Seeing the wood and the trees: a complicating history of Hitler’s Oaks
It’s a summer morning in the wounded city of Berlin. Having heard conflicting stories of the Olympic oak seedlings that may have been planted at the stadium grounds, I catch the U-Bahn to Olympic Stadium. Among those rumoured to have planted oak seedlings here are a German weight lifter, members of the German Men’s Handball Team, and the American track and field athlete Jesse Owens. Reviewing emails from the stadium’s Sports Museum hasn’t helped locate these trees, so I am reduced to literally scanning the huge Reichssportfeld and the lanes around the stadium, including Jesse Owens Avenue, for a significant or marked oak tree; for some kind of sign.
It is ironic that after locating and photographing many of these now fully grown oaks in obscure corners of Europe, from scant and poorly translated information, here in my temporary home of Berlin I fail miserably. Instead, I find hundreds of oaks, around the same age as those I have pursued all over Europe; I am literally in a forest of oaks. Scanning the trees for possible metadata in the form of plaques or signage, it becomes apparent that I have fallen victim to the old adage—I can’t see the wood I am seeking, because of the trees.
In 2011, I embarked on a research trip to photograph a series of oak trees originally given as seedlings to Gold medal Olympians at the 1936 games in Berlin. Now geographically dispersed – one, crucially, to my hometown in New Zealand – I have focused on locating those that found their homes in Europe and parts of North America. The images of these trees can be read as an archive, one that is knowingly incomplete.
The story of my attempts to locate and document a comprehensive ‘set’ of trees is important in that it demonstrates the compromised and challenged nature of any effort to make an archive complete. In my artistic practice, my impulse is to incorporate this incompleteness, exploring—as many artists have before me—the idea of reading an archive somehow “against the grain”; in this case, against the idea of its completeness or totality.1 In the instance of these ‘Hitler Oaks’, I wanted to take this idea further; to incorporate conflicting elements that are in a continual process of being overturned.
Counter point one – The Olympic Games
In 1936, it was reportedly a botanic nursery in Berlin that conceived of the idea to gift oak tree seedlings to every gold medallist at the “Nazi Stained” Berlin Olympics.2 Predictably, Germany’s Führer Adolph Hitler embraced this idea; the seeds would not only be a gift from the German people, but would enhance the function of his Olympics propaganda machine, whose roots were firmly entwined in the National Socialist motto “blut unt boden” or “blood and soil”. The oak was an ideal symbol for National Socialist appropriation, aligning with the Nazi’s fondness for sylvan landscape backdrops, forest symbolism and Casper David Friedreich’s paintings.3 Additionally, it was already linked to the party’s controversial status as an early proponent of what we now call the green movement.4
The spectacular site of the Olympics has long been controversial as a political showcase for the dominance of nations; indeed, an Olympic truce was enacted at ancient games, allowing athletes to travel safely to and from the games in times of conflict.5 Many protested their country’s participation in the 1936 games; one American, and member of the Olympic Committee, Ernst Lee Jahncke, was even expelled after speaking out publicly.6 The alternative Peoples’ Olympiad in Barcelona, although it never went ahead, gained the support of many athletes. Within Germany, John Heartfield’s collage images are key examples of protest against Hitler’s regime and against the hosting of the Olympics in Berlin.7
Grown in the northern German district of Elba, the Olympic seedlings were about one year old when presented on the dais, nestled in terracotta earthenware pots and inscribed with another German symbol that had been appropriated by the Nazis, the poor eagle – on this occasion depicted with its talons tangled in the Olympic rings. Images of the tense moments of the salute as athletes were handed their fledgling seedlings are now readily accessible, made by Leni Riefenstahl and her team.
