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Fascist Ecology: The “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents

Excerpt from
Eco­fas­cism: Lessons from the Ger­man Expe­ri­ence
by Janet Biehl and Peter Stau­den­maier
1995, AK Press
ISBN 1–873176 73 2

pp 4–12

“We rec­og­nize that sep­a­rat­ing human­i­ty from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruc­tion and to the death of nations. Only through a rein­te­gra­tion of human­i­ty into the whole of nature can our peo­ple be made stronger. That is the fun­da­men­tal point of the bio­log­i­cal tasks of our age. Humankind alone is no longer the focus of thought, but rather life as a whole ... This striv­ing toward con­nect­ed­ness with the total­i­ty of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deep­est mean­ing and the true essence of Nation­al Social­ist thought.“1

In our zeal to con­demn the sta­tus quo, rad­i­cals often care­less­ly toss about epi­thets like “fas­cist” and “eco­fas­cist,” thus con­tribut­ing to a sort of con­cep­tu­al infla­tion that in no way fur­thers effec­tive social cri­tique. In such a sit­u­a­tion, it is easy to over­look the fact that there are still vir­u­lent strains of fas­cism in our polit­i­cal cul­ture which, how­ev­er mar­gin­al, demand our atten­tion. One of the least rec­og­nized or under­stood of these strains is the phe­nom­e­non one might call “actu­al­ly exist­ing eco­fas­cism,” that is, the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of authen­ti­cal­ly fas­cist move­ments with envi­ron­men­tal­ist con­cerns. In order to grasp the pecu­liar inten­si­ty and endurance of this affil­i­a­tion, we would do well to exam­ine more close­ly its most noto­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal incar­na­tion, the so-called “green wing” of Ger­man Nation­al Social­ism.

Despite an exten­sive doc­u­men­tary record, the sub­ject remains an elu­sive one, under appre­ci­at­ed by pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ri­ans and envi­ron­men­tal activists alike. In Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries as well as in Ger­many itself, the very exis­tence of a “green wing” in the Nazi move­ment, much less its inspi­ra­tion, goals, and con­se­quences, has yet to be ade­quate­ly researched and ana­lyzed. Most of the hand­ful of avail­able inter­pre­ta­tions suc­cumb to either an alarm­ing intel­lec­tu­al affin­i­ty with their sub­ject (2) or a naive refusal to exam­ine the full extent of the “ide­o­log­i­cal over­lap between nature con­ser­va­tion and Nation­al Socialism.“3 This arti­cle presents a brief and nec­es­sar­i­ly schemat­ic overview of the eco­log­i­cal com­po­nents of Nazism, empha­siz­ing both their cen­tral role in Nazi ide­ol­o­gy and their prac­ti­cal imple­men­ta­tion dur­ing the Third Reich. A pre­lim­i­nary sur­vey of nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry pre­cur­sors to clas­si­cal eco­fas­cism should serve to illu­mi­nate the con­cep­tu­al under­pin­nings com­mon to all forms of reac­tionary ecol­o­gy.

Two ini­tial clar­i­fi­ca­tions are in order. First, the terms “envi­ron­men­tal” and “eco­log­i­cal” are here used more or less inter­change­ably to denote ideas, atti­tudes, and prac­tices com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the con­tem­po­rary envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. This is not an anachro­nism; it sim­ply indi­cates an inter­pre­tive approach which high­lights con­nec­tions to present-day con­cerns. Sec­ond, this approach is not meant to endorse the his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal­ly dis­cred­it­ed notion that pre-1933 his­tor­i­cal data can or should be read as “lead­ing inex­orably” to the Nazi calami­ty. Rather, our con­cern here is with dis­cern­ing ide­o­log­i­cal con­ti­nu­ities and trac­ing polit­i­cal genealo­gies, in an attempt to under­stand the past in light of our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion — to make his­to­ry rel­e­vant to the present social and eco­log­i­cal cri­sis.


Ger­many is not only the birth­place of the sci­ence of ecol­o­gy and the site of Green pol­i­tics’ rise to promi­nence; it has also been home to a pecu­liar syn­the­sis of nat­u­ral­ism and nation­al­ism forged under the influ­ence of the Roman­tic tra­di­tion’s anti Enlight­en­ment irra­tional­ism. Two nine­teenth cen­tu­ry fig­ures exem­pli­fy this omi­nous con­junc­tion: Ernst Moritz Arndt and Wil­helm Hein­rich Riehl.

