Documentary On The German “Waldsterben” Hysteria – Looking Back 30 Years

30 years ago Waldsterben (forest dieback) was probably Germany’s first post-war environmental hysteria to grip the country. Today we see that all the prophecies of doom were completely wrong.

The excellent Michael Miersch brings our attention to this oustanding arte Franco-German documentary called “The Forests are Dying Again (in German, and here in French), which takes a look back at one of the greatest environmental hysterias ever to grip a population: Waldsterben (forest dieback), a.k.a. acid rain.

The documentary also exposes the dirty tricks the media used to keep the hysteria alive (see 24-min. mark). There are so many parallels to today’s modern climate hysteria.

Again, back then there was “consensus”, all the scientists agreed, there was no denying the catastrophe, and politicians called it a grave threat that required immediate action. Fear gripped Germany. Environmentalists, union leaders, church leaders, citizens, politicians, etc. marched on the streets and demanded the government take action. The culprit was clear: emissions from industry and man were producing acid-rain that was chemically searing forests. At the 1:29 mark of the documentary:

The early 1980s, thousands of people took to the streets, an entire country is in panic, the German forest is dying. That’s for sure. But we alone are at fault due to our unbridled efforts to attain prosperity and progress. We treated nature like crap, and now there is nothing left to do but take it to the grave.”

Der Spiegel triggers the hysteria

The scare was first set into motion by Der Spiegel’s November, 1981 front page story called: “The Forests are Dying. Acid Rain Over Germany“. Soon all other media outlets fell over themselves to see who could produce the most sensational stories.

Der Spiegel wrote that the forest had only 5 years left. Stern, not to be outdone,followed with: “Acid Death” and claimed that the forest had only 3 years left.  Waldsterben remained the hottest story for years in the German press. The scare even served as one of the major springboards that launched Germany’s Green Party.

At the 3:08 mark, the documentary cuts back to present-day 2011 Allgäu, 30 years later, where we see the forests look completely healthy. “How can that be?” the documentary asks.

Rudy Holzbergercollected 150 media clippings about the tree-dieback hysteria, and has gone back and analyzed them. While some media outlets like Stern claimed the forest would die in as little as 3 years, all agreed on one thing, Holzberger says:

All of them said the forest would be dead at the latest by the year 2000.”

Holzberger then goes on to explain that the science behind the scare was flaky and thin. Sound familiar? Most of the forest dieback junk-science is traced back to University of Göttingen professor Bernhard Ulrich, who says at the 6:36 mark:

“There’s no doubt for those who are involved in the science the cause is air pollution, acid rain, and everything that comes with it.

We have to expect that after a warm and dry year it will lead to widespread forest damage and death.”

According to Professor Ulrich, German forests would soon appear as dead as those shown at the 7.50 mark of the documentary.

Later in the documentary, tree rings reveal that an even more widespread tree die-off occurred in 1947, and that the tree die-off in the early 1980s was nothing unusual and part of the natural cycle. The 1980s episode, however, showed how the media for the first time could drive an entire nation into mass panic.

Happening faster than anyone expected

The panic eventually spread into France (but to a lesser degree) thanks to assertions made by Professor Josef Reichelt, who claimed that French trees were dying off as well. But the French press ignored the story as a whole. Yet, there were still some kooks like Richard Kletty who claimed:

“It’s happening unbelievably fast. We know the resistance that trees have, and so it really surprised us how fast the damage is taking place and the trees are dying.”

Joschka Fischer

Today we hear the same about sea ice melt. Yet, the scare never took off in France as it did in Germany, where the topic was emotionalized rather than being based on science and reason. At the 14:20 mark the documentary tells us how the German Greens made the jump into the German Parliament, with a young Joschka Fischer (looks like him, anyway) marching in carrying a dead tree.

The all-knowing, bearded Greens protested the inauguration of Helmut Kohl, claiming he was dealing with the problem irresponsibly. The political payoff for the greens was handsome. As the forests appeared to be dying, Germany embarked on the path of turning “green”.

The forests then recovered, but the media ignored it

At the 23-minute mark, the documentary tells us that eventually by 1993 the trees, which go through natural cycles of losing needles and greening again, depending on rainfall, were back in a state of ruddy health and that there was no longer any danger of the once feared massive forest die-off. How did the media react to this news? At the 23:55 mark, Helmut Schulz says:

We made an analysis of the press to see how they reported on this. Of 54 daily newspapers, only 4 reported on the positive news. All the others, 50 newspapers, reported negatively.”

The media had no interest in an improving forest health – they wanted to remain stuck on Armageddon. Instead they rolled out more apocalyptic headlines. At the 23:42 mark, Holzberger shows some of the headlines: Stern in 1994: The Death Struggle of the Trees which included words like: “If Trees Could Scream, which described the death of trees in human terms.“It was complete nonsense”, says Holzberger.

Tree-dieback deniers got smeared

It was also a difficult period for scientists who did not share the apocalyptic views of mass forest die-off. In 1996 Professor Heinrich Spieker published a scientific assessment of European forests commissioned by a Finnish forestry institute. The report was called: Growth Trends of European Forests, which reached the conclusion: “The forest in Europe is growing faster and they are healthier”. This is not what the media wanted to hear. It contradicted prevailing dogma. The reaction from the media was harsh.

