Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier
New Compass 2011
First published 1995
The historical connections between fascism and environmental movements remain relatively unknown in the contemporary world where “Green” issues are more generally associated with the Left and liberal values.
In Britain, early environmentalism was strongly influenced by eugenics and concerns about the burgeoning human population. A good overview of this can be read in Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake. This in turn had been influenced by Malthus and his dire warnings of population outstripping the food supply- perhaps the original single issue defining the course of the environmental movement.
First published in 1995, this updated work by Peter Staudenmaier provides a powerful historical analysis of the how environmental thinking was adopted by some quarters in the Nazi party in 1930s and 40s Germany, and how this alliance between romantic environmental thinking and far-right politics may still be significant today.
The book consists of three essays, the first two reproduced unchanged from the original, and a new essay by Peter Staudenmaier reflecting developments since the mid-1990s.
Staudenmaier is an Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a Professor of modern European history at Marquette University, Milwaukee, and has been active in anarchist and green movements in the US. In 2010 he completed his dissertation Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945 at Cornell University.
As a social ecologist he takes a pragmatic and rationalist approach approach to environmental problems, but keeps them rooted firmly in left-wing politics and issues of social justice: for the social ecologist, environmentalism is as much a struggle against structures of oppression of people as of the environment, and this is in stark contrast to the romantic and Malthussian, anti-human wing of environmentalism, which sees the enemy to be not capitalism and the profit motive, which exploits people and nature equally, but the human race itself- or more accurately perhaps, certain racial groups.
In the Introduction, Staudenmaier explains:
In Europe as in the United States, most ecological activists think of themselves as socially progressive…For many such people, it may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and laced in the service of highly regressive ends- even of fascism itself….
important tendencies in German “ecologism”, which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the 20th Century. During the “Third Reich”…Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only of their ideology but in their governmental policies.
Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.
The authors stress they are not deprecating the efforts of serious environmentalists at protecting the planet, but to protect it from reactionary groups which use legitimate environmental concerns to further their own reactionary agendas:
we find that the “ecological scene” of our time -with its growing mysticism and anti-humanism- poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go…these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusianbiologism. Tenets of “New Age” eco-ideology that seems benign to most people in England and the United States – specifically, its mystical and anti-rational strains- are being intertwined with ecofascism in Germany today.
One of the key ways in which this intertwining of green ideas and fascism can be seen is through the Nazi doctrine of Blut und Boden. The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food and therefore of the Blood- and therefore, of the Race.
This might explain the adoption by some high-ranking Nazis in the 1930s of Rudolph Steiner’s strange mystical method of farming, Biodynamics, a mixture of astrology and magical compost preparations.
The chief patron of Biodynamic Agriculture was Rudolph Hess, who served as Hitler’s personal deputy for two decades.
An inveterate nature lover as well as a devout Steinerite, Hess insisted on a strictly biodynamic diet- not even Hitler’s rigorous vegetarian standards were good enough for him- and accepted only homeopathic medicines.
It was under Hess’s patronage that the “green wing” of the Nazi party was able to achieve its major successes.
Under the Nazis as early as 1933, a wide range of environmental legislation was implemented including re-afforestation and habitat preservation, with the first nature reserves in Europe being created under the Nazi State.
Staudenmaier is at pains to stress that this historical link between fascism and green initiatives does not mean that “even the most reprehensible political undertakings sometimes produce laudable results…the real lesson here is just the opposite: Even the most laudable of causes can be perverted and instrumentalized in the service of criminal savagery.”
This included an influence and partial justification for the Holocaust:
Here, too, ecological arguments played a crucially malevolent role. Not only did the “green wing” refurbish the sanguine antisemitism of traditional reactionary ecology; it catalyzed a whole new outburst of lurid racist fantasies of organic inviolability and political revenge. The confluence of anti-humanist dogma with a fetishization of natural ‘purity’ provided not merely a rationale but an incentive for the Third Reich’s most heinous crimes…the displacement of any social analysis of environmental destruction in favor of mystical ecology served as an integral component in the preparation of the final solution…
Staudennmaier goes onto stress that the rallying cry that Green politics is “neither Left nor Right” but purely ecologically motivated is vacuous, and can lead precisely to the extreme case of genocide under the guise of environmental protection. Environmental policies must always be mediated through a social context, and while a wide spectrum of ideologies have adopted a green agenda at different times, the most consistent ‘pro-natural’ response has come from the Right.
