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Date: Mon, 11 May 98 22:40:54 CDT
From: lnp3@columbia.edu
Subject: Were the Nazis radical environmentalists?
Organization: Columbia University
Article: 34549
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.11415.19980514001551@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Were the Nazis radical environmentalists?

From lnp3@columbia.edu, 11 May 1998


1) What we today call environmentalism is. . .based on a fear of change, says Frank Furedi. 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.

Fascism, animal rights and human rights

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 Living Marxism magazine. 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. Arnold recently contributed an article on the Unabomber to Living Marxism magazine. The article claimed that the Unabomber was some kind of deep ecologist rather than a crazed terrorist.)

2) If the forest is a symbol of German nation, then forest die-back is a threat to national identity. This association played a key role in sparking the contemporary German green movement but it also posed considerable difficulty for that movement because it reveals how contemporary ecological sensibilities have their roots in traditions that also prompted the Nazis to be the first radical environmentalists in charge of a state.
— David Harvey, Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference, p. 171

The fundamental mistake that the brown Marxists Frank Furedi and David Harvey make is in assuming that the Nazi party introduced nature worship into German society. Harvey explicitly cites Alice Bramwell’s Ecology in the 20th century: a history, but there is little doubt that she influenced Furedi as well. Bramwell devotes considerable effort into making the case that Hitler was a prototypical green because he cared about the forests. The political implication is that Adolph Hitler is a forerunner to the late Judy Bari of Earth First.

This is bonkers. 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. Carlye 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.

David Harvey alludes to the apparent ecological concerns of Nazi party member Martin Heidegger, who did not want to see nature turned into a gigantic gasoline station. Harvey claims that the slogans of Earth First parallel those of Heidegger. Heidegger says nature must be seen as the serving bearer, blossoming and fruiting, spreading out in rock and water, rising up into plant and animal. Earth First says, Set the Rivers Free! Ergo, the Nazi functionary and the people who were hounded by the FBI and right-wing terrorists had common ideological roots.

The problem with taking a history of ideas approach to these fundamentally political questions is that you end up in a pure Platonic world of contending Ideas. This is not a sound approach for Marxists, especially those with sterling reputations like David Harvey. The simple truth is that nearly every philosophical tendency has something to say about the environment and how to save it. John Bellamy Foster has pointed this out and it is worth repeating. Disciples of Adam Smith are using his doctrines as a way of solving the ecological crisis through free market pricing mechanisms. They argue that if you adequately price water or soil, then it will be conserved properly. The Old Testament becomes contested territory as well. Green-minded Jews have defended their holy scripture from the charge of being anthropocentric by citing passages which call for stewardship of the earth, rather than naked exploitation. These philosophical debates, as is their nature, are incapable of being resolved. They do serve as grist for academic conferences and journals.

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 assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.

From 1934 to 1936, every expression of Nazi radicalism was suppressed. After the working-class was tamed in 1933, the petty-bourgeois supporters of a People’s Revolution were purged from the government one by one. The real economic program of the big bourgeoisie was rearmament. Any pretense at rural socialism was dispensed with and the Third Reich’s real goal became clear: preparation for a new European war. It needed coal, oil and other resources from Eastern Europe. It also needed to channel all investment into the armaments industry, which could act as a steam-engine for general capitalist recovery. In brief, the economic policy of the Nazi government started to look not that different from Franklin Roosevelt’s. It was World War Two, after all, that brought the United States out of the Great Depression, not ineffectual public works programs.

So except for the fitful rurban experiments of the first 2 years of Nazi rule, there was very few actual policies that could be called ecological. Does this mean that it is legitimate to describe, as Harvey citing Bramwell does, Nazis as being the first radical environmentalists in charge of a state? This claim turns out to be completely false.

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 [does anybody know what this means?], 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.

This interesting slice of Soviet history is completely ignored in David Harvey’s book, as is history in general. This is unfortunate. The only way to make sense of the environmental movements of the 20th century is within the context of the class struggle and not within the history of ideas. I am not sure why Harvey elected to take this approach, but it tends to decontextualize everything.

There is a strong case for the intrinsic ties between Marxian socialism and the ecology movement, but that is a subject for other articles and books. Harvey’s attempt to drive a wedge between the greens and Marxism is tied to a workerish impulse that has marked the extreme left over the past 25 years. Whether it comes from Living Marxism or the Spartacist League, it is grounded in a dogmatic understanding of Marxism. It is disconcerting to see one of our premier Marxist thinkers echoing these sorts of brownish sentiments, but we can understand their origin. We are living in a deeply disorienting period as global capital seems unconquerable. Therefore, any evidence of capitalist engagement with a democratic demand such as affirmative action or clean air and water can tend to make us suspicious of the demand itself. This is not Marxism. It is sectarianism and must be fought.