From Delirious Koblenz to the Forests of Paktia: Reflections Upon Coming to the Surface from the Bundesarchiv

I write from Koblenz, a medium-sized German city at the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel that swells with the schizophrenia of German history. The apartment I’m staying in for the week looks out on the Electoral Palace, an enormous, and beautiful French neo-classical residential palace finished in 1793, but quickly occupied and ransacked by French revolutionary troops before serving a number of administrative and conference functions from the 19th century onward; on the walk home from the bus stop, I walk by the doorstep of an apartment building where three Jewish residents were deported in the later 1930s to their deaths at the Sobibor Extermination Camp. The Altstadt (old city) was heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II, but has since been reborn as an odd mish-mash of restored and rebuilt Romanesque churches, 1920s – 1950s German Art Deco and modernist department stores and cafés, and ever-so-German Italian ice cream shops and shisha bars – cafés of the sort that feel like they should be more fun or happening than they actually are, because there’s an aire of German restraint holding them back from their full exuberance.

The 'German Corner' (Deutsches Eck) in Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers

Other parts of the city, like Karthause, where I’ve been spending most of my time, are similarly delirious, interesting but ambivalent. Some neighborhoods represent Germany’s future outside of the dynamic centers of Berlin, Hamburg, or Munich that are a more common experience for foreigners: a mix of depressing social housing projects and unambitious public squares surrounded by mediocre ice cream shops and tired-looking REWE and Lidl supermarkets. Put all of these things together – Holy Roman Empire, princes, World War II and the Holocaust, the postwar experience, social democracy – throw in a bit of Mosel Valley wine, and you get Germany in a nutshell, here in delirious Koblenz.

But I’m not just here for pleasure. I’ve been spending the last few days in Koblenz, Karthause more specifically, to visit the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) here, where I’m looking at some files relating to West German development projects in Afghanistan in the 1960s. (The German Federal Archives, in part reflecting Germany’s divided history, are split up into several branches: the biggest branch, dealing with everything except military history, 1949-1989 West Germany, and the expulsions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, is located in Berlin. Separate branch archives dealing with those other topics are located in Freiburg, Koblenz, and Bayreuth, respectively – not Berlin, but all pleasant places to work depending on your love of college towns, wine, or Wagner.) After a few days of intense reading of relatively few files here, I’m delighted with what I’ve found, and beginning to think about how I’ll weave it all into a broader narrative for my dissertation, specifically one humongous chapter on foreign development in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. The combination of a restful Easter weekend between here, Cologne, and Oxford, followed by more or less ten days of enforced house arrest, libraries, and writing back among the spires, and then another trip to Germany to interview a man who worked on some of the projects in Afghanistan gives me enough time to refine my thoughts and weave them into a comprehensive presentation of Western aid to Afghanistan during what I call its ‘developmental moment’ before giving a presentation on the subject in London in about two and a half weeks, part of a panel on international development with Jill Campbell-Miller (Waterloo) and Torsten Loschke (Leipzig) and chaired by Odd Arne Westad.

So what was I actually looking at? People are often surprised when I tell them that West Germany had its hands in development in Afghanistan during the Cold War, but Berlin, and later Bonn, actually had a long history in the country. As early as the late 19th century, German engineers were invited to Kabul to act as military advisers and build mosques and palaces. After Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, the Emir Amanullah aggressively pursued ties with the non-Anglo Western world – the Soviet Union and Germany especially – as part of a concerted strategy to make Afghanistan modern and, often overlooked, to integrate Afghanistan into global commodities markets without having to go through Anglo-Indian merchants and trading houses in what’s now Pakistan. German governments in the Weimar period, but especially after the Nazi takeover in 1933, were eager to return the favor by sending more experts and merchants to the Hindu Kush as part of an anti-British grand strategy in South and Southwest Asia.

