It may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and placed in the service of highly regressive ends — even of fascism itself. As this article shows, important tendencies in German “ecologism,” which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the twentieth century.
During the Third Reich, Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only in their ideology but in their governmental policies. Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.
How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich
As social ecologists, it is not our intention to deprecate the all-important efforts that environmentalists and ecologists are making to rescue the biosphere from destruction. Quite to the contrary: It is our deepest concern to preserve the integrity of serious ecological movements from ugly reactionary tendencies that seek to exploit the widespread popular concern about ecological problems for regressive agendas. But we find that the “ecological scene” of our time — with its growing mysticism and antihumanism — poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go.
In many contemporary Western nations, expressions of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments are not only increasingly voiced but increasingly tolerated. Equally disconcertingly, fascist ideologists and political groups are experiencing a resurgence as well. Updating their ideology and speaking the new language of ecology, these movements are once again invoking ecological themes to serve social reaction.
In ways that sometimes approximate beliefs of progressive-minded ecologists, these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism. Tenets of “New Age” eco-ideology that seem benign to most people in England and the United States — specifically, its mystical and antirational strains — are being intertwined with ecofascism in Germany today. This essay explores this hijacking of ecology for racist, nationalistic, and fascist ends.
What prevents ecological politics from yielding reaction or fascism with an ecological patina is an ecology movement that maintains a broad social emphasis, one that places the ecological crisis in a social context.
As social ecologists, we see the roots of the present ecological crisis in an irrational society — not in the biological makeup of human beings, nor in a particular religion, nor in reason, science, or technology. On the contrary, we uphold the importance of reason, science, and technology in creating both a progressive ecological movement and an ecological society. It is a specific set of social relations — above all, the competitive market economy — that is presently destroying the biosphere.
Mysticism and biologism, at the very least, deflect public attention away from such social causes. In presenting this essay, we are trying to preserve the all-important progressive and emancipatory implications of ecological politics. More than ever, an ecological commitment requires people today to avoid repeating the errors of the past, lest the ecology movement become absorbed in the mystical and antihumanistic trends that abound today.
Fascist Ecology: The “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents
by Peter Staudenmaier
“We recognize that separating humanity from nature, from the whole of life, leads to humankind’s own destruction and to the death of nations. Only through a re-integration of humanity into the whole of nature can our people be made stronger. That is the fundamental point of the biological tasks of our age. 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.” – Ernst Lehmann (1934). Lehmann was a professor of botany who characterized Nazism as “politically applied biology”.
In our zeal to condemn the status quo, radicals often carelessly toss about epithets like “fascist” and “ecofascist,” thus contributing to a sort of conceptual inflation that in no way furthers effective social critique. In such a situation, it is easy to overlook the fact that there are still virulent strains of fascism in our political culture which, however marginal, demand our attention.
One of the least recognized or understood of these strains is the phenomenon one might call “actually existing ecofascism,” that is, the preoccupation of authentically fascist movements with environmentalist concerns. In order to grasp the peculiar intensity and endurance of this affiliation, we would do well to examine more closely its most notorious historical incarnation, the so-called “green wing” of German National Socialism.
Despite an extensive documentary record, the subject remains an elusive one, underappreciated by professional historians and environmental activists alike. In English-speaking countries as well as in Germany itself, the very existence of a “green wing” in the Nazi movement, much less its inspiration, goals, and consequences, has yet to be adequately researched and analyzed. Most of the handful of available interpretations succumb to either an alarming intellectual affinity with their subject” or a naive refusal to examine the full extent of the “ideological overlap between nature conservation and National Socialism” (Dominick, 1992). This article presents a brief and necessarily schematic overview of the ecological components of Nazism, emphasizing both their central role in Nazi ideology and their practical implementation during the Third Reich. A preliminary survey of nineteenth and twentieth century precursors to classical ecofascism should serve to illuminate the conceptual underpinnings common to all forms of reactionary ecology.
