The Roots of Green Politics in German Romanticism

The apparently sudden decision of the leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, to resign from federal parliament came as a surprise to most Australians but there were probably fewer raised eyebrows at his decision to visit Germany. Even without an invitation to address the Greens in Stuttgart, Bob Brown would likely still have visited the sacred home of environmentalism at some time, if only to pay respect to the founders of the movement from which his party arose.

At this point it is important to distinguish between the ideology of environmentalism and a love of nature. Most people enjoy beaches, mountains and forests, and would oppose their wanton destruction. They may consider themselves to be environmentalists because of their love of nature but they are not infused with the politics of environmentalism; nor are they ideologues with a ‘sacred’ mission. Many would not know that the ideology of environmentalism contains a dark secret of which Bob Brown must surely be aware.

To understand that secret one needs to look to Europe of the nineteenth century, in particular to the ideas of Romanticism, which were a reaction to the Enlightenment.

Not surprisingly, the Romantic movement embarked on a path that was essentially regressive and anti-rational; characteristics that all too common today among left-wing environmentalists. At its forefront was German Romanticism; a home-grown ideology that was to become highly influential in melding primitive naturalism and German nationalism.

Prior to the 1870s, Germany did not exist as a unified nation but comprised a number of independent provinces, principalities and city-states. If a common language brought the Germanic people together under Otto von Bismarck, it was belief in a mythological rustic nationalism that forged them into a nation and helped develop belief in a destiny that reached its apotheosis between 1933 and 1945.

An early exponent of the naturalist-nationalist cause was Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In a series of essays entitled Addresses to the German Nation (1808), he emphasised the ‘particular spiritual nature of the human environment’ and urged the German peoples to ‘have character and be German’. In common with later German environmentalists his idea of Germanness was bound up with anti-Semitism. Fichte argued that ‘making Jews free German citizens would hurt the German nation.’

In 1815 Ernst Arndt published an essay, On the Care and Conservation of Forests, in which he laments the exploitation of the countryside and the encroachment of German industrial expansion leading to despoliation, especially of forests. Like many of today’s environmentalists and animal rights activists, he preached the inter-dependence of all things in nature.

German land and its peasantry were at the heart of Arndt’s polemics. By combining his love of Teutonic blood and soil with a hatred of Jews, Slavs and the French, he successfully welded environmentalism with German nationalism.

Extolment of the German peasant was also a major feature of Wilhelm Riehl’s opposition to the growth of cities and industry. A disciple of Arndt, Riehl wrote in his 1853 essay, Field and Forest, ‘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.’ His entreaty to fight for ‘the rights of wilderness’ anticipated the kind of thinking that inspires Green activists today. Known as the founder of agrarian romanticism and anti-urbanism, Riehl contrasted the glorious German peasantry with cosmopolitan Jews.

Fichte, Riehl and Arndt looked back to a simplistic agrarian utopia that had never existed; it was an imaginary landscape where purity of blood was combined with German soil to produce a Teutonic paradise that could be compared to the purgatory of urban civilisation.

The views of all three thinkers were important in the development of a movement known as the Völkisch, a loose grouping of nationalistic conservatives who combined German history and folklore with anti-urbanism and a back-to-the-land ideology.

In the words of Petteri Pietikainen, the Völkisch movement was ‘a cauldron of beliefs, fears and hopes that found expression in various movements and were often articulated in an emotional tone… Völkisch ideology was originally an ultra-nationalist reaction against the dominant social, political and cultural trends of the 1870s and 1880s.’ (‘The Völk and its Unconscious: Jung, Hauer and the German Revolution’, Journal of Contemporary History 35.4, October 2000: p. 524)

The idealised image of simple, honest, upright country farmers building a self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle underpinned by mystical union with the soil resonated with members of the Völkisch movement. To this lifestyle were added arcane and esoteric beliefs and a worship of German folk mythology to produce an ethnic nationalism that was to find its most emphatic artistic expression in the operas of Richard Wagner. Not surprisingly, cosmopolitan Jews were to have no place in this movement, or in the idealised German nation of the future.