Even after Amanullah was deposed and murdered in 1929, ensuing Afghan governments continued to pursue closer ties with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to gain more flexibility and establish themselves as independent of a British regional order in South Asia – something they proved quite successful at in terms of forming Afghan-dominated corporations and developing trade ties on Soviet rail lines out to markets in Leipzig, Hamburg, and the broader world. We tend to forget about how World War II played out east of Moscow or Stalingrad, but after 1940, the British forced Berlin to remove its advisers from Kabul, even as Afghan emissaries in Germany were trying to cut a deal with Berlin to partition the British Raj between a Greater Afghanistan stretching all the way to the Punjab. It’s a super-interesting story, this anti-imperial moment from around 1940-1947, explored in part by recent books like Sugata Bose’s His Majesty’s Opponent (a biography of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose).

A nice idea while it lasted? 'Greater Afghanistan', stretching all the way to South Asia's great rivers, as proposed by Afghan nationalists like Abdul Masjid Zabuli in the early 1940s.

The postwar situation – in Germany as well as in South Asia – changed the whole dynamic of the German-Afghan relationship. Germany was devastated, but also quickly integrated into an American postwar global order that saw massive Marshall Plan investment in exchange for compliance and pursuance of West German goals within an American strategic framework. At the same time, there were two German states competing for legitimacy. The Bundesrepublik had far more money, people, and resources than Communist East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR), but at the same time it was often viewed (often by its own population) as an unreconstructed Nazi state, with most of the élite, especially at the provincial and sometimes national level, having been card-carrying Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. An economic boom allowed Germany to outspend its Communist counterpart, but a Griff nach der Weltmacht had to be replaced by the less ambitious goals of a) discrediting the DDR in the Third World, b) re-establishing German trade links after fifteen years of chaos, and c) restoring Germany’s moral legitimacy as a premature ‘post-colonial’ power (it was stripped of colonies in 1918 after World War I) … in spite of the Holocaust legacy: a complicated set of priorities.

Likewise, in South Asia, the British Empire was finally dismantled, but in exchange for a new entity, Pakistan, on Afghanistan’s flank, and whose borders were never assented to by Afghan élites or the local population. A testy dynamic – which has never been resolved to this day – developed, wherein Pashtuns living in the borderlands ignored the border on the map, and Kabul and Islamabad sought, especially after 1971 (when Pakistan was dismembered as a result of Bengali / East Pakistani uprisings and the Indo-Pakistani War) and, to win influence among the borderland populations. Suddenly, Afghanistan could no longer play the game of anti-colonial politics and trying to expel Anglo-Indian merchants from regional markets in Kabul, Qandahar, and Herat; instead, it had to invent a way to insert its modernizing trajectory into the Cold War dynamic between the USA and the USSR (along with secondary powers like West Germany) if it wanted to extract wealth from the rich world to find its independence in a regional South Asian order.

It succeeded at doing so for quite some time, from (more or less) the end of the 1940s to the middle of the 1970s. As I’ll discuss in greater detail in the LSE paper, and have discussed in other talks, Afghan élites – who tended to be ultra-cosmopolitan, spoke European languages, and dressed well, in contrast to the rural population that was the majority of the population – proved remarkably successful in convincing both Washington as well as Moscow that it made geopolitical sense to plow tens of millions of dollars into a remote, peripheral country that bordered such geopolitical hotspots as …. the deserts of southeastern Iran and Turkmenistan.

The Germans were in on the action soon, too. They built schools, contributed grain when Afghanistan had severe grain shortages in the early 1970s, and, like the United States and the Soviet Union, sent multiple economic consulting teams to the Ministry of Planning in Kabul. Most significantly, however, from 1966 onwards, the Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation) sent several teams, on the request of the Royal Afghan Government, to Paktia, a remote and poor province in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, in order to develop the province’s … forests? It might sound like an odd, even trivial idea, but there were a couple of interesting and important factors at play. On the one hand, as a heavily forested but also economically developed country, Germany had a rich tradition in forestry – an immensely important science not only for managing wood (as a building and craft material and source of heating), but also for water management; it was a natural area of German expertise and (presciently to the Germans) an important topic in economic development.

Missing the trees for the forest? US Army Seargant Zachary Adkins photographed in (still forested) Paktia, Fall 2009.

