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March 2004 • Vol 4, No. 3 •

The Ecology of Nazis , Greens and Socialists

By Louis Proyect

Although the modern Green movement is a response to the abuses of the capitalist system, there has been a fitful attempt to link it to all sorts of romantic reactionary trends involving “nature worship.” This was most pronounced in the case of the German Greens who were often depicted as little better than neo-Nazis. While it is understandable why the corporate media would want to smear the Greens in this fashion, it is somewhat disturbing to note similar characterizations originating within the radical movement.

Two of the more widely cited articles in this vein can be read on Spunk.org, an anarchist website. One, by Peter Staudenmaier, is titled “Fascist Ideology: The Green Wing of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents.” The other, by Janet Biehl is titled “Ecology and the Modernization of Fascism in the German Ultra-Right.”

In a joint introduction, they state:

For many such people, it may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and placed in the service of highly regressive ends—even of fascism itself. As Peter Staudenmaier shows in the first essay in this pamphlet, important tendencies in German “ecologism,” which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the twentieth century. During the Third Reich, Staudenmaier goes on to show, Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only in their ideology but in their governmental policies. Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.

In another example, David Harvey, one of the world’s most respected Marxist theorists, writes in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference:

“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.’” (p. 171)

Harvey’s citation on the “first radical environmentalists” comes from Anna Bramwell’s “Ecology in the 20th Century: A History.” A London Times review of this 1989 book states:

“As Anna Bramwell’s excellent Ecology in the 20th Century recalls, Nazi Germany was the first country in Europe to form nature reserves. In 1934, it became the first country to insist that new tree plantations should include broad-leaved, deciduous trees, as well as conifers. It legislated to protect hedgerows and their wildlife, and to control vivisection. Members of the SS were trained to respect animal life. In 1941, Himmler’s own land planning officer, subsequently sentenced to seven years at Nuremburg, called for artificial fertilizers to be banned as ‘unnatural.’”

While there is little doubt that the Nazis did such things, it is a mistake to believe that they were innovators of some sort. 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 both socialist and ultraright parties, including Hitler’s.

It is also 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. Carlyle 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,” while Earth First says, “Set the Rivers Free!” Ergo, the Nazi functionary and activists 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 with a kind of Platonism: “Ideas, rather than material forces, determine history.” 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. Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster has pointed out that disciples of Adam Smith use 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.

It is much more profitable for those of us in the Marxist tradition to concentrate on social and economic 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 and assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual with no regard for even nominally green values.

On first blush, Walter Schoenichen, an aide to Herman Goering who in his capacity as Minister of the German Forests supervised the “Germanization” of forests in conquered territories, would also be representative of Nazi ecological sensitivity.

In 1941, the Nazis took control of the Bialowieza forest in Lithuania and they resolved to turn it into a hunting reserve for top officers in accordance with forest “Germanization” perspectives. Open season was declared on the Jews, who made up 12 percent of the population in this region and who violated the ethnic purity of the proposed game farm. Five hundred and fifty Jews were rounded up and shot in the courtyard of a hunting palace operated by Battalion 332 of Von Bock’s army division. Goering decided that the purified forest should be altered into an extension of the East Prussian forests. An SS team led by Konrad Mayer, who had been Minister of Agriculture at Berlin University, planned a colonization program that would “Germanize” the forest. Poles, and any remaining Jews, were reduced to the status of barnyard animals to be penned up or slaughtered.

Schoenichen jumped at the opportunity to administer this program. This “total landscape plan” would first empty villages and then the unpopulated forest would be stocked with purely “Teutonic” species, including eagles, elk, and wolves. Since there was a painting of a bison on Goering’s wall, it was crucial to include this beast in the menagerie.

Any reasonable person would understand that the gangsters terrorizing Jews and Poles in order to set up a “Teutonic” zoo have nothing in common with today’s greens, even those who embrace some of the more reactionary aspects of deep ecology. Nazi “ecology” is a contradiction in terms. The Nazis did not want to protect nature, but to transform large swaths of it into something resembling Wagnerian opera backdrops. Furthermore, the murderous assault on peasants who had the misfortune to live in these vicinities is just the opposite of what groups such as Greenpeace or Survival International fight for today. They seek the right of indigenous peoples to live in peace in their natural surroundings. While some conservative, well-financed environmentalist groups have unfortunately neglected the rights of indigenous peoples in campaigns to protect endangered species, the more radical groups have a relatively spotless record.

Furthermore, the notion of importing “Teutonic” animals into the Lithuanian forest is antithetical to genuine ecology, which attempts to preserve the natural balance between indigenous species and their environments.

Furthermore, even if the Nazis adopted certain “green” measures, it is by no means accurate to assert as do David Harvey and Anna Bramwell that the Nazis were the “first radical environmentalists in charge of a state.”

That distinction belongs to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Douglas R. Weiner’s Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Union 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 (Center), 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.

Despite the attempt by David Harvey and others to make facile comparisons between the greens and the Nazis, there is a distinctly anti-capitalist logic in the environmental movement that supersedes any tendency toward romanticism or worse by individual thinkers. Every social movement contains contradictory impulses. The reason that environmentalism is particularly prone to romantic reactionary ideas is simple. It has had inadequate participation from Marxists, both on a theoretical and activist level. Into this vacuum you will find anarchism, mysticism, and other unscientific notions stepping in. The answer to this is not smearing the movement as susceptible to fascism, but engaging with it as participants. In the final analysis, this will represent going back to the roots of our movement, for as Engels wrote:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.

The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture, they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.

Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. (The Part played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.)





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