German Environmentalism

Germany has come to be known as one of the greenest nations in the world, and can trace its environmental consciousness back decades. Around the turn of the century, so-called “life reformers” began to inadvertently sow the seeds for future environmental movements by promoting concepts such as nature, homeland, and hygiene to urban Germans plagued by the ills of industry. Later, though conservationism declined under Nazi rule, the economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, after World War II prompted a resurgence of environmentalism. In The Greenest Nation?, Frank Uekötter writes, newfound wealth allowed for the restoration of “…traditional German values such as Behaglichkeit and Gemütlichkeit (a quest for simple pleasures and homely comfort)” absent during the war, and triggered a public intolerance of pollution as their lives became more pleasant.

Mit KŠfer und ãConstanzeÒ ins GrŸne Ð ein verbreitetes FreizeitvergnŸgen. 1957 Mit dem Käfer ins Grüne - 1957 ein verbreitetes Freizeitvergnügen.
German family enjoys the park, and their Volkswagen, in an expression of Behaglichkeit and Gemütlichkeit. (Photo: Spiegel)

The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm put environmentalism on the agenda of nations worldwide, but forest diebacks in the 1980s secured the place of environmental consciousness as a top priority for Germany, whose Green Party saw political success throughout the decade. Writes Frank Uekötter, “… for a country with a deeply disturbing history of nationalism, it was truly gratifying to find a type of collective identity that is actually safe,” explaining the integration of green ideology as unifying German people as the nation, and world, began to take environmental issues more seriously.

"The Forest Dies Here" German Poster from the late 1980s
“The Forest Dies Here” German Poster from the late 1980s (Photo:
1990 GRD Green Party logo
1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment newsletter

Particularly noteworthy in understanding German environmentalism are its allotment gardens. From 19th century “pauper’s gardens,” plots given to the indigent for produce cultivation, to Schrebergarten, founded for children’s outdoor education, to Red Cross workers gardens, these green spaces offered German city dwellers a chance to experience nature within the metropolis. Moreover, Germany’s allotment gardens often contained small homes, making them not sites of passive appreciation but rather actual places of living for German citizens (often poor). The gardens are political, governed by federal laws which regulate their size, use, and leasing. They’re expressions of German folk culture, and living remnants of an industrialized formerly agrarian nation.

Allotment Garden

Schrebergärten (Photo: Papsch & Mulitze: Over the Fence Looked)

Germany continues to take its green identity seriously. A series of landmark environmental protection legislation in the 1970s, such as the Children’s Playground Law, State Forest Law, and Berlin Nature-Conservation Law, all in 1979, paved the way for Germany’s contemporary progressive stance. Its Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Energy refers to the nation as both “a driving force behind the international climate protection process” and “taking the lead in Europe [by demonstrating] that it is possible to restructure industrial societies to become environmentally sound and… giving an impetus for the development of ambitious European environmental standards.” Indeed, according to the 2014 Global Green Economic Index, Germany is perceived to be the greenest nation in the world. Though this title actually belongs to Sweden, the perception of Germany as most eco-friendly means a great deal in its global influence and ability to enact change domestically and internationally. Moreover, its green practices rank Germany in the top five performing countries in the index, due in large part to a commitment to green infrastructure, sustainable transportation, and renewable energy.

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2014 Global Green Economic Index (Photo: Dual Citizen LLC)