Nazi "Ecology"


Frank Furedi:

"What we today call 'environmentalism' is ... based on a fear of change. It's based upon a fear of the outcome of human action. And therefore it's not surprising that when you look at the more xenophobic right-wing movements in Europe in the 19th century, including German fascism, it quite often had a very strong environmentalist dynamic to it. The most notorious environmentalists in history were the German Nazis. The Nazis ordered soldiers to plant more trees. They were the first Europeans to establish nature reserves and order the protection of hedgerows and other wildlife habitats. And they were horrified at the idea of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine. Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis were vegetarian and they passed numerous laws on animal rights."


(The above paragraph is from the transcript of the British channel 4 documentary "Against Nature," whose political direction came from Furedi's libertarian magazine, now out of business. I extracted this passage from Ron Arnold's Committee in Defense of Free Enterprise web-page, where the transcript is featured as a "guest editorial." Arnold is best known as the leader of the "Wise Use" movement, a right-wing anti-environmentalist group.)


The fundamental mistake that capitalist apologist Frank Furedi makes is to assume that the Nazi party introduced nature worship into German society. Nature worship in Germany goes back to the origins of modern romanticism. It was felt almost everywhere, from the writings of Goethe to the symphonies of Mahler. Students at the University of Heidelberg had hiking clubs through the entire 19th century. The Social Democracy had such clubs as well and they were viewed as an integral part of the character development of young Marxists. A recent biography of Walter Benjamin points out how important such nature hikes were to him. It was part of the general German culture, which influenced the both socialist and ultraright parties, including Hitler's.


It is important to understand that the feeling of loss that the industrial revolution brought on was very widespread throughout Europe and was not peculiar to Germany. Thomas Carlyle articulated this feeling of loss and the pre-Raphaelite school was a movement based on such a desire to return to pre-industrial roots. Carlyle influenced John Ruskin and William Morris, two important anti-capitalist thinkers. He also strongly influenced Frederic Engels' "Condition of the Working Class in England" and is cited frequently.


It is much more profitable for those of us in the Marxist tradition to concentrate on historical and social phenomena. In that context, there are some interesting developments that took place in the first year or so of Nazi rule that might be interpreted as having a greenish tinge. I speak now of their call for social transformation through a synthesis of urban and rural life, which was called "rurban" values by Arthur Schweitzer in his "Big Business and the Third Reich." The Nazis promoted the view that the class-struggle in the city could be overcome by returning to the villages and developing artisan and agricultural economies based on cooperation. Ayrans needed to get back to the soil and simple life.


The core of Nazi rural socialism was the idea that land-use must be planned. Gottfried Feder was a leading Nazi charged with the duty of formulating such policy. He made a speech in Berlin in 1934 in which he stated that the right to build homes or factories or to use land according to the personal interests of owners was to be abolished. The government instead would dictate how land was to be used and what would be constructed on it. Feder next began to build up elaborate administrative machinery to carry out his plans.


Not surprisingly, Feder earned the wrath of the construction industry. This segment of heavy industry had no tolerance for any kind of socialism, even if it was of the fake, nutty Nazi variety. Hitler had promised the captains of heavy industry that the "rabble-rousers" in his party would be curbed and Feder certainly fell into that category.


Hjalmar Schacht was a more reliable Nazi functionary who agreed with the need to curb Feder's excesses. After Hitler named Schacht Minister of Economics on November 26, 1934, he gave Feder the boot and assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.


Consider also Walter Schoenichen, an aide to Herman Goering who in his capacity as Minister of the German Forests supervised the "Germanization" of forests in conquered territories. In 1941, the Nazis took control of the Bialowieza forest in Lithuania and they resolved to turn it into a hunting reserve for top officers. Open season was declared on the Jews, who made up 12 percent of the population in this region and who violated the ethnic purity of the proposed game farm. Five hundred and fifty Jews were rounded up and shot in the courtyard of a hunting palace operated by Battalion 332 of Von Bock's army division. Goring decided that the purified forest should be altered into an extension of the East Prussian forests. An SS team led by Konrad Mayer, who had been Minister of Agriculture at Berlin University, planned a colonization program that would "Germanize" the forest. Poles, and any remaining Jews, were reduced to the status of barnyard animals to be penned up or slaughtered.


Schoenichen jumped at the opportunity to administer this program. This "total landscape plan" would first empty villages and then the unpopulated forest would be stocked with purely "Teutonic" species, including eagles, elk, and wolves. Since there was a painting of a bison on Goring's wall, it was crucial to include this beast in the menagerie.


Any reasonable person would understand that the gangsters terrorizing Jews and Poles in order to set up a "Teutonic" zoo have nothing in common with today's greens, even those who embrace some of the more reactionary aspects of deep ecology. Nazi "ecology" is a contradiction in terms. The Nazis did not want to protect nature, but to transform large swaths of it into something resembling Wagnerian opera backdrops. Furthermore, the murderous assault on peasants who had the misfortune to live in these vicinities is just the opposite of what groups such as Greenpeace or Survival International fight for today. They seek the right of indigenous peoples to live in peace in their natural surroundings. While some conservative, well-financed environmentalist groups have unfortunately neglected the rights of indigenous peoples in campaigns to protect endangered species, the more radical groups have a relatively spotless record.


