Among the reasons not to be vegan which vegans habitually encounter (Aren’t plants sentient too? What will happen to all the cows? Where do you get your protein?) is the Adolf Hitler connection: wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian? Rynn Berry, the author of Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes, says “I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler’s vegetarianism has not been raised”. Perhaps it’s reasonable, when notabilities of history or in modern public life are offered as models for the diet, to ask what influence in the matter a blatant counter-exemplar should have. Anyway, Berry wrote a book which provided an answer to the question even in its title: Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (2004). It’s a short, readable, and well-researched account of the matter, finally stating “that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer [that’s Isaac Bashevis] were vegetarians, but that Mr Hitler – who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted – was not.”
Still, the ugly association, false as it may be, persists. It crops up, for instance, in two books reviewed elsewhere in this blog: Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat (2010: “animal activists don’t relish the idea that Adolf Hitler was a fellow traveller”) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature (2011: “any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism.”) In both cases, the Hitler connection is thought to compromise the animal rights cause, and is accordingly used as part of a more general deprecation of the values and ambitions that go with it.
It’s not just Hitler’s diet that’s being used in evidence. As the quotation from Better Angels shows, there’s a more general contrariety to face: that the whole Nazi administration from 1933 to 1945 combined its infamous and savage repudiation of ethics in the treatment of fellow-humans with what may seem to be an enlightened concern for the welfare of other animals. A succession of laws, passed in regional and national parliaments, regulated slaughterhouses, the care of pet animals, conservation, farriery, and other practices affecting animals; they banned pâté de foie gras, hunting with dogs, the harming of animals in film-making; they even specified, and required public kitchens to employ, the least inhumane method for killing crabs and lobsters (plunging them individually into boiling water was what a civil service report had recommended, though you may think that not eating them at all would have been more in line with “vegetarianism . . . under Nazism”). As to vivisection there was, initially at least, an intention to prohibit absolutely what Hermann Göring called, in a speech broadcast on radio in 1933, “torture and suffering in animal experiments”.
Where did this apparent commitment to animal interests come from? Certainly pressure had been building over many years for animal protection laws in Germany. Therefore, much of what was now accomplished only brought Germany up to basic standards already achieved in the UK. That would explain why the legislation came so promptly with the inception of the Third Reich; it was already waiting and pushing for authorization. But in a symposium on this subject published some years ago in the journal Anthrozoos, Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax argue that “personal interest in or affection for animals by key Nazi figures” must be a large part of the explanation. What is the evidence for this?
We come back to Hitler himself. Yes, Hitler was fond of his own dogs. Hitler’s architect and then armaments minister, Albert Speer, who wrote the most intelligent and perspicacious of the contemporary portraits of the man, notes that on the short but dreary walks that were taken by Hitler and his entourage when he was at his country retreat in Bavaria, his “interest was usually focused not on his companions but on his Alsatian dog Blondi . . . he meant more to his master than the Fuehrer’s closest associates.” Presumably there was sincere affection in this, but Speer also says, when he describes the feeding of Blondi as supervised by the Fuehrer, “Hitler knew, of course, that a dog regards the man who feeds him as his master.” Absolute loyalty of the animal, secure mastery for the man: these were what really mattered. Guests had to make sure that they didn’t encourage “any feelings of friendship in the dog”, because such signs of “disloyalty” in Blondi would put Hitler out of temper. It’s significant that Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, the man whom Speer calls a “servile flatterer” and who was derisively nick-naked ‘Ja-Keitel’, was prized by Hitler exactly because he was, in Hitler’s own words, “loyal as a dog”.
Hermann Göring felt this same preference in favour of his own dog: “The only real friend one has in the end is the dog . . . The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno.” Well, who hasn’t felt something like this sometimes, or even at all times, whether for an individual animal or for non-human animals in general? It’s embarrassing to find oneself sharing any sentiment with that poisonous and decadent personality, but it may also be a useful prompt for us to examine the sentiment, and see what it’s worth.
When the narrator in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) complains to the local police about the shooting of a wild boar, they say to her by way of rebuke, “You have more compassion for animals than for people.” It’s another familiar charge. Her reply is “That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people.” (Well, there is at least a consensus that it’s wrong when they do.) This woman’s preoccupation with wild and domestic animals throughout the story is founded on her sense of duty to them, her desire to give them some sort of parity in the enjoyment of life; in fact what most directly drives the narrative is her wish to avenge her own pet dogs. So yes, the unconditional love shown by a dog is a beautiful thing in itself, but the whole relationship is good only if the human has deserved the loyalty, rather than got it for nothing.