While best known in Ger­many for his fanat­i­cal nation­al­ism, Arndt was also ded­i­cat­ed to the cause of the peas­antry, which lead him to a con­cern for the wel­fare of the land itself. His­to­ri­ans of Ger­man envi­ron­men­tal­ism men­tion him as the ear­li­est exam­ple of ‘eco­log­i­cal’ think­ing in the mod­ern sense.4 His remark­able 1815 arti­cle On the Care and Con­ser­va­tion of Forests, writ­ten at the dawn of indus­tri­al­iza­tion in Cen­tral Europe, rails against short­sight­ed exploita­tion of wood­lands and soil, con­demn­ing defor­esta­tion and its eco­nom­ic caus­es. At times he wrote in terms strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those of con­tem­po­rary bio­cen­trism: “When one sees nature in a nec­es­sary con­nect­ed­ness and inter­re­la­tion­ship, then all things are equal­ly impor­tant — shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, noth­ing first or last, but all one sin­gle unity.“5

Arndt’s envi­ron­men­tal­ism, how­ev­er, was inex­tri­ca­bly bound up with vir­u­lent­ly xeno­pho­bic nation­al­ism. His elo­quent and pre­scient appeals for eco­log­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty were couched always in terms of the well-being of the Ger­man soil and the Ger­man peo­ple, and his repeat­ed lunatic polemics against mis­ce­gena­tion, demands for teu­ton­ic racial puri­ty, and epi­thets against the French, Slavs, and Jews marked every aspect of his thought. At the very out­set of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the dead­ly con­nec­tion between love of land and mil­i­tant racist nation­al­ism was firm­ly set in place.

Riehl, a stu­dent of Arndt, fur­ther devel­oped this sin­is­ter tra­di­tion. In some respects his’­green’ streak went sig­nif­i­cant­ly deep­er than Arndt’s; pre­sag­ing cer­tain ten­den­cies in recent envi­ron­men­tal activism, his 1853 essay Field and For­est end­ed with a call to fight for “the rights of wilder­ness.” But even here nation­al­ist pathos set the tone: “We must save the for­est, not only so that our ovens do not become cold in win­ter, but also so that the pulse of life of the peo­ple con­tin­ues to beat warm and joy­ful­ly, so that Ger­many remains German.“6 Riehl was an (implaca­ble oppo­nent of the rise of indus­tri­al­ism and urban­iza­tion; his overt­ly anti­se­mit­ic glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of rur­al peas­ant val­ues and undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed con­dem­na­tion of moder­ni­ty estab­lished him as the “founder of agrar­i­an roman­ti­cism and antiurbanism.“7

These lat­ter two fix­a­tions matured in the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry in the con­text of the völkisch move­ment, a pow­er­ful cul­tur­al dis­po­si­tion and social ten­den­cy which unit­ed eth­no­cen­tric pop­ulism with nature mys­ti­cism. At the heart of the völkisch temp­ta­tion was a patho­log­i­cal response to moder­ni­ty. In the face of the very real dis­lo­ca­tions brought on by the tri­umph of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism and nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion, volkisch thinkers preached a return to the land, to the sim­plic­i­ty and whole­ness of a life attuned to nature’s puri­ty. The mys­ti­cal effu­sive­ness of this per­vert­ed utopi­anism was matched by its polit­i­cal vul­gar­i­ty. While “the Volk­ish move­ment aspired to recon­struct the soci­ety that was sanc­tioned by his­to­ry, root­ed in nature, and in com­mu­nion with the cos­mic life spirit,“8 it point­ed­ly refused to locate the sources of alien­ation, root­less­ness and envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion in social struc­tures, lay­ing the blame instead to ratio­nal­ism, cos­mopoli­tanism, and urban civ­i­liza­tion. The stand-in for all of these was the age-old object of peas­ant hatred and mid­dle-class resent­ment: the Jews. “The Ger­mans were in search of a mys­te­ri­ous whole­ness that would restore them to primeval hap­pi­ness, destroy­ing the hos­tile milieu of urban indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion that the Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy had foist­ed on them.“9

