by Boria Sax
Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., (370 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017), 2000. 206 pages, paperback. $19.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Hitler was a vegetarian, probably in emulation of the composer Richard Wagner, Boria Sax asserts, but claims, as vegetarian historian Rynn Berry and others have documented, that “Hitler was probably not entirely consistent in his vegetarianism.”
Adds Sax, “Several leading figures in the [Nazi] government followed Hitler’s example, including [Rudolph] Hess and [Joseph] Goebbels; Heinrich Himmler, who was influenced by Buddhism, even mandated vegetarian meals for leaders of the SS. It is true that the Nazi leaders never tried to promote vegetarianism beyond the ruling circles,” Sax allows. “An entry in Goebbels’ diary dated April 26, 1942 stated that this omission was dictated by necessity. According to Goebbels, Hitler was more deeply convinced than ever that eating meat was wrong, but Hitler could not revolutionize food production while the war was in progress.”
Self-image belied by reality
Sax concludes that Hitler saw himself as not only a vegetarian but an ethical vegetarian, as did other leading members of the Nazi high command–– but this is not to suggest that their self-image matched reality.
Sax goes on to document and explore other Nazi attitudes and policies which parallel the rhetoric, at least, of the modern animal rights movement, and are often cited by propagandists for the animal use industries.
Unlike the propagandists, Sax is not content to draw a simple equation of Nazism with animal rights advocacy. Instead he investigates the paradox that Hitler et al developed scruples about killing nonhumans, yet seemingly had none about killing the human animal; opposed vivisection of nonhumans, yet vivisected humans by the tens of thousands; supposedly disagreed with the premise of factory farming yet helped to introduce it; and showed none of the concern for compassion on the one hand and moral consistency on the other that has historically characterized authentic animal rights advocacy.
Points of difference
Nazi “animal rights” views, Sax indicates, represented a convergent evolution of rhetoric, rather than a direct antecedent to the animal rights movement of today. The Nazi ideas mostly came from different directions, led to different conclusions, and the points of similarity were relatively superficial compared to the points of difference.
Most notably, Hitler and the Nazis were the most extreme champions of eugenics yet to emerge. The central concept of eugenics is that animals and humans can be improved through selective breeding.
This has been obvious as regards physical characteristics since goatherds introduced animal husbandry to ancient Mesopotamia toward the dawn of human civilization, and is still the premise of much leading-edge scientific research, for example in the development of gene therapy to combat cancer and other diseases.
Eugenics vs. moral evolution
Eugenicists, however, depart from mainstream science in asserting that moral perfection can also be achieved through selective breeding, typically by encouraging reproduction of “us,” whoever the preferred people may be, and exterminating “them,” the alleged moral inferiors.
Eugenics were enthusiastically promoted by late 19th century and early 20h century Utopians of both “left” and “right” leanings, including many of the aristocrats who standardized dog breeds.
Yet the whole notion of eugenics was emphatically rejected by most social reformers, including the founders and leaders of the humane movement.
Especially in the U.S., where the humane movement emerged directly from anti-slavery activism, central concerns of the founders and early leaders included not only animal advocacy but also the achievement of universal free public education, women’s suffrage, an end to child labor, and relief for disadvantaged and destitute humans, especially widows, orphans, and the physically or mentally handicapped.
Nazis wooed humane leadership
Nazi and fascist sympathizers made a concerted effort to woo the leadership of the Royal SPCA and the American Humane Association between 1933 and 1939, and won several editorial endorsements of Nazi legislation from the AHA magazine, The National Humane Review.
Paradoxically, The National Humane Review editor at the time, Richard Craven, was second only to his predecessor, Sydney Coleman, in denunciations of eugenics.
Craven and the rest of the American Humane Association leadership, including Coleman, seem to have been very slow to recognize that the Nazis were eugenicists, but when they did, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, they apologized profusely for previous naivete.
Humane movement founders would have had no truck with Hitler
Two generations earlier, American SPCA founder Henry Bergh, Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell, and Women’s Humane Society and American Anti-Vivisection Society founder Carolyn Earle White were acutely aware of the influences of poverty and poor education in producing moral devolution.
None of them would have had even the slightest truck with Hitler.
Among the few inspiring aspects of the otherwise dismal record of the U.S. humane movement during the several decades after their passing was humane opposition to precisely the kinds of cruel experiments on prisoners that the Nazis advanced as an alternative to experimentation on nonhuman subjects.
Sax details the 32 “animal protection laws” adopted by Nazi Germany in only 10 years, demonstrating that many and perhaps most were really just thinly disguised cover for oppression of Jews, gypsies, and other minorities. The first two of those laws banned kosher slaughter; the last one barred Jews from keeping pets.
In between, mongrels called “Jewish dogs” endured discrimination comparable to that of Jewish people, as did livestock seized from Jews.
The most telling distinction between Nazisim and authentic animal rights advocacy, however, may be in their definitions of human perfection.
“Compassion is the ultimate ethic”
So many animal advocates have stated over the years that “Compassion is the ultimate ethic” that establishing who said it first is virtually impossible, though the earliest attributed source may have been the Buddha.
Hitler, on the other hand, as Sax records, in 1934 proclaimed “I desire a violent, domineering, fearless and ferocious upcoming generation. It must be able to bear pain. It must show no signs of weakness or tenderness.”
The strongest Nazi influence on animal advocacy may have been through Jewish activists who suffered the Holocaust and saw in it a parallel to the slaughter of animals for human consumption.
Singer, Spira, Singer, & Hershaft
The Holocaust metaphor has been prominently advanced by PETA vegetarian campaigners, who have been predictably counter-attacked with allegations of anti-Semitism and assertions of Hitler’s quasi-vegetarianism, but the PETA use of Holocaust imagery to describe animal slaughter was at least 40 years behind that of Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The comparison was later made by Coalition for Nonviolent Food founder Henry Spira, who survived Krystalnacht before escaping from Nazi Germany, and Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft, who states that he knows what a veal calf feels like, living in tight confinement in the dark, constantly in terror, because he spent much of his childhood living in a closet to hide from the Nazis.
The Holocaust metaphor is also used by Animal Liberation author Peter Singer, whose entire family except for his mother and father were killed by the Nazis.
Sax did not note any of this. Perhaps he did not know. If he did know, his very thorough review of the status of animals under the Third Reich would almost certainly have made mention of it.