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Were the real Nazis “native-plant” Nazis?

February 15, 2018

We recently published an article about the conference of the California Native Plant Society that featured this concluding photo of Doug Tallamy’s presentation opening the conference on February 1, 2018.

Doug Tallamy’s closing photo, CNPS Conference 2018

This photo generated some discussion among the readers of Million Trees about nativism in the natural world.  Is it related to nativism in the human realm?  This is a timely question because American politics are presently consumed by anti-immigration sentiment, AKA “nativism.”  As members of our communities are unceremoniously rounded up in immigration raids and deported from America, this is an association that is getting more attention.

We are pleased to publish a guest post by Professor Art Shapiro (UC Davis) in answer to this question.  Although Professor Shapiro is a renowned expert on the butterflies of California, he is knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy and history. 

Professor Shapiro offers us a nuanced answer to the question at hand.  This is an example of a general principle about such debates:  the more we know, the more complicated every issue becomes.  I have had the pleasure of a few long conversations with Professor Shapiro that were similar experiences. Professor Shapiro teaches us that we must examine issues from every angle, considering the pros and the cons.  More often than not, we can’t reach a definitive conclusion that does the issue justice.

But I will demur on the issue of nativism.  I will venture my opinion that nativism in the natural world is ultimately as pernicious as nativism in the human realm.  They both do more harm than good.  They are both fundamentally unjust.  However, I do NOT generalize about the motivation of native plant advocates. I doubt that the majority are appropriately called “native-plant Nazis.” 

I remain grateful to Professor Shapiro for sharing his knowledge and wisdom with me and with the readers of Million Trees. 

Million Trees


Various observers have noted similarities in the rhetoric used by native-plant activists and that used by xenophobes. The comparison has generated a derisive term, “native-plant Nazis,” to describe the most strident of those opposed to the use of non-native plants in gardens. But were the real Nazis “native-plant Nazis?” The answers are rather complex and in some ways surprising.

The German Romantic Movement stressed the “organic unity” of the German people and their landscapes. In 1818 the artist Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell in his book Beitraege zur bildenden Gartenkunst (“Contributions to Instructive Garden Art”) prescribed the planting of “patriotic species” to create landscapes of “patriotic character.” The great explorer-naturalist-geographer Alexander von Humboldt referred in 1806 to vaterlaendische Pflanzengestalten (plant character reflecting the Fatherland) and stressed that “the natural character of different regions of the earth is most intimately connected with the history and culture of the human race,” a notion that persists today, as witness the excellent book Landscape and Memory, by the historian Simon Schama, and is not in itself reflective of xenophobia.

During the Romantic period the intense longing for the unification of the fragmented German polity bred not only intense patriotic feeling but a concomitant disdain for the alien. Thus Fichte argued that the Germans’ “natural disposition to freedom dates back to prehistoric times, when they had been a pure and untainted race…before the influence of foreigners and the introduction of class division.” After the establishment of the First Reich in 1871, all things German were ever more aggressively touted as superior to all else, and this included landscapes. The writer Willy Pastor and the art historian Josef Strzygowski enthusiastically promoted these ideas in the early 20th Century. Pastor invoked the Ice Age as the crucible in which the German national character was forged; the glaciers “not only influenced the racial breed of humans, but also selected trees and plants….the European primeval forest, which finally evolved as the strongest out of this severe school, was no less of Germanic, Nordic race than the people…”

Nature garden designed by Willy Lange

The quintessential embodiment of such ideas was the work of the landscape architect Willy Lange. Lange and Pastor were friends and shared their nationalistic vision. Pastor published a collection of essays entitled Lichtungen (clearings) and a book The Earth in the Time of Man, in which he argued that the natural habitat of the true Teuton is a clearing in the forest. Lange translated that view into a prescription for garden design: he utterly repudiated the formalism of most European gardens and argued instead that the ideal form of garden was a well-designed, visually pleasing simulacrum of a natural forest clearing, employing whenever possible (but not exclusively) native plants characteristic of the natural landscape. His ideas were taken up by Alwin Seifert, who rose after the Nazis came to power to be the ultimate arbiter of garden design.  In 1939 Hans Hasler’s book Deutsche Gartenkunst (German Garden Art) spelled out the essential unity of the German national soul and the surrounding environment. Heinrich Friedrich Wiepking, who held the landscape design chair at the College of Agriculture in Berlin during the war, taught this doctrine as the rationale for gardening and invoked ancient Teutonic artifacts, burial mounds, and such as proof of this essential “organic unity.” Wiepking’s student Werner Lendholt “proved” that Germans already had a refined sense of landscape unity in the Bronze Age.

The idea of the “nature garden” arose repeatedly as a byproduct of romanticism, not only in Germany but throughout Europe and even in America; it can be seen as a reaction against formalism, with its rigidity and symmetry. But only in the Reich did it become so tightly fused with nationalism. There is nothing inherently political in Lange’s definition of his philosophy as “the derivation of ideas from nature and their translation in an artistic manner into garden design.”

Lange and his successors drew inspiration from the earlier work of the Irish garden writer William Robinson, who in turn was influenced by Gertrude Jekyll. And they in turn were influenced by William Thompson, who promoted the idea of the semi-natural “English flower garden” as early as 1852. The Austrian Robert Gemboeck, beginning in the 1880s, advocated “the reproduction of nature in the garden,” and was quite influential; he gave detailed prescriptions for how to create a simulacrum of wilderness—what kind of wilderness being dependent on the soil type available.

