At first glance, German grocery stores are distinct from their American counterparts in three ways. Because they sell mainly groceries, German stores are comparatively small, offering just a few brands. As is common in the United States, you cannot drop your child off at the in-store daycare, while having your car’s oil changed and your clothes dry-cleaned, as you occasionally veer away from the grocery list to impulse buy a flat-screen television and firewood. Secondly, one always sees, for example in a REWE or Edeka (Germany’s largest domestic chains), unrefrigerated milk, and eggs! The former is due to ultra-high pasteurization, the latter because German eggs are not chemically washed and coated and thus maintain their natural protections, if shorter shelf life. (More on the “natural” bit below.) And thirdly, one finds a plethora of reasonably priced organic options within those cramped shelves. Indeed, Germany is second only to the United States as a consumer of organic products, with over ten billion euros in sales last year. As Corinna Treitel, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis demonstrates in her new book Eating Nature in Modern Germany, that while annual sales of organics continue to rise, the “Bio-Boom” is anything but a recent fad.
The German life reform movement unsurprisingly plays a major role in Treitel’s analysis, but her approach is novel.
Like her first book, A Science for the Soul (Johns Hopkins, 2004), Eating Nature in Modern Germany reveals Treitel’s attentiveness to the intersectionality of science, culture, and politics and their impact on German modernity. This new work is a beautifully written and cogently argued monograph that bears all the marks of a seasoned scholar who has hit her intellectual stride. In it Treitel seeks to answer the question of why natural diets have remained pervasive features in both the liberal and illiberal Germanys that have existed from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Using the twin themes of hunger and health to explore the biopolitics of nature, Treitel convincingly shows that natural eating habits not only persisted in times of want as an efficient way to manage the nation’s food supply, but also in times of plenty to improve the health of the body politic. Chronologically tracing the discursive evolution of the “natural diet,” the author demonstrates how scientists, doctors, political activists, and social reformers used the concept to promote, at times, decidedly different agendas.
The German life reform movement unsurprisingly plays a major role in Treitel’s analysis, but her approach is novel. As a loose constellation of groups formed in the second half of the nineteenth century to combat the negative effects of industrialization, life reformers sought to increase the health and vitality of Germans in numerous ways, from promoting natural diets and organic farming, to sun worship and teetotalism. The author homes in on Eduard Baltzer, a liberal Prussian pioneer of the vegetarian movement, whose four-volume book The Natural Lifestyle launched the so-called “meat wars” in 1867. Baltzer believed a meatless diet was not only the most physiologically healthful choice, but socially and economically salubrious too. While he certainly was not the first to make the claim, Treitel holds that Baltzer’s ability to fuse together his own notions of religious morality with incongruent scientific, medical, demographic, and economic research, made him a voice to be reckoned within an era of increased political agitation fueled by the social and economic dislocation of the German working class and peasantry. He averred relentlessly that meat-eaters gobbled up ten times the arable land of plant-eaters, that grains and legumes provide healthier proteins to make Germans more productive and delay mortality, and that moving away from an “unnatural diet” (filled with animal products, the empty calories of stimulants, and imported foodstuffs) would be an economic and moral good that would allay class antagonism and strengthen the German nation politically. After all, could the majority afford to buy choice cuts with regularity? Did the majority benefit from the massive agricultural estates that swallowed up small family farms? How could Germany itself be food secure and guarantee its freedom if supplies came from other nations? Vigorous debates ensued and by the turn of the twentieth century, argues Treitel, not only had a “new network of scientists, vegetarians, and lay commentators” emerged that brought these ideas of natural living to mass audiences (51), but they also moved from the fringe to become more mainstream, through “critique and co-optation,” in medicine, culture, and politics. (95)
The sparring between life reformers and scientists continued unabated into the Great War era. One-time proponents of using nitrogen-based fertilizers to “feed the soil to feed the people,” life reformers now questioned their use on medical and economic grounds. There was little doubt Chilean nitrates or Peruvian guano increased yields, but at what cost? (158) Völkisch groups within the life reform movement, some rife with anti-Semitic and xenophobic ideologies, saw “public nutrition” (Volksernährung) increasingly as an issue of national security. Dependence on artificial fertilizer imports, they claimed, threatened German freedom and infected German Blut und Boden (blood and soil). The Allied Blockade in WWI, which reduced the nation’s food supply some twenty-five percent by halting imports, and further hurt yields by diminishing access to fertilizers, ultimately led to Germany’s defeat and suggested to many that dire agricultural reform was needed. Treitel convincingly argues that the Weimar period witnessed another stage in the metamorphosis of life reform, namely eschewing its outsider status within the German food system, and most significantly, a marked shift from its liberal roots toward an increasingly nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic right. Calls for autarky and improving the quality of foodstuffs followed with an ecological approach to agriculture which emphasized biological farming, to wit Germans farmers growing German food on German soil with German-produced fertilizers. Not surprisingly then, the natural diet was natural fit for “the biopolitics German fascism” (199).
