EiJ Photo Essay: Vielank, Germany

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Emergency shelter

"Hundreds of evacuees for days in gyms, tents or in hotels. Full of fear for homes, belongings, livestock and pets. The smell of smoke in the air. Distant noise of helicopters. Explosions in the distance. Tanks and other military vehicles drive by. Food provisions are handed out by disaster relief organisations."

“Most […] disasters, or most damages in them, are characteristic rather than accidental features of the places and societies where they occur.” (Hewitt 1983) The case highlights the dialectics of “long emergencies of slow violence” (Nixon 2011, 3) and the manifestations of spectacular disasters like wildfires. With this local disaster several “slow disasters” of more than seven decades come into view such as mining, resource extraction, “unnatural” reforestation initiatives after World War II that together with the problems of UXOs produced the disaster in 2019.

Vielank: Satellite Image

In 2019, the largest wildfire in the state of Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania led the evacuation of fives villages in Germany. The wildfire occured on a former military training. The evacuation lasted for days as exploding UXOs made fire suppression nearly impossible. Acrid smell from the blaze drifted as far as Berlin, 200 kilometres away.

A compound disaster

With the compound disaster of 2019 a “slow disaster” of more than seven decades comes into view. A small fire found a lot of conifer fuel of old trees that are a result of the reforestation initiatives after WWII. Furthermore, lots of deadwood due to an un-natural and unmanaged forest gave fuel to the fire.

At the same time firefighting on the ground, which is the norm in Germany, was simple impossible due exploding ammunition. For a variety of reasons that--to some extent--are also related to post-WWII architecture of disaster management in Germany, the country has only very small aerial fire suppression capacity with helicopters of the Federal police. Since regular fire fighters and fire suppression helicopters were forced to keep at least 1000m distance from the fire (and potential exploding devices), tanks of the armed forces were used to cut swathes as the main tactic to contain the fire. Aerial firefighting could only be used as a support measures.

After a couple of days and due to change of weather the fire was finally extinguished. However, the underlying root causes of the dissaster persist.

Industrializing the area

An important aspect of the region is that it was used for mining potash salt and rock salt. In 1882, first test drilling took place. And from 1886 to 1912 mines were operated--ending with a first industrial disaster that was followed by multiple environmental transformations in the region.

On June 24th, 1912, an inrush of water ended the mining in the area. All miners were evacuated in time but since then sinkholes pull through the landscape and still endanger both local people and first responders in times of disaster.

Militarizing the area

The origins of the 2019 disaster can be traced back to a whole series of processes that originate in the 1930ies and that are associated with national socialism, facist ideology, preparations for total war and actual warfare. In 1936, an ammunition factory was founded in Jessenitz. More than 360 bunkers and depots were installed on-site to establish the main ammunition bunker of the German Kriegsmarine, the so-called Marineartilleriezeugamt.

During WWII 2000 forced laborers from Russia, Poland, Italy, France, Netherlands, etc. were forced to produce ammunition for the national socialists and their total war that affects the area until today and will continue to do so for decades.

In the years 1945 until 1947 the Red Army detonated the bunkers inappropriately with the effect that unexploded ordnances were dispersed in the whole area.

Military training area

With such a huge amount of ammunition in the forest and in the soil the options for use of the area were limited. But additional military practice and more pollution with ammunition became possible.

Thus, until 1960, the area was used as a military training area for the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). In 1964, a still active ammunition disposal service was established on site. From 1956 until 1990 the GDR’s National People’s Army used the military training area before in 1991 the German Armed Forces inherited the military training area and used it until 2013.

The military training area was used for tank practices, shooting and counter-insurgency practices for Afghanistan and other countries. Due to changes in the organisation and structures of the armed forces, they left the military training area in 2013 without a proper explosive ordnance disposal.

The result of more than 75 years of producing and firing of all kinds of ammunition is that parts of the military training area are highly contaminated with ammunition without any knowledge where the ammunition is and how the area could be cleared.

Only one example of many

Even though, the given case is a very specific case it may shed some light on more general aspects concerning the “repositories of vulnerabilities”. In Slow Violence, Nixon (2011) uses the example of so-called precision warfare and uranium ammunition to highlight the distant and cross-scale effects of warfare.

Germany and the same is true for many other countries shows that “less precise”, more “conventional” warfare also involves vast extents of slow violence, too.

