Green, Brown and Bloody All Over

Much has been written about the Nazis' so-called ecological activism. But were they truly conservationists? And if so, does that change our perception of their crimes?

"How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment and Nation in the Third Reich (Ecology and History)" by Franz-Josef Brueggemeier, Mark Cioc and Thomas Zeller, Ohio University Press, 288 pages, $22.95

"The Green and the Brown: A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (Studies in Environment and History)" by Frank Uekoetter, Cambridge University Press, 246 pages, $23.99

Nazism and ecology? The Nazi party as a green movement? At first glance such analogies seem ridiculous, absurd, outrageous. In 1985, historian Anna Bramwell published a book in which she claimed outright that the Nazi party was a "green party." She focused on Richard Walther Darre, the agricultural minister of Nazi Germany, and his "Blut und Boden" ("blood and soil") ideology. Darre, wrote Bramwell, was the head of the "green" faction of the Nazi party, which greatly influenced the thinking of leading Nazis, among them Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Bramwell called Darre the "father of the greens" for his support of organic agriculture, restrictions on the use of mechanized farming methods, and so on. In its time, if I am not mistaken, the book was quite esoteric.

In recent years, however, a growing number of articles and books, primarily academic texts, have been written on the subject. One of the more dominant titles is "How Green Were the Nazis?" In other words, the question "Were the Nazis green?" has already been answered. Another book with a no-less- provocative name is "The Green and the Brown." Brown, for those who have forgotten, was associated with the Nazis because it was the color of the shirts worn by their stormtroopers.

So this is clearly a difficult and emotional subject, like all historical and historiographic issues related to Nazism. Were the Nazis "green," and if so, how green? What does that say about them? Does it change our perception of their crimes? In what light does this place the green movement and ecological activism in the 20th century?

In July 1935, Germany's Nazi regime headed by Adolf Hitler passed the Reich Nature Protection Law. It was one of the most progressive laws of its time. First of all, it was a federal law that applied to the whole country and not just a local ordinance, as had been customary in the past. It was also unprecedented in scope: The law protected nature and the environment in the name of the German people and for their sake, and prevented damage that might have been caused by economic development in undeveloped areas. Anyone whose actions were liable to harm nature or alter the landscape in any significant way, such as developers and building contractors, had to obtain permission from the Reich nature protection office. This legislation also protected bridges, roads, buildings and other landmarks perceived as having German historical-cultural value. It imposed restrictions on advertisements that marred the landscape and, in some cases, banned them altogether. In Britain, legislation of this scope was only introduced after World War II, and in France, as late as the 1960s.

Above all, the phrasing of the Reich Nature Protection Law allowed for various enforcement options. It included a clause, for example, that denied legal recourse to people who could be harmed by the law - such as those who had lost the right to build on private land. After all, in Nazi Germany, the good of "the public" always came before the good of "the individual." Also noteworthy is the fact that the Reich's law, which sounded progressive, included clauses that were unmistakably Nazi in tone. It claimed that the landscape of Germany was the foundation for the superiority of the Aryan race. The law was clearly permeated with a "blood and soil" ideology.

The Reich Nature Protection Law was only one of the pinnacles of Nazi "ecological" and "green" legislation. There were laws and ordinances that protected forests and animals, laws against air pollution, and more. The Nazis banned slaughter without stunning the animal, restricted hunting and experimentation on animals, and introduced wildlife study and conservation programs.

A few months after the Nazis rose to power, Hermann Goering threatened over the radio that anyone found guilty of torturing or conducting experiments on animals would be sent to a concentration camp. The Nazis' attitude toward animals, and what appears to be the paradox (although it may not be) between their approach to animals and their approach to human beings, is a worthy subject on its own.

A trivial claim?

So were the Nazis really "green" and "ecologically minded"? First of all, it must be emphasized that they were not, in the sense that we use those terms today. Until the 1960s and 1970s, there were no "green" parties or movements of the kind that imposed a "green agenda" on everything from politics to the economy. You will not find an "ecological agenda" in the platform of the Nazi party - neither in "Mein Kampf," nor any other programmatic Nazi text. But there was, indeed, green legislation. So what was its significance?

