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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 12:40 GMT
Resisting the Nazis from a shed
Herbert campaigned against Nazism, and lived through communism and then German reunification. Gardening remained his passion up until his recent death. Chris Bowlby, who married Herbert's granddaughter, describes his life.

Herbert the gardener
Herbert's green expertise was much in demand

The garden centre and nursery in Zwickau where Herbert worked - neat rows of greenhouses and piles of tools and pots - is still there, while everything around this small town in Saxony has been swept by the winds of German reunification.

Blown away are most of the monuments of communist rule. In front of the greenhouses is a garishly coloured Trabant car on a plinth, a mocking memorial to the crude fibre glass and diesel contraptions that used to be made in a factory next door.

What is left of that factory is now making parts for Volkswagens. Over the road, where the East German people's army was based with their smoke-belching and deafening Russian tanks, is now a slick Landrover showroom.

Herbert would be pleased that his garden centre has survived all this change - an island of green amidst the advertising hoardings; a sign of the continuity of nature amid the disarray of human change.

Herbert was sent to prison by the Nazis and threatened with execution

The green spaces he created were not, however, simply retreats from the world - far from it. For Herbert the passionate gardener had also become a communist in his teens.

"Bread and shoes" politics, he once described it to me, a response to the families in the slump with neither shoes to wear nor bread to eat.

And when the Nazis took power in the 1930s he waged from his potting sheds his own courageous resistance, until the Gestapo came trampling in and forced him to dig up the typewriter that had been buried in a flower bed, on which he had been writing anti-Nazi leaflets.

Prison escape

Allotments in Germany (Photo: Wikipedia)
Germany today has more than a million allotments
He was sent to prison and threatened with execution.

But this indomitable handyman, desperate for freedom and the outdoor life he adored, had a metal file smuggled into prison inside a cake, and sawed away at the window bars of his cell in the night until he could escape and walk across the mountains to Czechoslovakia and Poland to eventual wartime exile in Britain.

It was a green but not altogether pleasant land he had reached.

He was detained initially in Britain as an enemy alien and sent on hazardous voyages to Australia and Canada, which he used to gather information about local flowers and plants.

Finally he was brought back and allowed to tend the English gardens he so admired. Among the papers he left behind after his death a few years ago are grateful letters from a naval officer in Cambridgeshire and a golf club secretary in Cheshire, testifying to his dedication and green fingers.

'Dull' life under communism

But after the war it was the red of communism that drew him back to his home where, he hoped, he could help a socially just and peaceful East Germany blossom out of the ruins left by the Nazis.

Herbert's neighbour had used his balcony - the sort of balcony Herbert filled with plants - to erect a huge German nationalist flag
But back in his nursery, he watched the tank drivers over the road assert themselves, and the society - dominated by its Soviet occupiers - wither into bureaucratic dullness. Denied much chance to travel, he did his best to create gardens full of shapes and fragrances to remind him of other worlds.

On his bookshelves, I remember finding volumes on the great English landscape gardener, Capability Brown, arranged next to tomes on Marxist-Leninist horticulture, which he'd show me with a mischievous grin. He always enjoyed drenching arid ideology in copious sarcasm.

After retirement he created another extraordinary garden in the allotments near the block of flats where he lived.

Oasis of colour

This kind of allotment - the "Schrebergarten" with its vegetables and fruit trees, flowers and summer house - is a great tradition all over Germany and was an oasis of colour and individuality amid the monotony of much of communist life.

Map of Germany

Herbert seemed most rooted there, master of his surroundings, at one with the seasonal cycles and good gardening order that formed a far more attractive regime than the political regimes he had known.

And then communism came to a sudden end in East Germany and he experienced, late in life, a final bewildering change. The Soviet occupiers left, but ghostly presences returned.

We were sitting once in his home in 1990, when we heard loud banging from the flat above. Herbert went to see what was happening and returned pale and speechless.

His neighbour had used his balcony - the sort of balcony Herbert filled with plants - to erect a huge German nationalist flag.

Far right revival

Herbert had last seen such flags amid the chaos of the collapsing Weimar Republic as the Nazis took power, and now they threatened to loom over his old age as the political far right revived.

His allotment became, I think, more important than ever as a garden in which finally to try to forget the Gestapo.

He is at peace now in a town cemetery enclosing all the history of his life. There are zones for victims of wartime bombing, for slave labourers killed under the Nazis, for Soviet soldiers and East German heroes of socialism.

1940's summer house on German allotment
Some German summer houses are listed buildings
Herbert himself is in a communal grave, strewn with all kinds of flowers that are left as relatives come and go.

Above, fine stands of trees offer exactly the kind of natural canopy he loved: nature's reassuring framework for a life cultivated proudly among the storms and dramas of 20th Century Germany.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 3 March, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Germany
12 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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