The areas of West Central Poland, and Lachish, Israel, in the southern lowland between the coast and Judean mountains, have little in common. Poznan’s rolling hills, ancient forests and many rivers interspersed with farms, villages, towns and cities provide a stark contrast to Lachish’s nearly flat and semi-arid network of collective farms, agricultural settlements and the backwater burg of Kiryat Gat.
Yet an ironic twist of history will forever link the two places, for what was nearly instituted in Poznan during World War II, once the area had been cleared of Jews and other “undesirables,” came to life just a couple of decades later in the Lachish area, thanks to Zionist planners seeking to create a modern Utopian state out of what was seen as a land without a people.
The man linking the two places is Walter Christaller, a giant of regional planning whose Nazi associations were somehow washed away, or conveniently forgotten, in the post-war years. His Theory of Central Places, which Konrad Meyer and Heinrich Himmler wanted to use to replicate the city-country landscape of Germany in a conquered Eastern Europe, later found a home in the Lachish region, among other places, as Israeli planners attempted to build an urban and agricultural region, like so much of the Jewish state, from scratch.
Describing Christaller’s plan for the Warthegau area of Poland, Trevor Barnes, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia, told this reporter recently that “it involved creating this empty space without people and then refilling it with a Germanized population… If that’s what happened in Israel, it’s repeating exactly the same narrative, the same set of relations as there were in Nazi Germany.”
Israeli planners, for the most part, have not grappled with the fact that one of the dominant planning doctrines in early Israel was developed by a geographer in the Nazi party. And while Barnes says the doctrine is tinged by its Nazi associations, most Israeli planners deny that Christaller’s professional life had any bearing on it.
“Christaller presented a theory. Anyone can use or learn from it as they see fit but there is no connection to his past,” Gideon Biger, a professor in Tel Aviv University’s Geography department, said. (Full disclosure: I attended a class Biger taught while a student in the department, during which he spoke at length about central place theory.)
A true-blue brown shirt?
It is difficult to know how devoted Christaller was to the Nazi cause. A Social Democrat, he fled Germany for France on his bicycle in 1933, after Adolf Hitler took power, for fear that he would be persecuted by the Nazis.
It was the same year that he published his seminal thesis “Central Places in Southern Germany,” which became the lodestar of the central places movement in geography. Christaller returned to Berlin several years later, taking a job in the Nazi Soil and Planning Department under SS man Konrad Meyer. It was there that he was tasked with creating a plan for Warthegau, which the Nazis intended to cleanse of Jews, Slavs and Poles as a test case for what the Third Reich hoped would be the creation of a greater Germany-conquered Eastern Europe, in accordance with the concept of Lebensraum (“living room”).
“I have no evidence that he was an anti-Semite,” Barnes said. “His own records were destroyed and he asked his son to burn his papers. There is very little information about what he actually believed at the time … He got sucked up into that bureaucracy, but it’s not clear if he even believed in it.”
After the war, Christaller joined the Communist cause (and was rumored to have worked for the Stasi) and became widely respected in planning circles, winning the Victoria Medal from the Royal Geographic Society in 1968.
The question of whether Christaller was a true-blue brown shirt or just an academic trying to get ahead while the Nazis were in power is one that cuts to the heart of his legacy. No definitive answer has ever been given, but the warm welcome he received in international planning circles as early as the 1950s, and the fact that he is still widely taught in schools across the world, including in Israel, testify to the fact that most were happy to forgive, or not take seriously, his past.
While his Nazi history was never a secret, it was not until his death in 1969 that the true extent of his associations with the party reverberated through the planning world.
In 2012, Barnes and Claudio Minca coauthored an article exposing “the dark history” of Christaller and his theory. Next year, a second paper will be published by Barnes, comparing Christaller to Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann, not in the severity of his crimes but in the fact that he was a “desk killer,” or schreibtischtaeter in German, a bureaucrat who efficiently helped carry out the Third Reich’s plans.
“He had some belief in what he was doing,” Barnes said. “Not only did he revive the plan for Warthegau but he helped to arrange for the transfer of migrants who are going to go to the empty farms.”
Christaller is far from the only Nazi to escape the taint of his actions under the Third Reich. Dr. Werner von Braun, the father of the German V-2 rocket program, was famously co-opted by the US to help get the country’s nascent space program off the launch pad; filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl remained a sought-after photographer despite being a major part of the Nazi propaganda machine; and Martin Heidegger is still considered a giant of philosophy despite his relationship with the Nazi party, thanks in part to the efforts of Hannah Arendt to clear his name.
Ideas too, seeped out of Nazi Germany and into accepted modern discourse. Maps of North Africa used by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel were utilized as recently as the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya. According to Haifa University’s Dr. Arnon Golan, who was the first Israeli academic to write about Christaller’s Nazi past in 1997, the Israel Defense Forces also bases some of its tank warfare doctrine on maneuvers innovated by Rommel as he swept through North Africa. And the idea of regression to the mean, an accepted scientific principle, had its roots in the study of eugenics.
So too, despite its dark past, central place theory proved popular for many European and American planners in the 1950s and 60s, with champions of the program either ignoring or not knowing about Christaller’s Nazi past. (A plan for Christaller to conduct a speaking tour in the US in the 1960s was stymied not because he had been a Nazi, but because he was a Communist).
A tempting formula for growth
Central place theory, which is based on the relationship between cities and their surroundings in southern Germany, calls for a hierarchy of small farming villages, larger towns and bigger cities, with each rung providing a different level of service for area residents. Using a mathematical model that places the cities, towns and villages in a hexagonal pattern, proponents of central place theory hoped to be able to efficiently direct development for maximum economic benefit, while maintaining a high quality of life.
