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The Youth Movement and the Weimar Era

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

pp 13–17


In addi­tion to the youth move­ment and proto­fas­cist philoso­phies, there were, of course, prac­ti­cal efforts at pro­tect­ing nat­ur­al habi­tats dur­ing the Weimar peri­od. Many of these projects were pro­found­ly impli­cat­ed in the ide­ol­o­gy which cul­mi­nat­ed in the vic­to­ry of ‘Blood and Soil.’ A 1923 recruit­ment pitch for a wood­lands preser­va­tion out­fit gives a sense of the envi­ron­men­tal rhetoric of the time:

“In every Ger­man breast the Ger­man for­est quiv­ers with its cav­erns and ravines, crags and boul­ders, waters and winds, leg­ends and fairy tales, with its songs and its melodies, and awak­ens a pow­er­ful yearn­ing and a long­ing for home; in all Ger­man­souls the Ger­man­for­est lives and weaves with its depth and breadth, its still­ness and strength, its might and dig­ni­ty, its rich­es and its beau­ty — it is the source of Ger­man inward­ness, of the Ger­man soul, of Ger­man free­dom. There­fore pro­tect and care for the Ger­man for­est for the sake of the elders and the youth, and join the new Ger­man “League for the Pro­tec­tion and Con­se­cra­tion of the Ger­man For­est.” 24

The mantra-like rep­e­ti­tion of the word “Ger­man” and the mys­ti­cal depic­tion of the sacred for­est fuse togeth­er, once again, nation­al­ism and nat­u­ral­ism. This inter­twine­ment took on a gris­ly sig­nif­i­cance with the col­lapse of the Weimar repub­lic. For along­side such rel­a­tive­ly innocu­ous con­ser­va­tion groups, anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion was grow­ing which offered these ideas a hos­pitable home: the Nation­al Social­ist Ger­man Work­ers Par­ty, known by its acronym NSDAP. Draw­ing on the her­itage of Arndt, Riehl, Haeck­el, and oth­ers (all of whom were hon­ored between 1933 and 1945 as fore­bears of tri­umphant Nation­al Social­ism), the Nazi move­men­t’s incor­po­ra­tion of envi­ron­men­tal­ist themes was a cru­cial fac­tor in its rise to pop­u­lar­i­ty and state pow­er.


The reac­tionary eco­log­i­cal ideas whose out­lines are sketched above exert­ed a pow­er­ful and last­ing influ­ence on many of the cen­tral fig­ures in the NSDAP. Weimar cul­ture, after all, was fair­ly awash in such the­o­ries, but the Nazis gave them a pecu­liar inflec­tion. The Nation­al Social­ist “reli­gion of nature,” as one his­to­ri­an has described it, was a volatile admix­ture of primeval teu­ton­ic nature mys­ti­cism, pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic ecol­o­gy, irra­tional­ist anti-human­ism, and a mythol­o­gy of racial sal­va­tion through a return to the land. Its pre­dom­i­nant themes were ‘nat­ur­al order,’ organi­cist holism and den­i­gra­tion of human­i­ty: “Through­out the writ­ings, not only of Hitler, but of most Nazi ide­o­logues, one can dis­cern a fun­da­men­tal dep­re­ca­tion of humans vis‑a.-vis nature, and, as a log­i­cal corol­lary to this, an attack upon human efforts to mas­ter nature.“25 Quot­ing a Nazi edu­ca­tor, the same source con­tin­ues: “anthro­pocen­tric views in gen­er­al had to be reject­ed. They would be valid only ‘if it is assumed that nature has been cre­at­ed only for man. We deci­sive­ly reject this atti­tude. Accord­ing to our con­cep­tion of nature, man is a link in the liv­ing chain of nature just as any oth­er organ­ism’.” 26