The Roots of the Blood and Soil Mystique
Germany is not only the birthplace of the science of ecology and the site of Green politics’ rise to prominence; it has also been home to a peculiar synthesis of naturalism and nationalism forged under the influence of the Romantic tradition’s anti-Enlightenment irrationalism. Two nineteenth century figures exemplify this ominous conjunction: Ernst Moritz Arndt and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl.
Arndt’s remarkable 1815 article On the Care and Conservation of Forests, written at the dawn of industrialization in Central Europe, rails against short-sighted exploitation of woodlands and soil, condemning deforestation and its economic causes. At times he wrote in terms strikingly similar to those of contemporary biocentrism: “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.”
Riehl’s 1853 essay Field and Forest [which] ended with a call to fight for “the rights of wilderness.” But even here nationalist pathos set the tone: “We must save the forest, not only so that our ovens do not become cold in winter, but also so that the pulse of life of the people continues to beat warm and joyfully, so that Germany remains German.”
Riehl was an implacable opponent of the rise of industrialism and urbanization; his overtly antisemitic glorification of rural peasant values and undifferentiated condemnation of modernity established him as the “founder of agrarian romanticism and anti-urbanism” (Bergmann, 1970).
These latter two fixations matured in the second half of the nineteenth century in the context of the völkisch movement, a powerful cultural disposition and social tendency which united ethnocentric populism with nature mysticism. At the heart of the völkisch temptation was a pathological response to modernity. In the face of the very real dislocations brought on by the triumph of industrial capitalism and national unification, völkisch thinkers preached a return to the land, to the simplicity and wholeness of a life attuned to nature’s purity.
Man & Earth: Haeckel’s concept of ‘Ecology’ and the establishment of the Nazi movement
In 1867 the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ‘ecology’ and began to establish it as a scientific discipline dedicated to studying the interactions between organism and environment. Haeckel was also the chief popularizer of Darwin and evolutionary theory for the German-speaking world, and developed a peculiar sort of social darwinist philosophy he called ‘monism.’ The German Monist League he founded combined scientifically based ecological holism with völkisch social views. Haeckel believed in nordic racial superiority, strenuously opposed race mixing and enthusiastically supported racial eugenics. His fervent nationalism became fanatical with the onset of World War I, and he fulminated in antisemitic tones against the post-war Council Republic in Bavaria.
He became one of Germany’s major ideologists for racism, nationalism and imperialism. Near the end of his life he joined the Thule Society, “a secret, radically right-wing organization which played a key role in the establishment of the Nazi movement.”
The pioneer of scientific ecology, along with his disciples Willibald Hentschel, Wilhelm Bölsche and Bruno Wille, profoundly shaped the thinking of subsequent generations of environmentalists by embedding concern for the natural world in a tightly woven web of regressive social themes. From its very beginnings, then, ecology was bound up in an intensely reactionary political framework.
Thus, for the Monists, perhaps the most pernicious feature of European bourgeois civilization was the inflated importance which it attached to the idea of man in general, to his existence and to his talents, and to the belief that through his unique rational faculties man could essentially recreate the world and bring about a universally more harmonious and ethically just social order. Humankind was an insignificant creature when viewed as part of and measured against the vastness of the cosmos and the overwhelming forces of nature. (Quoted in Gasman, The Scientific Origins of National Socialism)
The philosopher Ludwig Klages profoundly influenced the youth movement and particularly shaped their ecological consciousness. He authored a tremendously important essay titled “Man and Earth” for the legendary Meissner gathering of the Wandervögel in 1913. An extraordinarily poignant text and the best known of all Klages’ work, it is not only “one of the very greatest manifestoes of the radical ecopacifist movement in Germany,” but also a classic example of the seductive terminology of reactionary ecology.
