Nationalized Landscape and the Cult of the Dead. The Staging of “Blood and Soil” at the Bückeberg 1933 – 1937 (2020)

Landscape narratives, cultural identity and political iconography have been of ongoing interest to me. I completed my PhD in art history on “Ephemeral Cult Sites” under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Monica Wagner, who is one of the most influential authors and researchers in the field of material studies and with Prof. Dr. Martin Warnke, one of the most renowned German art historians and author of “Political Landscape”. Based on these theories and my own research, the following text is a summary of my paper that will be included in a collection of essays, which will be published by Dr. Feryal Cubukcu (Dokuz Eylul University) and Dr. Sabine Planka (University of Siegen) in the spring of 2020 under the title “Song of Death in Paradise. Death and Garden Narratives in Literature, Art and Film” .

Introduction & Summary:

To the fascist ideology of Nazi Germany, the dead were central and omnipresent within the rituals and cults of mass celebrations that were regularly staged in the major cities. In my essay I am concentrating on how this ideology of death was conveyed in a seemingly pastoral, natural environment. My main focus hereby, is a cult site named the Bückeberg, located in an idyllic landscape in Lower Saxony in Germany that was designed to demonstrate the Reich’s superiority, ultimately however, to create a hero cult and to mobilize for war. I will elucidate how death was disseminated and trivialized, with the goal of mobilizing even the lowest level of the population for war – which was in this case the farming population.

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, huge cult sites and parade streets were laboriously created to aggressively establish visual and physical dominance.[2] Mass celebrations at these sites were to provide a commonality of experience, promote the party’s ideologies, unify national identity and quickly and permanently establish tradition and ritual.[3] The sites in Berlin, Munich and Nuremberg have since then been most widely discussed in the literature.[4] Far less attention has been devoted to those political celebrations that were not confined to architectural settings in urban areas, but were executed in the countryside like at the Bückeberg.

The largest political mass events that were staged in an open and undeveloped landscape were the annual Reichserntedankfeste (Thanksgiving celebrations). Officially designated as the Reichsbauerntag (national day of the farmers), these events proclaimed anti-modernist and antagonistic social norms and celebrated romantic agrarian notions of a preindustrial world that prevailed in propaganda, in cultural politics and in the activities of various Nazi organizations. Richard Walter Darré, one of the leading Nazi ideologists, developed the slogan “Blood and Soil”[5] to promote this idealized country life as a counterbalance to urban culture.

The Reichsarchitekt Albert Speer chose the Bückeberg, which is a large and capacious hill situated in a geographical triangle of the towns Hameln, Goslar and Hannover, as the central location for the extensive festivities. The hill was structurally and geographically an open area that could incorporate nature and even occupy it in its entirety. This concept of utilizing nature stood diametrically opposed to the otherwise isolated structures of the major cities, where green spaces and trees often fell victim to these grand redevelopment plans, making space for materials like concrete and stone. Public gardens and parks soon became places of separation, stigmatisation and discrimination.[6] In contrast, traversable landscape – not an enclosed park or the garden[7] – was to be elevated to a place where art and nature met for the benefit of a patriotic nature experience.[8]

In this context, the Bückeberg’s idyllic landscape components, like the “gently rolling” hills or the “eternally flowing river Weser that only ran through German territory” were diligently promoted in contemporary publications.[9] “German Regions” and the “German Forest” had already been established as bearers of a national sentiment since the 19th century[10] but now this connotation was being extended to imply mystical magnificence and eternal values of a superior Germanic heritage.

Even the construction materials of this cult site reflected these ideologies by being created from organic, indigenous materials, natural textures and irregular shapes and forms. The predominant design principle was hereby to create integral components to mirror, even expand, the natural surroundings – similar to the structural principles and the vocabulary of absolutist Baroque architecture, garden and urban design.[11] Central authoritarian monuments were connected with a network of axes with the topography of the landscape, which enabled these political meanings to be imposed onto its surroundings, hence, traversing the terrain itself with “a symbolic geography.”[12]  

At this cult site, both visual features, like the idyllic, natural landscape, the soil, trees and the river, and invisible elements were utilized to install political symbolisms. The purpose of these political symbolisms were to display autocratic structures of power, but ultimately to define and connect a completely selective and contrived historical and cultural heritage and connect it with impending political goals. This whole terrain was transformed into a storied landscape, with which a narrative was developed that amplified and even legitimized central political ideologies – one of the most central ones being the cult of the dead.

