“Socialist Environment” Policy Sparks New Hope Among Conservationists

As the economy grew in the 1960s, the objectives and practices of nature conservation expanded to address environmental impacts. These new objectives included reducing noise pollution; maintaining good water and air quality; protecting soil from erosion; properly disposing of waste; and, following the transition to industrial agriculture, tackling overall problems resulting from the management and development of agricultural landscapes. Almost inevitably, demands were made for comprehensive legislation that regulated not just issues of nature conservation but also of environmental protection. The term Landeskultur (meaning land cultivation) was taken out of its traditional agricultural context and expanded to mean environmental protection. Sozialistische Landeskultur (socialist land cultivation) came to be synonymous with environmental policy and protection. [Sozialitische Landeskultur is translated here as “socialist environment policy” or “socialist environmental protection.”] Landeskultur now referred to “sociopolitical measures for the sensible use and effective protection of the environment (environmental protection) through the combination of production practices with ecological, sociocultural, and aesthetic requirements” (BI-Handlexikon, 2nd ed., s.v. “Landeskultur”).[1]

A shift in this direction could be seen as early as 1963, when, at the urging of the Kulturbund’s Central Commission for Nature and Heimat, proposals were submitted for a new law to replace the Nature Conservation Act of 1954. Before the year was out, these proposals were adopted under the title “Principles of Socialist Environment Policy in the GDR” by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and declared a binding addendum to the Nature Conservation Act. They were the legal precursor to the Environment Act (Landeskulturgesetz) of 1970.

The work of drafting this new law was resumed in 1968. That year, under the leadership of Werner Titel—the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers who had championed the NÖSPL[2] and was a personally interested advocate of and acknowledged expert in nature conservation and environmental protection—a group of representatives from the Friends of Nature and Heimat, the ILN, and pertinent universities studied the environmental situation and made projections “regarding the development of socialist environment policy and its specific objectives and practices.”

In 1969, a Standing Working Group for Socialist Environment Policy was created, also under Titel’s direction. It drafted the bill that was to become the Environment Act. Lawyer Ellenor Oehler played a key role in that work.

On May 14, 1970, the People’s Chamber of the GDR not only passed the Environment Act[3] that superseded the Nature Conservation Act of 1954; it also adopted several implementing orders (I.O.) for the Act.[4]

The passage of the Environment Act was preceded by an amendment of the Constitution of the GDR that established nature conservation and environmental protection as responsibilities of the state. Article 15 of the Constitution, which, like the Environment Act, remained unchanged until the end of the GDR, stated: “(1) The land of the German Democratic Republic is among its most precious natural assets. It must be protected and efficiently used. Land used for agriculture or forestry may only be diverted to other uses with the approval of the competent government authorities. (2) The State and society provide for the protection of nature in the interest of the well-being of all citizens. The maintenance of water and air purity, the protection of the plant and animal world, and the safeguarding of the natural beauty of the Heimat shall be ensured by the competent authorities and are, moreover, the responsibility of every citizen.” A modern reading of this article of the Constitution would find that it defined environmental protection and environmental management as the responsibilities or objectives of the state. The official order to draft the Environment Act was issued by the Council of Ministers in February 1969 with explicit reference to Article 15 of the Constitution (Oehler 2007, 105).

The Environment Act, as a “complex legal framework,” defined “fundamental goals and principles and [contained] basic regulations concerning nature and landscape conservation, soil, woods, water, air, waste, and noise. This framework was fleshed out and implemented by means of existing legislation that addressed certain subjects as well as by regulations that were or would be enacted as implementing orders for the Environment Act. The stated aims of the Act were as follows: overcoming a lack of coordination among government agencies and ministries with regard to measures involving environmental impacts; long-term predictive studies; environmental impact reductions by means of economic incentives; improved economic results through the identification and utilization of biogeochemical cycles and multifunctionality; and cooperation among the various target groups (for example between polluters and those affected by pollution) with broad participation of the public. The preamble of the law made note of responsibility for future generations” (Oehler 2007, 106).

