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.


  1. Still thinking about this, a couple of weeks after you told us about it. Reading what Hal wrote, it doesn't sound to me like we should eat lots of meat to be not-Hitler, though I know a lot of sound-bite carnivores do make that equation. Rather, it sounded (at least to someone who wasn't there for the original discussion) like the equation is "if the foundation of Othering is distancing ourself from animals (the original binary), and if the meanest binary thinkers anyone can think of Othered humans to a much greater degree than they did animals, then maybe human-animal cruelty doesn't have a causal relationship to human-human cruelty." Or, to put it another way, eating meat can be a bad idea for all kinds of excellent reasons (environmentalism, health, brutal industrial practices, and some really awful human-animal cruelty), but not necessarily the ones Carol Adams postulates. Maybe some vegetarians still Other people of different genders and races and religions and such; and maybe some people who don't give a good damn about factory farming manage not to treat other humans as objects...even though there's often considerable overlap between human-animal cruelty and human-human cruelty (like serial killers who are supposed to often begin with animals.)

    Or, to put it another way (not Hal's way, I hasten to add): maybe Othering and its attendant cruelties in general constitute original sin; and whether each of us is more cruel to non-human or human animals is more a matter of personal circumstance and temperament and environment than proof about what we do to other (human or animal) people.

    I don't think you'll buy this, :-) but it's kind of where the discussion is nudging me. Cruelty sucks. Factory farming, lynching, abusive spouses, fascism, Wall Street speculators who gamble with their employees' pensions--they all need to be stopped, whether or not one causes or enables another (which may be an ultimately unprovable point either way.) If Hitler were the world's most pure vegetarian and simply adored tofu, the way Purdue raises chickens or Smithfield pigs would still need to be stopped.

  2. I just read the Slate article about whether or not Jesus was vegetarian, and all it does is reinforce what you already said about Hitler, LW, just in reverse. Hitler/vegetarian/bad... if someone swallowed that as a tipoff for causation, then that person would be just as gullible as those who see the Jesus/vegetarian/good relationship.

    Obviously, this post was written in response to your back-and-forth with Hal. A debate, though, that I hear a lot more than the Hitler one but is still based on the Othering of certain beings is the claim among many (probably many of our neighbors, actually) that "those crazy vegetarians (whew! good thing they don't know about veganism yet) won't eat meat but *they'll kill babies*!"... or, what some people view as an inherent contradiction in championing the rights of "lesser" beings (non-human animals) while not defending the rights of "superior" beings (parasitic cell clumps, in most cases).

    To lighten the mood (maybe?) I will freely admit here that I "Othered" spiders before I knew how to speak and howl/whimper at the sight of any that are unlucky enough to find themselves close to me, at least until someone comes and "removes" it. The howling/whimpering persists until that someone reassures me that it's no longer a threat. I know they're not threats, and I'm not justifying my hatred of spiders, and I know that phobias are a different ball game, and..
    okay, maybe I didn't really lighten the mood.

  3. " Nazis were environmentalists, and species protection and animal welfare were significant issues in the Nazi regime. Heinrich Himmler made an effort to ban the hunting of animals "
    " Several senior Nazis, including Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler, adopted some form of vegetarianism, though by most accounts not strictly" Göring was a professed animal lover and conservationist.
    " January 1933, the Nazi Party passed a comprehensive set of animal protection laws. The laws were similar to those that already existed in England, though more detailed and with severe penalties for breaking them"
    " Primates, horses, dogs, and cats were given special protection, and licenses to conduct vivisection were to be given to institutions, not to individuals."

    "The current animal welfare laws in Germany are modified versions of the laws introduced by the Nazis"

    "At the end of the nineteenth century, kosher butchering and vivisection were the main concerns regarding animal protection in Germany. These concerns continued among the Nazis. According to Boria Sax, the Nazis rejected anthropocentric reasons for animal protection—animals were not to be protected for human interests—but for themselves. In 1927, a Nazi representative to the Reichstag called for actions against cruelty to animals and kosher butchering.[7] "

    "On April 21, 1933, almost immediately after the Nazis came to power, the parliament began to pass laws for the regulation of animal slaughter.[7] On April 21, a law was passed concerning the slaughter of animals"

    Germany was the first nation to ban vivisection.

