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Trigger warning: racist leaves

Ken Jennings Posted by Ken Jennings.

Ken Jennings, Ph.D. is a senior partner at VentureWorks and a managing partner at Third River Partners, a consultancy that specializes in leadership development and strategy execution.

Trigger warning: racist leaves

This site, like a lazy Frenchman, took the summer off. That was partly due to some database crashes and spambot attacks that happened when I was out of town, and which I’m just getting around to fixing now. Thank you for your patience.

I write a weekly Monday column called Maphead for Condé Nast Traveller, where I (virtually) visit the world’s geographic oddities. Here’s a special bonus “Maphead” that got vetoed over the summer by Condé Nast, because the photo editor (quite reasonably!) has a “no swastikas” rule.

This blog, while definitely not pro-swastika, is willing to take them on a case-by-case basis. Here’s the geography lesson that was too edgy for Big Content!

The Zernikow Swastika

In 1992, a landscaping intern in northeastern Germany was given a boring task by his bosses: to scour aerial photographs of the region for irrigation lines. But then he came across photo 106/88, showing the Kutzerower Heath northwest of the village of Zernikow, and his jaw dropped. “Do you see what this is?” he asked his boss. Günter Reschke had just uncovered a previously unknown chapter in the history of Nazi Germany, hiding in plain sight.

A ghost of the Third Reich makes its yearly return.
The photo quite clearly showed a giant yellow swastika, 200 feet on a side, in the middle of a dense pine forest. Forester Klaus Göricke, dispatched to check out the site, found that the Nazi symbol was formed from 140 larches, planted with typical German precision. For most of the year, the trees were invisible. But for a few weeks every autumn, before the larches lost their leaves, they turned a bright yellow, in stark contrast to the surrounding evergreens.

For half a century, no one saw the forest for the trees.
From the size of the larches, Göricke deduced that they’d been planted in the late 1930s. Every year for more than half a century, a yellow swastika had faded onto the map here north of Berlin, then disappeared a few weeks later. In East Germany, low-flying private planes were forbidden, so no one had noticed. When pressed, locals remembered different stories about who had planted the trees: Was it to thank the government laborers who had worked on a street in town nearby? To disavow a local villager who’d been taken to a concentration camp for listening to the BBC? To celebrate Hitler’s birthday? Nobody is sure to this day.

It took eight years to fix the problematic landscaping.

With the swastika making worldwide headlines, the German government acted quickly, sending in local forestry workers to chainsaw the trees out of existence. They cut down forty larches, but to no avail. When fall came, the swastika was still visible, if a little ragged around the edges. Since the Brandenburg region was seeing an uptick in neo-Nazi violence at the time, this didn’t look good. On December 4, 2000, the fascist trees were hacked to bare stumps.

The Nazi trees are everywhere! Keep watching the leaves!
But the Zernikow larches were only the beginning. Armed with better imagery in the digital mapping age, Germans began finding arboreal Nazi artifacts all over. A deciduous forest in Wiesbaden was discovered to have a swastika of Douglas firs hiding in it, which emerged every winter, a sort of of reverse of the Zernikow grove. The most puzzling find was an entire swastika-shaped forest in remote Kyrgyzstan, of all places. Was the forest planted as a show of German-Russian solidarity in the days before the war? Or by German POWs a few years later? Or by some pro-Nazi nutjob during the Cold War? The mystery of the forest swastikas still has journalists…stumped.