Friday, November 25, 2011

Hitler and Vegetarianism

Hal Herzog, who has already discussed this issue in his blog, and I got into a fight in front of an entire class of undergraduate students.  Hal has graciously claimed responsibility, saying of the altercation (which, I should add, was all in the spirit of academic debate), "It was my fault.  I used the Nazi animal protection movement to illustrate how a culture can twist human moral values in weird and tragic ways."  And this proclamation is true; Hal's position, astutely supported via a very comprehensive body of scholarship, is that people have some really conflicted and, as would seem to be the case in terms of the Nazis, some very contradictory views about the value of life, human and non-human alike.  Indeed, Hal's written a brilliantly accessible, illuminating, and thoughtful book about this subject, which, when last I checked, was ranked as the #14 best selling book on Animal Rights on Amazon.

Back to our fight: what Hal's blog doesn't cover about that altercation is what I was saying prior to his interjection that "Hitler was a vegetarian."  I was following Hal's lead, after he'd read from his book a particularly graphic passage about the lives of factory farmed hens.  I stood up and started talking about my veganism and then realized that no one was listening to me at all.  Everyone looked vaguely traumatized by what they'd just heard; indeed, they should have been traumatized.  I backed up, and we talked about how the information that Hal had conveyed had made the students feel.  One said, "kind of guilty about having just eaten Chick Fil A for lunch."  Yeah.  So we processed.  Then I showed the vegan police scene from Scott Pilgrim to lighten things up a bit.

Yeah, I've posted this clip before.  But I can't get enough of the "Gelato's not vegan?" "It's milk and eggs, bitch" sequence.

And then I went back to me, to why I am vegan and how my animal rights position is also the source of many of my scholarly endeavors (and, by the way, this is a topic that I NEVER discuss in class, so doing so was weird for me.  Doing so made me feel vulnerable, because I have a pretty good sense of the kinds of questions -- and the kinds of attacks -- that generally follow such disclosure.  And that's part of why I keep my personal politics -- at least in any overt sense -- out of my pedagogical practice).  My work as a postcolonial scholar is, in many ways, premised on my belief that human beings learn to "other" human beings because they are able to dehumanize them -- to treat them like animals.  And they are able to do this because of what I've termed the "primary binary opposition" of human/animal.  

My belief is that this distinction, the primacy that we ascribe to human beings and the subjection we dictate to non-human animals -- who clearly think, feel pain, and learn, activities in which humans participate as well -- is the foundation upon which we constitute all other binary thinking.  And in the context of such dualisms, one side of the binary is necessarily coded as inferior (think man/woman, white/black, culture/nature).  In order to illustrate this point, I shared a copy of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus in which Spiegelman depicts the Jews killed during the Holocaust as mice.

From Maus (copyright 1986)

The Nazis gassed the Jews using Zyklon B, a pesticide used to kill rodents -- mice and rats. In depicting the Jews as mice, Spielgelman's novel illustrates the way that the Nazis dehumanized the Jews.  They treated them like rodents, and rodents fall into that category of animals that we, as a species, hate.  And this is the point at which Hal interjected that Hitler was a vegetarian.

OK, you can read Hal's blog about the Nazis and their animal rights agenda.  And you can read my argument below about how Hitler wasn't a vegetarian.  But before you go any further, what you should know is that whether or not Hitler was a vegetarian is a red herring to any thoughtful discussion about animal rights, about ethical vegetarianism, and about a life committed to recognizing the interconnectedness between human and animal life.  Hitler's supposed vegetarianism has been thrown up at me so many times that it makes me tired to think about it.  And generally, I don't even bother to take it on: people who bring up Hitler's vegetarianism, generally speaking, do so to undermine an ethical vegetarian position.  They do it to indicate that vegetarianism is highly flawed: how could vegetarianism be a good thing if someone as bad as Hitler practiced it?  

My sense is that Hitler has a lot in common with most of us, if we dare to examine Hitler as a human being.  And that might be more than we're willing to do.  But I responded badly to Hal's assertion.  I said, "no he wasn't."  And then we went from there, back and forth, each offering the evidence we have at our disposal, until I finally acquiesced.  And I only acquiesced because I could tell that we were causing the poor students to freak out a bit.  

To digress for a moment: there's a scene in Nikos Kazantzakis's 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of it during which Jesus, who has stepped down from the cross, raised a family, and grown old, confronts Paul, who is preaching the story of Christ's resurrection.  Jesus approaches Paul and says that Paul is telling lies about him, that none of the things that Paul claims are true.  Paul responds that he has built the truth out of what people need to hear.  He says, "you know, I'm glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you.  My Jesus is much more powerful." 

Scorcese's film with Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul. Oh, and Juliette Caton as that annoying angel thing.  By the way, all the evil people in this film have British accents (David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate); all the good guys sound like they're from the Bronx.

When I saw this film in the late 1980s, it made me understand Christianity in a way that, at least momentarily, made me want to believe -- and it made me want to be an English major, because I realized for the first time in my "I-was-raised-Methodist" life the power of fictional narrative to create truth.  And I bring this up because it's a point that I keep returning to with regard to this Hitler business.  I strike this comparison not to offer any kind of moral connection between the historical figures of Hitler and Jesus but to posit that mythologies arise -- for better or worse -- out of the human desire to explain and justify human behavior (again, for better or worse).  The mythology surrounding Hitler's vegetarianism is a case in point; positing that Hitler was a vegetarian serves to undermine an ethical vegetarian position.  It assumes, naturally, that vegetarianism is corrupt because Hitler was a vegetarian and Hitler was corrupt. 

I can tell my "truth" about Hitler's vegetarianism, and I can corroborate that truth.  Here are a few points that I'm taking from Charles Patterson's 2002 study Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, the title of which comes from "The Letter Writer" by Isaac Beshevis Singer: "in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka:"

1.  Hitler had irritable bowl syndrome.  His doctor advised him to eat more vegetables, which he did in order to reduce the embarrassing symptoms associated with IBS.

2.  Hitler never gave up his favorite meat dishes, which included Bavarian sausage, liver dumplings, and stuffed game (by the way, pork's not a vegetable).  Here's a quote from one of Hitler's chefs, Dione Lucas: "I do not want to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab . . . but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite with Mr. Hitler."  Liver and squab: not vegetables.  

3.  According to historian Robert Payne, the image of Hitler as an ascetic was the product of his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels: "Hitler's asceticism played an important part in the image he projected over Germany.  According to the widely believed legend, he neither smoke nor drank, nor did he eat meat or have anything to do with women.  Only the first was true." 

Here's a link to all of the above, plus much more.  Other scholars, including Carol J. Adams and Rynn Berry, have also written to dispel the Hitler as vegetarian myth.  Here's a link to a piece about the New York Times' retraction of a previous assertion that Hitler was vegetarian, which lists a variety of sources as evidence.

So I have my sources and Hal has his, and neither one of us will ever prove anything to the other, I suspect.  Did Hitler ever call himself a vegetarian?  I very much doubt it.  But as Paul says in that scene from The Last Temptation of Christ, my truth, in the overall scheme of what people need to believe, won't matter.  Theoretically, they'll tear me limb from limb to preserve an essential myth, and that myth is that in order to be unlike Hitler, one must eat meat.  It's a tidy justification, isn't it?

"Two Little Hitlers" by Elvis Costello

* And as an aside, there's plenty of debate out there as well as to the vegetarian status of Jesus.  Maybe I'll take that on in my next blog.  Or maybe not.