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Animal Rights & The Nazis

In April 1933, soon after they had come to power, the Nazis passed laws regulating the slaughter of animals. Later that year Herman Goering announced an end to the “unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments” and—in an extremely unusual admission of the existence of such institutions—threatened to “commit to concentration camps those who still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property.” Bans on vivisection were issued—though later partly rescinded—in Bavaria and Prussia. Horses, cats, and apes were singled out for special protection. In 1936 a special law was passed regarding the correct way of dispatching lobsters and crabs and thus mitigating their terminal agonies. Crustaceans were to be thrown into rapidly boiling water. Bureaucrats at the Nazi Ministry of the Interior had produced learned research papers on the kindest method of killing.

Laws protecting wildlife were also passed, under somewhat eugenic protocols: “The duty of a true hunter is not only to hunt but also to nurture and protect wild animals in order that a more varied, stronger and healthier breed shall emerge and be preserved.” The Nazis were much concerned about endangered species, and Goering set up nature reserves to protect elk, bison, bears, and wild horses. (Goering called forests “God’s cathedrals,” thus echoing the idiom of John Muir, one of the fathers of the American national park movement, and a despiser of Indians.) The aim of the Law for the Protection of Animals was—as the preamble stated—“to waken and strengthen compassion as one of the highest moral values of the German people.” Animals were to be protected for their own sake rather than as appendages to the human moral and material condition. This was hailed as a new moral concept. In 1934 an international conference in Berlin on the topic of animal protection saw the podium festooned with swastikas and crowned by a banner declaring, “Entire epochs of love will be needed to repay animals for their value and service.”

Nazi leaders were noted for love of their pets and for certain animals, notably apex predators like the wolf and the lion. Hitler, a vegetarian and hater of hunting, adored dogs and spent some of his final hours in the company of Blondi, whom he would take for walks outside the bunker at some danger to himself. He had a particular enthusiasm for birds and most of all for wolves. His cover name was Herr Wolf. Many of his interim headquarters had “Wolf” as a prefix, as in Wolfschanze, in East Prussia, of which Hitler said, “I am the wolf and this is my den.” He also liked to whistle the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from a Disney movie.


Goebbels said, famously, “The only real friend one has in the end is the dog… The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno.” Goebbels also agreed with Hitler that “meat eating is a perversion in our human nature,” and that Christianity was a “symptom of decay,” since it did not urge vegetarianism. Rudolf Hess was another affectionate pet owner.

On the one hand, monsters of cruelty toward their fellow humans, on the other, kind to animals and zealous in their interest. In their very fine essay on such contradictions in Anthrozoos (1992), Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax offer three observations. One, as just noted, many Nazi leaders harbored affection toward animals but antipathy to humans. Hitler was given films that displayed animals killing people. The Führer watched with equanimity. Another film showed humans killing animals. Hitler covered his eyes and begged to be told when the slaughter was over. In the same passage in his diary from the 1920s quoted above, Goebbels wrote, “As soon as I am with a person for three days, I don’t like him any longer… I have learned to despise the human being from the bottom of my soul.”

Second, animal-protection measures “may have been a legal veil to level an attack on the Jews. In making this attack, the Nazis allied themselves with animals since both were portrayed as victims of ‘oppressors’ such as Jews.”

Central to this equation was the composer Richard Wagner, an ardent vegetarian who urged attacks on laboratories and physical assault on vivisectionists, whom he associated with Jews (presumably because of kosher killing methods). Identifying vivisectors as the enemy, Wagner wrote that vivisection of frogs was “the curse of our civilization.” Those who failed to untruss and liberate frogs were “enemies of the state.”

Vivisection, in Wagner’s view, stood for mechanistic science, extrusion of a rationalist intellectualism that assailed the unity of nature, of which man is a part. He believed the purity of Aryans had been compromised by meat eating and mixing of the races. A non-meat diet plus the Eucharist would engender a return to the original, uncorrupted state of affairs. Wagner borrowed from Viennese monk Adolf Lanze, who held that in the beginning there were Aryans and Apes, with Germans closest to the former and Jews to the latter. The core enterprise was to perfect the breed and purge the coarser element. This went for animals too, in an unremitting process of genetic purification.

Finally, as Arluke and Sax put it, “the Nazis abolished moral distinctions between animals and people by viewing people as animals. The result was that animals could be considered ‘higher’ than some people.”

