Animal Rights and the Nazis: Feeling Their Pain

In April 1933, soon after they had come to power, the Nazis passed laws regulating the slaughter of animals. Later that year Herman Goering announced an end to the "unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments" and--in an extremely unusual admission of the existence of such institutions--threatened to "commit to concentration camps those who still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property." Bans on vivisection were issued--though later partly rescinded--in Bavaria and Prussia. Horses, cats, and apes were singled out for special protection. In 1936 a special law was passed regarding the correct way of dispatching lobsters and crabs and thus mitigating their terminal agonies. Crustaceans were to be thrown into rapidly boiling water. Bureaucrats at the Nazi Ministry of the Interior had produced learned research papers on the kindest method of killing.

Laws protecting wildlife were also passed, under somewhat eugenic protocols: "The duty of a true hunter is not only to hunt but also to nurture and protect wild animals in order that a more varied, stronger and healthier breed shall emerge and be preserved." The Nazis were much concerned about endangered species, and Goering set up nature reserves to protect elk, bison, bears, and wild horses. (Goering called forests "God's cathedrals," thus echoing the idiom of John Muir, one of the fathers of the American national park movement, and a despiser of Indians.) The aim of the Law for the Protection of Animals was--as the preamble stated--"to waken and strengthen compassion as one of the highest moral values of the German people." Animals were to be protected for their own sake rather than as appendages to the human moral and material condition. This was hailed as a new moral concept. In 1934 an international conference in Berlin on the topic of animal protection saw the podium festooned with swastikas and crowned by a banner declaring, "Entire epochs of love will be needed to repay animals for their value and service."

Nazi leaders were noted for love of their pets and for certain animals, notably apex predators like the wolf and the lion. Hitler, a vegetarian and hater of hunting, adored dogs and spent some of his final hours in the company of Blondi, whom he would take for walks outside the bunker at some danger to himself. He had a particular enthusiasm for birds and most of all for wolves. His cover name was Herr Wolf. Many of his interim headquarters had "Wolf" as a prefix, as in Wolfschanze, in East Prussia, of which Hitler said, "I am the wolf and this is my den." He also liked to whistle the tune of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," from a Disney movie.

Goebbels said, famously, "The only real friend one has in the end is the dog... The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno." Goebbels also agreed with Hitler that "meat eating is a perversion in our human nature," and that Christianity was a "symptom of decay," since it did not urge vegetarianism. Rudolf Hess was another affectionate pet owner.

On the one hand, monsters of cruelty toward their fellow humans, on the other, kind to animals and zealous in their interest. In their very fine essay on such contradictions in Anthrozoos (1992), Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax offer three observations. One, as just noted, many Nazi leaders harbored affection toward animals but antipathy to humans. Hitler was given films that displayed animals killing people. The Führer watched with equanimity. Another film showed humans killing animals. Hitler covered his eyes and begged to be told when the slaughter was over. In the same passage in his diary from the 1920s quoted above, Goebbels wrote, "As soon as I am with a person for three days, I don't like him any longer... I have learned to despise the human being from the bottom of my soul."

Second, animal-protection measures "may have been a legal veil to level an attack on the Jews. In making this attack, the Nazis allied themselves with animals since both were portrayed as victims of 'oppressors' such as Jews."

Central to this equation was the composer Richard Wagner, an ardent vegetarian who urged attacks on laboratories and physical assault on vivisectionists, whom he associated with Jews (presumably because of kosher killing methods). Identifying vivisectors as the enemy, Wagner wrote that vivisection of frogs was "the curse of our civilization." Those who failed to untruss and liberate frogs were "enemies of the state."

Vivisection, in Wagner's view, stood for mechanistic science, extrusion of a rationalist intellectualism that assailed the unity of nature, of which man is a part. He believed the purity of Aryans had been compromised by meat eating and mixing of the races. A non-meat diet plus the Eucharist would engender a return to the original, uncorrupted state of affairs. Wagner borrowed from Viennese monk Adolf Lanze, who held that in the beginning there were Aryans and Apes, with Germans closest to the former and Jews to the latter. The core enterprise was to perfect the breed and purge the coarser element. This went for animals too, in an unremitting process of genetic purification.

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