- Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment c. 1870 to 2000 by Corinna Treitel
In 1867, the liberal scientist Rudolf Virchow argued that "in the tangled relationship between modern society and the state the food question is always the first and most important one" because it was at the center of "the feared social question" (19). In Eating Nature, Corinna Treitel analyzes these tangled relationships by looking at the ways in which Germans articulated ideas about the relationship between politics, food, and nature. In examining how scientists, political activists, and social and life reformers developed diverse and often contradictory visions of food production, consumption, and health, Treitel's work provides fresh insights into the ways in which state and nonstate actors articulated biopolitical visions for socially cohesive and internationally competitive societies from the empire to German unification in the 1990s. In opting for a decentered investigation of multiple movements and actors, Treitel examines how ideas about food, productivity, natural healing, and nature were developed by life reformers with different political views and agendas and co-opted by members of the scientific establishment who, in turn, provided expert advice for governments.
An obsession with natural food, Treitel argues, is a recurring thread of modern German history because it addresses two fundamental issues: the desire to use the nation's food sources efficiently in times of scarcity and hunger, and the desire to optimize public health in times of nutritional abundance. The discourse on natural food could easily align with different political priorities. In times of food scarcity during the world wars, the promotion of a leaner, meatless, and abstinent "natural" lifestyle was a means of managing food scarcity. In the 1930s "natural living" was an element of the austerity discourse on the Nazi Leistungsgemeinschaft (performance community) that tried to restrict consumption of fats and meats, as these required too many valuable resources for production. After 1945, natural nutrition became an element in campaigns against overeating, obesity, and "diseases of civilization" in both East and West Germany. [End Page 633]
"Natural Eating" could mean different things depending on the visions developed by different reformers and the political ends that such visions served. Eduard Baltzer, one of the founding figures of the German vegetarian and life-reform movements in the 1860s, saw in vegetarianism the way of life that best catered to the social needs of the nation. A "natural way of life" referred to a way of life that rejected meat consumption as uneconomical and "unnatural" because it took ten times as much arable land to feed a meat-eater as a vegetarian. Meat consumption was "unnatural" because it exacerbated food shortages and prevented Germany from becoming a free and self-governing nation. Baltzer's understanding of "natural" did not preclude the use of artificial or imported fertilizers to raise the carrying capacity of the land to alleviate poverty and prevent social conflicts by ensuring the food security of all Germans. By the late nineteenth century, the debate on natural living had shifted. Now, imported "artificial" fertilizers (e.g., mineral fertilizers such as saltpeter from Chile or guano from Peru) signaled to life-reform critics a dangerous dependency on foreign imports, which might affect food security. The discourse on the "natural" merged with what Treitel calls a "protoecological perspective" (161). According to this vision, Germans had to feed themselves from and within their own natural environment to ensure their health and national survival in a period of rising international tensions. In imperial Germany, thinking globally and consuming locally could have a decidedly völkisch twist.
Treitel's excellent book covers a lot of ground. Whether it is the science and politics of nutritional standards, cookery books, nutritional physiology, or the remaking of German agriculture and food production, all topics are treated with great sophistication and nuance. The book carefully deconstructs popular and expert discourses and analyzes the ways in which they intersected. Appropriation of lay concepts by scientific experts led to what Treitel calls "hybridity," a...