How the nature garden lost its innocence: political misuse in the Third Reich

© Wikimedia
Private garden design by Lange at his house in Berlin-Wannsee around 1920
© Möllers Deutsche Gärtnerzeitung 1934
Garden architect and teacher Willy Lange

From Nature to "Rooted" Gardens: Politicized Garden Art in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich

Article by Prof. Dr. em. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn in Gartenkunst 2/2023

In an article for the latest issue of "Gartenkunst," Prof. Dr. em. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn traces the unfortunate manner in which the plea of Prussian garden teacher and garden architect Willy Lange (1864–1941) for a "natural garden" in the Third Reich contributed to the early promotion of the Blood and Soil ideology. Wolschke-Bulmahn, former chairholder at the Institute of Landscape Architecture, describes the transition from a natural garden to a national socialist "rooted" garden, which was supposed to be small-scale and adapted to the landscape, using only native plants and building materials. During this time, gardens were subordinated to a political mandate under the ideal of "art and race-appropriate simplicity."

Wolschke-Bulmahn presented his thoughts under the title of "reactionary modernism" at a German-French specialist conference: "Gardens and Politics: Gardens in the Tension Field of Political Appropriation and Societal Challenges – History, Experiences, Perspectives," held from June 9 to 11, 2022, in Bad Muskau (also published in the Revue Germanique Internationale, According to him, Lange, who worked at the Royal Gardener Training Institute in Berlin-Dahlem until 1915 and then worked freelance, believed that a natural garden represented the highest level of garden art: for him, this level "was a racial characteristic of the 'Germanic' or 'Nordic' peoples" because it "resulted from their (…) close connection to the soil and the native landscape."

Already at the end of the Weimar Republic, Lange's "emphasis on the native in contrast to the glorification of the international (…)" (in: Modern Garden Design, Berlin 1928), among other things, initiated an ideological shift in garden and landscape planning. In the Third Reich, the aesthetics of such a perceived natural garden took a fatal 'blossom.' National Socialism, according to Wolschke-Bulmahn, significantly influenced both the profession of the garden architect and the ideological concepts of garden design. Even the use of foreign plants essentially represented 'degenerate' garden art. At the same time, experimentation dwindled, and intellectual stagnation prevailed.

Influences from abroad were rejected, and "reactionary German garden architects" – including Wilhelm Hübotter – polemically and later disparagingly confronted modern, avant-garde designs even before 1933. During the Nazi era, ideologues like Reich Landscape Counselor Alwin Seifert declared garden art a worldview, with Lange's student Hans Hasler being particularly active. However, despite politicization, the search for a Nazi-typical garden remained "helpless," writes Wolschke-Bulmahn. The rejection of everything forward-looking was accompanied by repression: those who voiced dissenting opinions (only a few individuals like Karl Foerster or Camillo Schneider objected) faced suppression, professional bans, or had to emigrate.