One could argue that there is no connection between the two movements, and the fact that green and ecological laws were passed by the Third Reich is coincidental. In practice, however, many individuals, political lobbies and nature-loving societies sought to promote such legislation from the early 20th century. There were some local successes, but none on the federal level. The realization that the enlightened Weimar Republic was politically impotent was a tremendous source of disappointment. The establishment of the Third Reich was perceived as an excellent opportunity to move this kind of national legislation forward - not because it was a Nazi regime, but because it was totalitarian. In a totalitarian regime, getting things done is always easier than in liberal parliamentary regimes. In this respect, the connection between the German "ecology " movement and the Nazi regime may be seen as opportunistic.

But it takes two to tango: Without the cooperation of the Nazi administration, this kind of legislation would not have come about. The Nazis were interested in promoting green laws, but more for propaganda purposes than anything else. It was a way of enhancing the status of the new regime in the eyes of the German public. But that is not all. The Nazi movement was not "green" or "ecological" in itself, but as an ultra-nationalist movement; it was sensitive and open to ideas for safeguarding and conserving die Heimat, or the homeland. Germany's natural resources, landscape and soil were part of that. When you think about it, is there any modern nationalist movement that has not sanctified nature and land as a symbol of the people's inner spirit?

But there is also an entirely different possibility. It doesn't really matter whether the Nazis were green and ecologically minded. In real life, this monstrous regime destroyed the environment. In 1936, it announced a four-year plan for an autocratic German economy in preparation for war. This plan, together with arms-development programs that were already under way, made a laughingstock out of anyone who attempted to protect the environment from over-exploitation of resources and systematic destruction. In the long run, all this was nothing compared to the environmental catastrophe created by Nazi Germany in World War II. Green movements and conservationists do not support "scorched earth" policies, destroy the lives of millions of people and murder millions more.

Is this claim that the Nazis were greens trivial and anecdotal at best? Is it not merely an outgrowth of contemporary public interest in ecology, inflating an issue that was marginal in the Nazi era in a totally disproportionate way? I would like to suggest a different way of looking at the issue that not only allows a connection between Nazism and "ecology," but reveals another facet of the criminal nature of the Nazis - on condition that the term "ecological agenda" is expanded beyond flora, fauna and the natural landscape, to include human beings: The Nazi obsession with Lebensraum, or "living space," was an ecological project that extended to the proper "handling" of people.

In December 1942, Heinrich Himmler issued a "General Directive on the Shaping of the Landscape in the Annexed Eastern Territories." Ostensibly, this was a "green" order par excellence. Himmler offered guidelines on how to deal properly with flora and fauna, and how to conserve the landscape while building streets, villages, cities and even industrial zones. At the same time, he asserted that the countryside and natural surroundings had been largely destroyed by local, nonnative populations. Settling the "living space" with ethnic Germans, on the one hand, and getting rid of these foreign populations, on the other, was thus an integral part of Nazi "ecology." It was no coincidence that the Nazis sought to "cleanse" and "purify" their Lebensraum first and foremost of Jews. It was no coincidence that Jews were identified as a genuine environmental threat, and called "polluted," "diseased" and "parasitic."

German historian and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently argued that the Final Solution to the "Jewish problem" - sending the Jews to the gas chambers - was solid proof that the Nazis were indeed green, in that they did everything they could to preserve and shape the landscape by environmental means. Sloterdijk, I might add, is using the term "ecology" in a much broader sense than is conventionally used today. To protect the German Lebensraum, he says, the Nazis developed a method of mass murder based on killing people by destroying the victims' Lebensraum.

In the gas chambers, the Nazis did not physically mutilate the human body: They destroyed the environment that allowed human beings to live. That, I think, is precisely what is so horrifying about the idea of a gas chamber. It not only wipes out human life, but also the conditions that make life possible - all in the name of "proper" conservation and shaping the environment, namely the Lebensraum. What we learn from this, in my view, is that ecology cannot be limited to the relationship between people and place. It must also - perhaps even more importantly - address the relationship between one human being and another.

Dr. Boaz Neumann is the author of "Being in the Weimar Republic," published by Am Oved (in Hebrew).