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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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April 3, 2008 8:46 AM

Distorting Nazi history to attack environmentalists

Posted by David Postman

Before you read this post please read the article on page 8 of the March issue of Building Insight, the newsletter of the Building Industry Association of Washington. It is titled:

Hitler's Nazi party: They were eco extremists

The article is written by Mark Musser, the storm-water field representative for the BIAW. He claims that Nazis “expressed many of the ecological refrains we hear today” and that “Nazis were the vanguard of conservationism.”

Musser wrote the piece to follow-up something he had written the month before that had drawn a less clear - and really less serious - parallel between Adolph Hitler and today’s environmental movement and the state Department of Ecology, or DOE.

Knowing my parallel would illicit screams of protest — how politically incorrect of me to mention Hitler and Nazis in the same breath as DOE or the environmental lobby —I explored the actual connection between environmental extremism and Hitler’s Nazi party.

Musser writes that “maintaining harmony with the natural landscape” was a tenet of Nazism, and says, for example, “the autobahn freeway in Germany was designed by Nazis with the utmost ecological care in mind and presented as a way to bring Germans closer to nature.”

Nazis were the vanguard of conservationism - they sought to remedy the increasing alienation of people from the natural world, deforestation, urban sprawl, the destruction of ecosystem balance, the extinction of species and the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.

… Of course, this Nazi environmental zealotry was insanely tied to German nationalism (racism) which relied heavily on the ideals of social Darwinism, a doctrine which some environmentalists have kept alive in spite of its evil reputation.

Musser claims a clear connection between Hitler’s Nazis and today’s environmentalists. Not all of them, but “some environmentalists.” And you can see in that last line above that he goes so far as to claim some of today’s environmentalists profess even the most evil doctrine of the Third Reich.

This is a misreading of history. And even a little research would have made that clear. The sources the BIAW cites for the work refute Musser’s theory - either in the past when others have attempted to misuse their scholarship or in response to my questions this week.

The article struck a nerve with me. If you read my blog regularly you know I dislike rhetorical excess, whether from the right or the left. It rarely serves the interest that the author claims. And I believe that historic analogies should not be made haphazardly, especially when dealing with events such as genocide or slavery. To say something - particularly something in the political world or, say, storm-water regulations - is akin to either one of those is a losing argument from the start.

I called Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the BIAW to talk about it. I asked if he had gotten complaints about the piece. He hadn’t.

It seemed like it was a history lesson more than anything else.

He said the piece showed Nazis “were environmentalists and maybe extremists in that sense.”

McCabe put me on a speaker phone so Erin Shannon could join the conversation. She’s the editor of the BIAW newsletter. She strongly defended the article and shot down any suggestion it was anything other than perfectly appropriate for a business newsletter.

It is an historical comparison and just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not true. …

We never try to diminish anything Hitler did. What we’re doing is discussing the fact that the Nazi party believed many of the same things that today’s eco-extremists believe.

She also told me:

Just because it’s politically sensitive or politically incorrect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about it.

Shannon and I argued about this quite a bit. I told her I thought the analogy was overwrought and a selective reading of Nazism. It read to me as an obvious attempt to paint state regulators and environmentalists as the ideological descendents of the Nazis.

I later met with Shannon and Musser. Musser said he began researching Nazi environmentalism after hearing an interview with Jonah Goldberg who recently published, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

He said as he read about the Nazi's green tendencies, "It all made sense to me." Musser clearly has read a lot about the era and can talk about the role of mysticism in the Third Reich and how the nationalist tendency of the European conservation movement predated Hitler's Germany.

He believes conservationism was a big part of the Nazi ideology and for Hitler's plans for the world.

If they had won the war we would have enviromental programs everywhere.

They had plans, big plans.

Musser sees strong connections between pre-war Nazis and today's regulators and environmentalists.

The point is, they say, 'We’re not racists but we do micro-magage the heck out of people.' And social engineering is micromanging and that was a big part of Nazism.

It’s not racism and its not the killing, but it is social engineering.

