The pioneering role of the Third Reich had in developing modern understanding of the protection of animals is a tough spot for today's animal rights movement. For the brutal social experiment of the Third Reich was also an experiment of a society with a goal of executing a radical version of animal rights. Due to the awkwardness of the issue, many animal rights activists keep quiet about it. For instance, the whole issue is left unmentioned in the classic Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer. In the meticulous history section, he leaves the period 1880-1945 out completely. Because the writer is obviously well acquainted with the topic, it is hardly an accident. He refers to the nazis' human tests comparing them to the modern vivisection and brings up the Buddhist principles of protecting animals as a contrasting idea. This is troublesome reading to someone who is familiar with the subject, because also nazis appealed to Buddhism as the opposite of the animal hostility in Christianity - which they considered one branch of Judaism.
Some people resort to denial as a solution for the issue. It is typical to deny Hitler's vegetarianism with the suspicion that he once ate a dove. It is easy to find outright lies in different militant animal rights and vegetarism homepages where the whole matter is denied. However, this peculiar subplot in the history of animal protection will not simply disappear. That is why the Third Reich similarities with and particularly differences from modern animal rights thinking should be recognized, both by animal rights activists and their opponents.
The strictest animal rights laws in the world
On 28th of August, 1933, millions of Germans had gathered in front of the radio. People had gotten familiar with the ways of the new leaders during the past six months the Nazis had been in power, and they had gotten used to Nazis meaning what they said. People had learned to follow important speeches. It was known that Hermann Göring, the cabinet minister of Prussian affairs in the Third Reich, was to hold an important speech regarding policy. The minister discussed only one issue: the prohibition of vivisection he had ordered two weeks earlier. Vivisection referred to animal testing, specifically torturous operations made without anesthesia or pain relief, cutting animals up alive. He justified his order by referring to the unique brotherhood the German race historically had with animals, and pleaded to how animals and Aryans had shared their homes, fields and battles in co-operation and as brothers-in-arms for many millennia. In the end, Göring made clear what awaited people who broke the rule. Those who thought they could still treat animals as lifeless objects were to be sent to concentration camps immediately.
Göring's tough policies were no exception. The view was not political rhetoric but the tough core of Nazism, the idea of an alliance between the Aryan race and nature. Thus, the Nazis made animal protection laws which were the strictest in history right after they had seized power. Natural conservation areas were established all around the country to protect endangered species. Already in the early plans, whole areas like Lithuania and great parts of Ukraine were outlined for afforestation into their natural state as soon as their population was destroyed. The Third Reich was the first to place the wolf under protection, which deed in its own time was quite incredible. Minute regulations were drawn up even for the treatment of fish and lobsters. The regulations were also guarded; of all the German professions, the greatest percentage of veterinarians belonged to the Nazi party.
The German animal protection law (Tierschutzgesetz), effective since the end of 1933, was the first in the world that defined rights for animals as they were (um ihrer selbst wille), regardless of the needs or feelings of humans. The law was also the first one to abolish the distinction between domestic and wild animals. It defined as legal subjects "all living creatures that in general language and biologically regarded as animals. In a criminal sense, there is no distinction between domestic and wild animals, higher or lower valued animals, or useful or harmful animals to humans." The phrasing is somewhat different nowadays, but all western animal rights laws are based on these principles.
Several Nazi leaders, like Hitler and Himmler, were vegetarians and nature preservers for ideological reasons. However, Hitler apparently lapsed every now and then into eating the Austrian mountain delicatessen of his childhood, sausage, game animals, and air-dried ham. Nevertheless, part of his plans was to ban meat eating in the whole Europe governed by Aryans.
Himmler hated hunting. He noted to his Finnish-Estonian doctor: "How can you, Herr Kersten, enjoy shooting from a shelter at helpless creatures, who wander in the forest innocent, unable to protect themselves, and unsuspecting? It is real murder. The nature is tremendously beautiful and every animal has the right to live." Apparently, he also used the concept "animal rights" for the first time in its modern sense in an SS family publication in 1934. In his writing, he admired Germans who did not kill rats but sued them as their equals. In the court, the rats had a defendant and they were given a chance to change their ways and stop romping in the grain store. This man, who expressed deep and kind affection towards nature and animal, was on the other hand a cold-blooded fanatic, who commanded SS troops, Gestapo, and the concentrations camps in Germany with well-known efficiency.
