Brown and Green: Were the Nazis Forerunners of Environmental Movements?

The Nazi government was the first in history to pass a law protecting the natural environment, but saving the planet wasn't high on their priority list, says Israeli historian.

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A wave of research studies that began in the 1990s is focusing on the possible connection between the Nazi movement and today's green movement. In 1935, two years after the Nazis rose to power, the German government passed a Reich law for the protection of the natural environment, a law whose scope was unprecedented at the time and whose goal was to protect and care for the homeland's natural environment. The law included regulations for the protection of flora and fauna, as well as for the conservation of unique natural phenomena of scientific importance and of aesthetic and cultural value. These natural phenomena included Germany's celebrated forests, which were considered a central component of the German national identity.

The law also established procedures for the definition of nature reserves and authorized the state to expropriate land for the sake of such reserves without providing any compensation to the owners of the land. Violators of this law were given stiff penalties. In addition, attempts were made to formulate laws for the prevention of air pollution. The Reich's green laws - although this might sound sarcastic - forbade the slaughtering of animals that had not been previously anaesthetized and fixed limits on experiments on animals. Within the context of the Reich's laws for the protection of the natural environment, organic agriculture, which encouraged the use of manual plowshares in small farms instead of heavy machinery, was advanced.

Will this rather alarming historical background forever haunt all future green struggles? This question and many others came up in a conversation with a scholar of the Nazi period, historian Dr. Boaz Neumann of Tel Aviv University's Department of History, in connection with Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be marked in Israel next Monday, and in connection with a new course he will be giving on the "University on the Air," broadcast on Army Radio. The course, scheduled to begin April 22, will present central approaches in the study of Nazism in the present generation. A special section will be devoted to the question, Were the Nazis 'green,' and if so, does it really matter? The discussion will be based on the assumption that there are new insights regarding Nazism and its dramatic implications for green projects.

Red, not green

An eye-opening and very disturbing article by Neumann, "Between Brown and Green: Nazism, Holocaust, Ecology," appears in Volume 40 of "Teoria Uvikoret" ("Theory and Criticism" ). In the article, Neumann points out that in the historical context, the argument that the Nazis were "green" (that is, environmentally aware ) is anachronistic because at the time there was no such animal as green politics that prioritizes green interests over other interests. The Nazi movement was conservative, rightist, radical and chauvinistic and it championed conservation of Germany's natural environment rather than the world's natural environment. In fact, observes Neumann, "what modern nationalist movement has not sanctified its natural environment and its landscape as expressions of the 'national spirit'"?

He says that although one cannot dismiss the issue simply by coming to the conclusion that the Nazis were not in the least green, when one looks at the issue in terms of results, it does not really matter whether they were or not. In practice, the Nazi regime destroyed the environment. The plans and preparations for the Second World War "made a mockery of any real attempt to protect the environment." In the face of the catastrophe of that war, no benefit was derived from the Nazi regime's green principles when one considers the systematic "scorched earth" policy, the deliberate starvation techniques, the destruction of the lives of tens of millions of human beings and the murder of millions of other human beings. In the final analysis, as Neumann puts it, the Nazis "were always racists and militarists and were 'red' in terms of the blood they spilled rather than 'green.'"

Beyond the question of whether and to what extent the Nazis were green, Neumann notes a disturbing process in which a more substantive link between Nazism and ecology is being established - that is, in the context of discussions of the Holocaust. Alongside various interpretations of the Holocaust as an ideological, ethnic or racial project, the Holocaust can be termed an "ecological project," which included human ecology. To clarify this point, Neumann recalls the term "ecology" as it was coined in the 19th century by Ernst Haeckel as the "study of the natural environment including the relations of organisms to one another and to their surroundings."

Haeckel was a biologist, zoologist, physician and one of the founders of eugenics and euthanasia. His theory had a powerful impact on the Nazi worldview. According to Nazism, following in Haeckel's footsteps, ecological order must be imposed on the relationship between the organism and its environment; thus, those who were "worthy" must be allowed to remain in that environment or must be returned to it, while those who were "unworthy" must be distanced from the "living space," a term that has been irrevocably stained. Those who were to be distanced were primarily the Jews, the "radical Other," explains Neumann, that was perceived not just as an ethnic and racial problem but also as an "ecological problem, as an actual environmental blight, as a polluted and polluting figure."

Neumann believes that it is also possible to understand the connection between the Holocaust and ecology in terms of "ecocide" - the murder of an entire world - where the Jew was not only distanced from the world but was also denied the right to view the world as a home. In light of the above, one must return to the question whether, in view of ecology's history, all green activities must stop and the planet must be abandoned to a bitter and cruel fate, in which the principal sufferers will be the weakened nations doomed to an "ecological Holocaust."

'Problematic' roots

Neumann: "The ecological discourse is making an important contribution to humanity because it presents another way of looking at the place we human beings occupy in this world. In the 19th century, the West thought of itself in terms of time. In the 20th century, we lived in a space that we ourselves had designed but which at the same time was also molding us. It is possible to see a turning point in the shift from the historical perception of human existence as eventually arriving at an utopia of the here-and-now in a 'living space.' The ecological movements of the latter half of the 20th century identified solid evidence of a dramatic increase in the exploitation of the earth's resources. Nevertheless, green activists must recognize the problematic - to put it mildly - roots of the ecological idea and of the terms 'space' and 'environment.'"

How far should this recognition go?

"First of all, it must be recognized that the discipline of ecology has been stained and that it bears on its back the hump of its own history. Racial theory gave birth to the ecological movement and that theory itself was generated from a perception of a national homeland (Heimat in German ), from a territorialization of identity and from the perception that anyone who harms my territory and the sanctity of my natural habitat harms me. This should be a wake-up call in an era when green movements such as Greenpeace are no longer national in scope but global."

So what lies ahead? What is the next step after coming to that recognition? Is there no way of talking about the environment, about space and about ecology, without doing so in a German accent?

"Another element is moderation. One must not regard ecological ideas as sacrosanct nor must one talk about ecology in theological terms of 'good' and 'evil.' Even the ecological perception of possible future catastrophe is exaggerated. Radical approaches like that always lead to disaster. They have already led to disaster. I would, for instance, avoid using the word 'pollution.' When people are accused of being polluters, there is the danger that this could lead to their being accused of being polluted as well. The word 'pollution' has a very problematic history in European languages as well as in Hebrew. In fact, one should not speak of human beings at all in terms of pollution because that has already led to monstrous acts."

Paradoxically, Nazism had a direct impact on green politics in contemporary history in general and in Germany in particular. Neumann points out that in Germany, in the period immediately after the Second World War, green activists built themselves up as an antithesis to the Nazis. Environmental activists sought to use their ideology to atone for the sins of the past. The memory of the destruction the Nazis caused fueled activities aimed at the prevention of similar disasters in the future. Terms like "ecological Holocaust" made their way into the green lexicon to such an extent that, in the wake of the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Paul McCartney claimed that those who do not believe in climatic change are like those who do not believe the Holocaust actually occurred.

Neumann says he "would avoid like the plague such a term as 'environmental Holocaust.'" Not because the term lessens the impact of the memory of the Holocaust but rather because the way to deal with such an "environmental Holocaust" could lead to extremism. "I am deterred by the notion that ecology is the be-all and end-all. Ecology does not have a say in every issue. There is a need here as well for criticism based on common sense and for saying in some cases, 'This is as far as I go; I am not intervening in this issue.'"

Black Forest, Germany.Credit: Getty Image
Dr. Boaz Neumann: 'Nazis were ‘red’ in terms of the blood they spilled, rather than ‘green.’'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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