Continuity and Change under the Continued Mandate of the Reich Conservation Act

Prewar nature conservation laws and regulations remained in effect in the Soviet occupation zone following the end of the Second World War on May 8, 1945. These laws and regulations consisted of the Reich Conservation Act of 1935 (Reichsnaturschutzgesetz); regulations implementing the Act that were promulgated on October 31, 1935; and the Nature Conservation Regulation (Naturschutzverordnung) of March 18, 1936, concerning the protection of wild plants and wild, non-game animals. The Reich Conservation Act was not considered to be politically compromised. It remained in effect as a law of the Länder after the founding of the GDR on October 7, 1949, and, following the administrative reform of 1952, remained formally in effect until 1954. In reality, however, the Act, signed by “Führer and Reich Chancellor” Adolf Hitler and “Reich Forestry Chief” Hermann Göring, was rarely enforced.

The Reich Conservation Act regulated nature conservation in areas “free” of human settlement. It addressed “general landscape protection” and extended protection to natural monuments,[1] nature reserves (including the newly designated Reich nature reserves), “other landscape areas in free nature,” and endangered species (Reichsnaturschutzgesetz, Sections 5, 19, and 20). Objects and areas were judged to be worthy of protection on the basis of rarity, beauty, decorative value, distinctiveness, and scientific, ethnological, or historical significance (Reichsnaturschutzgesetz, Sections 1–5). Most of the nature reserves selected in accordance with the principles of the Act were considered to hold fairly little economic promise, and at the same time to be close to nature, representative of a certain native environment or habitat, unique, rare, or beautiful. Many of the “landscape areas” (Landschaftsteile) protected under the Act were later designated as landscape protection areas. The new concept of “Reich nature reserves” owed much to the old idea of state parks. These areas were misused as hunting grounds, however (Frohn 2006), a prime example of this being the Reich nature reserve of Schorfheide.

Traditionally, the work of nature conservation had been done by unpaid volunteers (“conservation officers”) holding honorary positions in municipal, county, and state administrations. The Reich Conservation Act aimed to change this and stipulated that there should be a hierarchical system of public authorities staffed with government employees responsible for nature conservation. By May 1945, however, there was still no such system in place. In essence, nature conservation continued to be practiced on a largely volunteer basis, as it had been prior to 1935. As the Prussian model of administration was adopted throughout Germany and its occupied territories, however, nature conservation offices (staffed by volunteers) were created at all administrative levels. The Reich Office of Nature Conservation (Reichsstelle für Naturschutz) was the central administrative body, and functioned as a scientific institution with advisory authority.

This system of organizing nature conservation was not retained in the Soviet occupation zone. There was no central government agency for nature conservation at the occupation zone level. The five Länder in the zone did not take a unified approach to regulating authority for nature conservation, which was sometimes handled by the forestry division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and sometimes by the Ministry of People’s Education. Honorary conservation officers gradually took up their positions again in many of the municipal, county and state administrations. Nature conservation offices no longer existed, however, despite the fact that the Reich Conservation Act was still in effect and called for these offices to be staffed with an average of eight to ten unpaid expert advisors.

After the founding of the GDR in 1949, a number of new conservation regulations were promulgated, including several concerning the protection of bees in 1951.

The administrative reform of 1952 resulted in the dissolution of the five Länder and their respective administrations (including nature conservation offices), and the introduction of fifteen administrative districts called Bezirke. This reform was mandated by the Act Concerning the Further Democratization of the Structure and Functioning of State Organs in the Länder in the GDR, enacted on July 23, 1952.[2] The number of Kreise (smaller administrative districts, subordinate to the Bezirke) increased substantially, with the result that individual Kreise represented smaller administrative areas. Throughout 1951, nature conservation records were divided up and distributed among the new administrative units.

One of the results of the reform was considerable uncertainty regarding questions of authority over nature conservation. A directive of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry “regarding the performance of conservation work,” was issued to all Bezirk councils on September 27, 1952, with the goal of providing clarity on this issue. The directive reaffirmed that the Nature Conservation Regulation of March 18, 1936, remained in effect (“until the enactment of a law that regulates specific details”) and it clarified questions of authority over nature conservation. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry was given supreme authority over nature conservation. Responsibility for these matters at an intermediate administrative level was assigned to the forestry authorities of the Bezirk councils, and at the lowest level to the agriculture and forestry departments of the Kreis councils. The directive also named the German Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Deutsche Akademie der Landwirtschaftswissenschaften, DAL), founded in Berlin on October 17, 1951, as an advisory institution.

The Bezirke and Kreise were instructed to “appoint within the Bezirke and Kreise honorary conservation officers, who shall support and provide expert advice to the nature conservation authorities in cooperation with the democratic parties and mass organizations, in particular the Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands. The officers selected are to be progressive in outlook and possess knowledge of the country’s geography, history, and natural history.”[3]

The Decree on the Preservation and Care of National Cultural Monuments,[4] issued on June 26, 1952, resolved any ambiguity regarding responsibility over the preservation of natural monuments, removing it from the State Commission on Art and subordinate institutions under the Ministry of People’s Education. However, this move was followed in 1953 by the creation of a department for Landeskultur within the Central Office for Water Management. The department was to take on responsibility for issues of nature conservation and landscape management that arose in connection with land improvement measures.

