The Wages of Destruction
Darre expected all of his leading collaborators in the Agriculture Ministry to join the SS. Backe, most notably, was later to occupy a senior rank in the SS and enjoyed close relations with Himmler. There was rivalry, of course. In the late 1930s personal relations between Darre and Himmler deteriorated badly. However, collaboration between Himmler's SS and Herbert Backe as acting head of the Agriculture Ministry was extremely close. Bearing in mind this intimate connection between the agrarians and the SS is crucial if we are to understand how the twin problems of fostering the German peasantry and managing the national food supply were capable of generating some of the most extreme and murderous policies of the Third Reich.
For Walther Darre and for the majority of ultra-nationalists what was at stake was not simply the economic health of farming, but the long-term future of the German race. Darre's particularly extreme version of peasant ideology was rooted in a selective reading of turn-of-the-century archaeology, linguistics and socio-biology. For Darre, the historic character of the Germanic tribes was defined by their history as rooted peasant farmers. The great enemies of the Germanic peasantry had always been rootless nomadic elements and the most dangerous of these were the Jews. The modern form of nomadism was the rootless population of the cities. The crisis afflicting the German peasantry by the early twentieth century was the reSult of long-term attack and erosion by rootless Jewish influences. The process of uprooting had begun across Europe in the sixteenth century. It had gathered pace over the following centuries, taking on spectacular political form in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the name of freedom, nineteenth-century liberals had broken the fundamental bond that connected the German people to the soil. They had uprooted millions of peasants and turned land itself into a commodity, to be freely bought and sold. It was this capitalistic expropriation that had set in motion the disastrous process of migration and degeneration that had depleted the German countryside. Since unification in 1871, each national census had recorded a lower share of the population employed in farming. For Darre, the dire consequences of this development were most starkly evident in the birth rate. Starting from the 1870s, when fertility rates had been identical in town and country at 40 per thousand inhabitants, the birth rate in Germany's cities had fallen sharply. By the 1920s births were down to no more than 17 per thousand population. And since the war, the countryside as well had begun to follow this disastrous trend. By 1930 the birth rate in the countryside was as low as 20 per thousand. For Darre this confirmed the most basic tenets of his theory. The German race, born out of a deeply rooted connection to the soil, was simply not capable of sustaining itself in a society dominated by an urban culture propagated by the Jewish agents of commerce and free trade. confined to the cities, the German race was doomed to extinction.
The archaeological and anthropological settings, which Darre liked to give to his musings, condemn them to appear to our eyes as manifestations of a bizarre atavism. But, rather than thinking of Darre as a backward-looking ideologue, it is more illuminating to view him as an agrarian fundamentalist, a man deeply critical of the present but one who aspired not to bringing about a wholesale regression to the backward conditions before 1800, but towards a vision of rebirth, of renaissance. The voelkisch thinkers of the inter-war period consciously marked themselves off both from nineteenth-century romanticism on the one hand and the fatalistic pessimism made popular by Spengler's best-selling Decline of the West. No one who has actually tried to read Darre's books can escape the impression that their author was convinced that the principles of Blut und Boden were firmly rooted in the latest results of historical, anthropological and biological research. In its methodology at least, Darre's racism was founded not on blind prejudice, but on a supposedly systematic understanding of the eternal, transhistorical characteristics of distinct races and cultures. what gave Darre's thinking its particularly impractical, archaic feel was his inability to articulate a clearer vision of how the eternal characteristics of the German race, defined by their archaeological and biological origins, were related to the historical process of modernization that had had such a transformative impact on German society since the early nineteenth century. It was this inability to provide a convincing historical narrative of modernization that created the impression that Darre intended to bring about a whole-sale return to the past. But in fact this characteristic lacuna in his thought had few if any practical implications for policy. Darre's ahistorical or transhistorical vision was only one strand in Nazi agrarianism. Where Darre left off, his right-hand man, the trained agronomist and Secretary of state in the Agriculture Ministry, Herbert Backe took over.
Backe (1896-1947) has often been characterized simply as an 'efficient,' 'apolitical' technocrat in the image of Albert Speer. As such he serves as a foil against which to compare Walther Darre. In fact, Backe was no less a Nazi ideologue than Darre or for that matter Heinrich Himmler. Born in Batumi, Georgia, to a German businessman and the daughter of a Wurttemberg peasant family that had resettled in Russia in the early nineteenth century, the 'drive to the East' (Drang nach osten) was part of Backe's biography. Having been unsettled first by the revolution of 1905, Backe found himself in 1914 as an internee in the Urals. Profoundly disillusioned, he escaped to Germany in 1918, where he struggled to complete his education and support his family in extremely difficult circumstances. He joined the Nazi party in 1922, with the membership number of 22766 and distinguished himself even at this early stage by his fixation on the race question. After a lull in the 1920s Backe reactivated his party membership in 1931 and was elected to the Prussian parliament in 1932 with Darre's encouragement. As we shall see, in the 1940s Backe was to cooperate with Himmler in the execution of genocide on an epic scale. The difference between Darre and Backe does not lie in their different degrees of ideological commitment, but in the way in which they conceived the historic mission of National socialism. Backe bridged the gap between Darre's eternal truths and the historical reality of the early twentieth century, with a conventional, stage view of history. Much like Hitler, Backe saw National Socialism as having been assigned the role of overcoming the contradictions of nineteenth-century capitalism and achieving a reconciliation between the German people and the economy that sustained them. For all its ills, Backe saw the modernization of the German economy and German society in the nineteenth century as an inevitable and necessary preliminary to the possibilities of the twentieth century. As Hitler put it in February 1933, the new Reich would be built not only on the eternal foundations of Germany's voelkisch existence. It would also make use of all the 'accomplishments and traditions developed in the course of recent history.'