The National Parks Program of the GDR: Safeguarding of the “Family Silver of German Unification”

The unexpected opening on November 9, 1989, of the border separating East and West Germany was followed by the formation of a new government headed by Hans Modrow (from November 18, 1989, to the early elections of March 18, 1990). It also heralded a new period of nature conservation that set many milestones and laid the foundations for a national parks program of the GDR. The idea of a national parks program for the entire GDR, which would preserve and develop large areas of the countryside, emerged in a variety of places. One of those places was Waren an der Müritz (Knapp 2012, 53), where an action group had formed, demanding the closure of the state hunting grounds located on Lake Müritz. “The group was quick to react to the political changes and, by December 18, 1989, had presented the People’s Chamber, Prime Minister Modrow, and the Round Table of the GDR with a nine-page document detailing the steps needed to establish a national park on Lake Müritz and outlining a national parks program for landscapes in regions that they deemed particularly worthy of protection. These included Southeast Rügen, Darß-Zingst-Hiddensee, the area around Müritz, Spreewald, the area around the Middle Elbe, the Elbe sandstone highlands, Eichsfeld, and Rhön. This document named eight of the fourteen areas later protected under the unification agreement (Rösler 1998, 562).

The Ministry of Nature Conservation, Environmental Protection and Water Management (MNUW) was founded on January 1, 1990. On January 15, 1990, Michael Succow was appointed deputy minister, in charge of resource protection and land use planning. Like the Müritz action group, Succow had proposed the designation of several national parks in letters written in December 1989 to the then Minister of Environmental Protection and Water Management. More ideas for national parks came from the head of the Kirchliches Forschungsheim in Wittenberg, Hans-Peter Gensichen; from conservationists Uwe Wegener and Heinz Quitt working in the High Harz; and from others in Sächsische Schweiz.

Through March 1990, Succow brought many people with him to the nature conservation division of the Ministry. Among them were Rolf Caspar, former secretary of the GNU governing board in Berlin, Hans-Dieter Knapp (self-employed botanist), Matthias Freude of the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Lutz Reichhoff of ILN Dessau (and Deputy Director of the ILN), Wolfgang Böhnert of ILN Dresden, Lebrecht Jeschke of ILN Greifswald, and several leading ILN staff members.

On January 27–28, 1990, conservationists from East and West Germany met in Berlin for a major conference on nature conservation. The preceding weeks had been spent in a lively exchange, renewing contacts that had been largely severed after the Wall was built in 1961. As the Kulturbund member organization Society for Nature and Environment (GNU) slowly collapsed in the months from November 1989 to March 1990, a number of new groups were founded in the GDR. These included the Grüne Liga (Green League), a network of independent, local environment groups, and the Naturschutzbund der DDR (Nature Conservation League of the GDR). This latter group, formed on March 18, 1990, was a spin-off of the GNU. In addition, an increasing number of environmental organizations operating in West Germany, including BUND, WWF, and Greenpeace, established branches in the GDR (Behrens 2010).

The first meeting of the Zentraler Runder Tisch (Central Round Table) took place on December 7, 1989. The Central Round Table convened a total of 16 times before its last meeting on March 12, 1990. The “round tables,” which were also held at local levels, had become “new forms of representation and legitimation” (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2013) that tried to fill the power vacuum left after the rule of the SED and its bloc parties collapsed. The Central Round Table formed a working group for “ecological reorganization” (ökologischer Umbau), which presented the results of its activities on March 5, 1990, with a “Proposal Regarding the Inclusion of Ecological Principles in Social and Economic Development.”[1] On April 4, 1990, the Central Round Table presented a constitution for a democratic and independent GDR based on the principles of the welfare state and environmentally sustainable development. “But at this point the political revolution of the GDR had already moved beyond reform positions such as these. In the end, the Round Table was merely left with the job of organizing the first free elections in the GDR, which were brought forward from May 1990 to March 18, 1990” (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2013).

Another round table, the Central Green Table of the GDR, was established by the MNUW. It met for the first time on January 24, 1990. Among the issues it discussed was the national parks program. The Green Round Table met again on February 21, 1990, but was disbanded after the elections on March 18.

