Socialist Intensification in Agriculture and Forestry

As far back as the 1950s, conservationists had had to contend with demands for extensive increases in agricultural production. The idea of plowing up meadows and pasture lands to gain additional croplands, for instance, was widely promoted. At the time, calls to preserve or even expand grasslands were seen as reactionary. In the 1960s, nature conservation was increasingly confronted with problems resulting from intensified land use (including grassland use), and attendant land improvement and fertilization practices. The complete collectivization of agricultural production, which had been achieved throughout the GDR by 1960 and which aimed to industrialize agriculture and revolutionize social structures in villages, put increased pressure on agricultural landscapes. Contributing further to extensive changes in the country’s agricultural landscape were large-scale drainage projects in major wetlands such as Friedländer Große Wiese in Western-Pomerania and Wische in Altmark. These projects were carried out by young people as part of government-organized youth activity programs.

It was the policy of “socialist intensification,” however, that first brought about really fundamental changes in the agricultural landscape. The resolutions of the SED’s Sixth Party Congress in 1963 and Seventh Party Congress in 1967 contributed to the intensification of land use.

The New Economic System of Planning and Management (NÖSPL) was announced at the Sixth Party Congress in 1963. This was an attempt to introduce an economic management system that combined a planned economy approach with the price mechanisms of the market. From that time on, the state mantras were “specialization, cooperation, and industrial production.” Pilot projects and prestige projects were given unreasonable targets, which were not restricted to large-scale land improvement programs for grasslands. Many agricultural landscapes were radically reshaped to facilitate industrial production methods, including sprinkler irrigation and factory-style “animal production.” These efforts encompassed drainage projects, the construction of access roads and industrial farming facilities, land leveling, and land consolidation. “General land improvement plans” (Generalmeliorationspläne), classified as confidential, were implemented systematically. These measures were initiated and enforced by high-level SED party leadership bodies, often in the face of resistance from the affected enterprises. Farmers did not generally accept these new developments as they led to a breakdown in the relationship between the village and the countryside and caused an increasing sense of alienation from the natural resources of production among agricultural workers. Evidence of such alienation can be found in remarks made in 1971 by Hans-Friedrich Joachim of the Institute of Forestry Sciences in Eberswalde. In a reference to the sometimes extreme denuding of fields and meadows, he stated: “Mention should be made of the benefit of bushes and small trees along field boundaries. Tractor drivers working on large areas need a visible boundary to the fields in which they work, both to reduce symptoms of fatigue and to give them a sense of achievement. Aspects of industrial and organizational psychology and of occupational health and safety thus have a role to play in deliberations regarding the planting of shrubs and small trees along large fields” (Joachim 1971, 8).

The slogan “socialist intensification” originated at the Seventh Party Congress of 1967 in the context of attempts to accelerate and intensify the use of scientific findings and technological advances. Another slogan was überholen ohne einzuholen, a phrase that used the metaphors of “pulling ahead” and “catching up” to suggest that the East should overtake the West economically without following in its capitalist path. These slogans were created to further the implementation of the “Economic System of Socialism” (ÖSS), as NÖSPL was referred to at this stage.

The power of the agricultural lobby can be seen in Article 15, Section 2, of the 1968 Constitution of the GDR. While this new version of the Constitution enshrined nature conservation, it did not contain the section in Article 26 of the 1949 Constitution which named landscape design and management as effective strategies for ensuring the stability of agricultural production. This change was related to political and economic developments which saw two new agricultural policies introduced on a grand scale following the Seventh Party Congress in 1967. The first involved the use of a variety of measures aimed at supporting industrial agriculture (drainage projects, construction of access roads, and industrial agricultural facilities, etc.). The second called for the separation of animal and plant production and established two new enterprise types: Kooperative Abteilungen Pflanzenproduktion (KAP) and Kombinate Industrielle Mast (KIM). KAP were cooperatives that farmed areas encompassing multiple communities, while KIM—literally “industrial fattening combines”—were large-scale animal production operations (Krenz 1996). Preservation-oriented landscape management were no longer desired.

Food supply targets were raised despite the fact that croplands were shrinking as a share of the country’s total area and air pollution was negatively affecting yields. As a result, the agricultural sector was forced to constantly step up production. This led not only to a complete restructuring of enterprise and land-use models, but to an increase in the use of heavy machinery and agrochemicals (applied using technology such as crop-dusting), and to complex manipulations of soil moisture. The consequences were fertilizer and pesticide residues[1] in ground and surface water, as well as growing soil erosion and compaction. Large-scale animal production facilities caused additional water and air pollution.