In the second essay in the collection, Janet Biehl considers how various contemporary far-right groups in Germany draw on this historical legacy and continue to use an appeal to ecological purity to further racist and nationalistic agendas.
Biehl cites a group known as the National Revolutionaries whose main ideologue, Henning Eichberg, “calls for the assertion of ‘national identity’ and a ‘liberation nationalism’.
Sounding like many New Agers in the United States, Eichberg calls for a return to pristine nature, to the alleged primordial sources of people’s lives, psyches, and authentic cultures, and for people to heal themselves within as part of healing the ecological crisis, overcoming their own alienation, and rediscovering themselves.
Another group she mentions is the World League for the Protection of Life which basis its ideology on Anthroposophy and the teachings of Rudolph Steiner.
Of particular relevance here is Steiner’s belief in “Root Races” and racial karma:
Peoples and races are after all, merely different developmental stages in our evolution toward a pure humanity. The more perfectly that individual members of that race or people express the pure, ideal human type – the more they have worked their way through from the physical and mortal to the super sensible and immortal realm – the “higher” this race or nation is.
‘How to Know Higher Worlds’, by Rudolf Steiner, (an edition last published 2008, Anthroposophic Press)
Biehl notes that “Many people have been and continue to be attracted to these efforts and to Anthroposophy without any notion of the less savory aspects of Steiner’s work.”
Biehl argues that Anthroposophy with its concept of “root races” are still popular with eco-fascists today, citing for example Gunther Bartsch, an Anthroposophist who is also a National Revolutionary; she also says “it should be noted that Anthroposophy is also well-funded by huge multinational corporations like Siemens and Bertelsmann” although it is not clear what she is implying here- that Siemens and Bertelsmann are fascist supporters? that all multinationals have fascist sympathies?
A key figure discussed by Biehl is Rudolph Bahro (1935-1997), the East German dissident who became involved with the nascent German Green Party on his arrival in the west in 1979, affirming that “red and green go well together.”
Bahro seems to personify these links between German nationalism and romantic “spiritual” ecology, even calling for a “Green Adolf”. Biehl ruefully notes that “it is presumably cheering that”, in Bahro’s words, “in spite of all bad experiences…the strongest political-psychological dispositions of our people” make “the Germans more responsive than other people’s to charismatic leadership.” Bahro claimed that “the Nazi movement [was] among other things an early reading of the ecology movement” and expressly believed that “the ecological crisis is resolvable only through authoritarian means.”
This view can still be found within the environmental movement today. Shearman and Smith for example argue in the recent book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy that democracy cannot provide an appropriate response to climate change, and what is needed instead is a technocracy- rule by scientific experts.
Critics of environmentalism argue that, to the extent that it prioritizes the perceived needs of the Natural world over and above those of humans, it must inherently be against democracy. James Delingpole argues in his recent book Watermelons that the climate change movement represents corrupt science in the service of anti-democratic impulses who wish to control our lives by regulating energy consumption through the auspices of technocratic supra-national organisations such as the IPCC, validated by presumed inviolable science.
Others have pointed to the close affinity of environmental dogma with Judeo-Christian religion, and its consequent moralistic- and therefore anti-democratic- tendencies: Nature, the Pure Garden of Eden, sullied by Man’s Original Sin of Technology and Science.
One might also point to many of those green gurus listed under the Green Agenda, including high-ranking UN officials Maurice Strong and Robert Fuller, who have spoken in quasi-mystical or religious terms about how they see their mission and motivation in service of Mother Earth.
Staudenmaier and Biehl have made an impeccably argued case that in Germany at least, the fascist origins of the green movement still influence some tendencies in environmental thinking today, and support their case with strong historical evidence.
But where then is the green movement free of such tendencies and associations? Biehl and Staudenmaier point to one of their own influences, Murray Bookchin, rooted in a socially aware green movement that resists the mystical New Age content that seems endemic in much green thought. One might ask though which comes first, the “social” or the “ecological”, for it seems that these two concerns do not sit quite so well together as the social ecologists may imagine, or at least not in the way they presume.