Urban myths surround the status of the oak tree seedlings, and in informal contexts they are often referred to as ‘Hitler Oaks’. In civic and formal situations, however, the trees are almost without exception referred to as ‘Olympic Oaks’.8 Various and conflicting accounts exist as to whether Hitler actually presented the trees to winning athletes himself; most seem to agree that after the first day of the games he refrained from personally congratulating athletes because of an ultimatum he received from the Olympic Committee to congratulate everyone or no-one.9 The question of the first day’s presentations and whether Hitler presented all the oaks on that day remains unresolved, but at least one guardian is adamant that the tree he looked after was given by Hitler himself.10
Many of the 130 seedlings presented at the games are no longer locatable. During the 1990s US writer James Constandt attempted to comprehensively catalogue them, sending letters to cities across the globe; however I came to know about these oaks in a different way, as one grows in my hometown, in the grounds of Timaru Boys’ High School.11 This seedling was presented to Jack Lovelock, a national hero and Timaru Boys old-boy, who not only won the 1500-metre running event, but also set a new world record. The numerous biographies, plays, and novels that have been written about Lovelock narrate the impact of the 1936 games and his attitude to them along divergent lines. Some speculated on his complete focus on sport over politics, and others on his experience of Europe during this time and the effect it had on him.12
Seemingly oblivious to its history and status, Lovelock’s statuesque 80-year-old oak tree stands defiant as a great living thing—symbolic of and an index to a complex set of geopolitical and historical turns. Since photographing the Lovelock tree in early 2005, it has become central to my project. The forty-odd trees I have subsequently photographed make up the ongoing series I have titled in a forest.
Counterpoint Two – Global Oak Trees
Following the 1936 Games, athletes returned to their homelands around the world, taking with them the oak seedlings, which would be forever associated with the “breach of civilization” that the Nazi-tainted Olympics foreshadowed.13 in a forest charts not only their current or former locations but also the ways in which they are demarcated or not; their placement in the landscape; their loss or rededication; and sometimes their grafting or replacement with other seedlings (from a parent or ‘like’ tree).
Beyond concerns with geographic location, the social narratives of the trees are also incredibly diverse. Seedlings were given to a Jewish Hungarian freedom fighter, to a Sturmbammführer (the SS equivalent of a German Major), to a Finnish poet, to men who subsequently went missing in action and to African American athletes such as Owens. Some of the seedlings died in Customs or were stolen from hotel rooms. Other grown trees were rescued during invasions or were chopped down to make room for vegetable gardens after the war. These trees have since entered the historical vernacular as complex and highly conflicted signs; embodiments of memory and marks of forgetting.14
Today, the trees can operate as charged symbols. Considered in their original context, they stand for the German political regime of National Socialism, and on this level they represent a failed attempt to globally assert the National Socialist ideology.15 At the same time, and on a more basic level, they reflect the sporting pride of the nations whose athletes brought them home. Yet in their new locations around the world, and over time, their link to world war events has been almost completely erased; their history has become non-specific, subsumed by contemporary nationalist agendas.
Counterpoint Three – The Tree Itself
Trees in general have a great array of symbolic meanings across western and non-western cultures. Often worshipped as part of religious practice, they are seen as metaphors for human life, as economic assets to plunder, and as spiritual connectors between man and earth.16 They are often used as monuments, where they may be dedicated to an individual, a god or an act — Sherwood Forests’ Major Oak in England and New Zealand’s great Tāne Mahuta spring to mind.17 Indeed, as isolated elements in our altered contemporary land and cityscapes, grand trees have a monumental quality in and of themselves, and the oak is no exception to this rule.