The Swedish historian Peter Englund has observed the inconsistent personalities Nazi leaders had. Several of them hated humans, and it was hard for them to act naturally in the company of other people. They substituted this with a close relationship to animals. The pronounced love for their pets of for instance Hitler and Rudolf Hess, in addition to deep conviction to nature preservation, were inner arguments for "I am a good person, without a doubt". Englund's argument that turns the issue into psychology is somewhat weak, but it can still make a lot of sense.
No difference between animals and people
The image Nazis had about the relationship of man and nature was mystical and vulgarly Darwinist. Modern animal rights movements base their ideas on the equality of humans and animals. The Nazi ideology justified similar arguments by inequality. No difference between man and animal was seen, but instead a hierarchical continuum. At the top of the Nazi view of nature were the racially pure Aryans. Then came the animals, of whom the highest and most respected were the strong beasts that subdued all the others under their might. Then came the other animals and finally, subhumans. The ones on top of the hierarchy had the moral duty to defend their weaker brothers. Humanity as a concept was denied completely.
Nazis solved the ethical problems of animal rights by drawing a line between animals and subhumans. Thus, strict laws on animal protection and guidelines for animal testing did not apply to subhumans. If someone, for instance, had transported slaughter animals in the same way Jews were transported to extermination camps, that person would have been shot. However, strict animal testing guidelines had to be moderated in practice because most doctors were not willing to replace test animals with humans. Convinced Nazis, like Mengele, were an exception. As has been claimed many times, the most brutal part is that Nazis' human tests were partly successful. For example, the suitable treatment for hypothermia is still based on them.
There is a long ideological tradition behind the Nazi ideas of animal rights. In the spirit of nationalism, German thinking had already imagined a connection with the nature and animals during the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century. One of the central opinion leaders was composer Richard Wagner who justified both vegetarianism and opposing animal tests with anti-Semitism. In his opinion, meat eating and animal oppression originated from the Jewish and, they had destroyed the pure German race. In his opinion, animal testing was connected with the Jewish kosher-slaughtering.
Thoughts and feeling of responsibility of the Nazis to act directly against vivisection laboratories and their personnel originated directly from Wagner. Even Jewish persecution was partly justified as animal protection: the Jews oppressed animals, therefore attacking them was defending the weak and, as such, a moral duty. This makes it difficult to consider the more progressive ideas of Nazism; they were connected directly with the darkest sides of their ideology.
The burden of history
Most of the Nazis' animal protection rules were dissolved after the fall of the Third Reich. The wolf was hunted extinct, and nature preservation areas were cultivated. In Germany, history burdened everything connected with nature preservation and vegetarianism until the beginning of the 70s. Some older Germans still connect vegetarianism first with Hitler. Third Reich's views of animal protection come up every now and then within the right-wing parties. In England, some neo-Nazis who have read more about the subject have tried to join in the Animal Rights movement. There has been discussion of the Green Nazi phenomenon in the United States, and Göring's famous speech can easily be found on the Internet's neo-Nazi websites.
In Finland, the ideological tradition of the Nazis lives on in Pentti Linkola's thoughts. Linkola has been classified as a follower of the ideology in international debates. Nothing is known of the matter in Finland, so the issue has not received attention. Awareness of the ideological tradition can, however, be found even in Linkola's own texts. This can be seen perhaps the clearest in his writing for the magazine Hiidenkivi (1/2001) and the debate that followed it. Linkola defines "ideologies like Nazism, which highlight the quality and moral backbone of humans" as ethically superior and regrets the unfortunate end of WWII. Perhaps the most important distinction is that when Nazis classify people's relationship with nature according to race, Linkola does the same according to their social standing and political ideologies. He sees working class and left-wing parties as dangerous to the nature and the society, and that they also limit rights.
However, Linkola's misanthropic deep ecology appears to be marginal within the thought of Finnish animal activists. It appears the majority lean on a Singerian view of equality and spreading rights outside the sphere of humans. Even though these most common modern arguments for animal and nature preservation differ from the Nazi views, the conclusions remain so similar that the whole Nazi Germany question is awkward to animal activists today. The Nazis' idea of nature is undoubtedly painful for those who regard vegetarianism and acknowledging animal rights as a sign of their own moral superiority. This thought is precisely the same the Nazis had. However, most people will probably understand that the evilness of the Nazi ideology does not mean that all their thoughts that coincide with those of the Nazis' are evil as such. And not all of the ideas they had were, in the first instance, bad despite awkward reasoning, but they should be considered as a part of larger European philosophical history and its development.