The blond Aryan beast of Nietzche represented animality at the top available grade, at one with wild nature. But spirituality could be associated with animals destined for the table, as in this piece of German propaganda: “The Nordic peoples accord the pig the highest possible honor… in the cult of the Germans the pig occupies the first place and is the first among the domestic animals… The predominance of the pig, the sacred animal destined to sacrifices among the Nordic peoples, has drawn its originality from the great trees of the German forest. The Semites do not understand the pig, they reject the pig, where as this animal occupies the first place in the cult of the Nordic people.”

Aryans and animals were allied in a struggle against the contaminators, the vivisectors, the under-creatures. “The Führer,” Goebbels wrote, “is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian, views Christianity as a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a branch of the Jewish race… Both [Judaism and Christianity] have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end they will be destroyed. The Führer is a convinced vegetarian on principle.”

Race purification was often seen in terms of farm improvement, eliminating poor stock, and improving the herd. Martin Bormann had been an agricultural student and manager of a large farm. Himmler had been a chicken breeder. Medical researchers in the Third Reich, Arluke and Sax write, “also approached Germans as livestock. For instance, those familiar with Mengele’s concentration camp experiments believe that his thoughtlessness about the suffering of his victims stemmed from his passion about creating a genetically pure super-race, as though he were breeding horses.” Those contaminating Aryan stock were “lower animals” and should be dispatched. Seeing such people as low and coarse animal forms allowed their production-line slaughter. Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, was a great lover of animals, particularly horses, and after a hard day’s work in the death camp liked to stroll about the stables.

“Nazi German identity,” Arluke and Sax conclude, “relied on the blurring of boundaries between humans and animals and the constructing of a unique phylogenetic hierarchy that altered conventional human-animal distinctions and imperatives… As part of the natural order, Germans of Aryan stock were to be bred like farm stock, while ‘lower animals’ or ‘subhumans,’ such as the Jews and other victims of the Holocaust were to be exterminated like vermin as testament to the new ‘natural’ and biological order conceived under the Third Reich.”

Animal-rights advocates and vegetarians often fidget under jeers that it was Nazis who banned vivisection. In fact vivisection continued through the Third Reich. The British journal The Lancet commented on the Nazis’ animal experimentation laws of 1933 that “it will be seen from the text of these regulations that those restrictions imposed [in Germany] follow rather closely those enforced in [England].”

The moral here is not that there is something inherently Nazi-like in campaigning against vivisection or deploring the eating of animals’ meat or reviling the cruelties of the feedlot and the abattoir. The moral is that ideologies of nature imbued with corrupt race theory and a degraded romanticism can lead people up the wrong path, one whose terminus was an abattoir for “unhealthy” humans, constructed as a reverse image of the death camp for (supposedly) healthy animals to be consumed by humans. For the Nazis their death camps were, in a way, romanticism’s revenge for the slaughterhouses and the hogsqueal of the universe as echoing from the Union Stockyards in Chicago, which perfected industrial methods of mass killing nearly a century before Auschwitz.

(A version of this essay originally appeared in City Pages and will be included in the forthcoming book An Orgy of Thieves. (Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Courtesy,


  1. Sara Lyn Stanfield March 10, 2016


    At a very young age, I became interested in WWII’s history due to the heroics of a relative who was in the US Army. Thus, at the tender age of 14, I learned about the Holocaust & humanity’s cruel, barbaric streak. It is no surprise that I grew up distrusting people yet loving animals.

    In high school, I read bios of Hitler & his Nazi crew and learned that they were vegetarians like me. And animals lovers. They even enacted laws to alleviate animal suffering.

    I was about 16 when I concluded that the contrast of respect toward animals shown by the Nazis as opposed to their eager extermination of Jews and other “undesirable” people proved to me that no one person or political party can be deemed as all evil or all virtuous. We have good, bad & ugly tendrils sprouting shoots that run thru our hearts & soul. What redeems us as individuals is our ability to wrestle our own personal demons to the ground instead of giving them a fertile garden in which to grow. These efforts can be extrapolated to society as a whole.

    That lesson has served me well as an adult who has come into contact with my share of venomous people. I had the sense to walk away from them despite the fact that they, too, loved their dogs.

    Thank you for the interesting article! Sara Lyn _^..^_

  2. Jerry Friedman March 12, 2016

    Your terms are mixed up. “In April 1933, soon after they had come to power, the Nazis passed laws regulating the slaughter of animals. […] Bureaucrats at the Nazi Ministry of the Interior had produced learned research papers on the kindest method of killing.”