The Environment Act also extended the mandate of nature conservation—which until then, in terms of both law and thus tradition, had focused its protective efforts primarily on “living nature,” that is, on animal and plant species and their habitats—to such features of inanimate nature as soil, water, air, and quiet (via noise abatement) (Landeskulturgesetz, Section 10). The list of action objectives was also expanded. The effect of these changes was to completely free nature conservation from its previous perspective, which was conservative and backward-looking.

With this expansion from landscape “protection” to landscape “management,” “design,” “development” (in the sense of planning), and “restoration” (of damaged landscapes, Section 11 LKG), the Environment Act—like West Germany’s Federal Nature Conservation Act of 1976 and various environmental protection laws of the 1970s[5]—provided a political response (even if in practice it was not realized for the most part) to the “blessings” of an industrial energy revolution after the Second World War. This revolution involved the increasing use of petroleum, natural gas, and uranium and was distinguished by mass motorization, the widespread use of new technologies and chemicals in private households, the encroachment of human settlements on previously unspoiled areas, and the industrialization of the agricultural sector. Partaking in these “blessings” was declared an important new social goal under the Honecker administration, which came to power following the removal of Walter Ulbricht as head of state in May 1971. It was to be accomplished by expanding the consumer goods sector and was encapsulated in a slogan—“the union of economic and social policy”—which was quoted incessantly. As a result of widespread shortages, however, “consumerism” (Andersen 1996) gained relatively little ground compared to the industrialized countries of Western Europe.

The strategy of integrating nature conservation into land use was placed on a firm legal footing by the Environment Act. The “multiple use of landscapes” was considered to be a “principle of socialist environment policy” (Weinitschke 1980, 78 f.). Under this policy, conservation issues were to be given the same priority as other interests and to be reconciled with those interests when deciding matters related to land use. As became evident in the years that followed, however, interests such as agriculture, residential development, and industry had precedence.

While the Nature Conservation Act contained a series of clear requirements and prohibitions regarding protected objects and areas (even if their implementation proved increasingly difficult in some respects), the Environment Act primarily contained objectives for representative assemblies, government institutions, social organizations, enterprises, and individual citizens regarding the implementation of environmental requirements. The tools put at the disposal of nature and landscape conservation in the Environment Act’s section on “landscape conservation and management, and protection of the nature of the Heimat,” consisted of regulations concerning the protection of endangered species on the one hand and categories of protected areas on the other.

In terms of actual impact on the practice of nature conservation, it was not so much the Environment Act but the implementing orders, “technical standards, quality regulations, delivery terms”,[6] and “department standards” that were key. The first implementing order (I.O.) regulated the protection and conservation of the plant and animal world and the beauties of the natural landscape, while the second regulated how landscapes would be managed, developed, and made accessible for the purpose of recreation.

The first I.O., issued on May 14, 1970, and given the title Nature Conservation Regulation (Naturschutzverordnung), was based largely on the Nature Conservation Act of 1954, with respect to both structure and content. There were, however, some appreciable differences:

–     The I.O. eliminated the term “nature conservation body” (Naturschutzorgan) and replaced the heading of the relevant passage with “Management of Nature Conservation” (Leitung des Naturschutz). Local councils were made responsible for nature conservation across the board. They had the authority to assign council members responsibility for nature conservation, but were not obligated to do so. This arrangement was seen, probably not without reason, as an attempt to further disorganize and downgrade the significance of nature conservation. However, the terms for the administrative bodies that dealt with conservation on the Bezirk and Kreis levels were so firmly established that, for the most part, they continued to be used. In some cases, a flood of submissions was lodged with the council chairman, forcing them to appoint a council member to handle matters related to nature conservation and environmental policy.

–     The “obligation to tolerate” that was formulated with such stringency in the Nature Conservation Act (“Property owners or those bearing legal responsibility for the property [...] are to tolerate protective measures. These measures can be implemented through the use of police force [... and] do not constitute grounds for compensation”) was recast as an “obligation to support,” which demanded of property owners or those bearing legal responsibility for the property that they “undertake any modifications [... in order to] reconcile their [land] use with measures set out in the management guidelines for nature reserves and landscape protection areas.”