In early February, 1990, Hans-Dieter Knapp formed a National Parks Committee at the MNUW. Its members included ministry staff as well as representatives of citizens’ initiatives and members of local administrations from the areas affected by the plans for large-scale protected areas. Meetings were initially held once per month but became much more frequent in the summer of 1990.

Earlier, on January 30, 1990, a preliminary proposal for a national parks program had been drafted. It contained the categories “national park,” “biosphere reserve,” and “natural park reserve” (Naturschutzpark), this last category being a more strongly preservationist variant of the category of “natural park” (Naturpark), which was enshrined in the West German Federal Nature Conservation Act. Succow presented this proposal to the Central Round Table at its meeting on February 5, 1990. The Round Table approved it unanimously and requested that the government make the necessary funds available promptly (Rösler 1998, 566).

In mid-February, the MNUW issued its first regulation aimed at strengthening government conservation work. It resulted in the formation of functioning conservation authorities in the Kreise and Bezirke.

“The plan was for each Bezirk to establish a nature conservation department with a staff of approximately eight people. There would be one person each assigned to species protection, landscape planning, the protection of woods and parks, land use planning, and soil conservation. In addition, the Bezirke were to establish nature conservation centers, each with a staff of five to ten people, and nature conservation stations, each with a staff of eight to twenty people. With a view to the future reintroduction of the Länder, two employees were to be hired per Bezirk and tasked with setting up environment agencies for the Länder. There were to be changes on the Kreis councils as well, with three to five employees assigned to nature conservation and land use. This amounted to approximately 1,400 jobs (N.N./Umweltreport 1990). Large parts of the reform were implemented in April. Approximately 1,000 new jobs were created in nature conservation, most of them filled by people who had previously been active in conservation in their leisure time. They now formed the indispensable basis not only of the GDR’s national parks program but, more generally, of nature conservation in the GDR and, later, in the five new Länder” (Rösler 1998, 567).

In March, the Ministry succeeded in closing all the “industrial animal production facilities” for environmental reasons, with the exception of one in Ferdinandshof, Western-Pomerania.

Among the most remarkable conservation measures taken in the short period of the Modrow administration was the founding of the International Nature Conservation Academy on the island of Vilm, which until then had served as a resort for East Germany’s political elite. At that point, cooperation with the West was already sufficiently advanced that the academy was established with the agreement of the West German Environment Ministry.

On March 16, 1990, the Council of Ministers approved a draft resolution for the national parks program. It named six biosphere reserves, five national parks, and twelve natural park reserves and called for these areas to be provisionally secured as landscape protection areas of central importance. On the basis of this resolution, development committees with 20 members each were established in the affected areas, and 6.55 million East German marks were set aside for the program in that year’s budget (1990).

The government of Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, formed following the election of March 18, 1990, took up the mandate of the previous administration and allowed work on the national parks program to continue. This was the primary focus of its work on conservation, alongside the consolidation of conservation authorities.

On April 12, 1990, the MNUW was renamed the Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, Energy and Nuclear Safety (MUNER) to reflect the wording of the West German ministry’s name. At the same time, Karl-Hermann Steinberg was appointed Minister.

Succow initially remained in charge of his division at the Ministry, but he resigned his post on May 15, 1990 (concerning his reasons for doing so, see Rösler 1998, 571–574). In the meantime, work continued on the national parks program. At a meeting on June 25, 1990, at the West German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in Bonn, the West German Länder arranged to support the national parks program in the form of a sponsorship scheme.

The Environmental Framework Law (Umweltrahmengesetz) was signed on behalf of the governments of the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) on June 29, 1990, and took effect on July 1, 1990, the same day that the currency union became effective. With this move, large parts of the West German Federal Nature Conservation Act became effective in the GDR. At the same time, however, the national parks program profited from the fact that East German environmental law and regulations continued to apply at the Länder level.

“The Federal Nature Conservation Act—and thus Section 16, which regulated natural parks—became directly applicable in the GDR as of July 1, 1990. East German law continued to apply to those issues which were not covered by the Federal Nature Conservation Act but for which provisions had been made in the GDR’s Environment Act and Nature Conservation Regulation. Examples included nest protection zones and biosphere reserves. In May and June, as the prospect of environmental union drew ever closer, the idea of natural reserve parks died. As political unification approached ever faster, efforts focused on securing as many areas of the national parks program as possible via the unification agreement. This was imperative, as GDR law would only apply in those areas not covered by the Federal Nature Conservation Act for a limited time after the transition. [...]