Such argu­ments have a chill­ing cur­ren­cy with­in con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal dis­course: the key to social-eco­log­i­cal har­mo­ny is ascer­tain­ing “the eter­nal laws of nature’s process­es” (Hitler) and orga­niz­ing soci­ety to cor­re­spond to them. The Führer was par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of stress­ing the “help­less­ness of human kind in the face of nature’s ever­last­ing law.“27 Echo­ing Haeck­el and the Monists, Mein Kampf announces: “When peo­ple attempt to rebel against the iron log­ic of nature, they come into con­flict with the very same prin­ci­ples to which they owe their exis­tence as human beings. Their actions against nature must lead to their own downfall.“28

The author­i­tar­i­an impli­ca­tions of this view of human­i­ty and nature become even clear­er in the con­text of the Nazis’ empha­sis on holism and organi­cism. In 1934 the direc­tor of the Reich Agency for Nature Pro­tec­tion, Wal­ter Schoenichen, estab­lished the fol­low­ing objec­tives for biol­o­gy cur­ric­u­la: “Very ear­ly, the youth must devel­op an under­stand­ing of the civic impor­tance of the ‘organ­ism’, i.e. the co-ordi­na­tion of all parts and organs for the ben­e­fit of the one and supe­ri­or task of life.“29 This (by now famil­iar) unmedi­at­ed adap­ta­tion of bio­log­i­cal con­cepts to social phe­nom­e­na served to jus­ti­fy not only the total­i­tar­i­an social order of the Third Reich but also the expan­sion­ist pol­i­tics of Leben­sraum (the plan of con­quer­ing ‘liv­ing space’ in East­ern Europe for the Ger­man peo­ple). It also pro­vid­ed the link between envi­ron­men­tal puri­ty and racial puri­ty:

Two cen­tral themes of biol­o­gy edu­ca­tion fol­low [accord­ing to the Nazis] from the holis­tic per­spec­tive: nature pro­tec­tion and eugen­ics. If one views nature as a uni­fied whole, stu­dents will auto­mat­i­cal­ly devel­op a sense for ecol­o­gy and envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion. At the same time, the nature pro­tec­tion con­cept will direct atten­tion to the urban­ized and ‘over­civ­i­lized’ mod­ern human race.30

In many vari­eties of the Nation­al Social­ist world view eco­log­i­cal themes were linked with tra­di­tion­al agrar­i­an roman­ti­cism and hos­til­i­ty to urban civ­i­liza­tion, all revolv­ing around the idea of root­ed­ness in nature. This con­cep­tu­al con­stel­la­tion, espe­cial­ly the search for a lost con­nec­tion to nature, was most pro­nounced among the neo-pagan ele­ments in the Nazi lead­er­ship, above all Hein­rich Himm­ler, Alfred Rosen­berg, and Walther Darn~. Rosen­berg wrote in his colos­sal The Myth of the 20th Cen­tu­ry: “Today we see the steady stream from the coun­try­side to the city, dead­ly for the Volk. The cities swell ever larg­er, unnerv­ing the Volk and destroy­ing the threads which bind human­i­ty to nature; they attract adven­tur­ers and prof­i­teers of all col­ors, there­by fos­ter­ing racial chaos.“31

Such mus­ings, it must be stressed, were not mere rhetoric; they reflect­ed firm­ly held beliefs and, indeed, prac­tices at the very top of the Nazi hier­ar­chy which are today con­ven­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with eco­log­i­cal atti­tudes. Hitler and Himm­ler were both strict veg­e­tar­i­ans and ani­mal lovers, attract­ed to nature mys­ti­cism and home­o­path­ic cures, and staunch­ly opposed to vivi­sec­tion and cru­el­ty to ani­mals. Himm­ler even estab­lished exper­i­men­tal organ­ic farms to grow herbs for SS med­i­c­i­nal pur­pos­es. And Hitler, at times, could sound like a ver­i­ta­ble Green utopi­an, dis­cussing author­i­ta­tive­ly and in detail var­i­ous renew­able ener­gy sources (includ­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate hydropow­er and pro­duc­ing nat­ur­al gas from sludge) as alter­na­tives to coal, and declar­ing “water, winds and tides” as the ener­gy path of the future. 32