    Animal rights is anti-killing. If a society regulates how nonhuman animals are to be killed, it is not an animal rights society, just like you cannot call Nazi Germany a human rights society if they had laws regulating how humans can be killed.

    Hitler was not a vegetarian—at best he was an ascetic. Vegetarianism is not veganism. Anti-vivisection is not animal rights. If your terms are mixed up, so too is your analysis and conclusion.

    • Diana Trimble March 11, 2018

      If the animal rights movement is “anti-killing” then why does PETA euthanize so many pets? Why does Ingrid Newkirk treat her diabetes with Insulin, tested on animals, rather than letting herself just naturally expire? That would be because it is a fundamentally, logically flawed belief system, that has been correctly nicknamed “misguided compassion.” Your opinion that making slaughter of edible animals more humane is irrelevant because you stand for the higher principle that opposes the very killing of the farm animal is extremely arrogant and shows a gross lack of concern for the real experiences of animals that are currently suffering on concentration-like factory farms.

      I, on the other hand, as an ethical omnivore that you look down upon because I eat meat, have campaigned for small and local farms to be given preference, subsidies and protectionist measures, warning labels and tariff’s on mass-produced meat, eggs, and dairy, so as to ensure ethical animal husbandry. The industry actually cares what I think because I am a consumer, whereas you are a self-righteous idealist attempting to impose your set of values on the larger society, despite having a minority opinion.

      It is not realistic that the vegan ideology of abstaining from all animal products will ever extend to the majority of humans, not without totalitarian force such as the Nazis espoused, thus, even if I were to be generous and ascribe you good motives, you would be “making the perfect the enemy of the good” as you are evidently perfectly happy to reject the notion that it could be within an animal’s “rights” (btw, an entirely human concept that is meaningless in nature) to be treated with humane compassion, even if slaughter is the end result.

      The only reason today’s supermarkets feature such a range of cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, free-range pork, organic and other ethical animal products, is because campaigners like myself have spent energy educating the public and changing laws.

      A farm animal is not a human being with a fear of death, worrying about when the grim reaper is going to come and neither is it a wild animal capable of survival in the elements. If it is fortunate enough to be born into a small, ethical farmstead, it will have a wonderful life, free of stress from predators, with a secure food supply and loving humans who take care of its every need. And it won’t even know it when the chop does finally come.

      A person who thinks there is something wrong with that, and would prefer to campaign for the outlawing of animal products than for the humane treatment and ethical slaughter of real farm animals, is just a poseur of moral superiority.
      I also have to say that many of the strident vegans and so-called animal rights activists that I’ve personally known have been likewise logically-challenged and hypocritical in terms of their lack of concern for humans and preference of animals. There is no other species that prefers another than its own, so that is a perversion already. I can point to things like taking Quinoa out of the mouths of the Bolivian peasantry in order to satisfy the conscience of urban vegans searching for that fabled perfect non-animal protein as hypocrisies I find particularly heinous. Lots of the animal rights activists that I’ve met are misanthropes who hate the human race and are embarrassed to be part of it.

  3. Nate Collins March 12, 2016

    The Nazis were apparently very homoerotic too. Creepy.

  4. james marmon March 12, 2016

    The volunteers who are being coerced to sign a conduct policy in order to return helping at the shelter need to contact 1st District candidate Montana Podva. He is a constitutional lawyer and an animal rights activist.

  5. Beth Aaron March 12, 2016

    Charles Patterson’s book, Eternal Treblinka, Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, explores the ancient history of learned abuse of power by force, inherent in human society since domesticating non-humans opened the Pandora’s box. takes readers on a historical journey of domesticating wild animals, what are commonly refered to as farmed animals, genetically manipulated into freaks of nature normalized as “natural.”

    Hitler ate, according to interviews , squab, sausages, and much more. His bouts with flatulence, stomach issues, and mothers death from cancer, caused much caution about his diet.

    65 billion farmed animals are butchered every year. The real cost of their deaths is the death of human health and the planet. Humans are lost in carnism, the carnage we eat is the carnage we manifest that comes full circle. Read The World Peace Diet, by Will Tuttle.

  6. Gary Loewenthal March 12, 2016

    The Nazis modeled their death camps after the Chicago slaughterhouses. In both cases, assembly-line killing was a hedge against empathy for the victims.

