Tag Archives: fascism

Unsavoury scientific pasts

This weekend I wrote an article for the BES Bulletin in which I referred to an intriguing character, Otto Schultz-Kampfhenkel (1910–1989). He was a German geographer, explorer and film-maker, whose lasting legacy was to have founded an institute producing educational films for schools on global matters (it still does). He also established a field centre in Portugal where I’ve taught and carried out some research, which is how his name first came to my attention.

Schultz-Kampfhenkel was well-known for his 1933 book Das Dschungel rief (The Jungle Cried), based on his expedition to Liberia, and a film Rätsel der Urwaldhölle (Riddle of the Jungle) from his 1937–37 expedition on the Amazon. Both are very much products of their time and, while no doubt valuable for their anthropological records and natural history observations, they are likely to be uncomfortable for modern audiences. One of the main reasons for this is that Schultz-Kampfhenkel was a Nazi.


A photo from the 1935–37 expedition on the Brazilian Amazon. I can find no evidence that Schultz-Kampfhenkel appears in this image; only that this was the team which he led, and clearly the flag that they carried.

Examining the careers of European cultural, academic and scientific figures of the mid-20th century always carries some trepidation. Many made compromises in order to protect themselves or their families; others found ways to manipulate the system to advance their own interests, regardless of their own personal affinities. My own family history contains examples, and it’s important to not make too many moral judgements from a distance that is now not only historical but also social and cultural. We cannot know how we would have acted in such circumstances; go back far enough and all of us are descended from murderers.

Such equivocation is unnecessary with Schultz-Kampfhenkel, who by all accounts appears to have been an enthusiastic fascist and collaborator with the wartime regime. One of his core activities was to set up a group of scientists to advise the German war effort. This included geologists, geographers, environmental scientists, foresters and, to my surprise, a botanist: Heinz Ellenberg (1913–1997), one the foremost vegetation ecologists of the mid-20th century. His works on the formation and classification of plant communities remain some of the most important contributions in the history of the field. Together they produced military maps for assessment of terrain and landscapes, based on both aerial photography and field surveys.

We of course know more of Ellenberg from his later career; after the war he worked with  Heinrich Walter in Stuttgart-Hohenheim*, and was later appointed as director of the Geobotanical Institute at ETH Zurich where he led the conceptual development of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme, one of the most transformative innovations in conservation policy. To my mind, however, Ellenberg’s greatest contribution was the book Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen in ökologischer, dynamischer und historischer Sicht (first edition 1963, with the last produced by Ellenberg himself in 1996). This has sat on my bookshelf (in translation) for 20 years now, and I still periodically refer to it as a trove of observations, measurements and insights. There is so much data in there that would be unpublishable in the modern world, even unthinkable that someone would bother to collect it (or to fund efforts to do so), and yet, as time goes on, this record of the vegetation of Europe in the 20th century becomes ever more valuable.

Why does Ellenberg’s name on the list of distinguished academic contributors to the German war effort matter? Perhaps it shouldn’t. Scientific facts are not in themselves political, even if scientists themselves are, as is often their funding, as well as the uses to which their work is put. Stripped of its political motivations, we can still learn from studies arising from even the most distasteful of sources. More to the point, Ellenberg’s most important academic contributions all came long after the war. I know a number of emeritus vegetation ecologists in Germany and the UK who must have met Ellenberg in person. Some of them even worked with him. Perhaps my discovery would not be news to them; they could even provide some clarificatory context to assuage my discomfort. Or, as with many of that generation, maybe it never came up in conversation.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked to find this skeleton in Ellenberg’s closet, although what surprises me more is not that a man of his age was involved in the war effort, but rather that it was in his capacity as plant ecologist. I have my own strong political opinions as a socialist and committed anti-fascist. I’d like to think that none of this inflects my work (at least not in content, although whether it does in conduct is a different matter). Nor would I expect anyone reading my work to judge its value through that prism. Nevertheless, were there some way in which I could use my expertise to advance the causes I believe in, I would have no hesitation**.  None of us are only scientists. Was the same true of Ellenberg?

Learning the about the histories of influential scientists can have mixed results. Some have risen in my estimation as I’ve discovered more about their exploits (like the legendary botanist Richard Evan Schultes); others I can continue to admire while not wishing to spend any time in their company (see the recent Robert Trivers autobiography), while some turn out to have been surprisingly boring. We care about them as people because we are social creatures (mostly), but this should have no bearing on our estimation of their contributions to science. Nevertheless, however hard I try to rationalise it away, finding Ellenberg’s name on such a list has left a bad taste in my mouth. One of the giants of the field just became, for me, much shorter.

* Walter’s foundational work from the 1970s Die Vegetation der Erde in Öko-physiologischer Betrachtung was still core reading when I was an undergraduate in the 90s, and remains in print in the form of Breckle’s much-updated edition.

** I don’t see right now how my work on forest structural organisation is going to lead to a radical rebalancing of the social contract between our government its people, but if you can see a way then let me know, and quickly — we have an election coming up.