Refor­mu­lat­ing tra­di­tion­al Ger­man anti­semitism into nature friend­ly terms, the völkisch move­ment car­ried a volatile amal­gam of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al prej­u­dices,
Roman­tic obses­sions with puri­ty, and anti-Enlight­en­ment sen­ti­ment into twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry polit­i­cal dis­course. The emer­gence of mod­ern ecol­o­gy forged the final link in the fate­ful chain which bound togeth­er aggres­sive nation­al­ism, mys­ti­cal­ly charged racism, and envi­ron­men­tal­ist predilec­tions. In 1867 the Ger­man zool­o­gist Ernst Haeck­el coined the term ‘ecol­o­gy’ and began to estab­lish it as a sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­pline ded­i­cat­ed to study­ing the inter­ac­tions between organ­ism and envi­ron­ment. Haeck­el was also the chief pop­u­lar­iz­er of Dar­win and evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry for the Ger­man-speak­ing world, and devel­oped a pecu­liar sort of social dar­win­ist phi­los­o­phy he called ‘monism.’ The Ger­man Monist League he found­ed com­bined sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based eco­log­i­cal holism with völkisch social views. Haeck­el believed in nordic racial supe­ri­or­i­ty, stren­u­ous­ly opposed race mix­ing and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed racial eugen­ics. His fer­vent nation­al­ism became fanat­i­cal with the onset of World War I, and he ful­mi­nat­ed in anti­se­mit­ic tones against the post-war Coun­cil Repub­lic in Bavaria.

In this way “Haeck­el con­tributed to that spe­cial vari­ety of Ger­man thought which served as the seed bed for Nation­al Social­ism. He became one of Ger­many’s major ide­ol­o­gists for racism, nation­al­ism and imperialism.“10 Near the end of his life he joined the Thule Soci­ety, “a secret, rad­i­cal­ly right-wing orga­ni­za­tion which played a key role in the estab­lish­ment of the Nazi movement.“11 But more than mere­ly per­son­al con­ti­nu­ities are at stake here. The pio­neer of sci­en­tif­ic ecol­o­gy, along with his dis­ci­ples Willibald Hentschel, Wil­helm Bolsche and Bruno Wille, pro­found­ly shaped the think­ing of sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of envi­ron­men­tal­ists by embed­ding con­cern for the nat­ur­al world in a tight­ly woven­web of regres­sive social themes. From its very begin­nings, then, ecol­o­gy was bound up in an intense­ly reac­tionary polit­i­cal frame­work.

The spe­cif­ic con­tours of this ear­ly mar­riage of ecol­o­gy and author­i­tar­i­an social views are high­ly instruc­tive. At the cen­ter of this ide­o­log­i­cal com­plex is the direct, unmedi­at­ed appli­ca­tion of bio­log­i­cal cat­e­gories to the social realm. Haeck­el held that “civ­i­liza­tion and the life of nations are gov­erned by the same laws as pre­vail through­out nature and organ­ic life.“12 This notion of ‘nat­ur­al laws’ or ‘nat­ur­al order’ has long been a main­stay of reac­tionary envi­ron­men­tal thought. Its con­comi­tant is anti-human­ism:

Thus, for the Monists, per­haps the most per­ni­cious fea­ture of Euro­pean bour­geois civ­i­liza­tion was the inflat­ed impor­tance which it attached to the idea of man in gen­er­al, to his exis­tence and to his tal­ents, and to the belief that through his unique ratio­nal fac­ul­ties man could essen­tial­ly recre­ate the world and bring about a uni­ver­sal­ly more har­mo­nious and eth­i­cal­ly just social order. [Humankind was] an insignif­i­cant crea­ture when viewed as part of and mea­sured against the vast­ness of the cos­mos and the over­whelm­ing forces of nature.13