Musser graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1989. He says he was bothered by books he had to read that, he says, "blamed Christians and the rich for the destruction of our society."

"There’s a parallel there, too," he said, to the Nazi's scapegoating of the Jews.

When I initially asked Shannon for the sources that would back up the claims in the article, she mentioned two authors, Ohio State University Professor Raymond Dominick and Peter Staudenmaier, who she said was “an avowed anarchist.” She also told me:

If you go to wikipedia they devote an entire paragraph to how environmentally radical the Nazi party was.

A quick Google search shows that Dominick and Staudenmaier have refuted these sorts of claims before, saying their work was misused by conservatives trying to smear environmentalists.

In 2003, an Australian senator cited both men’s work when he talked in Parliament about “the extremely alarming, frightening similarities between the methods employed by contemporary Green politics and the methods and the values of the Nazis.”

Dominick told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that his work was not just misconstrued, but “in fact I think it was twisted almost into its opposite.”

There are numerous other ideas that can propel one to protect the environment, and among those ideas in Germany in the 19th century, and elsewhere too, one particularly problematic idea arose that eventually was taken over by the Nazis. I want to stress that this is only one idea among many. That idea preached that the natural environment shaped the races on the planet. …

But it is not the kind of conservation that the Greens preach. For the Greens, this kind of racist conservation is not part of their world view at all. I see the Greens as descendents of those parts of the conservation movement that were not tainted by Nazism, which is exactly the opposite of the argument that Senator Brandis was making. …

So to say that the Greens and the Nazis are closely related is to defy the evidence, I would say.

On the broadcast, Dominick read from one of his books an excerpt from a section titled, “Connections Between Nazis and Conservationists.”

‘The allegation has arisen from diverse quarters that environmental protection at least in some of its manifestations, is intrinsically Nazi.’ And I go on a little further down to say ‘These allegations reflect a superficial understanding of the history and world view of environmentalists and today’s Greens.’ I thought I’d made the point of a lack of connection fairly clear with that comment.

Staudenmaier wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that his work has been routinely misappropriated, “and thus failed to do justice both to the very grave history that the book recounts, as well as to the current relevance of these issues in today's world.”

I have heard from a number of conservative political figures in the United States, where I live, who are eager to use my historical work as a weapon in the struggle against what they see as the Green menace. These people refer to my research on ecofascism as a cheap tactic to impugn virtually all varieties of political environmentalism. In my opinion, this is not a serious way to approach important historical questions.

After I pointed out to McCabe that the sources cited by Shannon had disavowed the sort of connections made in Musser’s piece, Shannon e-mailed me citing the Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, Volume 2, and the work of professors Shepard Krech III and J.R. McNeill.

Krech and McNeill are two of three editors of the encyclopedia. The article cited by Shannon was written by Staudenmaier. Staudenmaier, the anarchist, has written a lot about the rise of facisim and has gone a bit further in writing about Nazi conservationism than most U.S. and German academics in the field. Even given that, though, he has also made it clear, as he did in the Australia case, that his work is misrepresented when someone tries to draw a connection to modern day environmentalists.

Shannon sent this excerpt to back up Musser's claims:

Staudenmaier notes that Nazi leaders' "search for a lost connection to nature...reflected firmly held beliefs and, indeed, practices at the very top of the Nazi heirarchy which are today conventionally associated with ecological attitudes." Staudenmaier concludes the ecological fanaticism of the Nazi leaders allowed them to promote a National Socialism that could then be seen to "strive for the elimination of other races in order to allow the German people's innate understanding and feeling of nature to assert itself, hence securing a harmonic life close to nature..." Thus, Staudenmaier concludes, was the "true legacy of ecofascism in power: 'genocide developed into a necessity under the cloak of environmental protection'." Staudenmaier warns of the danger of ignoring this "legacy of classical ecofascism and its conceptual continuities with present-day environmental discourse."

McNeill, a professor at Georgetown University, is an expert in the field of the history of environmentalism. I sent McNeill a copy of Musser’s article. He told me:

I do not recognize any of my own work reflected in the piece you sent me.

