The devastating floods in Western Germany made everyone realise that Central Europe is not a refuge from the climate catastrophe. Floods are not the only ecological disaster that Germany is experiencing. There were historic droughts in 2018 and 2019, and this summer some regions are getting far less water than usual. Paradoxically, climate change means we have too much and too little water, at the same time.
If you go for a hike in the German countryside, it’s hard to miss zones of Kahlschlag (clearcutting): apocalyptic landscapes with nothing but tree stumps, like at the end of The Lorax. Trees have been weakened by the lack of water, and are thus more susceptible to parasites. The government is paying forest owners to chop all these damaged trees down.
Ignorant city dwellers like me might assume the endless stretches of spruces all around Berlin are natural forests. The German language has two words for forest: a Wald is a natural forest, whereas a Forst is an area where humans have planted trees for commercial purposes. The world-famous German forester and author Peter Wohlleben refers to the latter as “spruce plantations,” to help us urbanites understand we are not seeing “nature.”
These non-forest monocultures are already an ecological disaster. But they are especially poorly equipped to deal with changes to the climate, which is why so many spruces are dying. They then create new problems: As Wohlleben recently explained to Der Spiegel, a square metre of natural forest can absorb up to 200 litres of water. When water falls on a plantation, in contrast, all that water runs off — leading to flooding.
Germany’s Förste are becoming sources of fires, floods and desertification. What could be done? The first step of an emergency program is: nothing. In other words, no more planting or harvesting trees. Instead, let Wälder regrow as much as possible. This would bind carbon from the atmosphere and cool the terrain. This is not what forest owners and the government are doing. They are looking for new species to replace the spruces and create new monocultures.
It is often implied that the owners of Germany’s forests are hard-working families who need to make a living. Who are these families? Their names reveal a rather different picture. The biggest private owners of forests include the Thurn und Taxis, the Fürstenbergs, the Hatzfeldt-Wildenburgs, the Hohenzollern and the Guttenbergs. These names are all from Germany’s aristocracy.
Germany’s most famous aristocrat is the disgraced former minister Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, who had to resign because his dissertation was plagiarised. His full name says something about his background: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Buhl — Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. That last part — “Freiherr” — means “Baron.” The brother of the right-wing politician owns a big piece of Bavaria and leads the association of forest owners.
You might have thought the German aristocracy ended its reign with the revolution in 1918. And yes, the Kaiser and the kings were forced from power. But the nobility is chugging on. It might seem like harmless fun, like children playing with coats of arms and pompous titles. The case of the forests, however, shows that this aristocracy maintains enormous economic and political power.
All of us, as a society, are paying to maintain this anachronistic stratum with all their castles and lands. The crisis in Germany’s forests is not only moral and political, but also environmental. Lord So-and-So from the House of Whatever might have owned this forest for 12 generations. So he should be allowed to destroy the planet, because some great-to-the-tenth-power grandfather was particularly good at massacring peasants? They will say they are just defending their traditional way of life. But doesn’t that sound a bit like Southern planters who objected to the end of slavery because their particular “way of life” was based on horrific oppression?
It’s time to get rid of Germany’s aristocracy — as we should have done in 1918. There was even a vote to expropriate the princes in 1926. A big majority was in favour, but President Paul von Hindenburg (himself an aristocratic big landowner) declared the referendum unconstitutional. Hindenburg would soon go on to hand power to Hitler, and Hitler got lots of enthusiastic support from the different aristocratic houses.
Before anyone says I’m calling for violence and murder — of course not! I want every member of former aristocratic houses to have happy and fulfilling lives. I just think they should do so like everyone else: by working for a living. Their extensive property was created by centuries of exploitation. This property should therefore belong to everyone. We need to put all the forests under democratic control, ban the use of all these titles (no more “von” or “zu” in names!), and turn the castles into public museums. Then I have no problem at all with the former aristocrats.
Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.