Poor Benno, on the contrary, was innocently ministering to the self-regard and power-instinct of his master (it’s the right word here), much as Göring’s absurd mansions, uniforms and grand titles were also doing. Moreover, the immediate occasion for that declaration of Göring’s was the vicious intrigue of Third Reich politics, to which he himself was very largely contributing. That political scene was summarized by Speer as “a thicket of deceptions, intrigues, baseness and killing.” Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich chronicles the unpredictable and dangerous variations in the status of anyone who had a part in the administration, including himself. Neither Hitler nor Göring trusted Speer or anyone else for long at a time; nor could they inspire rational trust in others. In such a human murk, how could the innocent dog not honourably shine, misguided as his fealty might be?
Still, however selfish it was, perhaps this regard for their pet animals as preferable to humans was generalized, by Hitler, Göring, and their associates, to non-human animals at large, and therefore may account to some extent for the favourable treatment of these under the Third Reich?
That there was indeed some deliberate moral re-ordering as between humans and other animals is notoriously evident in Third Reich propaganda. As to the humans, whole classes and races of them were relegated to the status of “Untermenschen . . . mentally and emotionally on a far lower level than any animals” (the quotation is from a Nazi text). In fact Arluke and Sax, in that Anthrozoos symposium, make this their essential explanation of the “troubling and unsavoury contradiction”. Their premise is the anthropological one, that all peoples or cultures “seek to protect what is perceived to be pure from that which is seen to be dangerous and polluting”, and draw their moral lines accordingly. Whereas the Western tradition has always drawn its most emphatic line at the supposed species border, the Nazis, being devoted to the protection of nation and race, allied themselves with at least some other species of animal, especially the ‘nobler’ animals, and put the condemned classes of human outside that pale.
There is something too neat and academical about this scheme, given the ethical chaos of the political scene it aims to interpret, and the evidence for it is sometimes far-fetched: in fact one of the contributors to the symposium calls it “a collection of contradictions, surmises, and innuendoes”. That there was a purposeful policy as against the “untermenschen”, with horrifying practical consequences, is painfully well-known. Whether the non-human animals really benefited is much less clear. Their importance was publicly asserted, and deliberately implicated in the racial polemics: “You will find this respect for animals”, said Himmler, “in all Indo-Germanic peoples.” In a public text of 1933, Göring spoke of “the spirit of close contact, which all Aryan people possess, with the animals”. Himmler’s part in directing animal research will be illustrated shortly. Göring’s “close contact” with animals included shooting them, for he was a keen hunter; among the grandiose titles which he collected was Reich Marshal of the Hunt. These animals which were raised in order to be experimented upon or shot cannot be regarded as having enjoyed any very meaningful moral promotion.
It’s very difficult to know, in fact, how sincere the Nazi administration was about animal protection, just because the propaganda on the subject had a life of its own. (It was said at the time, only partly in jest, that the Third Reich was really just a department of its own Ministry of Propaganda.) Speer shows how much even of Hitler’s private life, such of that as there was, had for its aim the creation of a particular image of Germany’s leader. Thus although he very much enjoyed caviare, he felt that he had to abjure it, believing that it contradicted this image; he wanted “simplicity” in his diet, because, so Speer says, he “could count on its being talked about in Germany.” But of course what he ate was certain to be noticed. In other instances, such as the taking of elaborate therapeutic concoctions, including some “obtained from the testicles and intestines of animals”, he could rely on medical confidentiality to keep the matter quiet.
On a much larger scale, the practice of vivisection followed suit. Even in that public speech of 1933, Göring had conceded that animals might be used when considered “necessary . . . to advance the knowledge of disease in humans, to produce medicines, and generally to further scientific knowledge”. In fact their exploitation in science went well beyond even such generous limits, particularly once the regime was at war. An experimental pesticide code-named 9/91, which proved so violently poisonous that it was subsequently manufactured as a biological weapon (called ‘Tabun’, but never in fact used) had been tested on non-human primates during 1936-7. Another proposed weapon was cattle plague, the idea being to destroy the enemy’s supply of meat: under the direction of Himmler (“respect for animals” Himmler) the rinderpest virus was accordingly tested on German cows in 1944.
Even the notorious experiments on human subjects in the concentration camps were not intended as replacements for animal research. Trials of a typhoid vaccine at Buchenwald, and of resuscitation after time spent in freezing water at Dachau, had both begun with animal studies. At Dachau, Dr Rascher applied for Himmler’s permission to use prisoners for his studies into survival at low air-pressures, explaining that he had done the work with monkeys, but that they “react altogether differently”. Such experiments on humans were kept secret even in the camps themselves, perhaps an indication that some notion of morality yet endured. On the other hand, part of the concealment consisted in disguising them, in the records, as experiments on cattle and pigs; little, then, had survived of the official disapproval of vivisection, if indeed it had ever been more than a political stunt.