–     Penalties for violating the provisions of conservation laws and regulations changed. While severe penalties could be imposed under the Nature Conservation Act, any violation of the first I.O. was dealt with as an Ordnungswidrigkeit (infraction) and punished with a maximum fine of 200 East German marks.

–     The list of categories of protected areas was expanded to include “wetlands of international importance” (FIB), “wetlands of national importance” (FNB), and biosphere reserves (BR). These changes came about in part through participation in international conventions, in particular the 1971 Ramsar Convention on wetlands, which came into effect in 1975 and which the GDR adopted in 1978 in accordance with a resolution of the Council of Ministers. In 1979, Steckby-Lödderitz and Vessertal (GDR) were designated as biosphere reserves by UNESCO. A long stretch along the Elbe River was also designated as a biosphere reserve. The Environment Act did not provide for national parks or natural parks.

The system of administration laid out for nature conservation under the Nature Conservation Act of 1954 was retained, apart from the above-mentioned weakening of the obligation to appoint authorities, in particular at the Kreis level. Nor were any significant changes made in staffing, which continued to be completely inadequate. What was new was the establishment of conservation field stations, in particular in the Bezirke of Neubrandenburg and Potsdam, and later in other Bezirke. This resulted in more government employees working on nature conservation at these locations.

The status of the honorary conservation officers essentially remained unchanged. With the enactment of the first I.O., the position of “nature conservation helper” was officially introduced. The conservation officers and helpers received an identity document that entitled them to exercise the powers of a public authority. These powers were the same for both groups. They were accorded a kind of right of inspection. However, while the Nature Conservation Act of 1954 stipulated that they were “to ensure [...] that nature conservation regulations were followed,” after 1970 they were simply “to contribute to the enforcement of legal regulations concerning nature conservation.”

In addition to the conservation officers of the Kreise and their frequently active deputies, there were communities of conservation helpers and other volunteers in all of the GDR’s 227 Kreise (and East Berlin). Martin calculated that in 1982 there were 12,000 conservation helpers across the country (amounting to approximately 53 per Kreis). Wegener estimated that the number of active conservation helpers ranged between 20 and 40 volunteers per Kreis. “Active Kreise” counted upwards of 100 helpers (Wegener 1998, 93). In addition to the conservation officers and helpers, there were other volunteer conservationists. These people included Bezirk officers for waterbird research (Working Order of November 27, 1970), species protection and bird banding, as well as the appointed members of the Kulturbund group, Friends of Nature and Heimat (heads of the national, Bezirk- and Kreis-level expert committees, and various working groups). Those working on an official basis as volunteers (in all of the above-mentioned positions) were legally required to be reimbursed for their travel expenses. In addition, the conservation officers of the Bezirke and Kreise received a tax-exempt lump-sum payment for the reimbursement of expenses. The amount was set by the respective Bezirk council. Volunteers were sometimes given such generous leave from their paid work that their conservation activities could in some sense be seen as part-time jobs. This helped disguise dire personnel shortages in government administrations.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Water Management was established in 1972. Subordinate institutions were created, including the following: a national environmental inspection agency and center for environmental management; environmental inspection agencies in the Bezirke; and standing commissions for environmental protection, water management, and recreation in the Bezirk and Kreis assemblies. Additional groups of volunteer conservationists (called Arbeitsgruppen “sozialistische Landeskultur”) were established by the Bezirk councils to work on environment issues.[7]

In the early 1980s, the number of environmental protection officers in factories and businesses began to rise, reflecting growing environmental problems. The Bezirk councils and some of the Kreis councils established “standing working groups for socialist environmental protection” and/or “standing commissions for environmental protection, water management, and recreation.” Personnel for “socialist environmental protection” were hired in some state-run forestry operations, such as those in the Bezirke of Suhl and Magdeburg.