In her anthropological perspective on The Social Life of Trees, Laura Rival states that ‘trees provide some of the most potent symbols of social process and collective identity’.18 Since pagan times, oaks have stood as enduring symbols of strength and living objects of worship19 — many were even destroyed by Christianity in an effort to wipe out the pagan worship of trees (as illustrated in the many representations of Donar’s Oak being felled by St Boniface). North of the equator, where oaks are indigenous to numerous countries, they are prized as sacred symbols by peoples of Germany, Britain and America.20 Images of the oak tree, its leaves, and its acorns are also ubiquitous in military, nationalistic and heraldic iconography across several nations,21 and they have long been revered for providing food, shelter, transport, and tools.22
The Oak tree is also a staple in the repertoire of art history. It has been famously utilised in the ‘social sculpture’ of Joseph Beuys, the paintings of Casper David Friedreich (circa 1880), and the photographs of Henry Fox Talbot (circa 1842-43). To create 7000 Oaks (1982-87), German artist Joseph Beuys planted 7000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany, for documenta 7. Each tree was given an accompanying basalt stone, leading the oaks to appear as living monuments alongside their oppositional and more traditional counterparts. Beuys’s work discusses the contrast between living and inanimate objects and the development of their relationship over the course of the tree’s lifespan – whereby it eventually overtakes and dominates the stone column, reversing the logic of a traditional monument.23 Jeff Wall’s 1988 essay on Canadian artist Rodney Graham continues the discussion of oak trees as monuments—this time, to the atrocity of consumer life and its disregard for the forest. Wall sites Graham’s upside down photographs of trees as critique—as inverted symbols that remind us of great forests past.24
Upside down representations of the world have also populated art imagery, arguably since the “inception of photography”.25 Principally, these have occurred in the camera obscura, but also—and more permanently—in the paintings of German artist Georg Bazalitz and the earlier-mentioned upside down images of Graham’s photographic and camera obscura installation works.26 Flipped or reversed images (reflections), some born of the use of the camera obscura, also punctuate art history, in the likes of paintings by Caravaggio and Velazquez, and in the work of contemporary artist Douglas Gordon, among many others.27
Counterpoint Four – The Monument
When living in Berlin the complex history of monuments is highly visible. While some monuments are lost, those that remain are constantly discussed across the city through committees, public debates, submissions, dismantling, burying, excavation and rediscovery.28 This active discourse is an ever evolving, present and powerful force in the city – from the pre-second world war monuments such as Die Neue Wache (The New Guard House), which has been controversially and generally rededicated by Helmet Kohl to all “the victims of war and tyranny,”29 to the few remaining snippets of Albert Speer’s plan for Hitler’s Germania, seen in the grand boulevards that lead to the Siegessäule (Victory Column) and in remaining Nazi architecture. Communist monuments, too, are present throughout the reunited city, with astonishing examples remaining in Treptower Park and at Marx Engels Platz.
Of course, Berlin is also home to many significant holocaust memorials, along with sculptures, markers, bunkers, bullet embossed buildings and around 3000 Stolpersteine, or stumbling blocks, made by artist Gunter Demnig, whose small brass markers are embedded in the cobblestones and remember the lives of Jews, gypsies, resistance fighters and homosexuals.30 Berlin’s many memorials defy erasure and adopt a political position that aims to sit with the past by enabling quotidian remembrance. Much like this conflicted and telling register of sites, buildings, monuments and architecture, the Olympic Oak trees connect small towns and cities all over the world to foreign lands and to a catastrophic historical moment. Acknowledging them argues for the importance of living with, and even growing with, the ghosts of the past.31
Counterpoint Five – The Counter Monument
Coined by James E Young, the term ‘counter monument’ represents a critique of the traditional vertically upright monument.32 The counter monument aims to highlight the fact that a monument can become a ruse for a memorial. Discussing Young’s ideas, architectural historian Paul Sigel states:
This provocative idea was based on the observation that many monuments are less prompts to thinking about complex historical situations than an expression of a finished and sometimes one-dimensional interpretation process.33
Perhaps with Young’s striking critique in mind, many contemporary monuments incorporate upside-down-ness, inversion and negative space, for example Micha Ullman’s underground memorial to books burned by Nazis at Bebelplatz in 1933, and Rachel Whiteread’s The Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (otherwise known as the Nameless Library) in Vienna.
Counterpoint Six – The Photographic Space
In Archive Fever, Okwui Enwezor writes that ‘The photographic image […] can be likened to an anthropological space in which to observe and study the way the members and institutions of a society reflect their relationship to it’. Or, as Ariella Azoulay further proposes, photographs indicate a set of civic contracts or a place where we can see that a certain set of actions are allowed to occur.34 Azoulay discusses the responsibility of a civic spectator to respond to the injustice that he or she sees in an image and photography’s ability through its multiple readings to allow this action or response,35 writing:
The photograph is put there, an object in the world, and anyone always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what its it shows, possibly even completely overturning what was seen in it before.36
Like the potential to pull multiple meanings from a photograph, tree and oak tree symbolism has been co-opted in the service of various regimes and religions. One of the salient aspects of these trees is the changing political and social conditions that they have lived through; gifted in Berlin’s interwar period, the trees’ long lives have witnessed various political eras. Their meanings have been, and continue to be, both symbolically and temporally mobile.
