Romanticism’s Revenge: From Vegetarianism to Nazi Animal Rights

With the surge in meat-eating associated with industrial capitalism came-particularly from city-dwellers-a swelling of the vegetarian cause, hitherto confined to a relatively few Pythagoreans, radicals and eccentrics. Compassion for animals also surged, particularly in Britain where Queen Victoria lent her name to the issue and where anti-vivisection movements drew increasing adherents, as they did in Germany and France.

The ideological groundwork had been prepared as early as the first century ad with Seneca, and the third century, in the writings of the neo-Platonist Porphyry. By the seventeenth century there were vociferous advocates of the view that consumption of animal flesh was aesthetically repulsive, productive of spiritual grossness and unhealthy besides. (Even earlier, Shakespeare caused Thersites to deride Ajax as ‘thou mongrel beef-witted lord.’)

In the seventeenth century, Thomas Tryon rejected flesh-eating in part because he was against ‘killing and oppressing his fellow creatures,’ in part because flesh gave man ‘a wolfish, doggist nature.’ (Both Shakespeare and Tryon were themselves being doggist here, in modern usage.) When Adam and Eve began to eat their fellow creatures after expulsion from Eden, quarrelling and war among humanity began. Tryon was also against slavery, ill-treatment of the insane and discrimination against left-handed people. The eighteenth century continued to produce an array of arguments in favor of vegetarianism. Scientists argued that man was not made to be carnivorous, given the arrangement of teeth and intestines. Moralists continued to invoke the violence done by animal slaughter to the traits of benevolence and compassion. Butchers were the subject of rebuke, as the poet John Gay urged pedestrians:

To shun the surly butcher’s greasy tray,
Butchers, whose hands are dy’d with blood’s foul stain,
And always foremost in the hangman’s train.

British Royal Commissioners a century later found work in abattoirs to be a particularly demoralized trade. The historian Keith Thomas remarks that in the 1790s vegetarianism had radical, even millennial overtones. John Oswald was a radical Scotsman who acquired the vegetarian habit from Hindus while serving in a Highland regiment in India. He wrote The Cry of Nature and died fighting for the Jacobins against the Chouans in the Vendée. In Salford, the Bible Christians were founded by William Cowherd as a breakaway sect from the Swedenborgians. Vegetarianism was a condition of entry, and three hundred members mustered in support of health, gnosticism and the tempered life. Cowherd’s disciple William Metcalfe led a group of Bible Christians to Philadelphia, where Metcalfe converted Sylvester Graham in 1830, who became a renowned advocate of temperance, vegetarianism and unbolted flour and who drew on work by the London doctor William Lamb. The latter’s patient John Frank Newton wrote The Return to Nature, which much influenced the poet Shelley’s 1812 book, Vindication of Natural Diet.

Nazi Squeamishness

But it would be cowardly to accentuate the utopian timbre to much vegetarian thought without also considering the association of vegetarian habit and of solicitude for animals with the Nazis. 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 awaken 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 Walt Disney’s movie of the Depression, about the Three Pigs. 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 towards their fellow humans; on the other, kind to animals and zealous in their interest. In their very fine essay on such contradictions (“Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust“), Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax offer three observations. One, as just noted, many Nazi leaders harboured affection towards animals but antipathy to humans. Hitler was given films by a maharaja which displayed animals killing people. The Fuehrer 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 the 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 Nietzsche represented animality at the highest available grade, at one with wild nature. But spirituality could be associated with animals destined for the table, as in this piece of German farm 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, whereas 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. He 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 believed that his thoughtlessness about the suffering of his victims stemmed from his passion about creating a genetically pure super-race, as though you 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. Hoss, 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 during 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 is not that there is something inherently Nazi-like in campaigning against vivisection or deploring the eating of animal 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 abattoirs and the hogsqueal of the universe as echoing from the Union Stockyards in Chicago.

This essay is excerpted from Dead Meat by Sue Coe and Alexander Cockburn.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.