The hackneyed word ecology was coined by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who propounded a variation of social Darwinism combined with a materialistic interpretation of Spinoza and Bruno that he termed, monism—the premise that all true questions have only one true answer, all other answers being false. Haeckel’s anti-humanist philosophy aimed to reduce man to the level of just another animal; a view that is not uncommon among many environmentalists. His firm belief in the benefits of eugenics is echoed today by those who advocate the early disposal of retarded children and the elderly.

A believer in the superiority of the Nordic race, Haeckel brought together mystical racism with environmentalism, and preached a rabid nationalism and anti-Semitism that became an enduring feature of the German ecological movement.

In the view of Peter Staudenmaier (‘Fascist Ecology: The “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents’, online essay) ‘ecology was bound up in an intensely reactionary political framework. The specific contours of this early marriage of ecology and authoritarian social views are highly instructive.’ Indeed they are, as the Greens consistently demonstrate.

Another of the most influential early ecologists was the German philosopher, Ludwig Klages. An opponent of rational thought, one who condemned ideas of progress and reason, Klages was also a fanatical anti-Semite. In the opinion of Walter Laqueur, he was ‘an intellectual pacemaker of the Third Reich’ who ‘paved the way for fascist philosophy in many important respects.’ (Young Germany: A History of the German Youth Movement, London, 1962, p. 34)

In his 1913 essay Man and Earth, Klages rails against the extinction of species, deforestation, destruction of the habitats of animals and indigenous people, urban expansion, human consumption, killing of whales and the increasing alienation of man from nature. Almost a hundred years later, the Greens express identical views and it is not surprising that Man and Earth was republished in 1980 to coincide with the founding of the German Greens Party.

At this point it is pertinent to seek an explanation for the high correlation between early environmentalism and anti-Semitism. In the first place, anti-Semitism had been preached in Germany for centuries by both the Catholic and Lutheran churches. Added to this, as far as German environmentalists were concerned, Jews were the antithesis of the idealised, conservative peasant who was bound to the soil and lived in perfect equilibrium with nature.

By contrast, German Jews were largely urbanised, increasingly educated, engaged in trade and commerce, and well represented in professions such as medicine and law. Aided by the influence of the Enlightenment, many had risen to positions of importance in German society. Nevertheless, Jews had never embraced Nordic mythology with its panoply of gods and spirits, and were too progressive to opt for a rural, subsistence lifestyle that environmentalists embrace.

The toxic mixture of mystical naturalism, extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism that characterised German environmentalism was to play an important part in the ideology of the Nazi Party.

In 1935, under the guidance of Hermann Göring, Germany passed the Reichsnaturschutzgesetz, a national conservation law that spelt out safeguards for flora, fauna and natural monuments. Wilhelm Lienenkamper, a leading conservationist of the day, saw the law not as ‘an accidental by-product of Nazi rule but a direct expression of the “new Weltanschauung”’. (Frank Uekoetter, The Green and the Brown, Cambridge, USA, 2006, p. 1)

One of the most influential thinkers in the formation of Nazi environmental ideology was Richard Walther Darré, who provided the party with an agrarian mystique that appealed to the German peasantry as well as to party leaders such as Rosenberg, Himmler and Hess. Referred to as ‘the father of the Greens’ (Anna Bramwell, ‘Darré. Was This Man “Father of the Greens”?’ History Today, Sept. 1984, Vol. 34, pp 7-13), Darré was Minister for Agriculture and Peasant Leader between 1933 and 1942.

Darré proposed that Europe should return to ruralism founded on a yeoman peasantry that would ensure racial health and ecological sustainability (Peter Staudenmaier, op. cit.). In a speech in 1930 entitled ‘Blood and Soil as the Foundations of the Nordic Race’, Darré claimed that ‘The unity of blood and soil must be restored.’

Another influential Nazi was Reichminister Fritz Todt, who established rigid criteria for protecting wetlands, forests and other sensitive areas. His chief adviser, Alwin Seifert, who was known within the party as ‘Mr Mother Earth’ advocated the total conversion of technology to nature.

