In April 1933, soon after they had come to power, the Nazis passed laws regulating the slaughter of animals. Later that year Herman Goering announced an end to the “unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments” and–in an extremely unusual admission of the existence of such institutions–threatened to “commit to concentration camps those who still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property.” Bans on vivisection were issued–though later partly rescinded–in Bavaria and Prussia. Horses, cats, and apes were singled out for special protection. In 1936 a special law was passed regarding the correct way of dispatching lobsters and crabs and thus mitigating their terminal agonies. Crustaceans were to be thrown into rapidly boiling water. Bureaucrats at the Nazi Ministry of the Interior had produced learned research papers on the kindest method of killing.
Laws protecting wildlife were also passed, under somewhat eugenic protocols: “The duty of a true hunter is not only to hunt but also to nurture and protect wild animals in order that a more varied, stronger and healthier breed shall emerge and be preserved.” The Nazis were much concerned about endangered species, and Goering set up nature reserves to protect elk, bison, bears, and wild horses. (Goering called forests “God’s cathedrals,” thus echoing the idiom of John Muir, one of the fathers of the American national park movement, and a despiser of Indians.) The aim of the Law for the Protection of Animals was–as the preamble stated–“to waken and strengthen compassion as one of the highest moral values of the German people.” Animals were to be protected for their own sake rather than as appendages to the human moral and material condition. This was hailed as a new moral concept. In 1934 an international conference in Berlin on the topic of animal protection saw the podium festooned with swastikas and crowned by a banner declaring, “Entire epochs of love will be needed to repay animals for their value and service.”
Nazi leaders were noted for love of their pets and for certain animals, notably apex predators like the wolf and the lion. Hitler, a vegetarian and hater of hunting, adored dogs and spent some of his final hours in the company of Blondi, whom he would take for walks outside the bunker at some danger to himself. He had a particular enthusiasm for birds and most of all for wolves. His cover name was Herr Wolf. Many of his interim headquarters had “Wolf” as a prefix, as in Wolfschanze, in East Prussia, of which Hitler said, “I am the wolf and this is my den.” He also liked to whistle the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from a Disney movie.
Goebbels said, famously, “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.” Goebbels also agreed with Hitler that “meat eating is a perversion in our human nature,” and that Christianity was a “symptom of decay,” since it did not urge vegetarianism. Rudolf Hess was another affectionate pet owner.
On the one hand, monsters of cruelty toward their fellow humans, on the other, kind to animals and zealous in their interest. In their very fine essay on such contradictions in Anthrozoos (1992), Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax offer three observations. One, as just noted, many Nazi leaders harbored affection toward animals but antipathy to humans. Hitler was given films that displayed animals killing people. The Führer watched with equanimity. Another film showed humans killing animals. Hitler covered his eyes and begged to be told when the slaughter was over. In the same passage in his diary from the 1920s quoted above, Goebbels wrote, “As soon as I am with a person for three days, I don’t like him any longer… I have learned to despise the human being from the bottom of my soul.”
Second, animal-protection measures “may have been a legal veil to level an attack on the Jews. In making this attack, the Nazis allied themselves with animals since both were portrayed as victims of ‘oppressors’ such as Jews.”
Central to this equation was the composer Richard Wagner, an ardent vegetarian who urged attacks on laboratories and physical assault on vivisectionists, whom he associated with Jews (presumably because of kosher killing methods). Identifying vivisectors as the enemy, Wagner wrote that vivisection of frogs was “the curse of our civilization.” Those who failed to untruss and liberate frogs were “enemies of the state.”
Vivisection, in Wagner’s view, stood for mechanistic science, extrusion of a rationalist intellectualism that assailed the unity of nature, of which man is a part. He believed the purity of Aryans had been compromised by meat eating and mixing of the races. A non-meat diet plus the Eucharist would engender a return to the original, uncorrupted state of affairs. Wagner borrowed from Viennese monk Adolf Lanze, who held that in the beginning there were Aryans and Apes, with Germans closest to the former and Jews to the latter. The core enterprise was to perfect the breed and purge the coarser element. This went for animals too, in an unremitting process of genetic purification.
Finally, as Arluke and Sax put it, “the Nazis abolished moral distinctions between animals and people by viewing people as animals. The result was that animals could be considered ‘higher’ than some people.”
The blond Aryan beast of Nietzche represented animality at the top available grade, at one with wild nature. But spirituality could be associated with animals destined for the table, as in this piece of German propaganda: “The Nordic peoples accord the pig the highest possible honor… in the cult of the Germans the pig occupies the first place and is the first among the domestic animals… The predominance of the pig, the sacred animal destined to sacrifices among the Nordic peoples, has drawn its originality from the great trees of the German forest. The Semites do not understand the pig, they reject the pig, where as this animal occupies the first place in the cult of the Nordic people.”
Aryans and animals were allied in a struggle against the contaminators, the vivisectors, the under-creatures. “The Führer,” Goebbels wrote, “is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian, views Christianity as a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a branch of the Jewish race… Both [Judaism and Christianity] have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end they will be destroyed. The Führer is a convinced vegetarian on principle.”
Race purification was often seen in terms of farm improvement, eliminating poor stock, and improving the herd. Martin Bormann had been an agricultural student and manager of a large farm. Himmler had been a chicken breeder. Medical researchers in the Third Reich, Arluke and Sax write, “also approached Germans as livestock. For instance, those familiar with Mengele’s concentration camp experiments believe that his thoughtlessness about the suffering of his victims stemmed from his passion about creating a genetically pure super-race, as though he were breeding horses.” Those contaminating Aryan stock were “lower animals” and should be dispatched. Seeing such people as low and coarse animal forms allowed their production-line slaughter. Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, was a great lover of animals, particularly horses, and after a hard day’s work in the death camp liked to stroll about the stables.
“Nazi German identity,” Arluke and Sax conclude, “relied on the blurring of boundaries between humans and animals and the constructing of a unique phylogenetic hierarchy that altered conventional human-animal distinctions and imperatives… As part of the natural order, Germans of Aryan stock were to be bred like farm stock, while ‘lower animals’ or ‘subhumans,’ such as the Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were to be exterminated like vermin as testament to the new ‘natural’ and biological order conceived under the Third Reich.”
Animal-rights advocates and vegetarians often fidget under jeers that it was Nazis who banned vivisection. In fact vivisection continued through the Third Reich. The British journal The Lancet commented on the Nazis’ animal experimentation laws of 1933 that “it will be seen from the text of these regulations that those restrictions imposed [in Germany] follow rather closely those enforced in [England].”
The moral here is not that there is something inherently Nazi-like in campaigning against vivisection or deploring the eating of animals’ meat or reviling the cruelties of the feedlot and the abattoir. The moral is that ideologies of nature imbued with corrupt race theory and a degraded romanticism can lead people up the wrong path, one whose terminus was an abattoir for “unhealthy” humans, constructed as a reverse image of the death camp for (supposedly) healthy animals to be consumed by humans. For the Nazis their death camps were, in a way, romanticism’s revenge for the slaughterhouses and the hogsqueal of the universe as echoing from the Union Stockyards in Chicago, which perfected industrial methods of mass killing nearly a century before Auschwitz.
A version of this essay originally appeared in City Pages and will be included in the forthcoming book An Orgy of Thieves.