“Man and Earth” anticipated just about all of the themes of the contemporary ecology movement. It decried the accelerating extinction of species, disturbance of global ecosystemic balance, deforestation, destruction of aboriginal peoples and of wild habitats, urban sprawl, and the increasing alienation of people from nature. In emphatic terms it disparaged Christianity, capitalism, economic utilitarianism, hyperconsumption and the ideology of ‘progress.’ It even condemned the environmental destructiveness of rampant tourism and the slaughter of whales, and displayed a clear recognition of the planet as an ecological totality. All of this in 1913 !
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Klages was throughout his life politically archconservative and a venomous antisemite. One historian labels him a “Volkish fanatic” and another considers him simply “an intellectual pacemaker for the Third Reich” who “paved the way for fascist philosophy in many important respects” (Mosse, 1964). In “Man and Earth” a genuine outrage at the devastation of the natural environment is coupled with a political subtext of cultural despair.
Geist: Ecology’s attack on concepts of civilisation and human rationality
Klages’ diagnosis of the ills of modern society, for all its declamations about capitalism, returns always to a single culprit: “Geist.” His idiosyncratic use of this term, which means mind or intellect, was meant to denounce not only hyperrationalism or instrumental reason, but rational thought itself. Such a wholesale indictment of reason cannot help but have savage political implications. It forecloses any chance of rationally reconstructing society’s relationship with nature and justifies the most brutal authoritarianism. But the lessons of Klages’ life and work have been hard for ecologists to learn. In 1980, “Man and Earth” was republished as an esteemed and seminal treatise to accompany the birth of the German Greens.
Another philosopher and stern critic of Enlightenment who helped bridge fascism and environmentalism was Martin Heidegger. A much more renowned thinker than Klages, Heidegger preached “authentic Being” and harshly criticized modern technology, and is therefore often celebrated as a precursor of ecological thinking. On the basis of his critique of technology and rejection of humanism, contemporary deep ecologists have elevated Heidegger to their pantheon of eco-heroes:
Heidegger’s critique of anthropocentric humanism, his call for humanity to learn to “let things be,” his notion that humanity is involved in a “play” or “dance” with earth, sky, and gods, his meditation on the possibility of an authentic mode of “dwelling” on the earth, his complaint that industrial technology is laying waste to the earth, his emphasis on the importance of local place and “homeland,” his claim that humanity should guard and preserve things, instead of dominating them — all these aspects of Heidegger’s thought help to support the claim that he is a major deep ecological theorist. (Zimmerman, 1990).
As for the philosopher of Being himself, he was — unlike Klages, who lived in Switzerland after 1915 — an active member of the Nazi party and for a time enthusiastically, even adoringly supported the Führer. His mystical panegyrics to Heimat (homeland) were complemented by a deep antisemitism, and his metaphysically phrased broadsides against technology and modernity converged neatly with populist demagogy. His work, whatever its philosophical merits, stands today as a signal admonition about the political uses of anti-humanism in ecological garb.
Ecology and The New Natural Order
The National Socialist “religion of nature,” as one historian has described it, was a volatile admixture of primeval teutonic nature mysticism, pseudo-scientific ecology, irrationalist anti-humanism, and a mythology of racial salvation through a return to the land. Its predominant themes were ‘natural order,’ organicist holism and denigration of humanity: “Throughout the writings, not only of Hitler, but of most Nazi ideologues, one can discern a fundamental deprecation of humans vis-à-vis nature, and, as a logical corollary to this, an attack upon human efforts to master nature” (Pois, 1985). Quoting a Nazi educator, the same source continues: “anthropocentric views in general had to be rejected. They would be valid only ‘if it is assumed that nature has been created only for man. We decisively reject this attitude. According to our conception of nature, man is a link in the living chain of nature just as any other organism’.”
Such arguments have a chilling currency within contemporary ecological discourse: the key to social-ecological harmony is ascertaining “the eternal laws of nature’s processes” (Hitler) and organizing society to correspond to them. The Führer was particularly fond of stressing the “helplessness of humankind in the face of nature’s everlasting law” (Hitler, cited in Henry Picker, 1963). Echoing Haeckel and the Monists, Mein Kampf announces: “When people attempt to rebel against the iron logic of nature, they come into conflict with the very same principles to which they owe their existence as human beings. Their actions against nature must lead to their own downfall” (Hitler, 1935).
