1980s. And, in 2000, a professor of folklore found a swastika of evergreen Douglas firs planted backwards in a deciduous forest in Wiesbaden. In fact, reports soon started emerging about tree swastikas all over Germany.

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