Animal Welfare in Nazi Germany During the Holocaust

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Despite the Nazi’s developing a cruel reputation regarding how they treated Jews during the holocaust, it is mostly unknown that they were extremely passionate about animal rights. Although it is ironic that they treated humans in a way that is comparable to how animals are treated in the present day in testing and domestically, they tried to enforce several policies in Germany concerning animal welfare and many members of the party practiced Vegetarianism. This review will explore how historians have analysed this relationship and their personal views on the matter.

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Ulrike Thoms discusses the ‘life-reform’ ideology of the National Socialist party and the policies it was associated with. She explores the idea that Hitler’s diet and beliefs about animal treatment were one of his weapons when he rose to power, explaining that ‘Hitler’s Vegetarianism was well known’ and he was ‘adopted by the movement’ . The life-reform movement gained popularity with slogans promising that they would ‘place humanity above machines and money’. She explains that although the Nazis had power, they had to withdraw promotion of vegetarianism away from their campaign as they realised it would take a lot of propaganda to convince the German people to follow a meat-less diet which would be expensive. It also contradicted some of their actions such as feeding meat to prisoners in their camps.

Thoms acknowledges that she is not the first to have studied this topic, saying that the studies were sparked by the ‘emerging ecology movement and the renewed interest in oppositional movements and protest’ in the 1970s, which ‘peaked in the 1990s.’ This admission shows that Thoms was not trying to produce new work but was instead contributing her own ideas about why Vegetarianism in Nazi Germany was not one of the most known aspects of their policies and explains this successfully through her examples of why its place in the ‘life-reform’ ideology could never be permanent.

Thoms’ work is beneficial in informing us about how Hitler’s lifestyle choices had influenced Nazi ideology due to his strong influence as it explains how the ‘meat-less’ diet was attempted to be fitted into the ‘life-reform’ analogy in practice. However, it fails to inform us about Hitler’s personal reasons for his vegetarianism or other Nazi leaders who also followed the same diet apart from him describing ‘meat eaters as ‘corpse eaters’’ . Knowing his reasons could have been advantageous in helping to explain why it was suitable for the Nazi ideology and may have been able to explain why it fitted so well with life-reform ideas.

An article written by Martin G. Hulsey specifies the Nazi party’s work towards animal rights. He discusses Hitler’s vegetarianism, acknowledging the doubt from historians that he was a ‘true vegetarian’ as it has been suspected that he broke his diet occasionally however the aim of Hulsey’s article is not to prove that Hitler was a vegetarian but to point out the hypocrisy of the party of being concerned about animal welfare but continuing to torture their human victims throughout the holocaust. He states that ‘Irrespective of whether Hitler, Goebbels or other leading Nazis were, in fact, devout vegetarians, their self-serving rhetoric, claiming the moral high ground… many contemporary vegetarians regard themselves as ethically superior to omnivores.’ This quote suggests that the main reason for Nazi leaders opting for a vegetarian lifestyle was most likely due to them believing that they were somehow ‘superior’ to Jews and other minorities who became their victims as they were not eating meat like they traditionally would. He notes that ‘many individuals in Nazi Germany genuinely believed in the "rights" of non-human animals, yet they simultaneously were capable of cruel behaviour against members of the Jewish faith. Not only that, but they went as far as using animal protection as a justification for their inhumanity to the Jewish people, as explained by Arluke and Sax.’ This explains why the Nazi’s cared so much about animal rights as even though they were ruthlessly slaughtering millions of people, they were able to justify it and make themselves feel less guilty by focussing their attention on animal liberation. He also draws comparison between the Nazis and animal activists in the present day, stating that Nazi’s outlawing Vivisection but still conducting ‘hideous medical experiments’ on the Jews is just like when ‘PETA was expending large sums of money to obtain custody of the Silver Spring Monkeys, they killed 32 "liberated" rabbits and roosters at their Aspin Hill animal "sanctuary" for reasons of "overcrowding."’

Hulsey is a socialist and animal rights writer which makes the article more reliable as it could be expected that he would want to give a clear insight into whether the Nazi’s did have a significant impact on animal rights and is more likely to be knowledgeable about the topic. However, it could also be argued that his work is less valuable than that of a historian for example if he has less knowledge about the period of Nazi Germany. Hulsey states that his aim of the article is not to ‘to equate contemporary animal "rights" activists with Nazis. Although there are clear parallels, there are distinctions as well.’ It becomes apparent at the end of the article that his aim is to prove that despite the Nazis having the ‘philosophy’ and appearing to actively support animal protectionism, it does not mean that it was successful or a reason to justify their horrendous actions towards the victims of the holocaust.

