The Idea of Decline in Western History
In the twenties the biologist Rudolf Steiner launched a program of 'biodynamic agriculture,' which viewed agriculture in Haeckel-like terms as a holistic enterprise between man, plant, and soil. As Alfred Rosenberg and the Nazi Nordicists attacked the 'false spirituality' of Christianity and appealed to a return to the Aryan's original reverence for nature, back-to-nature types suddenly saw the National Socialists' Aryan man as heralding the new organic man, bonded to his race, his soil, and his environment. Eugen Diedrichs, one of the organizers of the 1913 Youth Movement celebration, became an early Nazi. Ludwig Klages tried to join as well (he was thrown out because he was, like Ernst Haeckel, a pacifist). One radical group, the Artamanen, or 'guardians of the soil,' even carried banners with pictures of Gandhi and Tolstoy (in their role as spokesmen for peasants) on one side and swastikas on the other.
The interplay among these various antitechnic groups tended to be complicated and often obscure, just as in the ecology movement today. Houston Chamberlain and other volkish thinkers had disliked Haeckel for his evolutionary view of nature. So did Hitler himself. However, Hitler's minister of agriculture, Walter Darre, took up the cause of organic farming as part of 'blood and soil' Aryanism. 'The peasant,' Oswald Spengler had written in The Decline of the West, 'is the eternal man.' Just as the virtuous German peasant farmer formed the model for the new Reich, Darre believed, so should German agriculture reflect the same organic bonds. His chief ally in Hitler's inner circle was Rudolf Hess, a vegetarian, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine, and a passionate convert to the cause of biodynamic farming.
Many other Nazi enthusiasms would reappear in the seventies and eighties. Heinrich Himmler (who had been a chicken farmer before becoming head of Hitler's SS bodyguard) experimented with organic farming and sponsored organic herbal gardens for his SS. New recruits in the SS were taught 'a reverence for animal life' that, one modern historian has suggested, reached 'near Buddhist proportions.' Himmler also saw to it that antivivisection regulations became law under the Third Reich (even as euthanasia became compulsory for 'useless mouths' among humans), while the official symbol of the SS became the oak leaf, representing the regenerative powers of nature.
The various strands of German environmentalism between the wars may have differed in how nature was understood—whether in terms of monistic materialism, Dionysian eros, or biodynamic vitalism—but they all agreed on their principal enemy: the modern technological capitalist West. Everyone, regardless of political stripe, would have concurred with National Bolshevik Ernst Niekisch's pronouncement in 1931:
Technology is the rape of nature. It brushes nature aside. It cunningly tricks nature out of one piece of land after another. When technology triumphs, nature is violated and desolated. Technology murders life and strikes down, step by step, the limits established by nature.Even those who later celebrated technology's place in the new German cultural order, like Spengler and Ernst Junger, insisted that it had to be reintegrated in a new, vitalist form. Others, like Martin Heidegger, turned the 'back to the soil' antitechnic critique into a key component of antimodern thought.
Heidegger had been profoundly influenced by Klages's Nietzschean attack on technological capitalism. Heidegger would spend days and weeks climbing in the mountains, and often appeared in class and at Nazi Party rallies dressed in alpine garb and open shirt. He viewed modernity's loss of touch with nature as part of modern man's loss of Being, which technology epitomized: 'The object-character of technological domination spreads itself ever more quickly, ruthlessly, and completely.' Heidegger complained that not only does Western technology 'establish all things as producible in the process of production,' it also 'delivers the products of production by means of the market.' Hence, through technological capitalism 'the humanness of man and the thingness of things dissolve into the calculated market value of a market which spans the whole earth.'
Heidegger insisted that man had to become the steward, not the master, of nature. Through poetry and art modern man could restore his sense of 'the simple onefold of earth and sky, divinity and mortals.' The new man would learn to abandon technology and consumerism and accept his humble place in the unity of nature. 'Self-assertive man,' he wrote in 1926, 'whether or not he knows and wills it as an individual, is the functionary of technology.'
Heidegger's student Herbert Marcuse brought these assumptions to his own view of 'post-scarcity society' in One-Dimensional Man. Its bold images of a technological capitalism poised to subjugate the vital energies of man as well as nature infused German cultural pessimism into the New Left. Marcuse galvanized American conservationist sentiments on the Left, which derived from the writings of figures like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. The New Left's attacks on American capitalism included its systematic 'degradation' of the natural, whether in sexual terms (a favorite topic of Haeckel's, who strongly advocated free love) or in terms of the environment. In 1969 radical students at Berkeley created the so-called Peoples' Park, organizing a 'conspiracy of the soil' to reclaim the land from capitalist property relations. One radical even claimed that trees were like other exploited minorities in America, such as blacks, Vietnamese, and hippies.
Marcuse's ideas decisively influenced the most blatant example of volkish environmentalism of the sixties, Charles Reich's The Greening of America. Industrial capitalist America was now facing its own self-destruction, the Yale professor announced in 1970. Disorder, corruption, 'absence of community,' a meaningless culture, and 'uncontrolled technology and the destruction of the environment' had left most Americans with a sense of powerlessness. American blacks 'long ago felt their deprivation of identity and potential for life.' Now the white middle class felt the same. 'Stand in a commuter train,' Reich wrote, choosing a favorite image of cultural pessimists, 'and see the blank, hollow faces. We do not look at faces very often in America, even less than we look at ruined rivers and devastated hills.'
However, Reich assured his readers, 'there is a revolution coming' that will 'bring a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and the land.' In true Nietzschean fashion, this revolution will be spearheaded by the young. Acting as the carriers of unblemished vitality, American youth will shatter the artificial bonds of technological society with their rock music, clothing and hairstyles, and sexual freedom as well as their instinct for nature. Much like German youth or Martin Heidegger, 'members of the new generation seek out the beach, the woods, and the mountains.' Echoing an ancient Aryanist theme, Reich added that 'the forest is where they come from, it is the place where they feel closest to themselves, it is renewal. Nature is not some foreign element. Nature is them.'