NAZI GREENS – An Inconvenient History

By Martin Durkin – Re-Blogged From

Picture the scene.  At the edge of a forest, German soldiers point their guns at rows of naked people who follow the Jewish religion.  Among them are young mothers clutching their babies.  The shots echo through the woods and the dead bodies fall into the ground.  Down the road, while this is happening, their German army comrades are busy establishing nature walks and bird sanctuaries and planting trees.  The Nazis conducted horrific experiments on children (I have seen footage so upsetting it can’t be shown on TV) but at the same time they banned medical experiments on animals.  The same Nazi monsters who committed crimes of unimaginable barbarity also advocated vegetarianism, organic agriculture, forest preservation and homeopathic healthcare.  How can we possibly explain this?  What was the connection between the inhuman brutality of the Nazis and their gushing idealization of ‘Nature’?

The purpose of exploring Nazi environmentalism is not just to upset the greens.  If environmentalism were a curious but peripheral aspect of National Socialism, it would be of no real historical interest.  Environmentalists could be forgiven for saying, Ah well, it just goes to show, there’s a little bit of good in the worst of us.  But environmentalist ideology was not an accidental, optional-extra to National Socialism.  As we shall see, green ideas were at the core of Nazi thinking.  The German Volk and Nazi movements marched beneath the banners of ‘Nature’ and the ‘organic’.  However, what follows here is not simply a potted history of Nazi environmentalism.  It is, at the same time, a brief history of early environmentalism writ large.  As will become clear, it is not so easy to draw a line between two types of green thinking.

To understand why green ideology emerged at all, and why it happened in Germany, we need to go back in time, a few centuries, to set the scene.  We have described elsewhere on this blog (The Greens: A Warning from History), the transition from feudal society to capitalism.  To the greens this great historical change is more or less the source of all evil.  In Germany, it was a process which began, falteringly, in the 13th Century.

Historically, a rise in commercial activity is reflected in the growth of towns (towns are in essence markets). During this century the number of them in Germany increased by about ten-fold.  But the towns in Germany were less of a liberating force than they had been in England.  German feudal society was especially rigid.  Professor of German history Mary Fulbrook describes how ‘Germany had a much more immobile social hierarchy and was more ‘caste-ridden’ than either England or France.’   The liberty of the towns was more bitterly opposed by the German nobles, the increasing wealth of the new commercial classes more keenly resented and the desperate attempts by the serfs to obtain their freedom more fiercely resisted.

The German nobles despised the fledgling class of ‘burghers’ (or ‘bourgeois’) in the towns, and the burghers hated them right back.  As Fulbrook says, ‘German burghers tended to be anti-noble in outlook, and did not leave the towns to become country gentry as in England.’  Nevertheless, the very existence of market towns in Germany – little bastions of liberty – was enough to instil in the serfs the hope of freedom.

In the 1520s the peasants rose up.  The great serf revolt became known as ‘The Peasants War’ and the ‘Revolution of the Common Man.’  By 1525, 300,000 peasant serfs had armed themselves.  Well organised peasant armies of between 2,000 and 15,000 went into the field, demanding the abolition of feudal dues and an end to the privileges of the nobles – in a word, freedom.

As with the famous Peasants Revolt in England, the serfs enjoyed support from the towns, and like the Peasants Revolt they met with stiff resistance from the feudal ruling class.  But the suppression of the serf uprising by the German nobles was especially ferocious. Around 100,000 peasants were slaughtered and many more were blinded and maimed.

Larger economic forces also conspired against the serfs winning their freedom. The opening up of the Americas drew European trade towards the Atlantic seaboard.  Overland trade routes across Germany became less important, markets shrank and many German towns fell into decline and even disappeared.  As Professor Blanning says in his big history of early modern Europe, a pattern was emerging, ‘It was in the urbanized west that serfdom disappeared earliest, and it was in the rural east, where one could travel for weeks without encountering anything resembling a town, that it not only survived, but periodically enjoyed new leases of life.’

In Germany, the power of the nobles (as against the towns and the serfs), was further enhanced by the devastating Thirty Years War, which proved to be a key event in German history.  The war itself brought trade to a near stand-still, and to make matters worse, to pay for the war, ruinous taxes were imposed on commercial activity.  As the historian Professor Gordon Craig describes, ‘the war greatly strengthened the privileged position of the aristocracy at the expense of the educated and prosperous burgher class and the peasantry.  The decline of towns and the consequent decrease in the demand for food caused so sharp a fall in grain prices that small landowners were often forced to sacrifice their independence in order to maintain themselves … the local nobility was able to take advantage of this situation to impose new obligations in the form of rents and services and restrictions upon movement.’

But of most significance was the political settlement which followed the war.  Professor Fulbrook points out, ‘the settlement which finally emerged in 1648, set patterns with long-lasting consequences for German history.’

In this settlement, the German ruler, Friedrich Wilhelm (Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia) came to a deal with the nobles which amounted to the creation of the first modern State.  Medieval warfare had involved great nobles – barons, earls and dukes – turning up on the battle-field with their own feudal retinues to support the king.  War over, job done.  There was no standing army.  The ‘State’ amounted to a small royal court which followed the king around.  The nobles were powerful, the king was weak.  But now, said Wilhelm, there would be a huge standing army and a greatly enhanced State.  The nobles would lose their independence, but in return, their feudal privileges and an income would be guaranteed by the State.   In fact they would be given enhanced feudal rights in their own localities and the servile status (leibeigen) of peasants would be reaffirmed.

The standing Prussian army would be huge (by the 1700s, it was 81,000 strong).  The joke in England was that Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country. The army, of course, was structured on feudal lines – the bluer the blood, the more senior the rank.

It was as if feudalism had been nationalised.  The nobles rubbed their hands.  Elsewhere in Europe, the aristocracy was in decline, their feudal privileges and economic status eaten away by the creeping success of capitalism.  But in Germany, the State had come to the rescue.  It would be the guarantor of inequality.

In England, the success of the commercial classes was leading to the first Parliamentary democracy.  But in Germany, there was to be a suppression of freedom.  In its place would stand the world’s first modern, bureaucratic State.  As Professor Fulbrook says,  ‘In the course of the 1670s, the self-government of the towns was destroyed and they were subordinated to a body of officials appointed by and responsible to, the Elector.  At the same time, with the foundation of the Elite corps of the army, the elector created a prestigious status group which would attract a previously rather independent set of nobles into central state service.’

To get ahead in State-controlled Germany, now meant becoming a bureaucrat, as Professor Craig observes, ‘in the upper reaches of the civil service, in the fiscal administration, for example, there were opportunities for educated members of the bourgeoisie, who now found such careers more attractive than the commercial life that they might have followed a century earlier … This socio-political hierarchy was in turn served by a host of lesser officials – police, customs officials, tax collectors, teachers, even clergymen …  It is not too much to talk about the progressive


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