Furthermore, the notion of importing "Teutonic" animals into the Lithuanian forest is antithetical to genuine ecology, which attempts to preserve the natural balance between indigenous species and their environments.


The first radical environmentalists in charge of a state were actually the Soviet Communists. Douglas R. Weiner's "Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union" (Indiana Univ., 1988) is, as far as I know, the most detailed account of the efforts of the Russian government to implement a "green" policy.


The Communist Party issued a decree "On Land" in 1918. It declared all forests, waters, and minerals to be the property of the state, a prerequisite to rational use. When the journal "Forests of the Republic" complained that trees were being chopped down wantonly, the Soviet government issued a stern decree "On Forests" at a meeting chaired by Lenin in May of 1918. From then on, forests would be divided into an exploitable sector and a protected one. The purpose of the protected zones would specifically be to control erosion, protect water basins and the "preservation of monuments of nature." This last stipulation is very interesting when you compare it to the damage that is about to take place in China as a result of the Yangtze dam. The beautiful landscapes which inspired Chinese artists and poets for millennia is about to disappear, all in the name of heightened "productiveness."


What's surprising is that the Soviet government was just as protective of game animals as the forests, this despite the revenue-earning possibilities of fur. The decree "On Hunting Seasons and the Right to Possess Hunting Weapons" was approved by Lenin in May 1919. It banned the hunting of moose and wild goats and brought the open seasons in spring and summer to an end. These were some of the main demands of the conservationists prior to the revolution and the Communists satisfied them completely. The rules over hunting were considered so important to Lenin that he took time out from deliberations over how to stop the White Armies in order to meet with the agronomist Podiapolski.


Podialpolski urged the creation of "zapovedniki", roughly translatable as "nature preserves." Russian conservationists had pressed this long before the revolution. In such places, there would be no shooting, clearing, harvesting, mowing, sowing or even the gathering of fruit. The argument was that nature must be left alone. These were not even intended to be tourist meccas. They were intended as ecological havens where all species, flora and fauna would maintain the "natural equilibrium [that] is a crucial factor in the life of nature."


Podiapolski recalls the outcome of the meeting with Lenin:


"Having asked me some questions about the military and political situation in the Astrakhan' region, Vladimir Ilich expressed his approval for all of our initiatives and in particular the one concerning the project for the zapovednik. He stated that the cause of conservation was important not only for the Astrakhan krai [region], but for the whole republic as well."


Podiapolski sat down and drafted a resolution that eventually was approved by the Soviet government in September 1921 with the title "On the Protection of Nature, Gardens, and Parks." A commission was established to oversee implementation of the new laws. It included a geographer-anthropologist, a mineralogist, two zoologists, an ecologist. Heading it was Vagran Ter-Oganesov, a Bolshevik astronomer who enjoyed great prestige.


The commission first established a forest zapovednik in Astrakhan, according to Podiapolski's desires Next it created the Ilmenski zapovednik, a region which included precious minerals. Despite this, the Soviet government thought that Miass deposits located there were much more valuable for what they could teach scientists about geological processes. Scientific understanding took priority over the accumulation of capital. The proposal was endorsed by Lenin himself who thought that pure scientific research had to be encouraged. And this was at a time when the Soviet Union was desperate for foreign currency.


Under Lenin, the USSR stood for the most audacious approach to nature conservancy in the 20th century. Soviet agencies set aside vast portions of the country where commercial development, including tourism, would be banned. These "zapovedniki", or natural preserves, were intended for nothing but ecological study. Scientists sought to understand natural biological processes better through these living laboratories. This would serve pure science and it would also have some ultimate value for Soviet society's ability to interact with nature in a rational manner. For example, natural pest elimination processes could be adapted to agriculture.


After Lenin's death, there were all sorts of pressures on the Soviet Union to adapt to the norms of the capitalist system that surrounded and hounded it and produce for profit rather than human need. This would have included measures to remove the protected status of the zapovedniki. Surprisingly, the Soviet agencies responsible for them withstood such pressures and even extended their acreage through the 1920s.


One of the crown jewels was the Askania-Nova zapovednik in the Ukranian steppes. The scientists in charge successfully resisted repeated bids by local commissars to extend agriculture into the area through the end of the 1920s. Scientists still enjoyed a lot of prestige in the Soviet republic, despite a growing move to make science cost-justify itself. Although pure science would eventually be considered "bourgeois", the way it was in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it could stand on its own for the time being.


The head administrator of Askania-Nova was Vladimir Stanchinksi, a biologist who sought to make the study of ecology an exact science through the use of quantitative methods, including mathematics and statistics. He identified with scientists in the West who had been studying predator-prey and parasite-host relationships with laws drawn from physics and chemistry. (In this he was actually displaying an affinity with Karl Marx, who also devoted a number of years to the study of agriculture using the latest theoretical breakthroughs in the physical sciences and agronomy. Marx's study led him to believe that capitalist agriculture is detrimental to sound agricultural practices.)


Stanchinski adopted a novel approach to ecology. He thought that "the quantity of living matter in the biosphere is directly dependent on the amount of solar energy that is transformed by autotrophic plants." Such plants were the "economic base of the living world." He invoked the Second Law of Thermodynamics to explain the variations in mass between flora and fauna at the top, middle and bottom of the biosphere. Energy was lost as each rung in the ladder was scaled, since more and more work was necessary to procure food.