Even in the midst of war, Nazi lead­ers main­tained their com­mit­ment to eco­log­i­cal ideals which were, for them, an essen­tial ele­ment of racial reju­ve­na­tion. In Decem­ber 1942, Himm­ler released a decree “On the Treat­ment of the Land in the East­ern Ter­ri­to­ries,” refer­ring to the new­ly annexed por­tions of Poland. It read in part:

The peas­ant of our racial stock has always care­ful­ly endeav­ored to increase the nat­ur­al pow­ers of the soil, plants, and ani­mals, and to pre­serve the bal­ance of the whole of nature. For him, respect for divine cre­ation is the mea­sure of all cul­ture. If, there­fore, the new Leben­sraüme (liv­ing spaces) are to become a home­land for our set­tlers, the planned arrange­ment of the land­scape to keep it close to nature is a deci­sive pre­req­ui­site. It is one of the bases for for­ti­fy­ing the Ger­man Volk. 33

This pas­sage reca­pit­u­lates almost all of the tropes com­prised by clas­si­cal eco­fas­cist ide­ol­o­gy: Leben­sraum, Heimat, the agrar­i­an mys­tique, the health of the Yolk, close­ness to and respect for nature (explic­it­ly con­struct­ed as the
stan­dard against which soci­ety is to be judged), main­tain­ing nature’s pre­car­i­ous bal­ance, and the earthy pow­ers of the soil and its crea­tures. Such motifs were any­thing but per­son­al idio­syn­cra­cies on the part of Hitler, Himm­ler, or Rosen­berg; even Göring — who was, along with Goebbels, the mem­ber of the Nazi inner cir­cle least hos­pitable to eco­log­i­cal ideas — appeared at times to be a com­mit­ted conservationist.34 These sym­pa­thies were also hard­ly restrict­ed to the upper ech­e­lons of the par­ty. A study of the mem­ber­ship rolls of sev­er­al main­stream Weimar era Naturschutz (nature pro­tec­tion) orga­ni­za­tions revealed that by 1939, ful­ly 60 per­cent of these con­ser­va­tion­ists had joined the NSDAP (com­pared to about 10 per­cent of adult men and 25 per­cent of teach­ers and lawyers).35 Clear­ly the affini­ties between envi­ron­men­tal­ism and Nation­al Social­ism ran deep.

At the lev­el of ide­ol­o­gy, then, eco­log­i­cal themes played a vital role in Ger­man fas­cism. Itwould be a grave mis­take, how­ev­er, to treat these ele­ments as mere pro­pa­gan­da, clev­er­ly deployed to mask Nazis­m’s true char­ac­ter as a tech­no­crat­ic-indus­tri­al­ist jug­ger­naut. The defin­i­tive his­to­ry of Ger­man anti-urban­ism and agrar­i­an roman­ti­cism argues inci­sive­ly against this view:

Noth­ing could be more wrong than to sup­pose that most of the lead­ing Nation­al Social­ist ide­o­logues had cyn­i­cal­ly feigned an agrar­i­an roman­ti­cism and hos­til­i­ty to urban cul­ture, with­out any inner con­vic­tion and for mere­ly elec­toral and pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es, in order to hood­wink the pub­lic [ . . . ]

In real­i­ty, the major­i­ty of the lead­ing Nation­al Social­ist ide­ol­o­gists were with­out any doubt more or less inclined to agrar­i­an roman­ti­cism and anti-urban­ism and con­vinced of the need for a rel­a­tive re-agrarianization.36The ques­tion remains, how­ev­er: To what extent did the Nazis actu­al­ly imple­ment envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies dur­ing the twelve-year Reich? There is strong evi­dence that the ‘eco­log­i­cal’ ten­den­cy in the par­ty, though large­ly ignored today, had con­sid­er­able suc­cess for most of the par­ty’s reign. This “green wing” of the NSDAP was rep­re­sent­ed above all by Walther Darné, Fritz Todt, Alwin Seifert and Rudolf Hess, the four fig­ures who pri­mar­i­ly shaped fas­cist ecol­o­gy in prac­tice.


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