The authoritarian implications of this view of humanity and nature become even clearer in the context of the Nazis’ emphasis on holism and organicism. In 1934 the director of the Reich Agency for Nature Protection, Walter Schoenichen, established the following objectives for biology curricula: “Very early, the youth must develop an understanding of the civic importance of the ‘organism’, i.e. the co-ordination of all parts and organs for the benefit of the one and superior task of life.” This (by now familiar) unmediated adaptation of biological concepts to social phenomena served to justify not only the totalitarian social order of the Third Reich but also the expansionist politics of Lebensraum (the plan of conquering ‘living space’ in Eastern Europe for the German people). It also provided the link between environmental purity and racial purity:
Two central themes of biology education follow [according to the Nazis] from the holistic perspective: nature protection and eugenics. If one views nature as a unified whole, students will automatically develop a sense for ecology and environmental conservation. At the same time, the nature protection concept will direct attention to the urbanized and ‘overcivilized’ modern human race. (Bäumer, 1990).
In many varieties of the National Socialist world view ecological themes were linked with traditional agrarian romanticism and hostility to urban civilization, all revolving around the idea of rootedness in nature. This conceptual constellation, especially the search for a lost connection to nature, was most pronounced among the neo-pagan elements in the Nazi leadership, above all Heinrich Himmler, Alfred Rosenberg, and Walther Darré.
Against Human Civilisation: Nature, Lebensraum, Heimat, and the Volk
Rosenberg wrote in his colossal The Myth of the 20th Century: “Today we see the steady stream from the countryside to the city, deadly for the Volk. The cities swell ever larger, unnerving the Volk and destroying the threads which bind humanity to nature; they attract adventurers and profiteers of all colors, thereby fostering racial chaos.”
Such musings, it must be stressed, were not mere rhetoric; they reflected firmly held beliefs and, indeed, practices at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy which are today conventionally associated with ecological attitudes.
Hitler and Himmler were both strict vegetarians and animal lovers, attracted to nature mysticism and homeopathic cures, and staunchly opposed to vivisection and cruelty to animals. Himmler even established experimental organic farms to grow herbs for SS medicinal purposes. And Hitler, at times, could sound like a veritable Green utopian, discussing authoritatively and in detail various renewable energy sources (including environmentally appropriate hydropower and producing natural gas from sludge) as alternatives to coal, and declaring “water, winds and tides” as the energy path of the future (cited in Picker, 1963).
The tropes comprised by classical ecofascist ideology included Lebensraum, Heimat, the agrarian mystique, the health of the Volk, closeness to and respect for nature (explicitly constructed as the standard against which society is to be judged), maintaining nature’s precarious balance, and the earthy powers of the soil and its creatures.
These sympathies were also hardly restricted to the upper echelons of the party. A study of the membership rolls of several mainstream Weimar era Naturschutz (nature protection) organizations revealed that by 1939, fully 60 percent of these conservationists had joined the NSDAP (compared to about 10 percent of adult men and 25 percent of teachers and lawyers). Clearly the affinities between environmentalism and National Socialism ran deep.
Blood and Soil: Darré and Hess – the ‘Green Wing’ of Nazism
“The unity of blood and soil must be restored,” proclaimed Richard Walther Darré in 1930. This infamous phrase denoted a quasi-mystical connection between ‘blood’ (the race or Volk) and ‘soil’ (the land and the natural environment) specific to Germanic peoples and absent, for example, among Celts and Slavs. For the enthusiasts of Blut und Boden, the Jews especially were a rootless, wandering people, incapable of any true relationship with the land. German blood, in other words, engendered an exclusive claim to the sacred German soil.
