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Swastika made of living trees cut down in German forest

swastika
Larch trees forming a swastika were planted north of Berlin in 1938 by a Hitler follower  

BERLIN, Germany (Reuters) -- German authorities chopped down dozens of russet-colored larch trees that had been planted to form a giant swastika in a forest of evergreen pines.

The larches were planted in 1938 by a devoted Hitler follower and their message only becomes visible -- from the air -- when the leaves turn yellow in autumn.

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Spurred by a wave of public protest after a Reuters aerial photograph of the 200-by-200-foot swastika was published in local newspapers, state forestry officials moved in with chain saws early Monday to obliterate the Nazi symbol.

But a dispute over land ownership on part of the property meant that only about half of the swastika could be cut down.

"The explosive nature of this Nazi pattern in the trees had to be defused," said Jens-Uwe Schade, spokesman for the Brandenburg environment ministry. "We have now cut down 25 trees and that will hopefully eliminate the problem."

Nazi symbols are outlawed in Germany and the photograph of the swastika on state-owned land caused a storm of protest.

At the height of Hitler's power, an enthusiastic Nazi forester planted a swastika out of about 60 larches in the midst of a 150-tree green pine forest in a rural area near Zernikow, a small town about 100 km (60 miles) north of Berlin.

As the normally green leaves of the larches change color against their evergreen background for a few weeks each autumn and spring, they create a remarkably clear swastika shape in the tree tops. But it is only visible from heights above about 1,000 feet.

The forest was largely forgotten as it lay deep behind the Iron Curtain in formerly communist East Germany and was only rediscovered in 1992. A first attempt by state authorities to cut down enough trees to disfigure the symbol in 1995 failed -- even though foresters reported otherwise to state authorities.

There had been fears that if left standing the forest could have become a site of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis.

"We can only hope that we cut down enough trees this time to eliminate the relic," Schade told Reuters.

He added state forestry officials wanted to cut down all 150 pine and larch trees in the square to ensure the swastika would be gone. But he said they obtained clearance for only 25 trees from the federal government property administration office (BWG).

The BWG had last week pressed Brandenburg to cut down the trees amid widespread outrage following the publication of the picture showing the swastika from the sky.

But the ownership of about half the property beneath the symbol is in dispute, Schade said. The 25 trees that were felled Monday were all on the government-owned side.

"We had sought a more radical approach, we wanted to bring down all the trees to make sure this time the symbol would be gone forever," he said. "But we were overruled. We'll know in the spring whether enough trees were brought down."

After posing briefly for photographers, two helmet-clad lumberjacks used their chain saws to cut the light-colored trees just one inch above the ground -- to avoid leaving stumps that might remain visible from the sky.

The towering larches were about 60 feet high and crashed slowly to the floor of the forest, from where the swastika was completely indistinguishable.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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