My Father, outside a former Nazi labour camp near Hamburg, 1945.
Moving forward to the end of the Second World War -widely understood to have been a continuation of the first- I have a photograph of my father on an army motorbike taken less than three years before I was born. The picture was taken near a former Nazi labour camp where he took turns guarding 10,000 Waffen S.S. prisoners of war, and was told that the parade ground they were using was a mass grave. This was four miles from Belsen, where he saw huge piles of discarded clothing and number discs. In a late conversation with my gran she described his condition after the war as ‘shell shock’.
Fascism and Animism.
How then might all of this relate to animism? Well, at the most basic level, of course, for those of us who believe that the whole of Nature is suffused with mind, intelligence, or ‘spirit’, the ecological damage of war adds another, often overlooked, dimension to the epic tragedies of war. Until Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse came out in 1982, for example, the slaughter of a million horses in the First World War had barely been registered.(5) Faced with the evidence of war, we might wonder what kind of animal we are; whether representing men as rutting stags, or ‘predators’, is helpful, either in relation to understanding other-than-human persons, or in relation to the patriarchal ideology of imperialism that has precipitated so many wars (6); and perhaps, what kind of deities would preside over such slaughter?
For postmodern animists, one of the most troubling connections that needs to be addressed is encapsulated in the following quotation: “We recognise that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruction and to the death of nations … Humankind alone is no longer the focus of thought, but rather life as a whole … This striving toward connectedness with the totality of life, with nature itself, a nature into which we are born, this is the deepest meaning and the true essence of National Socialist thought.”
Those words, written by Ernst Lehmann -a professor of botany who described National Socialism as ‘politically applied biology’- appear at the head of Peter Stuadenmaier’s disturbing essay on the “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party.(7) Staudenmaier traces a strand of biocentric and nationalistic thought in 19th Century Germany that, by most current definitions, is clearly animistic. Despite being a xenophobic nationalist, for example, Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote: ‘When one sees nature in a necessary connectedness and interrelationship, then all things are equally important – shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, nothing first or last, but all one single unity’. The Volkish movement combined ethnocentric populism with nature mysticism, and sought to reconstruct a society ‘rooted in nature, and in communion with the cosmic life spirit’. In 1867 Ernst Heckel coined the term ‘ecology’, and developed a ‘monist’ critique of anthropocentrism.
In the twentieth Century, the renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger, who had been an active member of the Nazi party and remained silent about their crimes after the war, wrote poetically about humanity’s ‘play’ or ‘dance’ with earth, sky, and gods, and the need for authentic ‘dwelling’ on earth.
Skat Players, Otto Dix, 1920. Cypriconan, Creative Commons.
Nazi ideology embraced organicism, holism, nature conservation, and re-agrarianisation. Hitler referred to ‘the eternal laws of nature’s processes’, and was knowledgeable about renewable energy sources. There seems to be little room for doubt that many of the inner circle of the Nazi Party were vegetarians and animal lovers, given that they implemented ecological farming, nature protection, and animal welfare policies that were well ahead of their time.
Staudenmaeir concludes that ‘even the most laudable of causes can be perverted in the service of criminal savagery’. The “Green Wing” of the N.S.D.A.P were fully complicit in the Party’s infamous genocidal programme. Their biocentric perspective and fetishisation of natural ‘purity’ provided a veneer of compensatory respectability, and fueled their virulently racist ideology. For Staudenmaier the Nazi’s displacement of clear-sighted social analysis by mystical ecology is a key issue.
As something of a ‘mystical ecologist’, my initial response to this is to suggest that animists need to be anthropocentric enough to be able to distinguish between intra-species and inter-species ethics. The parameters of respectful relationship -our ethical, social, and political responsibility towards other human beings, and towards other-than-human beings, have to be negotiated in each particular context -and there’s a fundamental difference (that need not imply a simple hierarchy of value) between intra-species and inter-species relationships.
That said, the Nazi’s biocentrism was framed within a thoroughly anthropocentric conception of the nation state as a Darwinian organism (a matrix of blood and soil) competing for ‘lebensraum’ with other nation states, and beset by various human ‘parasites’ and ‘cancers’. There can be no clearer evidence that animism needs to be explicitly framed, informed, and accompanied, not only by clear sighted and critical minded social understanding -especially of processes of ‘othering’ and dissociation- but by an ethical commitment to diversity, care, compassion, and either non-violence, or the minimisation of violence and harm.
I’ve know several fathers and sons in my own postwar generation who, perhaps unsurprisingly, took opposite stands in the pacifism v just war debate. The paradox of Fascism, of course, is that at the very point where its crimes illuminate the necessity of a tolerant, compassionate, democratic, non-hierarchical, post-dualistic, social order, they also test the principle of non-violence, perhaps to the limit.(8)
As a boy I had a visceral abhorrence of regimentation. When asked, at the age of ten, which Grammar School I’d like to go to, I chose the only one that didn’t demand membership of the scouts or cadet corps. As a student in the 1960’s my youthful androgynous looks caused predictable confusion. A group of Italian customs officers, who wouldn’t have seen a young man with hair as long as mine, seemed genuinely puzzled about my gender. My father, a gentle nature loving soul, was also troubled by my evident ‘softness’. One day in my late teens, he asked me to come round to the garage with him, where he confided that he’d like me, as his eldest son, to have his Sam Browne army belt. Suppressing a gut-wrenching jolt of emotion, I said ‘I won’t be needing that’. His reply, which seemed to combine incomprehension, exasperation, and contempt, was ‘if Gerry came back today, he’d cut through your lot like a knife through hot butter’. I protested that Gerry wasn’t coming back, and that what we were facing now was the atomic bomb’. Looking back, from what feels like a rather more fully ‘human’ vantage point, I can now empathise with both positions.
I have become unashamedly pragmatic. We are so much creatures of our time, place, generation, and community, that its not possible to say who we might have been, or how we would have acted, under different circumstances. Nor can moral decisions be made on the basis of perfect knowledge and/or cold objectivity. Embodied human existence is, indeed, unavoidably messy and morally complex.
(5) Michael Morpurgo, Warhorse, Egmont, 2007.
(6) See, for example, my recent post Changing Men.
(7) Peter Staudenmaier, Fascist Ideology: the ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents, 1996 – quoting Ernst Lehmann, Biologischer Wille und Ziele biologischer Arbeit im neuen Reich, München, 1934. George Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, New York 1964.
also Laura Elaine Hudson, The Apocalyptic Animal, 2008 (via Google books).
(8) A pacifist case (for ‘active sustained nonviolence’) is put by Quaker human ecologist Alistair MacIntosh, in A NonViolent Challenge to Conflict, in Whetham (ed) Ethics, Law, and Military Operations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. He cites successful mass non-violent resistance against the Nazis, involving large numbers of people who were willing to put their lives on the line.