It was Darré who first popularized the term ‘blood and soil’ as a slogan (1930) and then enshrined it as a guiding principle of Nazi thought. Darré was one of the party’s chief “race theorists” and was also instrumental in galvanizing peasant support for the Nazis during the critical period of the early 1930s. From 1933 until 1942 he held the posts of Reich Peasant Leader and Minister of Agriculture. This was no minor fiefdom; the agriculture ministry had the fourth largest budget of all the myriad Nazi ministries even well into the war. Darré declared: “The concept of Blood and Soil gives us the moral right to take back as much land in the East as is necessary to establish a harmony between the body of our Volk and the geopolitical space.”
Aside from providing green camouflage for the colonization of Eastern Europe, Darré worked to install environmentally sensitive principles as the very basis of the Third Reich’s agricultural policy. Even in its most productivist phases, these precepts remained emblematic of Nazi doctrine. When the “Battle for Production” (a scheme to boost the productivity of the agricultural sector) was proclaimed at the second Reich Farmers Congress in 1934, the very first point in the program read “Keep the soil healthy!”
But Darré’s most important innovation was the introduction on a large scale of organic farming methods, significantly labeled “lebensgesetzliche Landbauweise,” or farming according to the laws of life. The term points up yet again the natural order ideology which underlies so much reactionary ecological thought. The impetus for these unprecedented measures came from Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy and its techniques of biodynamic cultivation. The campaign to institutionalize organic farming encompassed tens of thousands of smallholdings and estates across Germany. it was largely Darré’s influence in the Nazi apparatus which yielded, in practice, a level of government support for ecologically sound farming methods and land use planning unmatched by any state before or since.
For these reasons Darré has sometimes been regarded as a forerunner of the contemporary Green movement. His biographer, in fact, once referred to him as the “father of the Greens” (Bramwell, 1984).
Reich Chancellor Rudolf Hess, provided the “green wing” of the NSDAP a secure anchor at the very top of the party hierarchy. An inveterate nature lover as well as a devout Steinerite, Hess insisted on a strictly biodynamic diet — not even Hitler’s rigorous vegetarian standards were good enough for him — and accepted only homeopathic medicines.
It was Hess who introduced Darré to Hitler, thus securing the “green wing” its first power base. He was an even more tenacious proponent of organic farming than Darré, and pushed the latter to take more demonstrative steps in support of the lebensgesetzliche Landbauweise. His office was also directly responsible for land use planning across the Reich, employing a number of specialists who shared Seifert’s ecological approach.
With Hess’s enthusiastic backing, the “green wing” was able to achieve its most notable successes. As early as March 1933, a wide array of environmentalist legislation was approved and implemented at national, regional and local levels. These measures, which included reforestation programs, bills protecting animal and plant species, and preservationist decrees blocking industrial development, undoubtedly “ranked among the most progressive in the world at that time” (Dominick, 1987). Planning ordinances were designed for the protection of wildlife habitat and at the same time demanded respect for the sacred German forest. The Nazi state also created the first nature preserves in Europe.
Fascist Ecology in Context
To make this dismaying and discomforting analysis more palatable, it is tempting to draw precisely the wrong conclusion — namely, that even the most reprehensible political undertakings sometimes produce laudable results. But the real lesson here is just the opposite: Even the most laudable of causes can be perverted and instrumentalized in the service of criminal savagery.
The “green wing” of the NSDAP was not a group of innocents. Their ‘ecological’ involvements, far from offsetting these fundamental commitments, deepened and radicalized them. In the end, their configuration of environmental politics was directly and substantially responsible for organized mass murder.
No aspect of the Nazi project can be properly understood without examining its implication in the holocaust. The confluence of anti-humanist dogma with a fetishization of natural ‘purity’ provided not merely a rationale but an incentive for the Third Reich’s most heinous crimes. Its insidious appeal unleashed murderous energies previously untapped. Finally, the displacement of any social analysis of environmental destruction in favor of mystical ecology served as an integral component in the preparation of the final solution.