And he refutes the premise of Musser’s article and Shannon’s claims that conservationism played any sort of important role in the Nazi party.

There is a core of truth to the proposition that some (by no means all or even most) Nazis cherished a romanticized ideal of German nature, free from the ravages of industrialization. But this was a low priority among the leadership, and never carried out. The laws of 1935 on nature conservation were not enforced or followed, as the regime preferred heavy industry, development and rearmament. It would be more accurate to say a small minority within the Nazi party took nature conservation seriously, but they were unable to prevail over the mainstream, which for reasons of national power and full employment favored coal, steel, armaments, etc.

Did Nazis express “many of the ecological refrains we hear today”?

The language was different, motives different, goals different. Nazis did express, in their own way (i.e. with emphasis on virtues of rural village life, sanctity of German soil and blood) some nature conservation refrains. But they were not interested in ecology (i.e. preservation of whole ecosystems, wildlife) or in scientific appreciations of conservation. For them it was a nostalgic, romantic, and nationalistic matter.

McNeill suggested I also talk with University of Maryland professor Thomas Zeller. He is a co-editor of the book, How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich.

Zeller also read Musser’s piece. And he said it was only one of many efforts that misuse the history of the Nazis.

This polemic has been used a lot and I'm sure this is going to continue to crop up, unfortunately. It's convenient, but doesn't advance our understanding of Nazism or of environmental history. Either you say the Greens are latter-day Nazis, or people from the extreme right wing say these people, the Nazis, weren't all that bad. Either view distorts the historical record for a current-day political purpose.

It was those efforts that prompted him and his co-editors to publish their book.

We wanted to move beyond the polemic and we wanted to see, does this rhetoric on the part of some Nazi leaders translate into sustained, systematic action and the answer is no.

…I would not claim that Nazis were in the vanguard in the field of conservation.

Some of the revisionist history that tries to make Nazis out to be conservationists comes from the fact that the party did pass a conservation law in 1935. But it was ignored as Hitler began preparing for war. Construction of coal plants, steel foundries, railroads and armament factories quickly trumped any idea of conservation.

But another clear flaw in Musser’s argument is that the conservation leanings of some Nazis were not a creation of the Third Reich, but merely a holdover from an idea that existed before the Nazi area.

University of South Carolina Professor Thomas Lekan wrote Imagining the Nation in Nature: Landscape Preservation and German Identity, 1885-1945 and recently co-edited with Zeller Germany’s Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. He says that even though there were some conservationists among the Nazis, “they soon found that racial expansionism (Blood) trumped the environment (Soil) in the blood and soil rhetoric of the early 1930s.”

The Nazis were not about restricting land use for the common good or ecological integrity - in fact they welcome industrial development if it served their military and racist purposes. To suggest a connection between environmental regulation today and the "fascism" of the interwar era is a distortion of the context in which "Blood and Soil" functioned in the context of interwar Germany.

Musser said other authors back his claims, mentioning Anna Bramwell. She is the British author of 1985’s Blood and Soil: Walther Darre and Hitler’s 'Green Party',

A much fuller picture of the Nazi green movement has emerged since then and Bramwell’s work has come under some criticism. Lekan said Bramwell looked at marginal movements of the pre-war era, and connected them to Darre, Hitler’s agricultural minister. Bramwell, he said, “assumed that a kind of Nordic ‘agrarian romanticism’ was at the heart of Hitler's ideology.

These folks were quickly marginalized in the regime due to the priorities the Nazis put on rearmament and land reclamation to prepare for war.

Musser told me he chooses to believe Bramwell, not those that have written since 1985 or are the leading experts in the field.

I could see a lot of reasons why people would want to deny this, or minimize this, because it’s too shocking, too hard to believe. ‘How could the Nazis be environmentalists?’

Musser thinks the research I did this week is part of that same effort. He told me:

I think you’re minimizing it, which I shouldn’t be surprised by.

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