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Ecology in the 20th Century – A History

Ecology in the 20th Century – A History

Ecology in the 20th Century – A History

By Anna Bramwell

Review by Daniel Hindes

By its title, this book, published 1989, purports to be a history of Ecology in the 20th Century. It is actually a rather critical look at the various ideas behind a relationship to nature that our author has collectively termed “ecologist”, and their political implications. As stated in the Preface “I argue that today’s Greens, in Britain, Europe and North America, have emerged from a politically radicalised ecologism, based on the shift from mechanistic to vitalist thought in the late nineteenth century.” (p. xi) It is really a book about the ideas that motivate certain political parties. “Ecology is now a political category, like socialism or conservativism” (p.39) she states at the start of chapter three.

The thesis as explained in the Introduction (p.3) is that “ecologism” – a term our Bramwell employs to describe an awareness of the human impact on the ecology of the planet and the concomitant plans to ameliorate this impact – is independent of actual damage to the environment. Further, she maintains that it borrowed different political labels from time to time, and was unique to the educated Western classes. Finally, it required a “shift in mentality” with regard to the biological and physical sciences in order to come into being. Ecologism, we are told, consists of two distinct strands, one derived from Haeckel’s anti-mechanistic approach to biology (which seems not to understand Haeckel very well), the other from energy economics (the economics of the problem of non-renewable resources).

Already we have our first problem of logic on page 4: We are told that the two strands arose in the late 19th Century, then two sentences later we hear that the second strand was a product of the energy crisis of the 1970’s. This lack of clarity on a basic level is present throughout the text. The thesis is introduced as  “fall[ing] into three parts” actually maps out to five points in the same paragraph (p.3). On page 5 we are told, “German ecologism well predated National Socialism. It formed part of a generic cultural phenomenon that was in part diverted into the Third Reich as an underlying theme. It re-emerged, well after the Second World War, in more obviously left-oriented groups.” On page 196 she argues the opposite: that the ecological ideas legislated by the Third Reich were integral to it and further would not have found expression under any other government.

The book as a whole shows a quite comprehensive background in the sources that frame the argument. But the style is an odd mixture of the colorful prose of an editorial writer and the studied obfuscation of an academic.  For example:

“The ecology movement represents a new political consciousness and direction. It as been struggling to see the light of day since the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Like all half-smothered things, it wailed sometimes for mother, sometimes for food, sometimes for companionship. Or, to put it less picturesquely, ecological ideas borrowed different political labels from time to time.” (p. 3)


“The political picture was complicated by the remnants of the nineteenth-century, intellectual middle-class love affair with Germany. For many of these inter-war ecologists contact and cross-fertilization with German alternative ideas continued in the 1920’s, and for some into the 1930’s.” (p.161)[1]

Her style has a tendency to hide the central argument while appearing simultaneously bold and erudite. And she remains little able to mask her suspicion and even contempt for thinkers whose ideals encompass the biology of the planet as well as its sociology. What her own political leanings are she does not say. Reading between the lines, it appears that she is a typical right-of-center laizze-faire American conservative with libertarian leanings. That one can deduce this so readily from a book on history is evidence of the extent to which her bias colors her exposition.

Chapter (Ten The Steiner Connection) is most relevant to this site. Why Steiner merits an entire chapter, even if it is only 13 pages, is not clear. The chapter is divided into two sections: Methodology and ‘The Era of the Peasant.’ The first section attempts to explain the basis for understanding the question: “How relevant were ecological ideas to the Third Reich?” First it is acknowledged that “it is difficult to judge precisely how Nazism was perceived at different times by its various supporters.” (p.195) Having paid homage to the complexity of the whole issue, Bramwell boldly declares that it is possible to deduce an ideology, determine it’s intellectual forefathers and identify traditions.