On November 12, 1952, another directive was issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry “regarding the performance of conservation work.” It contained a list of animal and plant species that were placed under protection.[5]

Yet another directive of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry “regarding the performance of conservation work,” was issued on January 28, 1953. It tasked the Bezirke with appointing new honorary conservation officers at both Kreis and Bezirk levels. Accordingly, the Bezirke submitted lists of names to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.[6]

In many cases, considerable time passed before details of government and administrative changes reached the organizations affected (local administrations, nature conservation organizations, factories, etc.). The administrative reform of 1952, and later the drafting of the Nature Conservation Act of the GDR, entailed new challenges involving personnel and organization that could not be met satisfactorily.

The founding of the GDR in 1949 also spelled changes for the way in which Vereine (private clubs and societies) were organized. Vereine had played a key role in nature conservation and Heimatschutz (the preservation of German culture and countryside, literally “homeland protection”) until the end of the war. The Decree on the Integration of People’s Art Groups and Cultural or Educational Societies into Existing Democratic Mass Organizations,[7] enacted on January 12, 1949, abolished the legal framework of the Vereine. Existing Heimatschutz and nature conservation groups were incorporated into the Kulturbund. The next few years saw the gradual establishment of a hierarchically structured, partially state-run and state-controlled section of the Kulturbund called Friends of Nature and Heimat (Natur- und Heimatfreunde). From April 1952 to 1961, the Friends published a monthly periodical titled Nature and Heimat (Natur und Heimat). It had a circulation of 54,000 and was the only nature conservation magazine in the GDR that was available for purchase by the public.

As a rule, the conservation officers in the redrawn Kreise began their work by documenting the protected areas of their district, including registered natural monuments and any nature reserves or other natural areas (Landschaftsteile) that were placed under protection prior to 1945. Despite the fact that Section 20 of the Reich Conservation Act required the involvement of conservation authorities in the planning or implementation of measures initiated by other administrative divisions, this was rarely done and usually happened only when objects or areas already under protection were affected. In the early postwar years, conservation officers spent considerable time and effort on a variety of local public outreach initiatives.

Nature conservation was not widely embraced by the public at this time. Their energies were devoted primarily to dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War, specifically with rebuilding cities, villages, and infrastructure; accommodating approximately 4.3 million refugees, displaced persons, and emigrants from Germany’s former territories in the East; solving food shortages; rebuilding administrative structures and coping with attendant personnel problems. It was also at this time that the system of property ownership changed, in terms of both law and organization (the land reform of 1945, and waves of socialization in trade and industry).

No attempt was made to reappraise the nature and landscape conservation policies pursued under the Nazis. In the Soviet sector, as in the British, French, and American zones, there were continuities both in the personnel who administered policy and in certain ideas or philosophies that informed that policy. Numerous conservation officers had been members of the Nazi party until the end of the war and were allowed—as a rule after a “probation period” of several years—to return to their honorary positions. Almost all the officers had been followers of the Nazis. Those whose involvement went beyond mere party membership had already left the Soviet occupation zone for other occupation zones (Behrens 2010 a).

In terms of philosophy, Alwin Seifert’s influential idea of the German countryside as a “landscape of fields and hedgerows” continued to hold sway. This owed much to the denuding of fields and meadows after the Second World War, however, and was primarily a political response to post-war food shortages. These various factors led the authors of the 1949 Constitution of the GDR to name (in Article 26) landscape conservation and management as a precondition for stable yields in agriculture. Thus conservation practices were directly connected with agriculture for the first time.


Frohn, H.-W. 2006: Naturschutz macht Staat – Staat macht Naturschutz. Von der Staatlichen Stelle für Naturdenkmalpflege in Preußen bis zum Bundesamt für Naturschutz 1906 bis 2006 – eine Institutionengeschichte. In: Bundesamt für Naturschutz (Hg.); Frohn, H.-W. & Schmoll, F. (Bearb.): Natur und Staat. Staatlicher Naturschutz in Deutschland 1906-2006. Naturschutz und Biologische Vielfalt 35. Bonn-Bad Godesberg: 85-342.

[1]     The German term Naturdenkmal, meaning “natural monument,” refers to an individual feature of a landscape, such as a tree, waterfall, or rock formation. Later, the term Flächennaturdenkmal, or “natural monument area” was created to refer to comparatively small protected areas.—Trans.

[2]      The original German title of this act is Gesetz über die weitere Demokratisierung des Aufbaus und der Arbeitsweise der staatlichen Organe in den Ländern in der DDR. —Trans.

[3]     BArch DK 1/3759 (Akte Schutz seltener Vogelarten), p. 25.

[4]      The original German title of this decree is Verordnung zur Erhaltung und Pflege der nationalen Kulturdenkmale.—Trans.

[5]     BArch DK 1/3759 (Akte Schutz seltener Vogelarten), p. 27–30.

[6]     See BArch DK 1/10290 (Tätigkeit der Abt. Landeskultur und Naturschutz, Band 1), pp. 261–294, containing a list of the then approximately 200 Kreis and Bezirk conservation officers.

[7]     The original German title of the decree is Verordnung zur Überführung von Volkskunstgruppen und volksbildenden Vereinen in die bestehenden demokratischen Massenorganisationen.—Trans.

Erinnerungen von Zeitzeugen

Literatur zum Weiterlesen

Behrens, H.: Die ersten Jahre - Naturschutz und Landschaftspflege in der SBZ/DDR von 1945 bis Anfang der 60er Jahre. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den Neuen Bundesländern - Ein Rückblick. Berlin 2001: 15-86.

Behrens, H.: Von der Landesplanung zur Territorialplanung. Zur Entwicklung der räumlichen Planung in der SBZ/DDR von 1945 bis Anfang der 60er Jahre. Marburg 1997.