How indeed can it well be known that any of the measures taken to improve the status of animals were not stunts of some kind, or that serious values of any sort lay behind them? As Alan Bullock says in his classic biography Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, falsehood was itself a policy with the Nazis: “Hitler and Ribbentrop deceived their allies, even when there was no need.” In one of his last speeches, as heard by Albert Speer, Hitler summed up what he had learnt from his political career: “There can be only one single rule, and this rule, put succinctly, is: That is correct which is useful in itself.” Therefore to speak of “the Nazi animal protection movement”, as Hal Herzog does in the Anthrozoos discussion, is surely to impose order and direction upon it which it never did possess.
In so far as Nazism itself was a “movement”, its aim was to revive Germany’s confidence as a people, and to use that confidence to enforce the nation’s claim to supreme power in Europe and beyond. It was, obviously enough, a nationalist movement, and the sense of national identity necessary to it was created partly by rejecting the cosmopolitan, industrialized, and urbanized civilization which Germany had hitherto shared with other Western democracies. A contributor to the Anthrozoos discussion quotes Göring, one of the principal spokesmen for this “tribal mentality”, as saying “we are barbarians, and we think with our blood.” The malign absurdities and perils of the project are all too familiar, but it has to be conceded that some sensible and positive ideas were involved as well. There was, for instance, a determined campaign to improve the nation’s health. This included measures to promote better diet (using fewer processed foods) and to discourage drinking of alcohol, improvements to health and safety at work (including protections for those working with asbestos, years ahead of anything similar in the UK), and, most notably, public campaigns against tobacco, with bans on smoking in public places, restrictions on advertising, and other such measures that have been profitably taken up elsewhere in more recent times. One historian of health policy in the Third Reich has said that the “it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link [between tobacco and cancer] was originally established. German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world.”
The efforts to protect public health from the more baleful consequences of industrialization and from other life-style illnesses show that even in that vicious political regime some wise and even pioneering values could arise and become active. All the health measures just mentioned have long afterwards been taken up in the UK; it’s obvious in their case that they were only accidentally the product of a corrupt anti-democratic politics. The measures to improve respect for non-human animals, where they had any reality apart from propaganda, had a less pragmatic character, and so remain more of a mystery. But some of them were already in force in the UK, and this fact, as well as their adoption (however gradual) in other countries in later times, shows likewise that they had no necessary connection with that one notorious time and place; they can and should be judged and approved on their own merits. Yes, they were once unhappily caught up in a nexus of moral horrors, but that no more discredits the case for animal rights than it makes smoking or building with asbestos sensible things to do.
Notes and references:
Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a very good introduction by the publisher Martin Rowe) is published by Pythagorean Publishers, 2004; quotations from pp. 29 and 73-4.
The books by Hal Herzog and Steven Pinker are reviewed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/out-and-about-with-anthrozoology/ and https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/25/light-of-the-world/
Texts of the Third Reich animal protection laws of 1933 can be found here: http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/Nazianimalrights.htm#Experiments_on_Living_Animals
‘Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust’ by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax was published in Anthrozoos, January 1992, vol.V, pp.6-31. The follow-up discussion was published in vol.VI, pp.72-114. Where not otherwise attributed, historical quotations come from the Arluke and Sax article. The discussion is quoted at pp. 86 (Roberta Kalechofsky), 82 (Hal Herzog), and 75 (Paul Bookbinder). The whole symposium is accessible online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233691703_Understanding_Nazi_Animal_Protection_and_the_Holocaust
Boria Sax has studied the subject at much greater length in Animals in the Third Reich, Continuum Books, 2000.
Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, was first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1970; quotations are from their 1995 edition, pp. 409-12 and 339 (about Blondi), 575 (Nazi politics), 179 (Hitler’s diet), 161 (Hitler’s medicines) and 486 (the “single rule”).
Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk was published in the Polish in 2009; as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.
The ‘joke’ about propaganda is noted in Louis Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p.273.
The experiments on prisoners at concentration camps are discussed by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, pp. 128 (the secrecy), 147 (Tabun), and 163 (rinderpest). Other instances are recounted by Paul Hoedman in Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich, English edition published by the Book Guild, 1991, pp. 125 and 152 (the request to Himmler).
Hitler: a Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock was first published in 1952. The quotation is from the 1990 edition by Penguin Books, p. 630.
The quotation about cancer epidemiology is from Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, 1999), here quoted from John Cornwell, Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War and the Devil’s Pact, Viking, 2003, p. 171. Other public health measures are discussed by Cornwell at pp. 167-73.