The installation in a forest is ideally constructed as a set of upright and upside down pairs, with one element of a pair mirroring the other. The works are installed in site-specific arrangements to create an oscillating, forest-like frieze of conflicting and counter positions – each attempting to overrule the other and unable to resolve into one. The sense of extrapolation created by splitting the pairs apart is key to this strategy, encouraging a double take when one encounters an image for the second time. Azoulay describes one aspiration of her book The Civil Contract of Photography as an effort to reinscribe photographs with the dimensions of time and movement.37 Viewers of in a forest encounter image elements on separate occasions, sometimes in separate rooms; temporally, they are forced to complete a reading of these works in an expanded sense. This extraction and expansion of the singular image reinforces a reading of the trees as multiple, diverse and conflicted; allowing for contemplation, for a slower logic of representation, what could also be termed a “slow release”. This was the key concept in Zara Stanhope’s 2002 survey of Australian and New Zealand photography, which explored the idea of content unfolding over time.38
The installation of these works seeks to foreground the mutable ideological status of the living trees that are represented, as well as to depict their locations and idiosyncratic historical contexts.39 in a forest aims to explore a set of anthropological turns or forces through the counterpoints outlined above and to propose that we want to acknowledge and to understand the complexity of our histories. It is not monument, but is in dialogue with the conditions of remembrance and the term ‘monument’. in a forest intends to unpack this critical nexus.
In traversing the history of the oak, through prosperity and economic wellbeing into its darkest symbolic hour, this essay has gone far into the woods of western cultural constructions of evil. But the woods are also symbolic of ambivalence, sanctuary, resource and opportunity. A tree itself cannot be evil. As Simon Schama so aptly writes:
None of this means that when we, too, set off on the trail of “social memory” we will inevitably end up in places where, in a century of horror, we would rather not go, places that represent a reinforcement of, rather than an escape from, public tragedy. But acknowledging the ambiguous legacy of Nature myths does at least require us to recognize that landscapes will not always be simple “places of delight” - scenery as sedative, topography so arranged to feast the eye. For those eyes, as we will discover, are seldom clarified of the promptings of memory. And the memories are not all of pastoral picnics.40
By way of a conclusion, these photographic images, presented in a group as in a forest, outline an unresolvable array of counterpoints: charged, sorrowful and fraught; heroic, nationalistic, social and personal. They allow us to simultaneously contemplate the wood and the trees.
About the author
Ann Shelton (MFA, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) was born in Timaru, New Zealand. Shelton is recognised as one of New Zealand’s leading photographic artists. Auckland Art Gallery will host Shelton’s mid-career survey curated by Zara Stanhope in 2016 . Shelton is Associate Professor in Photography at Whiti o Rehua, Massey University in Wellington and is currently Chair of Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington’s artist-run space. She is represented by Trish Clarke and Paul McNamara Gallery. An earlier iteration of this paper was presented at the AAANZ conference in Wellington in 2011.
Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever : Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York, N.Y.: Steidl Publishers, 2008), 18.
Melissa Keys uses the term “Nazi stained Olympics” in her text a way of calling for the exhibition another way of calling at the Linden Art Centre, Melbourne, Australia.
Françoise Forster-Hahn, “Recent Scholarship on Caspar David Friedrich,” The Art Bulletin, 58(1) (March 1976): 113–116.
Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, (London: Harper Perennial, 2004, 118-9 and Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Mark Cioc, Thomas Zeller, How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2005).
Ancient Olympic Games, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games, Wikipedia (accessed December 2, 2011).
The Movement to Boycott the Berlin Olympics of 1936, [http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007087], United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (accessed December 6, 2011).