This intellectual failure most commonly takes the form of a call to “reform society according to nature,” that is, to formulate some version of ‘natural order’ or ‘natural law’ and submit human needs and actions to it. As a consequence, the underlying social processes and societal structures which constitute and shape people’s relations with their environment are left unexamined. Such willful ignorance, in turn, obscures the ways in which all conceptions of nature are themselves socially produced, and leaves power structures unquestioned while simultaneously providing them with apparently ‘naturally ordained’ status. Thus the substitution of ecomysticism for clear-sighted social-ecological inquiry has catastrophic political repercussions, as the complexity of the society-nature dialectic is collapsed into a purified Oneness. An ideologically charged ‘natural order’ does not leave room for compromise; its claims are absolute.
For all of these reasons, the slogan advanced by many contemporary Greens, “We are neither right nor left but up front,” is historically naive and politically fatal. The necessary project of creating an emancipatory ecological politics demands an acute awareness and understanding of the legacy of classical ecofascism and its conceptual continuities with present-day environmental discourse. An ‘ecological’ orientation alone, outside of a critical social framework, is dangerously unstable. The record of fascist ecology shows that under the right conditions such an orientation can quickly lead to barbarism.
‘Ecology’ and the Modernization of Fascism in the German Ultra-right
by Janet Biehl
The so-called ‘New’ Right today appeals to themes reminiscent of the völkisch movement in pre-Nazi Germany. It, too, presents itself as offering an ‘ecological’ alternative to modern society. In the view of the ‘New’ Right today, the destruction of the environment and the repression of nationalities have a common root in ‘Semitic’ monotheism and universalism. In its later form, Christianity, and in its subsequent secularized forms, liberalism and Marxism, this dualistic, homogenizing universalism is alleged to have brought on both the ecological crisis and the suppression of national identity. Just as Judeo-Christian universalism was destructive of authentic cultures when Christian missionaries went out into the world, so too is modernity eliminating ethnic and national cultures.
Moreover, through the unbridled technology to which it gave rise, this modern universalism is said to have perpetrated not only the destruction of nature but an annihilation of the spirit; the destruction of nature, it is said, is life-threatening in the spiritual sense as well as the physical, since when people deny pristine nature, their access to their ‘authentic’ self is blocked.
Elaborate justifications for opposing Third World immigration are disguised as diversity, drawing on ‘ecological’ arguments against ‘overpopulation.’ In September 1989, for example, the head of the respectable League for the Protection of the Environment and Nature (Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz, or BUND), environmentalist Hubert Weinzierl, remarked that
only when humanity’s main concern, the diminution of the stream of overpopulation, has been accomplished, will there be any meaning or any prospect of building an environment that is capable of improvement, of configuring the landscape of our civilization in such a way that it remains worthy of being called Heimat. (Quoted in Ditfurth, 1992)
Similarly, to help cultivate ‘national identity,’ leading NR ideologist Henning Eichberg proposes instead a new religion that mixes together neopagan Germanic, Celtic, and Indian religions with old völkisch-nationalistic ideas. It is to be based on “the sensuality-physicality of dance and ritual, ceremony and taboo, meditation, prayer, and ecstasy. In essence, [this religion] constitutes itself as a form of praxis” against the “religion of growth” since its “sensuous counter-experiences” can restore humanity to closer contact with nature. Sounding like many New Agers in the United States, Eichberg calls for a return to pristine nature, to the alleged primordial sources of people’s lives, psyches, and authentic cultures, and for people to heal themselves within as part of healing the ecological crisis, overcoming their own alienation, and rediscovering themselves.
Eichberg regards Judeo-Christianity as the ultimate root of all present evils, since it is overly intellectual and alienates humanity both from itself and from the divine; it neglects the emotions and the body. Tied in as it is with the logic of productivism, Christianity, Eichberg writes, is the “religion of growth” that must be fought at all costs. In a similar vein, FAP Nazis (the Freedom German Workers Party) especially loathe “humanistically oriented cosmopolitanism.” For them, marxism, liberalism, and Christianity “have torn humanity from its connectedness to the natural cycles of our earth.”