Here were some of the claims made by the media (see 26.46 mark), the Süddeutsche Zeintung:

EFI study is superficial and fundamentally flawed.”

and called the deniers:

Witch doctors and charlatans”

and one German activist group wrote:

Half of the financing came from the Finnish government, and that Spieker was married to a Finnish woman.”

Today, it’s clear that Heinrich Spieker was right, and that it is the slimy media who have egg on their faces. Indeed German forests are expanding 170 sq km annually. And again today in climate science, the very same newspapers and groups are at it again.

Ironically, today’s forest die-off is due to the green biofuels craze

At the 27-minute mark, the documentary focuses on today’s claims that climate change is threatening yet another forest die off. But as the documentary shows, forests are adapting as they always have, and that the Sahara is getting greener. The science shows that the warming temps over the last 30 years (likely due to ocean cycles) is making the planet greener, and not browner.

In the last segment of the documentary we see the real threat to forests – especially tropical forests. It is deforestation to make way for green bio-crop plantations – to grow crops that allegedly will save forests from climate change.

14 responses to “Documentary On The German “Waldsterben” Hysteria – Looking Back 30 Years”

  1. John F. Opie

    Marx said: “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce”.

    Right now we’re in the tragedy phase of self-delusion, repeating the tree-die off hysteria so well shown here. Once we’re all suitably clothed in sackcloth and hairshirts to appease for the imagined sins we’re committing, when anthropogenic global warming shows itself to be as well documented and scientifically grounded as tree die-off, a new boogieman will be invented to scare the childish, or more exactly, those who have been schooled to be childish.

    First as tragedy, then as farce. Perhaps the most important quote to come from him.

    1. DirkH

      “Marx never believed that “history repeats itself,” but in a famous quote he said:

      “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” [Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonapatre, Chapter 1.]”

      My thoughts:
      The first time Marxism was tried out was the USSR; that was the tragedy.
      The rise of the 1968 student revolt communists in the form of the Green Party is the farce.

  2. Patagon

    Very interesting, thanks for posting it.

    In French for those of us that struggle with the German:

  3. R. de Haan



    We are living in an idiocracy with top idiots running the show

    1. Edward

      Amen to that!

  4. R. de Haan
  5. Jimbo

    The parallels with the global warming scare is creepy.

  6. Jimbo

    This is not what the media wanted to hear. It contradicted prevailing dogma. The reaction from the media was harsh.

    I can think of two reasons for this:

    1) Alarm sells newspapers (up to a point with global warming).

    2) They were in denial that they hed been fed faulty science and were duped.

    Today, there is a 3rd possible dimension being carbon investments made by media proprietors and their organisations investments. The BBC is an example with the large investment made into carbon schemes.

  7. GregO

    The whole acid-rain pseudo-crises reminds me of another less-known pseudo-crises: the alleged demise of the giant saguaro cactus in the Sonora desert in southwest United States and northern Mexico. Read about it here:

    Again, media ever-ready to jump on a negative story that has no basis in fact.

    I have a saguaro in my back yard. Their flowers bloom only for a short time in May and June and the flowers only open up in the early morning. Mine (about 12 feet tall) is blooming now and when I go to work in the morning, the bees and other pollinators swarm around the beautiful white flowers. I’m glad they are not doomed. They are wonderful and beautiful.

  8. Francis Massen

    I guess Europe can be happy about having the French: their individualism and refusal of blindly following authority is a good protection against the hysterical Angst waves that with clockwork regularity roll over German souls. But one should never forget the selfpropelling impetus or positive feedback of these scares by those who make a great profit from them: the scientists (or pseudo-scientists) and “öko-research” institutions who ring grant and research money from the taxpayer and who well know that Angst is the best lever to keep this money flowing.

  9. Doug Proctor

    The mass media – and humankind in general – exist in the moment. Twenty years is too long by far to consider or even remember well, and yet ten years has enough variation to be discounted as not meaningful. If all of the planet is not to be in constant turmoil and confusion we must find some way to find a pattern and then stick with it, though we can change it later. Here the media got a hold of environmental destruction though humankind’s arrogance and greed. News that counteracts that notion must be discounted as part of the short-term changes we safely ignore; news that counteracts the long-term view tends to have no reality (especially to those young enough to be unconnected with its origin).

    This is where the authority of recognized leaders comes in. When those recognized as responsible men and women on both moral and technical grounds say that the reports of forest die-off is wrong, that the Sahara is getting greener, that plant productivity is improving, that the temperature rises and sea-level rises are not accelerating or approaching CAGW levels, then the mainstream media and the public will hesitate to continue with the alarms. Right now we have the president of the Czech Republic being a naysayer against CAGW, but he is the only one. When the Pope says he is no longer certain, or Greenpeace says that global warming is a red herring, and that the health of the planet is the point, then sanity will come back. But only then.

    As long as short-term thinking and memory determines our views, and as long as those who claim to speak for us limit themselves to what they see outside the windows of their Lexus’, we will suffer in the moment. It is unfortunate that, as democratic elections show, we really do not demand that what was said or done or projected even four years ago must be reconciled with actions and facts today. We are all special to ourselves, and this moment is always special with respect to our past and future lives.

    If CAGW is truly foolish, we will know that from the print and video media and the words of politicians and public speakers-for-profit only when the Arctic sea-ice begins expanding and more space heaters are sold than air conditioners.

    It is too bad, but that is how it is. At least at the moment.

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