Thursday, April 12, 2007

Meanwhile: A green springtime for Hitler

By Alex Beam The Boston Globe

BOSTON: In anticipation of Earth Day, everyone wants to do his bit. Leonardo DiCaprio is vamping on an Icelandic glacier for the cover of Vanity Fair, alongside a Photoshopped polar bear. In the same issue, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. rants and raves about the un-green-ness of George Bush's EPA, while he and his family work overtime to scuttle a renewable energy wind-farm project located a bit too close to the family manse on Cape Cod.

Elsewhere, Levi's is selling "ecojeans," the perfumer Lancome is supporting reforestation projects, and the private air carrier Cerulean Jets is eliminating its carbon emissions by going out of business. No - sorry. That would be too practical. Instead, the jet-setters are buying carbon "offsets" from a power company in Vermont.

Everyone is doing their bit. Me, I am reading the important book, "How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment and Nation in the Third Reich."

I know what you are thinking. I have fallen for a hoax. No one in their right mind would research and publish a book stating, "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." Or: "The Nazis did in fact impact the landscape in ways far out of proportion to the short twelve years they were in power."

But in fact, three professors - Franz-Josef Bruggemeier of Freiburg University, Mark Cioc from the University of California/Santa Cruz and the University of Maryland's Thomas Zeller - have done just that.

It is undeniably true that Adolf and his crew were A-number-one landscape-impacters. London got plenty impacted by the Nazis' environmental outreach program, as did cities like Leningrad, Stalingrad, Dresden and Berlin. According to this book, the Nazis had big plans for spreading their green ideology eastward into Poland, Ukraine and Russia. "In the vast territories conquered in the east . . . they saw the opportunity to create a better, greener, future, combining racist and environmental thinking," the authors write. How sad that the East European Jews didn't go along with the program! What soreheads.

It's incredible that anyone would actually publish sentences like these: "The Nazis, however, were not interested in turning Germany into a tree farm"; "World War II was the opportunity that many modernist landscape architects had been waiting for"; or, "In the end, everyone . . . agreed that it was the wrong moment to embark on any projects with organic farming."

Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.

To be fair, I did learn a lot. I already knew that Hitler was a vegetarian with a taste for nonalcoholic beer, but I didn't know that SS boss Heinrich Himmler also eschewed meat or that Hermann Goering had a "sincere interest in forest conservation." The Nazi party secretary Rudolf Hess was a devotee of organic gardening. Did you know that there was an organic herb garden at Dachau? Marvelous! It's depressing how many historians insist on dwelling on the negatives.

Co-author Zeller directed me to some reviews. " 'How Green Were the Nazis?' is a must for those who want to be introduced to the controversial relationship of Hitler's regime with the natural world," says the Web site Humanities and Social Services Online.

Striking a more realistic note, another reviewer comments that "the articles collected here provide little evidence that the Nazis were, in fact, sincere environmentalists."

No strangers to self-praise, the authors claim that their work "offer(s) a more nuanced and historically richer answer to the question, 'How green were the Nazis?' than previous efforts." I love the word "nuanced," which, like "layered," always ends up on the tongues of pseudo-intellectuals. Here, nuanced means "intellectually indefensible."

But perhaps I am being too harsh. Maybe all of World War II should be re-examined through a green filter. Think of the eco-carnage in the Ardennes forest as General George Patton and his brutish Third Army attacked the German environmentalists with their exhaust-spewing, tree-crushing tanks! Didn't they know the Nazis were just trying to create a big national park between the Atlantic and the Urals?

How green was Caligula, anyway?

Alex Beam's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.

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