The Environmental Framework Law stated in Article 6, Nature Conservation and Landscape Management,

–     that the 23 areas named in the resolution of the Council of Ministers on March 16, 1990, would continue to have provisional protection status according to the GDR Nature Conservation Regulation of May 1989 (Section 5.2);

–     that national parks, nature reserves, and landscape protection areas of central importance would be established by a resolution of the Council of Ministers (Section 6.1);

–     that the Environment Minister was responsible for the provisional protection of national parks, nature reserves, and landscape protection areas of central importance; and for regulating the establishment and activities of administrative bodies for such areas (Section 6.2).

It is thanks to these provisions that it was possible to put the GDR’s national parks program on a secure legal footing. The Environmental Framework Law, drafted in large part by West German lawyers who specialized in nature conservation law, was created with a view to implementing this program” (Rösler 1998, 577). Arnulf Müller-Helmbrecht, a lawyer from the Environment Ministry in Bonn who had been assigned to MUNER in mid-May, 1990, played a critical role in this work (Müller-Helmbrecht 1998).

When, on August 23, 1990, the People’s Chamber of the GDR resolved that the GDR would accede to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) on October 3, 1990, that date became the deadline for all decrees concerning all areas to be placed under protection. As the decrees were not issued until after the unification agreement between the GDR and the FRG was signed on August 31, 1990, the agreement does not contain any mention of the national parks program.

Just a short time before unification, in the last session of the Council of Ministers on September 12, 1990, six biosphere reserves, five national parks and three natural parks were placed under protection for the national parks program in accordance with the law of the GDR. Twelve other areas were placed under protection provisionally.

On September 18, 1990, an additional agreement pursuant to the unification agreement of August 31, 1990, was signed by Wolfgang Schäuble on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany and Günther Krause on behalf of the German Democratic Republic. This agreement confirmed the 14 decrees concerning the national parks program that had been issued by the Council of Ministers. The other 12 areas were placed under provisional protection for a period of two years.

“Within ten months, more had been accomplished for nature conservation in terms of actual physical area than government and private conservation efforts had managed in the previous 100 years” (Rösler 1998, 583).


Behrens, H. 2010: 1990-2010 – Das Ende der „Gesellschaft für Natur und Umwelt im Kulturbund der DDR” (GNU) – Ein Zeitzeugenbericht. Studienarchiv Umweltgeschichte 15: 39-72.

Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2013: Aufgerufen am 7.2.2013.

Knapp, H.-D. 2012: Das Nationalparkprogramm der DDR. In: Succow, M.; Jeschke, L. & Knapp, H.-D.: Naturschutz in Deutschland. Rückblicke – Einblicke – Ausblicke. Berlin: 53-62.

Müller-Helmbrecht, A. 1998: Endspurt – das Nationalparkprogramm im Wettlauf mit der Zeit. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e. V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den neuen Bundesländern – ein Rückblick. 2 Halbbände. Marburg. Band 2: 597-608.

Rösler, M. 1998: Das Nationalparkprogramm der DDR. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e. V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den neuen Bundesländern – ein Rückblick. 2 Halbbände. Marburg. Band 2: 561-596.

[1]     Stasi-Unterlagen-Gesetz [StUG] 004-1. Collection of the Grüne Liga e.V.

Erinnerungen von Zeitzeugen

Literatur zum Weiterlesen

Gilsenbach, R.: Die größte DDR der Welt - ein Staat ohne Nationalparke. Des Merken Würdiges aus meiner grünen Donquichotterie. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den Neuen Bundesländern - Ein Rückblick. Berlin 2001: 533-546.

Rösler, M.: Nationalparkinitiativen in der DDR bis zur Wende 1989. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den Neuen Bundesländern - Ein Rückblick. Berlin 2001: 547-560.

Rösler, M.: Das Nationalparkprogramm der DDR. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den Neuen Bundesländern - Ein Rückblick. Berlin 2001: 561-595.

Müller-Helmbrecht, A.: Endspurt - das Nationalparkprogramm im Wettlauf mit der Zeit. In: Institut für Umweltgeschichte und Regionalentwicklung e.V. (Hg.): Naturschutz in den Neuen Bundesländern - Ein Rückblick. Berlin 2001: 597-608.