By Peter Staudenmaier
Sometimes a seemingly obscure historical topic attains unexpected publicity. My current research project centers on the role of environmental ideals in Nazi Germany; I have been gathering archival sources on the subject since graduate school. Earlier this year I was fortunate to receive a generous research grant from the Holocaust Educational Foundation for a proposal titled “Nature and Genocide: Ecological Dimensions of the Nazi Racial Project.” Thanks to this support, I had the opportunity to spend several very productive months in archives in Munich and Berlin assembling an increasingly rich and compelling body of evidence.
Upon my return to the US, I was surprised and encouraged to find a sudden upswing in scholarly interest in this same subject. A headline in the New York Times Book Review from early September read: “Hitler’s Ecological Fantasies.” Beneath it was a thoughtful review by a senior Holocaust scholar of Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s recent book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (Penguin, 2015–see Michael Marrus, “Hitler’s Ecological Fantasies,” New York Times Book Review, September 6, 2015, p. 9). In his multifaceted re-interpretation of the Holocaust, Snyder argues that Hitler saw the elimination of European Jews as a kind of ecological necessity.
This conjunction of environmental ideas and extermination policies undoubtedly appears outlandish to some readers, but it is not a historical novelty. Debates on the topic have produced a gradually growing scholarly literature over the past two decades. In the words of Enzo Traverso’s study The Origins of Nazi Violence:
“Mysticism founded on nature, antihumanist irrationality, and the redemptive myth of a return to the land (through conquest) led to a policy of genocide represented as a disinfection, a purification – in short, an ‘ecological’ measure. The Jews, who embodied an abstract (exterritorial, anational) form of humanity, were to be wiped out in the name of the preservation of nature.” (Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence [New Press, 2003], p. 144)
Recent developments promise to push these debates forward. Among historians of Nazism and the Holocaust, Snyder’s controversial book has brought renewed attention to the ostensibly ecological aspects of Hitler’s rule. Among environmental historians, meanwhile, the potentially authoritarian strands in early green politics have begun to receive more intensive scrutiny. These are challenging and contentious questions, not least because of the potential for misunderstanding. Nostalgists for Nazism are all too eager to publicize purportedly redeeming aspects of the regime, while anti-environmentalists gladly seize on any suggestion of a link between ecology and Hitler.
My own research aims to bring the complex historiography of the Holocaust into productive dialogue with the insights of environmental history in order to illuminate an ambiguous and troubling question. From the role of Nazi “advocates for the landscape” in shaping SS plans for conquered territories in the East, to the organic plantation at the Dachau concentration camp that served as an SS training facility, there is much about this history that remains to be examined, carefully and critically, in an effort to understand an especially perplexing part of the past.
A topic like this calls for interdisciplinary perspectives, and in this respect I have once again been fortunate in receiving substantial support from other scholars and other institutions. Last year I was able to conduct crucial research during a short-term fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and this summer I had the chance to take part in an excellent faculty seminar at the University of Chicago on “Nature in German Thought” sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service. Other participants in the seminar came from literary and philosophical fields, which greatly enriched our discussions.
As I move forward with my research, I hope to include the findings not just in academic work but in publications for a broader readership. I also plan to incorporate some of the material into my teaching, both in my course on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and in the new course on environmental history that we expect to introduce at Marquette next year. I am very grateful for the support I have received from many quarters as the research has developed, and I look forward to bringing this long-running project to fruition in the years to come.
Peter Staudenmaier is an assistant professor of history at Marquette and author of Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era (2014).