- Triumph of the TillThe organic food movement’s Nazi past
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“Leave our food as natural as possible!” Whether or not you agree with this statement, it probably sounds familiar. Natural food advocates have a vested interest in convincing you that their foods are better: environmentally for our planet, physiologically for our bodies, and ethically for animals and other humans. [End Page 83] In one particularly clever ad released on You-Tube by the Organic Trade Association, “the organic rebellion” battles for control of the American supermarket against “the dark side of the farm.” The rebels are Cuke Skywalker, Obi Wan Cannoli, Tofu D2, Chew Broccoli, and Princess Lettuce; on the dark side are Darth Tater (“more chemical than vegetable”) and his band of genetically modified, irradiated, and pesticide-saturated followers. A quick glance at the thousands of comments below the video confirms that even children have no trouble getting the message: Natural is good, artificial is bad.
How strange, then, to realize that “Leave our food as natural as possible!” started as a Nazi slogan. Werner Kollath, the physician who came up with it in 1942, was an expert on vitamins and diseases linked to nutritional deficiencies as well as a member of the Nazi Party. As dean of the medical school at the University of Rostock in northern Germany, he openly supported forced sterilization and other eugenic policies closely tied to racial war and genocide. By the standards of his time and place, he was both a good scientist and a good party member. After Germany’s defeat and division, however, Kollath found himself shut out of the academy because of his Nazi past. Undaunted, he found non-academic channels for promoting his vision of German dietary reform, enjoying great success as a medical popularizer before his death in 1970. His call to “leave our food as natural as possible” lives on today, in Germany and elsewhere.
Kollath was not an outlier. To begin to understand the degree to which diet mattered to the Nazis, consider the following: Adolf Hitler ate mostly vegetarian and organic foods. So did Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of the Nazi Party. Heinrich Himmler, who presided over the SS and was a main architect of the Holocaust, was not a vegetarian, but he did lend strong support to the cause of organic farming. And these were not just the personal predilections of party leaders. Urging Germans to eat more naturally was, in fact, a regular theme in Nazi propaganda. In 1934, the state-funded exhibit “German People, German Workers” included guidelines on how to eat in the Third Reich. Germans were advised give up beef, pork, white bread, refined sugar, and alcoholic drinks, and to eat more unpeeled potatoes, rye bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, and eggs, supplemented with a few herring and a glass of mineral water.
As to why a regime infamous for crimes against humanity devoted any time at all to natural food, part of the answer lies with the memory of World War I. Hunger, Nazi officials knew, had been central to Germany’s experience of the Great War. British blockades of German ports from late 1914 until after the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919 had exploited Germany’s dependence on a global nutritional economy, with dire consequences. Access to imported meats, grains, and, perhaps most importantly, nitrogenous fertilizers suddenly ceased and severe food shortages set in. After the war ended, experts blamed up to 1 million additional deaths in Germany on malnutrition. Hunger, moreover, pushed many Germans into open revolt against their government in 1917 and contributed to the country’s military defeat the following year. With memories of wartime hunger still fresh in the 20s and 30s, German political leaders of all stripes dedicated significant energy to ensuring that nutritional disaster on that scale could never happen again. That meant reorganizing [End Page 84] the way the country ate and farmed so that Germans, as much as possible, could feed themselves with their own labor on their own fields. Instead of relying...