But none of this meant that the German garden had to be composed exclusively of native plants!

The era of both Robinson and Lange was the era of the “grand tour,” and both men traveled widely and assimilated their observations into their concepts of the natural garden. Lange’s disciple Hasler wrote that the master developed his art “as a result of his experiences and knowledge he gained on a north-south tour of Europe and North Africa.” After 1907 he explicitly advocated the introduction and naturalization of plants he regarded as esthetically in harmony with the true Teutonic landscape. During the 1930s the Nazi regime, primarily under the guidance of Heinrich Himmler, sponsored a series of famous expeditions to the Himalaya. There were several reasons for doing so. Himmler was entranced by the crackpot Welt-Eis Lehre (world ice theory) of Hanns Hoerbiger, which amplified the Romantic notion of the Ice Age as the crucible of German character. Himmler was interested in learning as much as possible about the Ice Age by studying what he viewed as the people living most like the ancient Teutons: the Tibetans, whom he imagined to be a pure and unadulterated race. But a subsidiary objective of the expeditions was to collect living material of Himalayan plants deemed suitable for naturalization in the Fatherland. In a sense, this represented an attempt to restore an imagined Edenic past.

Only those non-native plants judged to be inconsistent with the German landscape-character nexus, as largely defined by Alwin Seifert, were to be excluded. Seifert’s official title was Reichslandschaftsanwalt, or national landscape advocate. When he first received the title he presented two proposals to his superior, Fritz Todt: one embraced the use of non-native plants while the other did not. Seifert is a complex and problematic figure. He was anti-Semitic but never a really enthusiastic Nazi and he had a strong independent streak which often led him into trouble. He was a passionate advocate of organic gardening and sympathetic to anthroposophy, the cultish philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (today best known for the Waldorf School movement). His many contradictions led his biographer Thomas Zeller to call him “The Nazis’ environmental court jester and Cassandra, rolled into one.” His attitude on non-native plants hardened somewhat late in his tenure, when he took to calling Colorado blue spruce “public enemy #1.”

There was much in German garden philosophy and design to be admired, if one strips out the pugnacious racial and nationalistic rhetoric. There is really little difference from the natural-garden traditions developed elsewhere. Nazi Germany, early in its history, enacted what would today be characterized as the most progressive legislation in the world dealing with conservation, esthetics, and environmental health. Hence we have such books as The Green and the Brown and How Green Were the Nazis? that explore the contradiction between those facts and everything else we know about the regime. The contradiction becomes less bizarre when we remember the roots of Nazism in the Romantic movement.

At any rate, the real Nazis were never thoroughgoing “native-plant Nazis!”

Arthur M. Shapiro

Further Reading:

Bruggemeier, F.-J. and M. Cioc. 2005. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment and Nation in the Third Reich. Ohio University Press.

Uekoetter, F. 2006. The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany. Cambridge University Press.

Wolschke-Bulmahn, J. 1992. The ‘wild garden’ and the ‘nature garden’ – aspects of the garden ideology of William Robinson and Willy Lange. Journal of Garden History 12: 183-206.

Wolschke-Bulmahn, J. 1997. Nature and Ideology: Natural Garden Design in the Twentieth Century. Dumbarton Oaks collection on the history of landscape architecture, vol. 18.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Fritzi Cohen permalink
    February 15, 2018 11:36 am

    For those interested in Professor Shapiros informative and much appreciated comments , I would suggest also reading Stephen Jay Gould’s AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE ON STRENGTHS, FALLACIES AND CONFUSIONS IN THE CONCEPT OF NATIVE PLANTS.

  2. Tom Borden permalink
    February 15, 2018 1:46 pm

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  3. Tim permalink
    February 16, 2018 10:10 am

    Always good to hear from Dr. Shapiro! One of the most rigorous scientific minds in the country today.

    • February 16, 2018 12:31 pm

      I am glad to hear from another fan of Art Shapiro’s. Thank you for your comment.

  4. February 18, 2018 2:54 pm

    Thank you for this!

    I’ve seen a similarity in language use about plants as about people in terms of who is to be valued and who eliminated, which is important to be careful about. I don’t think the increasing xenophobia towards humans as well as plants is a coincidence. Also, it’s not just the German Nazis who wanted a “pure” people, but also US doctors, like Dr. Harry Laughlin, whose eugenics politics inspired the German Nazis. (My aunt, Evelyn Moore, at the age of 16, was a victim of his policy of US forced sterilization, not based on intelligence, but because she had been kidnapped by a man who used her to rob other men during the Depression and so was labeled a “criminal.”) I do think it helps to remind people who care that the hatred some nativists are aiming at plants is similar to right wing hatred aimed at people.

    What is most frightening is how most people seem to happily embrace nativism for plants and animals, without thinking about the consequences, which are devastating for the environment. What is most needed is just common sense and not irrational fanaticism. Of course we love our native plants and animals, but that does not mean we have to destroy trees and poison everything in sight.

    Your blog has been wonderful in informing people about why we can love both native and non-native, and how destructive it is to kill our wonderful trees that we are lucky to have during this time of no rain.

  5. Fritzi Cohen permalink
    March 8, 2018 10:34 am

    Million Trees blog is an environmental treasure, and I join Bev Jo in thanking you. and am quoting her last paragraph. I am not a Californian, but absolutely concur with Bev Jo’s sentiments.

    “Your blog has been wonderful in informing people about why we can love both native and non-native, and how destructive it is to kill our wonderful trees that we are lucky to have during this time of no rain.”

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