The contamination with ammunition and other explosive devices is much more common than widely known: ammunition from WWII (and after) can be found all over Germany. It is assumed that 10% of Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania are highly contaminated with ammunition. In some German states even up to 12 % of state territories are highly contaminated with the result that hundreds of thousands of ha in Germany are contaminated with ammunition. It will take decades before all areas will be cleared and a common legal framework for all sixteen German states is still lacking.

UXOs as safety and environmental threats

Millions of unexploded ordnances (UXOs) originating form wars and military training are a hazard around the world.Accidental detonations can occur, for instance in case construction work disturbs UXOs but also without any outside influences, and result in fatalities (e. g., in 1994 in Berlin, Germany). As they degrade UXOs are also responsible for environmental contamination with chemicals such as explosives (e. g., TNT).

Despite some demining efforts, central Europe and Germany in particular is still highly contaminated with UXOs from both World War I and World War II. Especially around industrial and urban agglomerations that were bombed heavily in World War II large numbers of unexploded bombs remain in the soil as it is expected that up to 270,000 tons, i. e, 10% to 20% of all bombs dropped on Germany, were UXOs.

But not only unexploded bombs of air raids pose a threat today but also ammunition and UXOs that were discarded both on land and in the sea after the end of the World Wars. Large amounts of explosives including chemical warfare agents like sulfur mustard or phosgene can be found both in the North and Baltic Sea resulting in environmental contamination and accidents. Today up to 12 % of state territories in Germany are (still) contaminated with UXOs and ammunition.

While UXOs are a hazard themselves they can also trigger other hazards such as wildfires in case UXOs, e. g. with phosphorus, ignite themselves. But UXOs especially pose a threat when interacting with other hazards, for instance when wildfires that are increasing with climate change occur in highly combustible forests.

Reforesting for a highly-combustible forest

After WWII the German population faced severe supply shortfalls with regard to food, non-food items but also firewood. The result was widespread illegal logging of the remaining forests.

Furthermore, the allied forces demanded reparations. Part of the reparations were so-called “Reparationshiebe” (reparation chops) that lead to clear-felled areas all over Germany. In the British Sector the North German Timber Control Commission (NGTC) was in charge of the Reparationshiebe, in Soviet sector to which Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania belonged the Soviet Military Administration in Germany was responsible.

In response to the deforestation so-called “Kulturfrauen”--sometimes also called „Trümmerfrau“ of the forest--replanted millions of trees all over Germany. This work was later commemorated on the 50 Pfennig coin of the Deutsche Mark.

The reforestation had significant impacts both on the composition of the forests and age structure of the forests. Because they grow faster conifer forests were preferred with the result that conifer forest prevail in Eastern Germany and that a certain age structure is predominant. In Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania the planting of non-native conifers was an economic driven process that started long before WWII but was intensified after WWII.

While in Western Germany some of the associated dangers of forest fires became known due to the devasting forest fire of 1975 and subsequent reforms of forest management and firefighting tactics, it seems that in the GDR these findings were much less prominent which may also be seen as a result of the German separation that followed National Socialism.

Forest fires and climate change

Projections show that climate change will intensify natural hazards in the future: scenarios predict that there will be more dry phases, more hot days and more days with heavy rainfall.

Looking at the current discourse concerning climate change, natural hazards and disasters a paradox effect becomes apparent. While it seems that climate change acknowledge the role of mankind in the production of disasters, at the same time climate change seems re-naturalize disasters, while the imperial formations, the slow violence and repositories of vulnerabilities are shadowed.

Lasting problems for safety and the environment

Behind the spectacular disaster of 2019 are a large number of people who were directly and indirectly affected by the events.

The inhabitants of five villages had to leave them for days and were very frightened for property and animals. In addition, there was health stress due to smoke on site but also to a lesser extent hundreds of kilometers away. Even though the wildfire died out after a few days, the underlying dangers continue to exist. The next wildfire is only a matter of time.

Still, no solutions exist for UXOs and the unique challenges of wildfires on munitions-laden terrain that are substantive. The problem will remain and only increase with climate change. Similar problems of forest fires on munitions-contaminated land are evident elsewhere in Germany and around the world. But even without forest fires, UXOs remains a general problem for safety and the environment.


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Created date

December 1, 2021

Cite as

Daniel Lorenz. 1 December 2021, "EiJ Photo Essay: Vielank, Germany", Disaster STS Network, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 10 December 2021, accessed 30 June 2022. https://disaster-sts-network.org/content/eij-photo-essay-vielank-germany