Survival of the Fittest: applying Darwin to politics
Like Anglo-American social Darwinism, German social Darwinism applied the maxim ‘survival of the fittest’ to society. Thus, the ‘fittest’ race not only would but should survive, vanquishing all its competitors in its ‘struggle for existence.’ As historian Daniel Gasman observes:
It may be said that if Darwinism in England was an extension of laissez faire individualism projected from the social world to the natural world, [in Germany it was] a projection of German romanticism and philosophical idealism … The form which social Darwinism took in Germany was a pseudo-scientific religion of nature worship and nature-mysticism combined with notions of racism. (Gasman, 1971).
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, for example, that people “owe their higher existence, not to the ideas of a few crazy ideologists, but to the knowledge and ruthless application of Nature’s stern and rigid laws.” Among these ‘laws’: “Nature usually makes certain corrective decisions with regard to the racial purity of earthly creatures” (Gasman, 1971). It is well known among ecological activists today that Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology in the 1860s; what is less known is that Haeckel was the primary spokesperson for German social Darwinism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. German social Darwinism was thus almost immediately married to the concept of ecology. Haeckel himself was a proponent of carrying over concepts like ‘selective breeding’ and ‘racial hygiene’ from nonhuman nature into human society.
A Social Ecology of Freedom
A combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, and yearnings for charismatic leaders that is legitimated by a mystical and biologistic ‘ecology’ is potentially socially catastrophic. Just as the völkisch movement ultimately was channeled into the Nazi movement, so too new social movements that appeal to these concepts must be mindful of their potential for political and social catastrophe if they are channeled into a dangerous political direction that draws on mysticism.
What is clearly crucial is how an ecological politics is conceived. If the Green slogan “we are neither left nor right but up front” was ever meaningful, the emergence of an ‘ecological right’ defines the slogan’s bankruptcy conclusively. The need for an ecological left is urgent, especially one that is firmly committed to a clear, coherent set of anticapitalist, democratic, antihierarchical views. It must have firm roots in the internationalism of the left and the rational, humanistic, and genuinely egalitarian critique of social oppression that was part of the Enlightenment, particularly its revolutionary libertarian offshoot.
But an ecologically oriented politics must deal with biological phenomena warily, since interpretations of them can serve sinister ends. When ‘respect for Nature’ comes to mean ‘reverence,’ it can mutate ecological politics into a religion that ‘Green Adolfs’ can effectively use for authoritarian ends. When ‘Nature,’ in turn, becomes a metaphor legitimating sociobiology’s ‘morality of the gene,’ the glories of ‘racial purity,’ ‘love of Heimat,’ ‘woman equals nature,’ or ‘Pleistocene consciousness,’ the cultural setting is created for reaction. ‘Ecological’ fascism is a cynical but potentially politically effective attempt to mystically link genuine concern for present-day environmental problems with time-honored fears of the ‘outsider’ or the ‘new,’ indeed the best elements of the Enlightenment, through ecological verbiage. Authoritarian mystifications need not be the fate of today’s ecology movement, as social ecology demonstrates. But they could become its fate if ecomystics, ecoprimitivists, misanthropes, and antirationalists have their way.
Peter Staudenmaier is Associate Professor of History at Marquette University and Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, with a focus on modern Europe. He joined the Marquette faculty in 2011 after receiving his PhD from Cornell in 2010. His work centers on Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, environmental history, and the history of racial thought. He is the author of Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era (2014) and articles on topics ranging from antisemitism to esotericism.
Janet Biehl is an American political writer who is the author of numerous books and articles associated with social ecology, the body of ideas developed and publicized by Murray Bookchin. She is the author of a number of books including Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (1991); Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (1995); The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1998); and Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (2015).