How could Germany itself be food secure and guarantee its freedom if supplies came from other nations? Vigorous debates ensued and by the turn of the twentieth century, argues Treitel, not only had a “new network of scientists, vegetarians, and lay commentators” emerged that brought these ideas of natural living to mass audiences, but they also moved from the fringe to become more mainstream, through “critique and co-optation,” in medicine, culture, and politics.
The popularity of the natural lifestyle with members of the Nazi elite, from Rudolf Hess and Hitler’s (apparent) vegetarianism, to Walther Darré and Heinrich Himmler’s support for biodynamic farming, meant that for the first time life reformist ideals enjoyed pride of place within German government. Nature was “recast…as tool for securing Germany’s racial health and [geopolitical] supremacy.” (233) This translated to, on the one hand, rationalizing the German diet to promote health, establish food security, increase labor productivity, and minimize waste, but on the other hand, it meant starving “useless eaters,” ethnically cleansing millions of Slavs who “misused” the rich soils of Eastern Europe, and conducting horrific medical experiments on racial undesirables in concentration camps.
The end of the war in 1945, the Allied and Soviet occupation experiences, brought hunger once again to the fore, both real and imagined. After Germany’s partition in 1949 the natural living discourse was co-opted yet again, in altered hybrid formats in West and East Germany. As economic stability ushered in an abundance of food, concerns about “diseases of civilization” (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke) dominated the discourse. Nazi-era scientists, such as Werner Kollath, “environmentalized” West German nutrition, arguing that low-quality foods, hurt by “foreign substances” in the environment or through industrial processing, were to blame. In an era of plenty, state-promoted prescriptions, with a clear genealogical link to life reform, attempted to steer consumers’ buying habits towards Kollath’s reframed “full-value” diet, which emphasized fresh whole foods. The popularization of this diet, coupled with environmental concerns and international coverage of the food crisis in the Third World, contends Treitel, led to the emergence of the Green Party in the 1970s. By contrast, the practice of nature in the GDR was “denatured,” which meant stripping away connections to life reform, and recasting the natural diet simply as “health promoting.” Integrated into the command economy of the socialist East, this “new” healthy lifestyle became a matter of state policy and implemented through the vaunted communal canteen system as well as state-sponsored nutritional campaigns. Despite being a full-throated, top-down initiative of the East German state, it ultimately proved unsuccessful due to problems of supply and deeply-embedded food habits that Ossis were unwilling to shed.
Anyone wanting to make sense of the more recent scenes in Charlottesville, of khaki-clad, tiki-torch wielding, alt-right protestors shouting “blood and soil” as well as “Jews will not replace us,” or why it is that white nationalist groups today host vegan/vegetarian cooking channels on Youtube, would do well to follow Treitel’s logic.
Treitel concludes the book with a thought-provoking reminder of just how “politically promiscuous” the healthy-living lifestyle has been and continues to be, both inside Germany and beyond its borders. From the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led authorities to an organic farm in Michigan, to the 2011 rise of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) to the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (whose ranks are filled by organic farmers), it continues to be a “multivalent” dream (311). Of course, anyone wanting to make sense of the more recent scenes in Charlottesville, of khaki-clad, tiki-torch wielding, alt-right protestors shouting “blood and soil” as well as “Jews will not replace us,” or why it is that white nationalist groups today host vegan/vegetarian cooking channels on Youtube, would do well to follow Treitel’s logic.
Eating Nature in Modern Germany is deeply researched, highly-readable, and impressive in both breadth and depth. It should be on library shelves and in e-repositories far and wide. While much of the material will be familiar to specialists, the importance and novelty of the book lies in Treitel’s ability to take disparate sources, from cookbooks to medical treatises, and turn it into an explanatory whole. Thus, experts, graduate students, and lay readers alike with interests in science, medicine, nutrition, food studies, environmentalism, and beyond will learn much from its pages. Uniquely insightful is her treatment of biopolitics, in that Treitel plows new ground by moving us away from a typically Foucaultian understanding. By “decentering” governmentality, she makes evident that regimes of power/knowledge are not necessarily imposed from above. She proves that minority views and grassroots movements shaped state policy in modern Germany. And she reminds us that biopolitics have never been, nor will be, simply a totalitarian tendency. (10) This reviewer wishes Treitel had focused her considerable analytical prowess on women as they are largely, though not entirely, voiceless. Not that it would undermine her argument, but without a doubt strengthen it. Interesting work has been done on the Nazi period, including my own, but further explorations into women’s associational life and female practitioners of natural living are needed. Other readers may wonder about the role of business, including the influence early health-food stores (Reformhäuser) that popped up like mushrooms in the late nineteenth century as well as the more modern vestiges of the life reform movement like Alnatura, Reformhaus, and Tegut. Clearly though, the mark of a great book is one that not only answers many of our questions, but generates new ones too.