    "Notwithstanding the interest in animal welfare of the previous century, the situation for animals arguably deteriorated in the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War. This was in part because of the increase in the numbers used in animal research—300 in the UK in 1875, 19,084 in 1903, and 2.8 million in 2005 (50–100 million worldwide), and a modern annual estimated range of 10 million to upwards of 100 million in the US—but mostly because of the industrialization of farming, which saw billions of animals raised and killed for food on a scale considered impossible before the war"

    same time In UK:
    "Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) argued in 1931 before a meeting of the Vegatarian Society in London that vegetarianism should be pursued in the interests of animals, and not only as a human health issue. He met both Henry Salt and Anna Kingsford, and read Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism (1880); Salt wrote in the pamphlet that "a Vegetarian is still regarded, in ordinary society, as little better than a madman."…

    A law imposing total ban on vivisection was enacted on August 16, 1933, by Hermann Göring as the prime minister of Prussia. He announced an end to the "unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments" and said that those who "still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property" will be sent to concentration camps.[7] On August 28, 1933, Göring announced in a radio broadcast:

    " An absolute and permanent ban on vivisection is not only a necessary law to protect animals and to show sympathy with their pain, but it is also a law for humanity itself.... I have therefore announced the immediate prohibition of vivisection and have made the practice a punishable offense in Prussia. Until such time as punishment is pronounced the culprit shall be lodged in a concentration camp. "

    Lab animals giving the Nazi salute to Hermann Göring for his order to ban vivisection. Caricature from Kladderadatsch, a satirical journal, September 1933. Göring prohibited vivisection and said that those who "still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property" will be sent to concentration camps.[7]

  4. Göring also banned commercial animal trapping, imposed severe restrictions on hunting, and regulated the shoeing of horses. He imposed regulations even on the boiling of lobsters and crabs. In one incident, he sent a fisherman to a concentration camp for cutting up a bait frog.

    In 24 November 1933, Nazi Germany enacted another law called Reichstierschutzgesetz (Reich Animal Protection Act), for protection of animals. This law listed many prohibitions against the use of animals, including their use for filmmaking and other public events causing pain or damage to health, feeding fowls forcefully and tearing out the thighs of living frogs

    "For example, in Nazi Germany, people who mistreated their pets could be sentenced to two years in jail. The Nazis banned the production of foie gras and docking the ears and tails of dogs without anesthesia, and they severely restricted invasive animal research. The Nazi Party established the first laws insuring that animal used in films were not mistreated and also mandated humane slaughter procedures for food animals and for the euthanasia of terminally ill pets. (The Nazis were particularly concerned with the suffering of lobsters in restaurants). In addition, the German government established nature preserves, a school curriculum for the humane treatment of animals, and they hosted one of the first international conferences on animal protection."

    "Arluke and Sax convincingly argue that pro-animal sentiment was widespread. In 1933, Hermann Göring announced he would "commit to concentration camps those who still think they can treat animals as property." The feared Heinrich Himmler once asked his doctor, who was a hunter, "How can you find pleasure, Herr Kerstein, in shooting from behind at poor creatures browsing on the edge of a wood...It is really murder.""

    Hitler In his 1938 autobiography, Mein Kampf, he describes how, when food was scarce, he would share his meager meals with mice. Hitler had a particular fondness for ravens, wolves and dogs. He abhorred hunting and horse-racing and referred to them as "the last remnants of a dead feudal world."

    In the United States, for instance, over 150 million animals are killed or wounded each YEAR for the enjoyment of recreational hunters (350 humas so per EVERY 2 persons torture..)
    Then there are the 10 billion animals slaughtered each year in the United States by what the philosopher Tom Regan calls "the tyranny of the fork." (+ per person 30 murders a year.....)

    "Hitler once told a female companion who ordered sausage while they were on a date, "I didn't think you wanted to devour a dead corpse...the flesh of dead animals. Cadavers!" Hitler claimed that meat-eating was a major factor of the decline of civilization and that vegetarianism could rejuvenate society. His henchman Goebbels wrote in his diary, "The Fuhrer is a convinced vegetarian, on principle. His arguments cannot be refuted on any series basis. They are totally unanswerable."

  5. this discussion is pointless, because even if hitler was vegetarian, it just shows that even people as depraved as hitler was capable of showing compassion towards animals. if we want to prove ourselves to have the moral high ground, we should at least do the same, or even more, by being vegan.

  6. Why do you believe that the 'original binary' is that of human/animal? Isn't it perfectly possible that it was man/woman? And why does there need to be only ONE 'original binary'? This sounds to me like post-structuralist mythmaking.

  7. (Or left/right, or up/down, or day/night...any one or more of many binaries that would have been cogent to the early hominid and its developing brain...)