In view of the Nazis’ wanton destruction, it is hard to imagine them in the vanguard of a movement that appeared committed to the environment, yet there was ‘an ideological overlap between Nazi ideas and conservationist agendas … The Nazis created nature preserves, championed sustainable forestry, curbed air pollution, and designed the autobahn highway network as a way of bringing Germans closer to Nature’. (How Green were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, Franz-Josef Bruggemeier, Mark Cioc, and Thomas Zeller (eds.), 2005)

Robert Pois (National Socialism and the Religion of Nature, London, 1985, p. 40) describes Nazism as ‘a volatile admixture of 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.’

The subservience of mankind to nature is emphasised in the following quotation that might well have been written by contemporary environmentalists who so delight in doomsday prophesies: ‘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.’ In fact, these words were written by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.

Interestingly, although powerful elements within the Nazi party were dedicated environmentalists, Hitler’s attempt at European domination ensured that conservation of nature took second place to rapid industrialisation. The protection of nature was never the most urgent aspect of Nazi policy.

Nevertheless, the ties that bound environmentalism to Nazism are easy to account for since, according to Jurriaan Maessen, ‘environmental fanatics care nothing for matters of liberty, gladly surrendering it to tyrants and their promises of environmental sustainability…most environmentalists love collectivism and are prepared to marry almost every regime that claims to work for a clean and green environment’. (‘The Green Nazis: Environmentalism in the Third Reich’, online essay; Frank Uekoetter, op. cit., p. 2).

No doubt Bob Brown would publicly distance himself from the extremism associated with the German founders of the environmental movement and the brutal excesses of the Nazis. To openly support them would attract few votes and the Australian Greens are hardly the Nazi party by another name.

Parallels between the Greens and extreme right-wing parties are not in regard to policies but rather in respect of their common environmentalist roots, their quasi-religious dogmatism and their shared image of themselves as superior beings intent on converting modern, industrial society to an agrarian utopia.

Of utopias and movements that pertain to the perfect life, Sir Isaiah Berlin says: ‘it seems as if the doctrine that all kinds on monstrous cruelties must be permitted, because without these the ideal state of affairs cannot be attained … the perfect universe is not merely unattainable but inconceivable, and everything done to bring it about is founded on an enormous intellectual fallacy.’ (‘My Intellectual Path’ in The Power of Ideas. H. Hardy (ed.), London, 2001, p. 23)

Having taken it upon themselves to save the environment from trumped-up destruction, the Greens have become message-bearers of messianic significance. Yet their environmental and ecological policies are no more that the recycled detritus of German romanticism. Despite masquerading as a modern, progressive political force, the Greens are a party of reactionaries founded on hatred (or fear) of modernity and an unrealistic glorification of primitivism.

In an echo of the past, anti-Semitism of some party’s members, camouflaged as anti-Zionism, has come to the fore. An example was the decision in December 2010 of the NSW State Conference of the Australian Greens to support a boycott of Israel, and the failure of the Greens to support Senator Ron Boswell’s motion on 18 August 2011 condemning the boycott of Israeli-owned Max Brenner chocolate stores and all other Israeli companies.

To these decisions might be added the presence of Green’s Senator, Lee Rhiannon, at anti-Israel rallies accompanied by Sheikh Taj el-Din Hilaly who denounced Israel as a “terrorist state”, and her accusation that Israel had committed “crimes against humanity”. Support also came from her fellow senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, who attended an ‘Australians for Palestine’ rally where the mainly Muslim crowd carried swastikas and anti-Jewish banners.

Significantly, the Australian Greens do not protest against Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Gaza, etc where real crimes against humanity are everyday events, and where hatred of Israel and death to all Jews are sentiments that are officially encouraged.

The combination of the Green’s historical environmental credentials with an aggressive, anti-Israel posturing of some of the party’s senators—posturing that Bob Brown refused to condemn unequivocally—might appear to be a re-run of history. This was pointed-out by the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, who accused the Greens of echoing the worst aspects of historical anti-Semitism in Europe (Australian, 24 August 2011).

According to Senator Ron Boswell, ‘The Greens are morphing into reds and have become the Socialist Alliance, the One Nation of the Left’ (Australian, 19 April 2011).

The former Prime Minister, John Howard, believes that the Australian Greens have peaked. For the sake of the nation’s future, let us hope he is right.

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