“Historians of ideas would be silenced indeed if, for every allegation that the Third Reich was for example influenced by, or a product of, the French Enlightenment, or perversions therefrom, evidence had to be produced to show that Rosenberg or Hess had studied Diderot, Voltaire or Condorcet. Ideas are held to permeate or saturate other ideas. They are, in the telling phrase, ‘in the air.’” (p.195)

By this logic, any historian of ideas can rightly determine any idea in either a pure or perverted form was an influence on the Third Reich. Such a historian of ideas is perfectly within his or her right to do so. What is harder is to claim that said idea necessitated, or even was a causative factor in the Third Reich. Bramwell does not quite go this far, but many left-leaning crusaders against eco-fascism do.

Evidence of ecological ideas among Nazi’s, we are told, is not to be found among the well-known or authorized texts of fascism; it is found only in the ministerial planning and personal archives of the Third Reich, specifically in the Ministry of Agriculture (p.195).

Bramwell identifies the problems in answering the question “How relevant were ecological ideas to the Third Reich?” as:

  1. Determining whether a concept or policy existed contemporaneously outside Germany.
  2. Determining whether a concept might be specifically German but not necessarily specifically Nazi.
  3. Determining how peripheral these ideas are to National Socialism.

The criteria for the third point is defined as: “If [ecological ideas] were part of a separate current of ideas, then their practitioners would have held ecological beliefs whether or not the Third Reich had come to power” (p. 196) – called the argument for continuity.

Thus Bramwell has stated the problem of methodology. In light of this how does she proceed?

“The argument for continuity has to answer the problem that there was top-level Nazi support for ecological ideas – especially if one incorporates the attitude of Hitler and Himmler on vegetarianism and animal rights, issues which are not covered in this book.” (p. 196)

Despite having given a reasonable criterion for determining whether ideas were peripheral or central to National Socialism (one that is fully in line with the latest scholarship on the subject), namely whether their practitioners would have held ecological beliefs whether or not the Third Reich had come to power, Bramwell determines that these ideas were central to National Socialism because they had the top-level support of Hitler, Himmler and Hess. This has two problems. First, she mixes up personal preference with public policy, and second she has sidestepped the issue of continuity, whether Hitler, Himmler and Hess would have been vegetarians regardless of their rise to power. That these three and many others might very likely have held their ecological beliefs whether or not they came to power in the Third Reich, thereby fulfilling the criterion for continuity of ideas and a peripheral role in National Socialism, is a problem she has not even addressed. She has set up a rather sensible criterion, and then skipped over the fact that her conclusion contradicts the results of her test.

The next paragraph states that it would be politically damaging for the German Green Party (of 1989) were it to be widely viewed as embodying a central element of National Socialism. This is doubtless true, it has not been demonstrated that ecologism was a central element of National Socialism. It has only been alleged, based on the fact that certain aspects of it “had top level support.” The course of Bramwell’s argument now shifts from ideas to politics, with the question of whether the Third Reich was necessary for ecological political activists to gain power. With a quick reference to Roosevelt’s New Deal it is decided that indeed, under no other government than the Third Reich would these political activists have gained political power. Backtracking a bit, Bramwell admits “perhaps the ideas would eventually have affected government policy whatever the government.” (pp. 196-197) This is followed by a number of questions that go unanswered in the text, so we must suppose they are rhetorical.

“Another problem is how important the various ecological legislation and activities [of the Third Reich] were in terms of the overall programme. So far, they have been dismissed as trivial and irrelevant. Was this true, or was this dismissal because academics did not want to draw comparisons with today’s green ideas?”(p.197)

The question is raised, but Bramwell does not even begin to attempt to answer it. She is happy to impinge upon the credibility of a large number of specialists in the field of modern European history. But apparently she is not prepared to actually argue the case. I tend to agree with the many academics that the ecological aspects of National Socialism were either mostly or entirely peripheral to movement.