    Hitler was never a vegetarian. Historians recount testimony from his close associates that some of his favorite foods were sausage and squab. Not that Hitler’s eating habits have any bearing on whether we should be kind and respectful to animals; refraining from inflicting avoidable harm to others is basic moral decency and the opposite of Nazism.

  7. Houston Wong March 12, 2016

    Psychological issues can cause people to lead astray. I still think that reducing our harm to our fellow creatures, be they human or non-human, is a noble pursuit and worthy of consideration, which is why I choose not to eat meat/dairy/eggs and try to buy cruelty-free products. Although this does not mean I am a Nazi, in fact I believe in equality for all genders, nationalities, religions, and species. We all have the power to exercise judgement. Killing is not a pleasant thing so why do so when it’s not needed?

  8. Sara Lyn Stanfield March 14, 2016

    Hello Again!

    For anyone wondering if Adolf Hitler was indeed a vegetarian, I will refer you to the biography:

    Adolf Hitler by John Willard Toland

    Written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, it is considered to be the definitive biography of Adolf Hitler. It is very detailed and amazingly objective considering the topic. I believe it was published in 1976.

    It is unique in that Toland interviewed over 200 people who knew Hitler. And, yes, according to them, Hitler was a vegetarian for much of his adult life until his death.

    All that says to me is that Hitler, like every other human being, was a complex person capable of contradictions of character which was my original point in my first comment.

    Also, in response to Jerry Friedman’s comment above, I just want to say that to evaluate Hitler’s or Nazi Germany’s views on the treatment of animals would be best done within the context of Europe or just Germany of their day. To compare our present day concepts of animal rights to theirs takes away from the fact that Hitler’s (and other Nazis’) advances for animals were amazing considering the attitudes of the day.

    And, I should NOT have to say this but I will: I am not defending Hitler in any way. He was…. an evil, twisted psychopath. I am just saying that even he had more than a few admirable characteristics.

    Good Day All! Sara Lyn _^..^_

    • Jerry Friedman March 14, 2016

      Sara, I appreciate your response.

      How are diametrically opposed historically facts resolved? I have not read Toland’s book but by implication Toland invalidates another scholar’s research (Rynn Berry, whom I referenced). Did Toland look at the same sources Berry looked at, namely other biographies of Hitler? How are the accounts of Hitler’s diet resolved when different historical sources make inconsistent claims? I am pretty sure the answer is not to dismiss one author or another but rather to investigate the inconsistency.

      The article above should have at least presented controversy on the topic of Hitler’s diet rather than make a claim based on one biography.

      “Also, in response to Jerry Friedman’s comment above, I just want to say that to evaluate Hitler’s or Nazi Germany’s views on the treatment of animals would be best done within the context of Europe or just Germany of their day. To compare our present day concepts of animal rights to theirs takes away from the fact that Hitler’s (and other Nazis’) advances for animals were amazing considering the attitudes of the day.”

      This is not a good approach, otherwise we must conclude that Thomas Jefferson was an Abolitionist, for in Jefferson’s day he was very good to slaves.

      There are at least two legitimate approaches to understanding history. One is to look at data on its own merit and the other is to look at data subject to the cultural attitudes of the day. Again, the article above is at best ambiguous as to which approach it takes. That ambiguity needs to be resolved. If it makes an object claim, which it appears to make, it’s wrong—the Nazis were nothing close to animal rights. If it makes a subjective claim, which it might be trying to make, it needs to say so. “Considering the attitudes of the early 20th Century, the Nazis believed in something kin to animal rights.”

      As I wrote originally, the article is not clear on how it uses terms and because it is not clear, it will cloud the mind of any reader who is unfamiliar with the material. If an article attempts to clarify a controversy but instead clouds it, it’s not well written. I fear that people who read the article and not these comments will be misled.

      • Sara Lyn Stanfield March 15, 2016

        Hello, Jerry!

        I hope you are having a good day. You have brought up several interesting points for discussion but I am stuck on your criticism of my approach to evaluating historical information.

        You said, “This is not a good approach…” in response to my statement that, “…to evaluate Hitler’s … views on the treatment of animals would be best done within the context of … their day. To compare our present day concepts of animal rights to theirs takes away from the fact that … [they] were amazing considering the attitudes of the day.”