Oth­er Monists extend­ed this anti-human­ist empha­sis and mixed it with the tra­di­tion­al völkisch motifs of indis­crim­i­nate anti-indus­tri­al­ism and anti-urban­ism as well as the new­ly emerg­ing pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic racism. The linch­pin, once again, was the con­fla­tion of bio­log­i­cal and social cat­e­gories. The biol­o­gist Raoul Francé, found­ing mem­ber of the Monist League, elab­o­rat­ed so called Lebens­ge­set­ze, ‘laws of life’ through which the nat­ur­al order deter­mines the social order. He opposed racial mix­ing, for exam­ple, as “unnat­ur­al.” Francé is acclaimed by con­tem­po­rary eco­fas­cists as a “pio­neer of the ecol­o­gy movement.“14

Francé’s col­league Lud­wig Wolt­mann, anoth­er stu­dent of Haeck­el, insist­ed on a bio­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion for all soci­etal phe­nom­e­na, from cul­tur­al atti­tudes to eco­nom­ic arrange­ments. He stressed the sup­posed con­nec­tion between envi­ron­men­tal puri­ty and ‘racial’ puri­ty: “Wolt­mann took a neg­a­tive atti­tude toward mod­ern indus­tri­al­ism. He claimed that the change from an agrar­i­an to an indus­tri­al soci­ety had has­tened the decline of the race. In con­trast to nature, which engen­dered the har­mon­ic forms of Ger­man­ism, there were the big cities, dia­bol­i­cal and inor­gan­ic, destroy­ing the virtues of the race.“15

Thus by the ear­ly years of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry a cer­tain type of ‘eco­log­i­cal’ argu­men­ta­tion, sat­u­rat­ed with right-wing polit­i­cal con­tent, had attained a mea­sure of respectabil­i­ty with­in the polit­i­cal cul­ture of Ger­many. Dur­ing the tur­bu­lent peri­od sur­round­ing World War I, the mix­ture of eth­no­cen­tric fanati­cism, regres­sive rejec­tion of moder­ni­ty and gen­uine envi­ron­men­tal con­cern proved to be a very potent potion indeed.


The chief vehi­cle for car­ry­ing this ide­o­log­i­cal con­stel­la­tion to promi­nence was the youth move­ment, an amor­phous phe­nom­e­non which played a deci­sive but high­ly ambiva­lent role in shap­ing Ger­man pop­u­lar cul­ture dur­ing the first three tumul­tuous decades of this cen­tu­ry. Also known as the Wan­dervögel (which trans­lates rough­ly as ‘wan­der­ing free spir­its’), the youth move­ment was a hodge-podge of coun­ter­cul­tur­al ele­ments, blend­ing neo-Roman­ti­cism, East­ern philoso­phies, nature mys­ti­cism, hos­til­i­ty to rea­son, and a strong com­mu­nal impulse in a con­fused but no less ardent search for authen­tic, non-alien­at­ed social rela­tions. Their back-to-the-land empha­sis spurred a pas­sion­ate sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nat­ur­al world and the dam­age it suf­fered. They have been apt­ly char­ac­ter­ized as ‘right-wing hip­pies,’ for although some sec­tors of the move­ment grav­i­tat­ed toward var­i­ous forms of eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics (though usu­al­ly shed­ding their envi­ron­men­tal­ist trap­pings in the process), most of the Wan­dervögel were even­tu­al­ly absorbed by the Nazis. This shift from nature wor­ship to Führer wor­ship is worth exam­in­ing.

The var­i­ous strands of the youth move­ment shared a com­mon self-con­cep­tion: they were a pur­port­ed­ly ‘non-polit­i­cal’ response to a deep cul­tur­al cri­sis, stress­ing the pri­ma­cy of direct emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence over social cri­tique and action. They pushed the con­tra­dic­tions of their time to the break­ing point, but were unable or unwill­ing to take the final step toward orga­nized, focused social rebel­lion, “con­vinced that the changes they want­ed to effect in soci­ety could not be brought about by polit­i­cal means, but only by the improve­ment of the individual.“16 This proved to be a fatal error. “Broad­ly speak­ing, two ways of revolt were open to them: they could have pur­sued their rad­i­cal cri­tique of soci­ety, which in due course would have brought them into the camp of social rev­o­lu­tion. [But] the Wan­dervögel chose the oth­er form of protest against soci­ety — roman­ti­cism.” 17

