A curious set of structures stood out from the rest at the infamous Nazi concentration camp Dachau during World War II — glass-paneled greenhouses established by SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
Driven by his belief in eugenics and anti-Semitic ideas, Himmler wanted to steer Germany away from conventional doctors and towards herbalism. He therefore initiated the building of greenhouses and outdoor gardens at the concentration camp as a pilot project. Ironically, despite the nativist policies of the Reich, the project relied on Mediterranean and Asian herbs. The workers were Jewish slave laborers interned at the camp.
This obscure narrative is part of a long-unexplored subject — the role of plants and plant-based products in WWII. Botanist and author Judith Sumner digs up history in her new book “Plants Go to War,” published by McFarland & Company.
The comprehensive volume takes the story far beyond the victory gardens that perhaps immediately come to mind when discussing WWII and plants. Although this topic is addressed, the book spans across the European and Pacific theaters, touching Allies and Axis civilians and combatants.
“It’s the first time that anybody has thought to do this, look at the war just from the perspective of the role that plants and plant products played,” Sumner told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation. “Homing in, I looked at agriculture, diets, the effects of starvation, the new field of epigenetics.”
Among Sumner’s inspirations for writing the book was her father’s wartime service as a US Army chemist in Hawaii, where the military sought to make up a crucial deficit after the Japanese seized quinine and latex supplies in the Pacific.
“In the back of my mind was the tremendous role of natural plant products in the Second World War,” she said.
Sumner identifies cotton as the single most important crop grown in the US during the war, surpassing even corn and wheat due to its multiple uses for the military, including in tents, belts, straps, bandages and uniforms. It was so important, she said, that the US brought captured German soldiers to America to work on cotton farms, resulting in racial tensions in Oklahoma with “black field hands who felt preference had been given to white German field hands, the enemy.”
The book even examines plants used as weapons. Seventy-five years ago this winter, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German retreat was further prompted when the Allies bombed conifers in the central European Ardennes Forest with napalm, creating large bonfires due to their resin content. It was a reversal of tactics from the previous battle of the Hurtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border, in which the Germans timed artillery shells to explode atop conifers, which resulted in bombardments of sharp wood onto the Allies.
There are Jewish accounts within the overall narrative — from the herb gardens at Dachau to the boots made from rye straw that female prisoners at Ravensbruck worked on for the Wehrmacht, which was undersupplied for the Russian winter. Sumner also looks at Jewish prisoners’ diets, the chemical composition of the deadly Zyklon-B gas, and the poignant popularity of gardens among Jews confined to Nazi ghettos.
There’s even the incredible but true account of Herman Mark — a refugee chemist of Jewish descent who worked on an Allied attempt to create an aircraft carrier out of an ice alloy called pykrete.
Sumner said she actually began giving lectures on the book’s subject four or five years ago, long before publication.
“At first it was basically on victory gardens, growing food during the war, the [subjects of the] first couple chapters,” she said, but then it became broader. “I included more about additional plant uses in wartime.”
“The main thing I hear, over and over, is, ‘Gosh, we had no idea. Who ever thought of some of these things? It’s really a different way to look at history,’” she added. “I have to agree with that.”
As she explains, the wartime era “predated much of synthetic organic chemistry. If you needed something for illness, it was plant-based. Wood, fiber, drugs, food — it was probably a plant.”
Botanists on the frontlines
In the book, Sumner aptly shows how valuable her profession became in wartime.
“Botanical study is a lot of theoretical matter,” she said. “Classifications, anatomy, chemicals in plants. People often ask, ‘Of what earthly use is what you’re studying? Why are you wasting your time?’” However, she noted, “it’s amazing how much seemingly hypothetical botanical knowledge became absolutely critical during the war.”
Sumner explains that there was a lack of awareness of this knowledge in the US before the war, leading to early shortages of badly needed quinine and rubber after the Japanese seized plantations in Indonesia. There were calls for Americans to turn in quinine to the federal government so troops could avoid malaria in the Pacific.
As the war continued, the US recognized the value of botanists, hiring them to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to identify which trees would make good sources of piers and bridges in the Pacific and which would become infested with marine worms.
At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, where Sumner gave a book talk earlier this year, many of the staff served as botanists in the war effort, she said. “Many were too old to serve and be drafted. They did other types of war work, even a garden of medicinal plants,” and collaborated on research with the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
“They knew, at that point, what happened in England,” Sumner said, referring to the fact that the English had “obtained almost all” of their prewar pharmaceutical drugs from companies in Holland, a supply blocked by Germany after it overran the Low Countries. In response, the British created a partnership between the War Department and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in which citizens, including many women, worked at gathering herbs. “It’s how they survived,” Sumner said.
A celebrated instance of botanical ingenuity during the war was the discovery of penicillin — although Sumner calls it a rediscovery, pointing out that “it was known to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians.”
She noted that by 1944, movie-theater newsreels called penicillin a wonder drug, but while its use in treating wounds and avoiding amputations was publicly promoted, its additional use against venereal disease was kept quiet.
“At that point, the only cure for venereal disease was actually mercury,” she said. “You could end up with mercury poisoning.”
Other examples of plant-based innovation in WWII include coconuts as a substitute for blood plasma, Sumner said, adding, “It’s something that shows up in various sources, not entirely new. It’s 100 percent credible.”
Nazis ‘genetically tied to the soil’
When the author examined the role of plants within the Axis, she found further surprises — including what she describes as a Nazi obsession with agriculture. In Germany, Sumner said, “both from a practical and philosophical perspective, the ‘hot idea’ was that their people are Aryans, are tied philosophically and genetically to the soil, they have a right to farm.”
Not only did the Nazis apply this concept to Germany, Sumner said, the Reich also developed “the idea that it was going to send farming families into Eastern Europe, into Russia, to set up, essentially, German colonies,” in the Drang nach Osten, or Movement to the East.
Harsh Russian winters put an end to the plan, she said. “In some cases they might have come up with cultivars stolen from Tibet,” said Sumner, but overall, “I think it was a figment of their imagination, or scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute told officials what they wanted to hear.”
The Drang nach Osten led to the establishment of ghettos for Jews across Eastern Europe. Sumner calls it “an absolutely cruel and hideous situation — high numbers of Jewish people squeezed into extremely marginal areas.”
Surveying the diets of Jews in the ghetto, she said, “There were simply insufficient calories, which is what led to the starvation people encountered.”
To recoup a measure of dignity and find food sources, Jews in the ghetto began gardening, but “unfortunately, in many cases, people who started a garden were transported out of the ghetto before they were ready to have plants,” she said.
Wartime gardening found universal appeal, Sumner finds, even in Germany after the war.
“Surviving civilians did a little gardening in the rubble of destroyed and bombed-out buildings, even to the extent where they tried to grow opium poppies,” Sumner said. “Some of the photos taken by American occupying forces after the war in their sector of Berlin are truly shocking. Here are people in the bombed-out remains of buildings, lots of people, in and around the rubble.”
Hungry Japanese made gardens of their own on sidewalks and in window boxes, their government having “no plan to feed civilians,” she said.
It was a time of shortage and experimentation when soldiers and civilians alike took more notice of the many plants that grew around them. With their newly acquired green thumbs, some would try to make the future a little less daunting than the past — including in the forthcoming State of Israel.
“It’s quite interesting, the number of Jewish people who after the war pursued agriculture,” Sumner reflected. “If you learn agriculture, you can grow your own [food], have a degree of self-sufficiency. As long as you have some seeds, some land, you can take care of yourself.”
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