- Turning to Nature in Germany: Hiking, Nudism, and Conservation, 1900-1940
During the last few years, conservative pundits such as Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck out to craft revisionist history have labored mightily to associate Nazism with modern-day American progressivism, including environmentalism. The connection is spurious to the point of mendacity, but professional historians have supported a far less insidious yet nonetheless inaccurate generalization: nature organizations helped pave the way for Nazism through the propagation of a Blut und Boden worldview. In his new work, John Alexander Williams attempts to rehabilitate German nature groups and divine their true intentions.
Arguing against the perception of naturists as proto-fascists, Williams claims that nudists, hikers, and conservationists had diverse motivations and that socialist naturists have been ignored in the past. He uses these heretofore overlooked groups to make the larger argument that naturism criticized modernity with the intention of improving, not destroying it. Although there are issues with the book's scope and coherence, it nevertheless offers a valuable corrective to long-held assumptions about nature movements in Germany.
In his discussion of nudism, Williams spotlights socialist nudists who sought to improve living conditions for workers and to humanize modernity. While acknowledging the dialogue and socialization established between socialist and "bourgeois" nudists, Williams nevertheless takes pains to stress the differences between the two. In drawing contrasts he criticizes Chad Ross and others who have emphasized the similarities of nudist groups. Based on the evidence provided, however, some of these differences appear to be overstated. Adolf Koch, the leader of the socialist nudists, cooperated with the Nazi regime after 1933, and Williams is cagey as to whether this arose from the desire to survive, or represented points of ideological agreement between nudism and Nazism. [End Page 173]
From nudism Williams moves on to hiking and specifically youth hiking, which makes up the bulk of the book. So-called social hiking, undertaken by popular groups like the Naturfreunde (friends of nature), combined an interest in nature with social justice. Like nudists, social hikers worried that modernity had severed the human relationship with nature. Williams argues that social hikers revived the venerable German notion of Heimat (best translated, inadequately, as "homeland") and managed to craft a national identity that avoided fascistic "blood and soil" ideology.
Social hiking became a mainstay of the growing youth movement. Generally, Williams divides youth groups between those run by youth in the interest of youth freedom like the Wandervögel (migrating birds) and official groups sanctioned by adult authorities, which he terms the "youth cultivators." Those involved in the unofficial youth movement, like social hikers and nudists, saw in nature an antidote to the excesses and alienation of modern life. Their critiques could be pointed: some attacked the sexual repression of German society, others questioned nationalism. Sexuality was often a concern within these groups and among those who feared the consequences of unsupervised youth hiking into the forest together.
After the war, and in response to the popularity of the Wandervögel and other youth groups, youth cultivation and its values became more prominent. While the Wandervögel increasingly took on the cultivators' ideal of "liberation through self-discipline," more progressive members in turn influenced the youth cultivators, who took on a more reverent stance towards nature as a site of liberation. Under the Nazis so-called wild hiking, meaning unsupervised youth hiking, suddenly became a subversive form of protest and thus a target of the government's ire. Crucially, Williams argues that the Hitler Youth did not adhere to the veneration of nature which had inspired prior youth groups. Instead, he says that the Hitler Youth had a vulgarized Social Darwinian view of nature as the battlefield for racial warfare.
At the end of the book, Williams connects the rising conservationist movement with fears that modernity was running out of control and threatening to destroy nature. During the Weimar era, the conservationist movement increasingly linked their cause with the protection of Heimat but did so in ways that...