While the Environment Act may have provided a legal basis for the strategy of integrating nature conservation into land use, it was a purely formal one. Hopes that landscape planning would be integrated into spatial planning for the country as a whole, and not limited to landscape protection areas and nature reserves, remained unfulfilled. The position of nature conservation generally was weakened, particularly with respect to agriculture. Some progress could be seen in the explicit departure in the Environment Act and associated implementing orders from a preservationist philosophy of nature conservation. Among the stated goals of the management guidelines for both nature reserves and landscape protection areas were the management, development, and planning of landscapes. However, there were no other significant changes that could have helped accomplish the expanded objectives of socialist environmental protection (“sozialistische Landeskultur”).

The Environment Act of 1970, like the Nature Conservation Act of 1954 before it, applied to both populated and unpopulated areas. In terms of its impact, however, it continued to be restricted largely to unpopulated areas and, in particular, to protected areas and objects.


Andersen, A. 1996: Vom Industrialismus zum Konsumismus. Der Beginn einer neuen Phase der gesellschaftlichen Naturverhältnisse in den 1950er Jahren. In: Behrens, H.; Neumann, G. & Schikora, A. (Hg.): Wirtschaftsgeschichte und Umwelt – Hans Mottek zum Gedenken. Marburg: 205-240.

Behrens, H. & Hoffmann, J. 2007: Organisation des Umweltschutzes. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e. V. (Hg.); Behrens, H. & Hoffmann, J. (Bearb.): Umweltschutz in der DDR – Analysen und Zeitzeugenberichte. Band 1: Rahmenbedingungen. München: 41-47.

Oehler, E. 2007: Zur Entwicklung des Umweltrechts. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e. V. (Hg.); Behrens, H. & Hoffmann, J. (Bearb.) 2007: Umweltschutz in der DDR. Analysen und Zeitzeugenberichte. Band 1: Politische und umweltrechtliche Rahmenbedingungen. München: 99-128.

Wegener, U. 1998: Ohne sie hätte sich nichts bewegt – zur Arbeit der ehrenamtlichen Naturschutzhelfer und -helferinnen. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e. V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den neuen Bundesländern – ein Rückblick. Marburg: 89-108.

Weinitschke, H. 1980: Naturschutz gestern – heute – morgen. Leipzig, Jena, Berlin.

[1]     In West Germany, Landeskultur retained its traditional meaning as a broad term encompassing measures for soil conservation, soil improvement, land reclamation, and land consolidation. See Brockhaus-Enzyklopädie, 19th ed., s.v. “Landeskultur.”

[2]     The Neues Ökonomisches System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL), or New Economic System of Planning and Management, was an economic policy introduced in 1963.—Trans

[3]     Gesetz über die planmäßige Gestaltung der sozialistischen Landeskultur (Landeskulturgesetz). GBl. der DDR, Part 1, No. 12, p. 67

[4]     These regulations included the first I.O. concerning the Protection and Care of the Plant and Animal World and the Beauties of the Natural Landscape—Nature Conservation Regulation (Schutz und Pflege der Pflanzen- und Tierwelt und der landschaftlichen Schönheiten—Naturschutzverordnung); the second I.O. concerning the Accessibility, Management, and Development of the Landscape for Recreation (Erschließung, Pflege und Entwicklung der Landschaft für die Erholung); the third I.O. concerning the Cleanliness of Cities and Municipalities and the Recycling of Residential Waste (Sauberhaltung der Städte und Gemeinden und Verwertung von Siedlungsabfällen); and the fourth I.O. concerning Protection from Noise (Schutz vor Lärm).

[5]     The goal of “restoration” (Wiederherstellung) was included in the amended Federal Nature Conservation Act of 2002.

[6]     The Technische Normen, Gütevorschriften und Lieferbedingungen (TGL) were national technical standards. They were requirements with the force of law and not mere guidelines.—Trans.

[7]     For more on the organization of environmental protection in the GDR, see Behrens and Hoffmann (2007, 41–47).

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