On the other hand, the central government in Kabul was eager to exert more control, slowly, over the Pashtun tribes in the Paktian borderlands who claimed exclusive ownership of the forests there and were shameless about exporting the wood to markets in Pakistan, across the (for them non-existent) Durand Line international border. Why was this important, beyond just as a demonstration (… via a German third party …) of sovereignty? Think of your mental picture of Afghanistan: mountains, some rivers, and massive desert basins. Forests don’t usually fit into the picture. That’s because they’re absent from much of the country – places we hear about in war reports, like dry and hot Qandahar, or barren Bamiyan. Most of Afghanistan’s forests (and hence its major source of wood) are located in really remote areas, like Nuristan in the northeast of the country, whence it’s hard to get the wood to processing plants around Kabul and thence to regional markets in Qandahar or Herat. Paktia, however, since it gets much more rainfall (parts of it are subtropical), has the capacity to grow more wood, and it was relatively easier to get wood from there to wood mills or markets, be they in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Making sure that the tribes who owned these lands (ideally) thought of themselves as Pashtun nationalists (looking towards a Pashtun Afghan government and markets in Kabul rather than Pashtun regional markets in western Pakistan), or, at the least, were not devastating the forest stock of Paktia, became a priority for the government in Kabul – or at least it did as long as Bonn was paying for everything. The Afghan Government established a ‘state forest’ (Staatswald) in Mandaher where Germans advised Afghan forest experts on best practices in forest, water, and land management, invited local tribesmen to learn from them, and eventually allowed German forest experts – in conjunction with Afghan colleagues – to take inventories of the forests of Paktia. The German team ultimately failed in its efforts – they were pulled out after the revolution, and the Pashtun tribes continued to ill-manage the forests of the region in a way that devastated local water supplies and the ‘sustainability’ (Nachhaltigkeit, a word and concept that appears even in these reports from the 1960s) of the wood economy of the region; but I was reminded of why one is originally attracted to archival work upon reading some of these reports. Carried out through a painstaking combination of aerial photography, exploration in tribal zones, and reliance on established forest sciences, German foresters and Afghan colleagues left us with a detailed snapshot of the composition, age, and (as of 1970) potential fate of these forests given contemporary usage: an eco-snapshot of a region in constant political and ecological crisis since then.

Wooded no more: forest cover in Badghis Province, Afghanistan, from 1977 to 2003. Wood smuggling (which stems from poverty and poor systems of property rights) leads to deforestation, drought, and even more poverty.

That’s a, as it were, historical snapshot of what I’ve been reading. What I’m figuring out for now – and would welcome any comments on – is thoughts on the best frameworks for how to break down the several hundred pages of notes I took in the last few days at the Bundesarchiv. On the one hand, French thinkers like Michel Foucault and his interpreters have given us a vocabulary of ‘governmentality‘ – a tradition that looks at both the forms of state (parliament? king? republic?) as well as the vocabularies and sciences that governments have used throughout  history in order to see how governance and power is exercised. More coherently if less sexy, historians like David Blackbourn, a professor of German history at Harvard, have written ‘hydro-histories’ of Germany, seeing how water management exercised German visions of governance throughout the ages. (A younger historian at Harvard, Maya Peterson, has pursued a similar project, examining how both the Tsarist as well as the Soviet government pursued water management in parched Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century). Both of these kinds of projects are to be applauded, particularly Peterson, for getting us away from an (often unproductive) obsession with ‘identity’, and towards ‘governance’ as a theme to take up in our histories of 19th and 20th century empires. As Timothy Snyder pointed out in a talk partly on Nazi governance in Eastern Europe that took place in Oxford last year, people are often a bit too quick to write histories on the memory of the memory of Czernowitzstadt (not a real place) or Przemyśl (now in Poland) during World War II … before actually establishing what actually happened in the Eastern European borderlands as ‘nations were reconstructed’ from the complex mixture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Greater German Reich, and the Soviet Union.

Still: what can I turn to in terms of bibliography of examining how forests – more specifically, forest management as a way of ‘seeing like a state’ – fit into my larger story of Afghanistan’s developmental moment in the 1960s? That’s the question I’ll have on my mind tomorrow, even as I’m trawling around Koblenz and a couple of museums in Cologne on Easter Friday before I return to Oxford. Should any enterprising young historians of German forestry and/or governance be reading this: chime in!

The Museum Ludwig (an epic modern art museum) and the Cathedral: two of my stops in Cologne tomorrow ... !

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