This pos­ture lent itself all too read­i­ly to a very dif­fer­ent kind of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion: the ‘unpo­lit­i­cal’ zealotry of fas­cism. The youth move­ment did not sim­ply fail in its cho­sen form of protest, it was active­ly realigned when its mem­bers went over to the Nazis by the thou­sands. Its coun­ter­cul­tur­al ener­gies and its dreams of har­mo­ny with nature bore the bit­ter­est fruit. This is, per­haps, the unavoid­able tra­jec­to­ry of any move­ment which acknowl­edges and oppos­es social and eco­log­i­cal prob­lems but does not rec­og­nize their sys­temic roots or active­ly resist the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­tures which gen­er­ate them. Eschew­ing soci­etal trans­for­ma­tion in favor of per­son­al change, an osten­si­bly apo­lit­i­cal dis­af­fec­tion can, in times of cri­sis, yield bar­bar­ic results.

The attrac­tion such per­spec­tives exer­cised on ide­al­is­tic youth is clear: the enor­mi­ty of the cri­sis seemed to enjoin a total rejec­tion of its appar­ent caus­es. It is in the spe­cif­ic form of this rejec­tion that the dan­ger lies. Here the work of sev­er­al more the­o­ret­i­cal minds from the peri­od is instruc­tive. The phi­lo
sopher Lud­wig Klages pro­found­ly influ­enced the youth move­ment and par­tic­u­lar­ly shaped their eco­log­i­cal con­scious­ness. He authored a tremen­dous­ly impor­tant essay titled “Man and Earth” for the leg­endary Meiss­ner gath­er­ing of the Wan­dervögel in 1913.18 An extra­or­di­nar­i­ly poignant text and the best known of all Klages’ work, it is not only “one of the very great­est man­i­festoes of the rad­i­cal eco­paci­fist­move­ment in Germany,“19 but also a clas­sic exam­ple of the seduc­tive ter­mi­nol­o­gy of reac­tionary ecol­o­gy.

“Man and Earth” antic­i­pat­ed just about all of the themes of the con­tem­po­rary ecol­o­gy move­ment. It decried the accel­er­at­ing extinc­tion of species, dis­tur­bance of glob­al ecosys­temic bal­ance, defor­esta­tion, destruc­tion of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples and of wild habi­tats, urban sprawl, and the increas­ing alien­ation of peo­ple from nature. In emphat­ic terms it dis­par­aged Chris­tian­i­ty, cap­i­tal­ism, eco­nom­ic util­i­tar­i­an­ism, hyper con­sump­tio­nand the ide­ol­o­gy of ‘progress.’ It even con­demned the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tive­ness of ram­pant tourism and the slaugh­ter of whales, and dis­played a clear recog­ni­tion of the plan­et as an eco­log­i­cal total­i­ty. All of this in 1913 !

It may come as a sur­prise, then, to learn that Klages was through­out his life polit­i­cal­ly arch­con­ser­v­a­tive and a ven­omous anti­semite. One his­to­ri­an labels him a “Volk­ish fanat­ic” and anoth­er con­sid­ers him sim­ply “an intel­lec­tu­al pace­mak­er for the Third Reich” who “paved the way for fas­cist phi­los­o­phy in many impor­tant respects.“20 In “Man and Earth” a gen­uine out­rage at the dev­as­ta­tion of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment is cou­pled with a polit­i­cal sub­text of cul­tur­al despair.21 Klages’ diag­no­sis of the ills of mod­ern soci­ety, for all its decla­ma­tions about cap­i­tal­ism, returns always to a sin­gle cul­prit: “Geist.” His idio­syn­crat­ic use of this term, which means mind or intel­lect, was meant to denounce not only hyper­ra­tional­ism or instru­men­tal rea­son, but ratio­nal thought itself. Such a whole­sale indict­ment of rea­son can­not help but have sav­age polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. It fore­clos­es any chance of ratio­nal­ly recon­struct­ing soci­ety’s rela­tion­ship with nature and jus­ti­fies the most bru­tal author­i­tar­i­an­ism. But the lessons of Klages’ life and work have been hard for ecol­o­gists to learn. In 1980, “Man and Earth” was repub­lished as an esteemed and sem­i­nal trea­tise to accom­pa­ny the birth of the Ger­man Greens.


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