The following quote from 1936 illustrates these intentions alarmingly well:

“Millions will experience, through press and radio, the delivery of a monumental confession that both the Führer will make to his people and his people will make towards their saviour on the top of the Bückeberg. Visionary, the flags will arise. Forests of red blood-soaked cloth with the symbol of the cross, and forests, unmistakable … living walls of men and women in the brown robe of honour, with calloused fists and high foreheads! And youth, battle-tested, never despairing youth!”[1]

[1] Tino Hardt, Erntedank Bauerntag (Berlin: Neuer Berliner Buchvertrieb GmbH 1936), p. 3 f.

[2] One of the first key approaches to an art historical analysis of public Nazi stagings was published by Klaus Herding and Hans-Ernst Mittig in 1975. Klaus Herding and Hans-Ernst Mittig, Kunst und Alltag im NS-System. Albert Speers Straßenlaternen (Gießen: Anabas)1975.

[3] See most comprehensively: Eric J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2012.

[4] One of the earliest and most relevant publications is by Heinz Weidner, Berlin im Festschmuck. Vom 15. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Dissertation Technische Hochschule Berlin 1939), publication series „Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien“, vol. 25, (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag), 1940. Frances Livings, Ephemere Kulträume. Raum und Material nationalsozialistischer Masseninszenierungen 1933-1939 (unpublished dissertation University of Hamburg) 2003 On Berlin and Nuremberg see esp. chapter 2, „Der städtische Festraum“, p. 45 – 147. See esp. on cult sites in Munich Sabine Behrenbeck, Der Kult um die toten Helden, Nationalsozialistische Mythen, Riten und Symbole 1923 bis 1945, Kölner Beiträge zur Nationsforschung, vol. 2, ed. by Otto Damm, Ulla Johansen, Andreas Kappeler, Eberhard Kolb, Klaus Pabst und Wolfgang Schieder (Dissertation Köln 1993), Vierow bei Greifswald 1996.

[5] Margrit Bensch, Die ‚Blut und Boden’-Ideologie. Ein dritter Weg der Moderne, publication series „Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte der Natur“, vol. 2, ed. by Ulrich Eisel and Ludwig Trepl (Berlin: U. Eisel and L. Trepl), 1995, p. 25. See also the profound publication by Mathias Eidenbenz: ‚Blut und Boden’. Zu Funktion und Genese der Metaphern des Agrarismus und Biologismus in der nationalsozialistischen Bauernpropaganda R. W. Darrés, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Schriftenreihe III, Band 580 (Dissertation FU Berlin 1992), Bern/Berlin 1993.

[6] Hubertup Fischer, Gärten und Parks im Leben der jüdischen Bevölkerung nach 1933, in “Gärten und Parks im Leben der Jüdischen Bevölkerung nach 1933”, Zentrum für Gartenkunst und Landschaftsarchitektur (CGL) der Leibniz Universität Hannover vom 7. bis 9. September 2006 (Munich), 2008.

[7] The individual garden was to merely derive meaning from being an “organic segment of an entity”. Wilczeck 1936, p. 220. Quoted from Joachim Wolschke and Gert Gröning: „Regionalistische Freiraumgestaltung als Ausdruck autoritären Gesellschaftsverständnisses? – Ein historischer Versuch –“, in: Kritische Berichte. Zeitschrift für Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften, year 12, issue 1, 1984, pages. 5-47, here p. 14.

[8] Clemens Alexander Wimmer: Geschichte der Gartentheorie, Darmstadt 1987, p. 430. Under the Nazis, the deepened discussion of popular parks and garden cities (Gartenstädte), that had been invigorated since the 1910s, was redirected in favour of an experience in nature. See ibid., p. 418 ff. u. p. 454.

[9] See for example Bernhard Flemes, “Die Kultur des Bückebergfestes”, in Deister- und Weserzeitung, issue no. 226, September 27, 1935, third leaflet.

[10] Jeffrey K. Wilson, The German Forest: Nature, Identity, and the Contestation of a National Symbol, 1871–1914. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 2012.

[11] Siehe zur Raumgestaltung im Absolutismus: Dieter Münk, Die Organisation des Raumes im Nationalsozialismus. Eine soziologische Untersuchung ideologisch fundierter Leitbilder in Architektur, Städtebau und Raumplanung des Dritten Reiches (Bonn: Dissertation Universität Bonn), 1993, p. 159-162.

[12] Hans-Ernst Mittig used this term in reference to the Reichssportfeld (sports grounds) in Berlin. Greek and Germanic-German motifs were connected with each other with the use of primarily militant terms to name the various halls, tribunes and facilities of the Reichssportfeld. Parts of the structure virtually communicated with each other and spanned a network of political significance over the grounds. Mittig in Wagner 1991, p. 244 f.

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