        Yet, you then state that, “There are at least two legitimate approaches to understanding history. One is to look at data on its own merit and the other is to look at data subject to the cultural attitudes of the day.”

        How can you not see the similarity? I look at the facts and view history within the context of the times in which it occurred. Why exactly do you think that is “not a good approach”?

        Perhaps after we clear up this sticky wicket we can look at the other points. I suspect we are sitting on the same side of the road on animal rights even if we live a few blocks apart.

        All My Best, Sara Lyn

        • Jerry Friedman March 15, 2016


          I’m unclear on your authorship here as you are not listed as an author of the article.

          I stated that there are at least two legitimate approaches and then that the article is unclear as to which approach it takes.

          Without knowing the article’s methodology I am forced to read the text from a present-day context rather than read the text from a contemporaneous context. My criticisms on the use of technical terms are pretty clear from a present-day context—the article describes advances in nonhuman animal welfare (treat nonhumans nicer but use them as humans wish) and not animal rights (let nonhumans live their lives without interference from humans). All the laws referenced that permit killing, like boiling lobsters alive, are animal welfare laws and are not at all animal rights. Yet the title and the text of the article claim that Nazis embraced animal rights. Read from the present-day, the article fails to make its case because it doesn’t use correct terms.

          If the methodology is contemporaneous, which again is unclear and should be made clear, then it makes a bit more sense. Hitler and his henchmen may have thought themselves as animal rightists (by whatever term they would have used), but this idea of their subjective opinion as animal rightists isn’t explored. I would expect something like, “Hitler believed himself to stand for the rights of dogs and as evidence…, although this would not be called animal rights as it’s understood today.” While the article has some excellent observations, it does not carry its thesis that Nazis had anything to do with animal rights. Wagner was important to Hitler but I am unaware of Wagner setting policy or precedent within the Nazi party.

          I tried to analogize this to calling Thomas Jefferson an Abolitionist. From today’s standards, clearly he never was, for an Abolitionist as we understand the term in the present-day would not own slaves. Even from an 18th century perspective, it is a hard case to make that Jefferson thought himself an Abolitionist. His writings show he was not. If I wrote an article on Jefferson, called him an Abolitionist, and did not disclose my methodology, I would be (and should be) slammed for historical inaccuracy. Even if Hitler *may have thought himself* an animal rightist, clearly he was not, for the rules he put into effect denied nonhumans the right to life, as did Hitler deny the right to the animals whom he ate.

          So while the subjective methodology is legitimate, it has to be handled carefully. I saw no due care in the article.

          More important to me is propagating Hitler’s vegetarianism. While Toland documented his vegetarianism, Berry later corrected Toland’s account. Berry’s research needs to be addressed here before this article can be considered unbiased.

          FWIW, I am grateful that this article was published. It contains great historical information. My worry is its use of technical terms and not addressing Berry’s scholarship.

    • Jerry Friedman March 14, 2016


      “[Rynn] Berry has carefully researched everything available about Hitler’s alleged vegetarianism, and he cites several biographies to buttress his case. For example, Robert Payne’s ‘The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler,’ which has been called definitive, scotches the rumor that Hitler might have been a vegetarian. According to Payne, Hitler’s vegetarianism was a fiction made up by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to give him the aura of a revolutionary ascetic:

      ‘Hitler’s asceticism played an important part in the image he projected over Germany. According to the widely believed legend, he neither smoked nor drank, nor did he eat meat or have anything to do with women. Only the first was true. He drank beer and diluted wine frequently, had a special fondness for Bavarian sausages and kept a mistress, Eva Braun, who lived with him quietly in the Berghof. There had been other discreet affairs with women. His asceticism was fiction invented by Goebbels to emphasize his total dedication, his self-control, the distance that separated him from other men. By this outward show of asceticism, he could claim that he was dedicated to the service of his people. “In fact, he was remarkably self-indulgent and possessed none of the instincts of the ascetic. His cook, an enormously fat man named Willy Kanneneberg, produced exquisite meals and acted as court jester. Although Hitler had no fondness for meat except in the form of sausages, and never ate fish, he enjoyed caviar. He was a connoisseur of sweets, crystallized fruit and cream cakes, which he consumed in astonishing quantities. He drank tea and coffee drowned in cream and sugar. No dictator ever had a sweeter tooth.'”

      Without addressing both “definitive” claims, the controversy must be referenced. Referencing the one that an author happens to agree with is not good scholarly work.

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