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An artwork called Arc de 124,5° by Bernar Venet in central Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/M. Wolff

When trees become political in Berlin

Timothy Rooks
February 22, 2019

Politicians in Germany have bowed to French pressure to cut down trees in Berlin. The trees, which blocked a sculpture given to the city by France, are doomed. Is this what it takes for good neighborly relations?


The gigantic sculpture Arc de 124,5° has stood at the same spot in Berlin for over 30 years — a green island cut on both sides by a busy road. A long, flattened "U" made of metal, the artwork looks sort of like a lopsided emoji smile. For years it was spray-painted with "Free Iran" and no one seemed to care much about it. Until now — and suddenly everything is in high gear and a small local matter has turned into an international affair. 

Read more: German president says 'We only have this one planet'

It all started when the artist, Bernar Venet, and the French ambassador to Germany complained to Berlin's Senate about the condition of the sculpture, which was a gift to West Berlin to mark the city's 750th birthday in 1987. But Berlin's Senate is not responsible for the trees surrounding the artwork. The decision is one for the local district and there the battle quickly made it from the abstract to a vote on Wednesday in favor of chopping down eight healthy trees, some of which may be over 60 years old. 

Artist Bernar Venet whose sculpture is at the heart of a debate in Berlin over urban trees
Artist Bernar Venet whose sculpture is at the heart of a debate in Berlin over urban trees Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Glaubitz

Unsurprisingly, the Green party was against the move, but a majority led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with the Social Democratic SPD, the pro-business FDP and the right-of-center AfD were all for cutting down the trees. Less than 24 hours later on Thursday evening two tree-trimming trucks were parked on the grass in front of the sculpture ready for action, though by Friday morning they were gone and the trees were still standing. 

The plot thickens

Why the rush? In Germany, to protect breeding animals, most trees cannot be cut down between March 1 and September 30. For the trees around Arc de 124,5° the clock is ticking and time is running out. Delaying until fall though would leave more time to look for alternatives or a whole new location to highlight the sculpture. 

Christian Hönig from NGO Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), thinks everyone should slow down and look at other options. He sees no need for a rush job. According to Hönig, if the trees are not taken down before the March 1 deadline, the German-Franco friendship "won't fall apart." 

Daniel Buchholz, a member of Berlin's House of Representatives from the SPD party, also wants to put on the brakes, announcing in a statement that cutting down healthy trees as a "token of love" to Paris is not the right path, adding that cutting down these trees "would be a fatal signal in times of climate change and a commitment to clean urban air. Sustainable politics in the 21st century looks different! In addition, the trees are a visual enrichment for the barren road."

Read more: Insect protection law mooted by German minister

Ralf Olschewski from the local chapter of the CDU on the other hand was honest enough to say in a press release that it wasn't "art versus nature" but rather "whether we want to hurt the feelings of our most important partner in Europe with a dispute over eight sycamore trees." While at the same time admitting that the placement of the sculpture was not ideal and from the very beginning had been more of "an emergency solution" and that no alternative sites were possible. 

Doing your bit: Of parks, trees and more trees

Politcal pressure

Local newspapers Tagesspiegel and Berliner Morgenpost both suspect pressure from the mayor's office or even higher up the political food chain. 

Even though at the meeting on Wednesday it was agreed that at least 20 new trees would be planted as "compensation," Christiane Heiss from the Green party still thinks there is time to postpone any cutting while she looks into the matter.

Not only that, Heiss also told the daily Morgenpost she is interested in the costs for cutting down the trees, reimagining the strip of grass between the roads and planting replacement trees which she estimates to be around €70,000 ($79,000). Who exactly will pay these costs is still unclear, though there are reports that the French Embassy and Bernar Venet have offered assistance. 

With tree-trimming trucks already scouting out the scene, it seems that action needs to be taken immediately. 

Cities and people need trees

According to BUND, which joined a protest on-site on Monday, Berlin keeps losing trees each year. At the end of 2017, Berlin had around 6,000 fewer trees than it did at the start of the year, even when adding in those newly planted. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that saplings don't do the work of big mature trees, a point the Greens have made.

Big trees not only add shade and a nice tint of green to cities, they also clean the air and store tons of harmful CO2. They act like a green lung for busy hubs and help keep the place cool in the summer. Without trees it will be impossible to meet the climate goals for the near future. But in this case it is not the number of trees or about fighting to save every last tree standing, it is the rushed cloak-and-dagger way things were done that has alarmed neighbors and green activists. 

Politicians continuously say they want to protect the environment and help the air quality in big cities. The German environment minister just released a new draft climate protection law to help meet the Paris climate accord goals. But when it comes down to it, some believe backroom political favors and pleasing neighboring countries are more important than the people's right to healthy lives. 

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