The Olympics have long been controversial; and Americans protested their countries participation in the 1936 summer games - just as New Zealand did the Springbok tour to South Africa fifty years later. Ultimately, both countries attended the games.
One notable exception is Bedford School, whom, in an act of transparency have included a chapter in their school history entitled “The Hitler Oak”.
Rick Shenkman, [http://ironlight.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/adolf-hitler-jesse-owens-and-the-olympics-myth-of-1936/] and [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse\_Owens]. Numerous accounts relating to Hitler’s of snubbing Jesse Owens circulate on the internet; these are two perspectives among the varying stories of Hitler’s personal congratulations to athletes at the games.
The Nazi Party: The Nazi Olympics, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/olympics.html (endnotes.xml), Jewish Virtual Library (accessed February 17, 2015).
James Constandt, The 1936 Olympic Oaks: Where are they now?, (Michigan: James Ross Constandt, 1994)
David Colquhoun, “Come on Jack,” The Listener, 3560, (2008). Online article. http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/come-on-jack/ (accessed December 2, 2011). and As if Running on Air: the Journals of Jack Lovelock. David Colquhoun, ed. David Colquhoun (Craig Potton Publishing, 2008), 35, 127.
Thomas Flierl, fracture: conversations on memory in the berlin republic (Berlin: Hauptstadtkulturefond, 2008), 56.
See also Ann Shelton, Artist statement, Metadata (Auckland: Starkwhite, 2011), 100.
The Social LIves of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on tree Symbolism., ed. Laura Rivil (New York; Oxford: Berg, 1998) and William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 24.
Tāne Mahuta is a giant kauri tree (Agathis australis) in the Waipoua Forest of Northland Region, New Zealand. Its age is unknown but is estimated to be between 1,250 and 2,500 years old. It is the largest kauri known to stand today. Its Māori name means “Lord of the Forest” (see Tāne), from the name of a god in the Māori pantheon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tāne_Mahuta. Retrieved December 2, 2011.
The Social LIves of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on tree Symbolism., ed. Laura Rivil (New York; Oxford: Berg, 1998), 1.
Prized for their role in architecture, winemaking, furniture etc. Oak: the Frame of Civilization William Bryant Logan, p.80.
William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 24
Notes for Discussion, http://www.zakros.com/jhu/apmSu03/notes_beuys.html (accessed December, 2 2011).
Mark Bolland, “Jeff Wall: the wood and the trees,” PA Magazine, 1 (2008).
Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge; London: The MIT Press, 1997).
T.J. McNamara, “TJ McNamara: Effective subtlety and some flourishing of wit,” NZ Herald, Nov 2011, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/visual-arts/news/article.cfm?c_id=355&objectid=10765537. (accessed March, 1, 2015).
Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press 1999), 209-261.
Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History In the Urban Landscape (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Germany’s National Memorial to the Murdered Jew’s of Europe, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/memorial/cron.html, Frontline (accessed December 2, 2011).
However, Demnig’s works have been controversial with some contemporary German homeowners attempting to stop their installation and some cities such as Munich and Leipzig prohibiting their installation. http://www.obermayer.us/award/awardees/demnig-eng.htm
Brian Ladd titled his book The Ghosts of Berlin
I am indebted to Melissa Keys for alerting me to this term and for her quotation of the term in relation to my work in the exhibition catalogue “A way of Calling”
Paul Sigel, “Counter-Monuments - Criticising Traditional Monuments,” http://www.goethe.de/ins/ke/en/nai/kul/mag/aue/kgd/204638.html, Geothe Institute (accessed Feb 1, 2015).
Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever : Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York, N.Y.: Steidl Publishers, 2008), 13.
Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 14.
ibid. p. 13
Zara Stanhope, Slow Release, recent photography in New Zealand exh. cat., (Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art Melbourne, 2002).
Ladd Brian, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Landscape, (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1997). For this reading I am indebted to Brian Ladd’s now classic text on Berlin and to his complex readings of the shifting signs at this site, including those National Socialist sites and architecture remaining or otherwise in the Berlin landscape.
Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), 18.