Though still in the section titled Methodology, we shift to a presentation of the factual basis for supposing ecological support in the Third Reich.  Essentially, it centers on Rudolf Hess, “Hitler’s Deputy” and “a follower of Rudolf Steiner and a homeopath,”[2] and Walther Darré, Peasant Leader and Minister of Agriculture between 1933 and 1942, and the people under them. The “ecologistic” credentials of these are then detailed. Alwin Siefert is mentioned at some length:

“He took the then unfashionable ecological position that monoculture damaged disease resistance among plants and animals, as well as diminishing land fertility… He also argued against land reclamation and drainage, claiming that Germany’s water table depended on her wild countryside. His arguments were sufficiently persuasive to make Hitler order that such programmes of moorland drainage cease. This caused considerable anger among the Ministry of Agriculture leaders… Siefert was also a follower of Steiner, and bombarded Walther Darré with Anthroposophical papers and long letters about the need to retain wild plants to form a bank of plant genes and resistance potential… One paper by Siefert himself argued that… imported artificial fertilisers, fodder and insecticides were not only poisonous, but laid an extra burden on agriculture through transport and import costs.” (p. 198)

Talk about being ahead of his time! Each of these points has subsequently become part of the scientifically established consensus of most present-day biologists and ecologists. Now using our earlier criteria, is it reasonable to imagine that Siefert would have held these views whether or not he lived under Hitler? I suggest that he would have even if the Weimar Republic had lasted another 40 years, or if a communist government had ruled Germany. By definition of the argument for continuity, his contribution to National Socialism is peripheral.

But Bramwell is fundamentally unsympathetic to those who value ecology. The ellipses in the above quote hides a number of unsupported negative comments about Siefert, such as the sentence “The interests of man, even German man, did not come first for him.” How does she claim to know this? Because he felt that people would be healthier in a healthier environment? Her bias shines through. It shows up again two pages later when she laments the fact that a 1984 poll found that 90 percent of (West) Germans had heard of the damage to their forests by acid rain and 74 percent were “greatly concerned” – Why? Because “The oak leaf was a symbol for the SS.” (page 200). She has strong opinions of German environmentalism, but is not brave enough to actually argue them in her text. Instead she merely insinuates them.

The chapter now moves into the section titled “The Era of the Peasant.”

“Between the end of the First World War and the Nazi takeover, the idea that the peasantry had a special ‘mission’ was widespread. A reaction against the use of artificial fertilizers also occurred. Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, became its leader, before his death in 1925, and inspired the founding of a new school of farming known as ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’.” (p. 200).

After one sentence on the idea of the special mission of peasantry, the discussion moves to Rudolf Steiner’s objections to artificial fertilizer. What biodynamic agriculture has to do with peasants is not clear to me, nor is it stated anywhere in the chapter. The two statements are laid side by side for no apparent reason and left unexplained. Some aspects of biodynamic agriculture are discussed in a mildly derisive manner. Then over two pages the attempts of anthroposophist farmers to farm organically over the resistance of the Nazi state, culminating in the death of some of the farmers and their advocates (a fact not actually detailed in this text), is described. Described in the Bramwell fashion, that is. She seems to have forgotten that her thesis is that “ecologistic” farming was a central aspect of National Socialism. Detailing how the Nazi state suppressed biodynamic farmers does not support her thesis. Yet she seems quite delighted in detailing how National Socialism suppressed this ecological farming, but has neglected to show how, if alternative farming was ultimately suppressed, including the execution of some of its adherents, it played a central role in fascism. Gordon Craig, in his highly acclaimed 800 page book Germany – 1866-1945 (New York, 1978) devotes just over a page to agriculture in the Third Reich, and does not mention alternative techniques at all. Of Walther Darré he says:

“As [Hjalmar] Schlacht has written, Darré was more a philosopher than a practical administrator; he took seriously the rhetoric about the mystique of the soil that had been the stock-in-trade of party orators in rural parts before 1933…” (Craig 609)

For most historians, alternative agriculture is simply not worth mentioning in the larger context of the important developments in the Third Reich. As to Hitler’s personal “ecologism”, I shall quote Craig again:

“As has been indicated above, Hitler was no socialist, and, as an admirer of power, he had not the slightest intention of indulging those who had romantic notions of breaking up the great aggregates of economic strength that the country might return to a simpler past.” (Craig 603).

Among the aggregates of economic strength are included the large industrial farms in Germany. Vegetarianism as a personal choice is still a long way from being politically committed to a Utopian ecological paradise. As the example of Hitler shows, it is not logical to maintain that a person who chooses one must necessarily believe in the other. Bramwell, who is so conversant in the details of the philosophical antecedents of what she calls “ecologism” (a better label would be “environmental consciousness”) seems to feel that since, in her estimation, all life is political, if a person holds one belief, he or she must automatically be politically active in a range of philosophically compatible political initiatives. This thought obviously falls down with Hitler personally, and I would suggest it is equally inapplicable to other less notorious people.

