I don’t recommend actually doing this, but if you were to scroll down far enough through the comments of any article about veganism or vegetarianism you would be very likely to find someone smugly asserting that ‘Hitler was a vegetarian’ – supposedly illustrating that vegetarians aren’t as morally superior as they think they are, or maybe they are just plain evil*. This is an example of Godwin’s law, a traditional pastime of Internet commenters which extends far beyond the topic of veganism. Godwin’s law was named after Mike Godwin who proposed this definition in 1990, after noticing a pattern in comment threads on Usenet newsgroups.
As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.*
Despite its prevalence, comparing someone to Hitler, or even associating their ideas with his, is one of the Internet’s most egregious insults. When discussion gets heated anonymous commenters reach for an easy way to offend their opponents, discourage their opponents’ potential allies and end the debate.
When I’ve seen some variation of ‘Oh you’re a vegetarian? So was Hitler!’* on comment threads I have either been immediately comforted by another commenter patiently explaining that this is a myth, or closed that tab on my browser, since sensible conversation has ceased. Debunkings of Hitler’s vegetarianism have been offered passionately* (and sometimes dubiously*) in this long-running debate, but the evidence is rarely considered critically.
Settling the argument
I was surprised to find with some very cursory research that Hitler was indeed a vegetarian from around 1942 until his death in 1945**. Though this only comprises around the last five percent of his lifetime, it seems reasonable to call him a vegetarian – after all, most vegans have spent significant portions of their lives not being vegan. The majority of my life, for example, has been spent as a non-vegan, but if I were to die today, I think it would be fair to remember me as a vegan.
Hitler’s late-in-life transition to a vegetarian diet was not out of character: he had a history of being concerned about animal welfare and avoiding eating meat – though there are claims* that the latter choice was a result of his tendency to feel unwell after eating meat.*
There’s an important distinction here. How certain can we be that this his primary reason for becoming vegetarian was a concern for animals, as opposed to personal taste or health? In his article on Psychology Today Hal Hertzog refers to historian’s accounts of Hitler’s ‘vegetarian for the animals’ stance:
Hitler once told a female companion who ordered sausage while they were on a date, “I didn’t think you wanted to devour a dead corpse…the flesh of dead animals. Cadavers!”*
Furthermore, Hitler’s dieticians were concerned about the health of a vegetarian diet and advised him against it. I did not expect that, while researching the personal life of history’s most evil bad guy, I would experience empathy, but I shook my head in understanding when I learned that his cook and dietician often snuck meat or meat broth into his food.
Marlene von Exner who became Hitler’s dietician in 1943, reportedly added bone marrow to his soups without his knowledge because she “despised” his vegetarian diet.*
He is also known to have taken ‘quack supplements’* containing animal products for his health. These supplements are unlikely to have had the desired effect, and I believe they do not render him ‘un-vegetarian’*. By this measure any vegetarian who believed (correctly or incorrectly) that they needed medicine that contained animal products in order to survive (such as vaccines or diabetic insulin) would be not a vegetarian. As a vaccinated vegan I find this argument untenable and unfair – although others seems to find it convincing.
The Nazi position on animal Welfare
Hitler was not the only Nazi concerned with animal rights. Several other high-up members of the party including Hermann Goring sympathised with his views, whether independently or to appease their leader. Hitler’s government banned foie gras, ear and tail docking of dogs and imposed strict laws regarding animal research**.
An absolute and permanent ban on vivisection is not only a necessary law to protect animals and to show sympathy with their pain, but it is also a law for humanity itself…. I have therefore announced the immediate prohibition of vivisection and have made the practice a punishable offence in Prussia. Until such time as punishment is pronounced the culprit shall be lodged in a concentration camp*.
The above quote from Goring was in reference to the Reichstierschutzgesetz, which passed in 1933 and stated any intentional cruelty towards animals would be punished – including the animal sacrifice involved with the Jewish ritual of shechita*.
Many have suggested that the animal rights laws were intended as another method to persecute Jews*. While it is certainly true that they were used this way, I think it is improbable that this was intended to be their primary function. It is hard to comprehend how Hitler could be concerned with non-human animal welfare while carrying out atrocities against thousands of human animals. This apparent paradox has motivated many people to investigate and form theories about the psychology behind his choices.
Many psychologists and philosophers, including Stephan Cave, have suggested that vegetarianism is an expression of the vegetarian’s dread of, or refusal to accept, death*. This leads me to speculate that a man responsible for so many deaths may have wanted to avoid being reminded of them.
