- Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism by Tiago Saraiva
In the fragmented academic domain of history, genuinely comparative cross-disciplinary studies remain rare. Tiago Saraiva's stimulating book represents a resourceful attempt to draw substantive connections among three disparate fields—environmental history, science and technology studies, and the history of fascism—applied to three distinct case studies: Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Salazar's Portugal. Each of these fields and each of these regimes, with their own ample scholarly literatures and ongoing internal debates, can lay claim to the core events the book examines. But Saraiva resists the temptation to narrow his focus, insisting that researchers on seemingly unrelated subjects have much to learn from the neglected story the book has to tell. Fluently written and ambitious in scope, this is a study that deserves attention well beyond the range of specialists. Even if its historical lessons are not always persuasive, the book succeeds in posing provocative new questions that could alter common views of the environmental history of fascist societies.
First a word about the book's understandable limitations: while drawing on a wide swath of literature, Saraiva proceeds primarily from a science and technology studies perspective, complemented by informed engagement with the scholarship on fascism. The archival research is somewhat thin, particularly for the Italian chapters, and at times the details suffer; German and Italian names, titles, and agencies are sometimes misspelled or incomplete. But these are relatively minor concerns with such a challenging and methodologically innovative work. The book's arch title indicates its basic trajectory: this is a study centered on pigs, potatoes, wheat, sheep, cotton, rubber, and other forms of commodified nature, examined as "technoscientific organisms" circulating within a fascist political and economic framework. Its organizing principle is that fascism is best understood as a kind of "alternative modernity" (3), and that the efforts by the three regimes toward autarky and food self-sufficiency reveal an unfamiliar side of the classical fascist era.
Against longstanding perceptions as reactionary, atavistic, or anti-modern, the back to the land aspect of Fascism and Nazism appears here as thoroughly modernist. These regimes, according to Saraiva, produced specifically "fascist landscapes" and a corresponding ensemble of organisms; the various plants and [End Page 977] animals at the center of his account "embody fascism" (16). The active participation of natural scientists was crucial to this attempt at creating "a national community feeding itself on the produce of the national soil" (238). The book's attention to the politics of food in fascist contexts is one of its cardinal strengths; as Saraiva points out, "Food was central to translating the fascist ideology of the organic nation into concrete policies" (7).
An initial case study examines the so-called "Battle of Wheat" in Fascist Italy, often seen as a mere propaganda exercise. Emphasizing the role of agricultural scientists in developing high-yield strains of wheat, with a concomitant increase in mechanization and chemical fertilizer production, Saraiva shows that the campaign transformed both the varieties of grain and the production processes used, from cultivation through milling, baking, pasta making, and so forth. Subsequent chapters explore the role of potatoes and pigs in Nazi agriculture, with illuminating asides on plant pathology research, livestock breeding, and such. In a tour de force, the final chapter moves from Uzbekistan to Ukraine to Germany and then South West Africa before shifting to Italy, Ethiopia, and Angola, all the while following the itinerary of a single breed of highly prized sheep. The chapter is an excellent example of the potentials for fruitful interchange between environmental history and science and technology studies.
But it is the book's argument about the nature of fascism that carries special significance. For Saraiva, Nazi pigs and potatoes and Fascist sheep and wheat embodied an alternative modernity even as they exemplified the ruralist and agrarian visions put forth by each regime, visions that have so often been taken to represent the backward-looking and anti-modern facets of fascism. The book shows...