Forestry was not untouched by “socialist intensification.” In the mid to late 1950s, forced industrialization and better earning potential in other sectors resulted in an increasing number of forestry workers seeking employment outside their field. Soon there was a noticeable shortage of labor. Resulting pressure to streamline operations caused the labor-intensive approach of optimal stocking forestry (vorratspflegliche Waldwirtschaft) to be replaced for a short time by site-appropriate forestry (standortgerechte Forstwirtschaft). This brief phase—introduced on October 18, 1961, by a decree of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on the Principles of the Silvicultural Management of Forests in the GDR[2]—was a high point of site-appropriate forestry, in which stand tending continued to play a major role.

This phase came to an end in 1967, as Gerhard Grüneberg, an influential member of the SED Central Committee, turned his attention from agriculture to forestry and pushed for the use of industrial production methods there, too. These methods were also promoted at the Seventh Party Congress and at the Tenth German Farmers Congress in 1967. Forestry policy now favored the use of heavy machinery, which led not only to the renewed dominance of clearcutting as a practice, but to ever-larger clearcuts. Under these conditions, timber production took the place of forest management and growth. From 1970/71 on, forestry was fully integrated into central economic planning. Special mechanical harvesting crews were formed as silvicultural practices receded into the background. “Utility and economics, combined with pronounced dirigisme, determined what was done in the forests. District foresters and head foresters were essentially reduced to mere executors” (Milnik, Heyde, and Schult 1998, 212).

This phase of socialist intensification in forestry was marked, particularly in the 1970s, by increasingly frequent and ever larger clearcuts (up to 30 hectares), greatly reduced cultivation of deciduous species, and a rise in game populations. The clearcutting inevitably led to the widespread use of chemicals and heavy machinery, as well as the establishment of pine and spruce monocultures. Increases in population targets for game, including red deer, fallow deer, and roe deer, were the result of the greater status accorded to hunting as a part of the “developed social system of socialism.”

“Socialist intensification” continued to have an effect, especially in agriculture and forestry, until the late 1970s and, together with lignite mining, dominated the day-to-day problems of nature conservation, which, despite the concerns and warnings of its advocates (see Meusel, Bauer, and Weinitschke 1961; Weinitschke 1962), received virtually no attention.


Institut für Umweltschutz (Hg.) 1990: Umweltbericht der DDR. Informationen zur Analyse der Umweltbedingungen in der DDR und zu weiteren Maßnahmen. Berlin.

Joachim, H.-F. 1971: Landeskulturelle Probleme im Rahmen der Flurneugestaltung. Archiv für Naturschutz und Landschaftsforschung 11 (1/2): 3-15.

Krenz, G. 1996: Notizen zur Landwirtschaftsentwicklung in den Jahren 1945-1990: Erinnerungen und Bekenntnisse eines Zeitzeugen aus dem Bezirk Neubrandenburg. Schwerin.

Meusel, H.; Bauer, L. & Weinitschke, H. 1961: Die Neuordnung der Fluren als landeskulturelle Aufgabe. Mitteilungen Naturschutz 6 (1): 3-7.

Milnik, A.; Heyde, V. & Schult, R. 1998: In Verantwortung für den Wald. Die Geschichte der Forstwirtschaft in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone und der DDR. Hrsg. vom Brandenburgischen Ministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Forsten. Potsdam.

Weinitschke, H. 1962: Naturschutz und Landwirtschaft. Mitteilungen Naturschutz 7 (3): 3-5.

[1]     The 1990 Environmental Report of the GDR gives the following example of heavy pesticide use: “The amount of pre-sowing herbicide Bi3411 currently being applied is 18 to 27 kg/ha. Amounts ranging from 125 to 250 g/ha are common internationally” (Institut für Umweltschutz 1990, 44).

[2]     The original German title of this decree is Grundsätze zur waldbaulichen Behandlung der Forsten in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik.

Erinnerungen von Zeitzeugen

Literatur zum Weiterlesen

Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.); Behrens, H. (Bearb.): Naturschutzgeschichte Thüringens. Lexikon der Naturschutzbeauftragten, Band 4. Berlin 2015: 231-259.