If Hitler had a shred of repressed compassion then perhaps any reminder of his horrific acts would have provoked a breakdown. There is an effect by which our mind will not let us consider information that would lead to us having to make changes in our life. Stymieing the potential for change is a side effect of the resistance to cognitive dissonance, a mental stress experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time*.
This same effect is common in non-vegans who avoid information about the treatment of ‘food’ animals; they do it to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance. Legal Scholar and Animal rights activist Gary Francione describes the often-repressed knowledge of the paradoxical way people think about animals as ‘Moral Schizophrenia’*. If Hitler allowed himself to feel any remorse or horror about what he had done then the changes he would have been provoked to make would be insurmountable. To achieve consistency (and thus relief from his dissonance) he would have had to try to repair and make amends for something impossible to apologise for. By avoiding facing death on the dinner table maybe Hitler suppressed thinking about what he had done.
The psychologist Erich Fromm suggested that Hitler’s vegetarianism was a classic example of a reaction formation*.
The reaction formation manifests itself as deliberate and obvious actions running exactly counter to their true feelings, perhaps as a form of overcompensation.
A reaction formation is a psychoanalytic concept that is at best theoretical*. One of it’s attractions is its apparent success in explaining seemingly odd behaviour, for example closeted gay politicians taking a strong anti gay marriage stance*. Some psychologists have proposed that Reaction formations are sometimes provoked by low self-esteem:
The behavior may also be seen among people who believe themselves to be “inferior” in some way and are atoning for the perceived inferiority. Cohen in fact coined the term to describe just this sort of case, illustrating his belief that gang members committed crimes as a consequence of their perceptions of social inferiority*.
Anecdotally, I know many vegans who seem low in self-esteem and I think this could be a contributing factor in the decision to go vegan for some people. It would be interesting but beyond my research capabilities (and the scope of this article) to survey vegans and assess their average level of self-worth.
The idea of a reaction formation is based on observation of a person holding two opposing beliefs or acting in a manner dramatically contradicting their character. But contradiction is in the eye of the beholder – it could be argued that Hitler only appears to be suffering such dissonance because we have not fully examined his internal reasoning.
Like many modern vegans, Hitler was opposed to causing the unnecessary suffering of animals. It seems clear that he thought the Nazi atrocities were necessary to prevent the Jewish population to expand at the expense of the Germans*. This might help to explain the apparent incongruity in his ethical stance. It is horrifying to contemplate the idea that the Holocaust wouldn’t have violated this code of ethics if he deemed it necessary, which it certainly seemed he did.
Vegetarian visions for 1,000 years of the Third Reich
Hitler invested a lot in maintaining and perpetuating the myth of himself as an aesthetic, pure, Aryan man. Rynn Berry argues in a short essay published on VegSource that Hitler’s vegetarianism was all propaganda orchestrated by Goebbels. Unfortunately she misrepresents some important facts on the way to her conclusion, leading me to suspect she fell prey to her own understandable bias of wanting Hitler not to have been a vegetarian*.
Hitler’s vegetarianism does seem to fit into a propagandised version of him, but I propose that it is reasonable to conclude this was only an incidental benefit, since he also maintained his vegetarianism even behind closed doors*. When Hitler talked about the future of the German Reich he often intimated it would be completely and perhaps enforcedly vegetarian * which accords with Richard Wagner’s view of a vegetarian future, a man whom Hitler idolised*.
Without knowledge of its source and context vegetarians and vegans might find the following quote, taken from transcripts of Hitler speaking candidly to high ranking members of the Nazi party, inspiring:
One may regret living at a period when it’s impossible to form an idea of the shape the world of the future will assume. But there’s one thing I can predict to eaters of meat: the world of the future will be vegetarian.“*
Why try to reason with the crazy?
I’ve suggested the difficulty of analysing the motivations of a long dead historical figure. Hitler presents an even more complicated challenge because he was obviously such a cognitively unusual person. And perhaps that’s where this investigation of his motivations should end: in the realisation that it is impossible to ever know why evil and probably insane people do what they do.
Reflection on Hitler’s vegetarianism has reminded me of the importance of distancing people from their ideas. Well-respected, honest, intelligent people can have incorrect or immoral ideas; and the worst people in the world can have the occasional good one. Though the probability of the former having good insights is statistically much higher, it is important to examine every claim independently of it’s source. Otherwise you risk accepting bad ideas and dismissing good ones based on the character of their proponents. To be comfortable saying that, on this one issue, I agree more with Hitler than the Dalai Lama demonstrates (I hope) an ability for critical, nuanced thinking… but it won’t be how I introduce myself at dinner parties – or even on comment threads, in spite of tradition.
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