Summing up her answer to the question “How relevant were ecological ideas to the Third Reich?” Bramwell writes:

“Still, the existence of ecological ideologues among the Nazi leadership was perceived at the time as a system which had room for ecological ideas. … Like ecologists to-day, the nazis opposed capitalism and the consumer-oriented market mechanism. In theory, if not in practice, they supported critiques of mercantilism, and claimed to serve ideals of long-term responsibility, duty and service for the community.” (p. 205)

The case is obviously week. Further, Bramwell can’t avoid a cheap guilt-by-association swipe at present-day environmentalists.

She presents additional evidence against her case in the next sentence:

“Nonetheless, ecologists were eventually seen as hostile to Germany’s national interests by the technocrats among the leadership, especially Heydrich, who interpreted the search for ecological values as essentially treacherous: part of the pre-Third Reich yearning for a pan-Aryan, non-national identity of a ‘soft’ oriental kind. He set the Security Service to harass organic farmers, as well as fringe groups such as the nudists.” (p. 205)

Whether she realizes it or not, she has just presented a convincing case against considering ecological values to be a central aspect of National Socialism. She has even acknowledged organic farmers as a fringe group in her incongruous combination with nudists. The remaining three pages explore land use laws in other countries as compared to Nazis, and the continuity of ecological thought among right and left wing politicians after the war in Germany, England and America.

How do Steiner and his followers emerge from this chapter? Steiner was a leading advocate against the use of artificial fertilizers, and among his followers were some organic farmers. Under the Third Reich these were initially supported by some at the Agricultural Ministry, then harassed by the SS. Since the balance of evidence seems to suggest that ecological concern was peripheral to National Socialism, it is hard to suggest that Steiner or his followers either inspired National Socialism or were central contributors to it’s rise or success. Yet because of Bramwell’s anti-environmental bent, she seems to feel that this is precisely what she has demonstrated.

The book concludes with a section titled “The Political Economy of Ecologism”. Here the hostility to environmental thought oozes out around the academic prose. Ecologism is a religion. The first purpose of civilization is survival, and those who value the planet over people stand directly in the way of the survival of civilization. They value the planet over other people. Their politics, in the form of the German Green Party, are thus dangerous. Bramwell will no doubt feel that this is an oversimplification of her prose. However she has argued just these points, among others, in her book. Stripped naked they do look ugly.

This book is likely to be a disappointment to a reader who picks it up looking for a sympathetic description of the development of environmentalism. It does contain a number of interesting ideas concerning the antecedents of environmental thought, though I suspect that these are not original to Bramwell. Like many academic books today, it would be greatly improved if it were more clearly written. Bramwell can’t decide if she wants to write polemic or history, or if she is addressing an academic audience or a popular one. She is unlikely to reach, much less create, a popular audience of those who share her views on the politics of environmentalism. Academics will likely be put off by her persistent bias.

[1] A suspicion to the point of hostility to all things German lies just beneath the surface of the prose throughout the book.

[2] Hess was in actual fact not an Anthroposophist or follower of Rudolf Steiner. The allegation has been around since the 1940’s, and has been repeated since as if it were fact by a number of authors who have not examined the question in any detail. That it is often repeated does not make it true. It was created in May 1941 by a longtime opponent of Anthroposophy, the SS member Jakob Wilhelm Hauer as an explanation to the Nazi Party leadership as to why Hess flew to England on May 10th, 1941: he was brainwashed by Anthroposophists.

“Historians of ideas would be silenced indeed if, for every allegation that the Third Reich was for example influenced by, or a product of, the French Enlightenment, or perversions therefrom, evidence had to be produced to show that Rosenberg or Hess had studied Diderot, Voltaire or Condorcet. Ideas are held to permeate or saturate other ideas. They are, in the telling phrase, ‘in the air.’” (p.195)/p

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