Why German Nazis Were Big Fans Of Animal Rights

I DON'T like animals to suffer pain. Each year, I also butcher a couple lambs raised by neighbors on their pasture down the road. The other day, an animal-rights zealot started abusing me for hypocrisy for not being vegetarian. By way of getting even, I regaled him with the history of the Nazis in their role as animal-rights activists.

In April 1933, soon after they had come to power, the Nazis passed laws regulating the slaughter of animals. Later that year, Hermann Goering announced an end to the "unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments" and threatened to "commit to concentration camps those who still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property."

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 produced learned research papers on the kindest method of killing.

The aim of the Law for the Protection of Animals was - as the preamble stated - "to waken 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.

Joseph 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." As historians Arnold Arluke and Boria 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 top available grade, at one with wild nature. Aryans and animals were allied in a struggle against the contaminators, the vivisectors, the under-creatures. "The Fuhrer," Goebbels wrote, "is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian, 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 Fuhrer 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. Heinrich Himmler had been a chicken breeder. Medical researchers in the Third Reich, Arluke and Sax write, "also approached Germans as livestock." 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 when told this history and say, "So what?" The moral here is not that there is something inherently Nazi-like in campaigning against vivisection or deploring the eating of animals' meat or reviling the cruelties of the feedlot and the slaughterhouse. The moral is that ideologies of nature imbued with corrupt race theory and a degraded romanticism can lead people up the wrong path, to genocide. For the Nazis, their death camps were, in a way, romanticism's revenge for the slaughterhouses and the hogsqueal of the universe.

The "deep ecology" types who think America's true "carrying capacity" is 200,000, who back "wildlands" projects that aim to clear people out of certain low-populated areas of the American West so that they can become "natural" again, who cheer epidemics because they think human overpopulation is the big problem - all these people should study Nazi ideologies of nature with particular care.

(Copyright, 1996, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Alexander Cockburn's column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times.