Martin’s work is successful in explaining Nazi beliefs about animal rights and where their ideals had originated from, as he explains the idea of ‘ethical superiority.’ He also discusses in depth about policies that were created by the National Socialists, such as the ban on Vivisection which provide us with a better understanding of their role in animal rights activism. It is also useful that he draws comparison between how they treated animals compared with their genocide of millions of Jews as it highlights the hypocrisy of their supposed morals and proves that their main reason for publicising their Vegetarianism was to allow themselves to remove their burden of feeling guilty about their other actions.

Ironically, it has been suggested by more historians that though the Nazi’s a significant amount about animal welfare, they treated humans as though they were less than animals and in a similar way to how animals are treated in laboratories today. David Sztybel composed a thirty-nine-point comparison which considers numerous factors that prove there are direct comparisons that can be made, although he does argue against the four objections that he considers to his argument, to give a balanced view.

He separates his argument into three sections; comparative literature, the holocaust compared to our treatment of animals and objections to the comparison. In the literature section, he makes note of several authors who have used the same argument in their own works. He references Deborah Blum, who spoke about the use of monkeys and other animals in research and discussed a comment made by Roger Fouts who ‘notes the practice of not identifying by name the millions of animals used in experimental research every year. Rather, numbers are displayed on tags around the neck, or are tattooed onto the skin. States Fouts: “Without names, they become faceless, lose their identity. It’s extreme exploitation, the same as in the labs of Nazi Germany”’ He recognises that despite the animals keeping some form of identity unlike the Jews, animal liberationists would say it is certain that the researchers don’t identify with the experimental subjects and are emotionally detached. Therefore, he argues that the Nazis objectified their victims in the way that animals are too in experiments. Another point that he makes in this section is the similarities between factory farms and concentration camps. He cites Jim Mason who commented on the likeness of intensive farming to the conditions of the holocaust, who calls ‘“factory farms” literal concentration camps, which are comparable to Nazi concentration camps’. He then goes on to make a thirty nine point comparison, which includes some of the following comparable factors of how animals are treated today and how prisoners were treated in the concentration camps; experimentation, genetic engineering, displacement from homes, concentration and degradation (the crowded conditions in concentration camps can be compared to how animals are treated in factory farms, and “puppy mills”) genocide and disowning of responsibility.

He does note four objections to the comparison too; Objection A. Making the comparison in question is a moral offence against Holocaust victims, Objection B. The comparison trivializes the Holocaust, and all of the immeasurable suffering that its victims lived through and died from.”, Objection C. Any pointing out of alleged similarities overlooks many differences between the Nazi Holocaust and the way animals are treated and Objection D. Far from the use of animals being comparable to the Nazi Holocaust, it is rather the case that animal activists themselves can be compared to Nazis in their tactics. He successfully argues against all these points, providing evidence from his prior argument to support however his willingness to recognise potential objection makes his work more reliable and useful in understanding the comparison and the irony of the Nazi’s beliefs on animal liberation. For example, Sztybel says ‘I would never lightly compare the Holocaust to anything else, and will always be respectful that there is, and never could be, anything else quite like it. Even if anything can be compared to the Holocaust in some respects, nothing can be equated with this historical phenomenon.’ This justifies his argument as he is explaining that he is not saying the two factors are of the same weight but is simply pointing to the similarities, making his work useful as it is presenting an idea rather than trying to convince.

An article about the history of Vegetarianism by Steven Shapin considers the issues of Nazi party members following a meat-less diet. He outlines Hitler’s main reasons for choosing this lifestyle, which were mostly health-associated, as he claimed that it ‘alleviated his chronic flatulence, constipation, sweating, nervous tension, trembling of muscles, and the stomach cramps that convinced him he was dying of cancer.”’ This explains further why he was so adamant to continue to abstain from eating animal-based products, which is not discussed as in depth by other historians’ works as it is by Shapin. He also explains why vegetarianism became so closely linked with the Nazi party as a whole, stating that ‘Himmler praised the constitutional virtues of vegetable consumption; he wanted the Waffen S.S. to go vegetarian and thought that once the Germans had dietetically cleansed themselves they would undoubtedly rule the world.’ This links to the ideas discussed by Hulsey that the diet was linked to beliefs of ‘ethical superiority’ and that if they refrained from eating meat which is common in cultures like Judaism, then they would be able to differentiate themselves and somehow feel as though they were superior. He also notes that Göring had threatened “those who still think they can treat animals as inanimate property” with the concentration camp, which again highlights the irony of their ‘morals’ as they prioritised animal life much more than those of the Jews and other minorities that they slaughtered.

To conclude, it is evident that numerous historians and academics have recognised the irony of the Nazi party’s concern for animal welfare despite their genocide of millions of innocent people. However, the works I have reviewed suggest reasons for why members of the National Socialist group were so passionate about animal liberation and Vegetarianism, and although Hitler’s reasons could arguably be related to his health concerns alone, the suggestion that it was used as a distraction and justification for their crimes of torture and genocide could be a likely answer.

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