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Former Nazi hunting ground turns into biodiversity hotspot

Jutta Schwengsbier / rkMarch 5, 2015

Nazi and East German political elites went to great lengths to preserve the Schorfheide as their hunting grounds for decades. This pays off today: The area has turned into one of the most biodiverse places in Europe.

Elche im Wildpark Schorfheide
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The UNESCO biosphere reserve Schorfheide-Chorin, located around 70 km (40 miles) northeast of Berlin, is one of the largest protected areas in Germany. It has more than 320 lakes, thousands of bogs and mires, extended forests, meadows and arable land.

Since the Middle Ages, the Cistercian Monastery of Chorin farmed the lands in the area. Later on, high-ranking Nazi leaders discovered the forest for their own interests: They preserved it as a hunting ground. And when the area later became part of East Germany, Communist leaders did the same. Thanks to these power elites, the unique vegetation of this area has not been destroyed. Today, Schorfheide-Chorin is considered one of the most diverse areas in Europe.

Nazi hunting ground

A small, half-timbered house lies in the middle of the forest. It was built for the rangers, Uwe Schneider told DW. He used to work as a metal craftsman but is now responsible for environmental education in the biosphere reserve.

Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin Uwe Schneider
Uwe Schneider is one of the reserve's guidesImage: DW/J. Schwengsbier

Uwe Schneider does not only teach visitors about the environment; he also explains the history linked to the area. "This little house was built before World War II," he says. At that time, elks and European bison were released here for the hunting forays of Nazi elites. The rangers who were employed to monitor the animals needed a place to stay, so this little house was built.

"In 1936, during the Third Reich, an environmental foundation was created, and the Schorfheide was declared an environmental protection zone," Schneider goes on. However, the aim of this foundation was not primarily to protect nature: Hermann Göring, one of the top Nazi military leaders, was just one of many keen hunters who came to the biosphere reserve for entertainment."

Göring, who was the commander of the Luftwaffe (air force), was also appointed as a forest superintendent, Schneider told DW. Göring also built a pompous country residency here. Shortly before the end of WWII, he asked the air force to destroy it so it would not fall into the hands of the enemy.

From Nazi leaders to GDR elite

When the country was divided after the end of the Second World War into East and West Germany, Schorfheide - due to it’s location in the very east of the country- became part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). And it was as popular amongst the elites of the GDR as it had been amongst Nazi leaders.

Deutschland DDR Erich Honecker auf der Jagd
Honnecker (right) was also a passionate hunterImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Uwe Schneider shows his visitors a picture of Erich Honecker, the head of the GDR's uncontested ruling Socialist Unity Party, portraying him with a buck he just killed. "Erich Honecker was hunting in the Schorfheide for decades all the way up to 1989," when the Berlin Wall came down. Until the GDR was dissolved and Germany reunited in 1990, the leaders of the GDR claimed the area for themselves. The whole area was closed off by GDR State Security, or the Stasi. After reunification, the Schorfheide became a national park and was officially made a protected area.

For the sake of conservation

Ironically, thanks to the Nazis and GDR leaders, the decades of preservation are paying off now. "This is one of the most diverse places in Europe," said Uta Kietsch, who runs a local seed store and collects plants in the biosphere reserve to produce the seeds. "There are plants and animal species here that already disappeared long ago in other regions."

Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin Jagdhütte Honecker
This was Honnecker's hunting lodgeImage: DW/J.Schwengsbier

The management of the Schorfheide is one of the factors that has turned it into a biodiversity hotspot. Another key factor is the diverse landscape. During the last ice age, countless small hills and lakes were formed.

"The habitats change quickly," Uta Kietsch explained. "While one hilltop might be arid, sandy and chalky, the neighboring dip might be humid and moist." The diverse landscape fosters an enormous diversity of plant and animal species in a relatively small area. Uta Kietsch profits from the quickly changing landscape, as she can find a lot of different plant species in one area.

Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin Uta Kietsch
Uta Kietsch is sieving seedsImage: DW/J.Schwengsbier

While the political elites of the past blocked access for ordinary citizens in order to maintain the biosphere reserve, management today is much different: It’s all about finding a balance between environmental protection and suitable ways to make use of it, says Beate Blahy, spokeswoman for Schorfheide. "The biosphere reserve involves humans. We aim to protect nature by using it in an appropriate and sustainable way."

"The forest is no wilderness," Blahy concludes. According to her, the mission of the biosphere reserve is to protect the biodiversity of this landscape, keeping in mind that it’s always been influenced by humans.