For Israel in the 1950s, central place theory proved a tempting way for planners to decide where to direct growth, particularly development towns and farming villages to be populated by the influx of new immigrants. Planners engineered a hierarchical system from small farming villages, or moshavim, to large cities, and in many cases they were placed with geopolitical considerations, such as Kiryat Shmona on the border with Lebanon, and Ashdod, which was intended to be a second port out of rocket range.
But nowhere did central place theory play as large a role as it did in the mostly empty Lachish region, a flat and arid expanse sitting between Israel’s southern coastal plain and the southern end of the West Bank.
“As most of the development towns were planned as service centers for rural districts around them, it seemed relevant to apply central place theory to determine their location and size,” planner Arie Shachar wrote in 1971.
In the Mandate period, the Lachish region had been dominated by the Arab towns of Iraq al Manshiya and Faluja. During the War of Independence, the area saw heavy fighting between Israeli and Egyptian forces and all the inhabitants left, either by choice or by force, according to different historians.
What was left was an empty area in which a purer form of Christaller’s theory could be applied.
“They found a lot of empty spaces and were troubled about how to better use their resources to develop the country,” said Ilan Troen, a professor at Brandeis University and the author of “Imagining Zion,” about Zionist planning. “The people who were engaged in planning had it in mind in creating a modern society. Christaller was a leading person in that regard.”
What was created, and what still exists today, was a system of small villages feeding into larger service centers, which all fed into the large development town of Kiryat Gat. Everything is placed, as much as possible, according to mathematical models and hexagonal patterns pioneered by Christaller and later revised by Auguste Losche, another German planner who was able to find success despite rebuffing the Nazis.
Christaller and Kiryat Gat
Most planners maintain that Israeli officials at the time had no idea about Christaller’s past, only that he and his theory were popular in the West, where it was applied in the Netherlands and the US, among other places.
“Thank heavens they didn’t know everything about Christaller,” Troen said. “He engaged in the kind of activities that would have offended and been considered outrageous.”
Golan said that David Amiran, the father of modern Israeli planning who played a large role in the Lachish project, told him that planners at the time had never heard of Christaller and certainly not his Nazi past.
“They took planning as something universal. They didn’t take it as something that derives from Christaller,” Golan said.
Most planners and historians are quick to point out that despite Christaller’s associations, central places is a sterile theory with no connection to National Socialism, and that it was developed before Christaller joined the Nazi party. According to Golan, the theory even predates Christaller by several decades, though Christaller nonetheless became its poster boy.
However, some say shades of the theory’s journey through the Third Reich are embedded within its cold sterility and efficiency for developing a new Germany — hallmarks of Nazi ideology, which balanced cruel science with a völkisch commitment to nationalism.
“It connects to the kind of Nazi ideology forged in the countryside,” said Barnes. “It begins with the farm itself. And it moves up all the way to the large urban centers. The habitation makes the connection between these two different ends, one the celebration of the rural and the other high modernism and science and industrial productivity.”
Barnes has not studied Israel’s application of central place theory. But, he says, if Israel’s planners did use it, it would be akin to Jerusalem choosing a Wagner tune for its national anthem.
“You must always take into account historical context,” he said. “Personally, I am very suspicious of any theory that presents itself as the embodiment of rationality and pure logic.”
Golan, however rejects Barnes’s parallel, saying that Wagner was a symbol of anti-Semitism, unlike Christaller who was “not the spirit of Nazi Germany.”
So too, Golan says, Israeli use of central place theory need not be tainted with the fact that its original innovators wanted to use it for evil.
“The fact that you use the same theory doesn’t show you use the same ideology,” he said.
In Poland, the idea would have been used to transport Germany into a newly conquered area. In Lachish, the idea was not to transfer Zionist city-country ideology, but rather just to find the most efficient way to put people, farms, towns and cities into a newly empty area that needed to be filled, in order to shore up Israel’s hinterlands, in what was then considered the northern Negev, and to keep Tel Aviv and the coastal region from overcrowding, a very real concern at the time for Israeli planners who feared Israel could turn into a binodal Australia redux.
Instead of becoming a strong, self-sustaining regional center, though, Kiryat Gat today is mostly seen as a poor backwater, kept afloat only by government subsidies — which helped spur Intel to put a plant there — and its proximity to Tel Aviv.
“Models or paradigms are neat. Reality is messy,” Troen said. “The realities of Palestine in the 20th century were messy.”
In 1997, Golan wrote that it was too simple for planners to just disregard Christaller’s Nazi connections because of the “objectivity” of his theories. “It seems … that it is rooted in the complex relations between Israelis and their painful past and that understanding the social and cultural dimensions of theories such as the central place theory, might contribute to a revaluation of the agenda of recent Israeli geography and the research of the shaping of Israeli landscapes,” his paper reads.
According to Troen, it’s impossible that Israeli planners, most of whom had been educated in Germany and maintained contacts with the post-war European planning community, didn’t know about Christaller. But relating to him for Israelis then was no different than their dilemmas over whether or not to buy German appliances.
At the end of the day, central places provided an important model for a country that also learned to live with Bosch washing machines and strong diplomatic ties with Bonn and Berlin.
“Jews had to make decisions about how to relate to the products of Nazi Germany,” he said. “Zionist planners saw that as bitter irony. These are the unexpected connections that seem so absurd and so tragic.”