For example, reading Staudenmaier’s account of how two influential “Green Nazis” Todt and Seifert in the 1930s “vigorously pushed for an all-encompassing Reich law for the protection of Mother Earth” I could not help drawing parallels with recent attempts by barrister Polly Higgins’ attempt to introduce a new law of “Ecocide”.
Environmentalist critic Ben Pile here argues that such laws are inherently “anti-human” since many things that we do to improve the quality of our lives will have a negative impact on the environment;
Seifert apparently reported that “all of the ministries were prepared to co-operate save one; only the minister of the economy opposed the bill because of its impact on mining” which pretty much sums up the conflict: if we restrict extraction industries, we may restrict human development and well-being. I feel the authors fail to grapple with this issue, perhaps because of their left-wing bias: they place blame for environmental damage firmly on the shoulders of the Right and Capitalism, rather than seeing it as largely a consequence of human development through technology.
Where do social ecologists stand on these difficult issues of mining or preservation, one wonders? Surely a mine will be similar in its impact on the environment, whether it is run by greedy capitalists or a workers’ collective.
Neither do they address the argument that environmentalism is a product of development, a product of capitalism therefore, rather than a radical response to it: poor people are not generally environmentalists, while as people grow wealthier and have more of their basic needs met, environmental protection becomes much more of a priority.
In the third essay, the new addition for this edition, Staudenmaier assesses the historical legacy of Nazi ecology, and provides a closer look at the role of Anthroposophy, showing that “the biodynamic movement had been eager to prove its National Socialist credentials for years and had in fact cultivated contacts with Nazi circles well before Hitler’s rise to power.” The biodynamic organisation Demeter “celebrated Nazi Germany’s military conquests and called for using prisoners of war in environmental projects.”
He quotes Robert Pois who writes “the national Socialist religion of nature not only implicitly provided for extermination policies as a ‘final solution’, but in fact made them logically and, above all, ethically necessary.”
Staudenmaier comments “The fact that war criminals like Ohlendorf and Pohl (both of whom were executed after the war for crimes against humanity) actively intervened on behalf of biodynamic agriculture lends further weight to this line of inquiry.”
Again, I could not read this without thinking of the notorious 10:10 climate change video nasty ‘No Pressure”, leaving me wondering if the relic of Nazism is more relevant even than Staudenmaier suggests.
Staudenmaier concludes however that “if greens today are guilty of anything, it is historical ignorance, not Nazi sympathies.”
This is why this compelling historical analysis is so important. Ignorance of history will surely lead to its repetition. Many people today are attracted to green ideas as an antidote to what is perceived as an overly rational, materialistic and perhaps soul-less modern world. New Age spirituality and anti-science, anti-modernist and anti-technology ideas abound within many dominant strands of the Green movement, whether at the influential Steiner-oriented Schumacher College in England, or the association of the British Green Party with homeopathy.
Steiner’s biodynamic farming methods strongly influence organic farming institutions around the world still today; the UK’s Soil Association sill promotes biodynamics, and one of its founders, Jorian Jenks, was a former member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and closely associated with Oswald Mosley.
Grassroots environmental movements such as Transition Towns and Permaculture, while pertaining to be progressive, are infused with Biodynamics and other aspects of New Age mysticism, either because they have no effective way of resisting infiltration, or because they do in fact depend upon support from proponents of such beliefs.
Either way, this strong anti-science, anti-modernist stance, yearning for an imagined “simpler” and “more natural” life from the unspoilt, pre-industrial past seems almost inseparable from Greens, who are increasingly under attack for anti-science views on key policy issues such as nuclear and GM crops. Take away these irrational elements and I begin to wonder whether there is really anything distinctively “green” remaining at all.
We are left, I feel, with a contradiction the authors neither address nor resolve: if environmentalism is to mean anything, it must be socially progressive in a way that actually prioritizes human rights and Enlightenment values over the natural world, which we will continue to change and fashion according to our own needs. Unless this is explicitly stated, it may be that any environmentalism will always tend to revert to the extreme regressive and reactionary forms of which Staudenmaier and Biehl warn so cogently in this book.