How did Germany fall in love with the Kleingarten allotment?
Schrebergärten, Kleingärten, Parzelle and Datsche: Germany’s humble allotment gardens have many names and a 200-year-old history, little green plots between 250 and 400 square metres that have been cultivated by the country’s past.
The German Kleingarten and its history
If you’ve ever taken the ICE or S-Bahn through a German city you have probably noticed expanses of fenced-off gardens, mini houses and sheds flashing by. In Germany there are 889.971 allotment gardens or Kleingärten, now deeply rooted in the national psyche over 200 years after a Leipzig local planted the seed for their inception.
Who was Schreber and why did he love gardens?
Green-thumbed Germans have a man called Moritz Schreber to thank for their personal plots of land. Born in 1808, Schreber was an academic and doctor from Leipzig who focused on pediatrics and the social consequences of urbanisation during the Industrial Revolution.
The silence of handcraft was drowned out as machines began to chug and whir, cities across Germany swelled and green spaces became more sparse. Berlin began a rapid transition from its eponymous swampy landscape into a modern metropolis. In the mid-19th century, Friedrich Engels penned The Condition of the Working Class in England, and his Mancunian counterpart, Edwin Chadwick made a trip to Berlin, calling the city the the "most foul-smelling, dirtiest and most pestilent" capital and claiming that its dwellers could be "recognised by the smell of their clothes."
At the time, Schreber was researching urbanisation and pediatrics, and the science of public health was in its infancy. People were living in squalor and teenagers in the 19th century were just as allergic to sunlight as they are today. Instead of telling them to stop doom-scrolling and go to the park, Schreber wanted to stop them from getting to know their own bodies (masturbating) and do some more PG activities instead. Gardening, he concluded, was the answer to all of these problems.
The Schrebergarten in 19th and early 20th century Germany
While Schreber’s name is oft thrown about in connection to the history of Germany’s Kleingärten, many argue he has little to do with the very beginnings of the concept. The country’s first Kleingartenverein ("allotment gardeners’ club"), Kappeln an der Schlei, is said to have been established in Schleswig-Holstein as early as 1814, and the first “gardens of the poor” were founded by Earl Carl of Hesse back in 1820. But it wasn’t until the 1860s that the idea really picked up steam and the so-called Schreberbewegung ("Schreber movement") had garnered some popularity in Schreber’s native Leipzig. But by this point, the no-fapper himself had already kicked the bucket.
Local government began leasing Parzelle, small parcels of land for children to have access to green space to spend more time outside. The German Red Cross opened its own version, Rotkreuzgärten, and as the turn of the century came, the plots became more cultivated, with adults tending to flowers and using the spaces to grow food.
By 1887 the trend had made it to the capital. What is thought to be Berlin’s oldest Kleingarten area was created by seven men in their mid-20s who inherited a plot of land from gardener Wilhelm Mosisch after his death. The garden was, and still is, located on Kiefholzstraße, which stretches through Treptow into Kreuzberg. Originally christened Little PoPo, the site’s namesake remained a mystery to club members for decades after it opened. “Could it have something to do with the pope?”, they asked themselves. “But then why ‘little’, in English?”, “Could it honestly be that the space had been so childishly named “Little bumbum” in a Denglisch mash-up of “Kleiner PoPo”?
It turns out that the group of twentysomethings weren’t so innocent in their naming; the name had been chosen to hail one of Germany’s colonial exploits of the 1880s, a town in southeastern Togo, now known as Aného. In 1945 “Little PoPo” was abandoned and the space was re-dubbed as Kleingartenanlage zur Linde.
The German allotment gardens during WWI and II
“Stinky barley soup, unseasoned saltwater rice soup, sour plums with water noodles and without sugar”, the traditional German dishes of WWI left much to be desired. As it waged war on Europe, Germany’s allotments buffered the country’s food crises. Though thousands of Germans died from starvation during particular periods of hardship such as the frankly-named Turnip Winter of 1916, when turnips were essentially the only food available in Germany for a number of months, the value of Kleingärten was underscored in the war effort.
Once peacetime had returned, in July 1919 the German government introduced the Reichsgesetz Kleingarten- und Kleinpachtlandordnung, a law which forbade commercial leases and established fixed leasing prices for plots, cementing the activity of Kleingarten gardening as a means of leisure rather than profit-seeking exercise. To this day, Schrebergarten keepers are not allowed to profit from anything grown on their plots.
As the Nazis used Germans’ experiences of WWI and ecofascist imagery to further their agenda, the Schrebergarten was once again pulled into politics. One particular plot in Berlin, however, meant surviving the Nazis' genocidal violence. After German-Jewish comedian Hans Rosenthal managed to escape the Fabrikaktion, the Nazis' last major deportation from Berlin in 1943, Rosenthal went into hiding in a Schrebergarten in the Lichtenberg district of the city.
Rosenthal’s 1980 memoir Zwei Leben in Deutschland in part tells the story of “the three women who put their lives on the line” for the TV presenter, bringing necessities to the then-18-year-old while he lived out the final two years of WWII in a wooden hut at the Laubenkolonie Dreieinigkeit. Today, the gardens no longer exist, but a plaque to honour Ida Jauch, Emma Harndt and Maria Schönebeck stands at its former site.
Allotment gardens in the GDR
During Germany’s division, Kleingärten were granted another of their many titles, Datsche, taken from the Russian for "shack". At first, the little plots were viewed with suspicion, too spießig ("posh") and individualistic to fit with the government of the day.
But once the Socialist Unity Party of Germany realised that the bounty that could be harvested by hobby gardeners could keep any food shortages at bay for longer, they warmed a little more to the idea. And in 1959, the party allowed the Federation of Allotment Gardeners, Settlers and Small Animal Breeders (VKSK) to start functioning as a fruit and vegetables supply agency.
After providing extra crops through two World Wars, allotment gardens, with their red-hatted, cheeky-looking gnomes and summer houses, once again became a space for relaxation, just as Schreber had intended all those years earlier. While the Kleingarten was for growing, the Datsche was for relaxing. Before the wall fell in 1989, it is estimated that there were around 3,4 million Datsche in the GDR - the highest density of segregated garden plots in the world.
How to get a garden allotment in Germany
According to the German Allotment Federation (BDG) 44,000 hectares of Germany are still populated with Kleingärten today.
So if you’re feeling like you’re ready to become a little more German and jump on the 200-year-old Schrebergarten-bandwagon, how does one actually go about getting one of these highly sought-after propagation plots?
The Schrebergarten is a holy space of sharing, so in order to get one you’ll first have to join one of Germany’s Kleingartenvereine. You can find the contact details of your nearest association on the BDG website, which lists all state-wide regional associations in the country.
How long it takes before you can put on the gloves and start digging depends on whereabouts in Germany you live. If you live in a big city, the waiting list is likely to be longer and the costs are higher than in a smaller city or a town. Generally, it is a good idea to put your name down on lots of lists and wait for the day when you get that call.
In terms of cost, you can expect to pay anywhere between 18 and 35 cents per square metre, per year for your Schrebergarten lease, and with all maintenance costs included, somewhere between 250 and 500 euros.
Lay your roots in Germany’s history
Summer is here, and for now, some basil on the balcony might satiate your hunger for gardening. But add your name to the local Kleingartenverein list and you can be a part of the winding part of Germany’s Schrebergarten history.
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