Book Review – Eternal Treblinka, Charles Patterson


3-24-05, 8:50 am

Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka is a wonderful book about terrible subjects, a work that resonates and extends the best of liberal humanism and broad left activism to the exploitation, oppression and extermination of non-human species. While the work is not directly Marxist, it is one that Marx would have appreciated and one from which Marxists can learn much – a work with tremendous use value.

Patterson, who has previously written about anti-Semitism in a sophisticated way, begins by dealing with what Peter Singer in the 1970s called the ideology of 'speciesism' the belief that human beings could do whatever they wished to non-human species. Patterson connects the rise of 'speciesism' to the development of tool making and the agricultural revolution and its development in the ideologies and theologies of the Greco- Roman World. Here he could have profited directly from Marxist materialism, since the exploitation of animals and the exploitation of man by man with the rise of class based societies develops simultaneously and is dialectically inter-related. Those who enslave animals also enslave their fellow humans and define them as having the characteristics of animals.

Patterson then traces speciesism through modern history, connecting the world of the slaughterhouses to the world of Treblinka, in the thinking of the scientific racists who strongly influenced German fascism. His larger thesis is captured most succinctly in these two statements from the work. The first is from Theodore Adorno, the Jewish-German Marxist émigré who said, 'Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks they are only animals.' The second is from Christa Blanke, a contemporary Lutheran pastor and animal rights activist in Germany: 'fifty years ago the Church remained silent because they were only Jews.' Today the Church remains silent because they are only animals.' Together the statements provide an appreciation of how the plunder of non-human species, the larger environment and subject peoples interact with one another to create both active and passive complicity with exploitation and oppression.

Part II of Patterson’s work is a searing indictment of what Marxists would see as American ruling class policies toward nature and human and no-human species and their influence on 20th century fascism. While some of this may be overdrawn (Patterson for example does not deal adequately with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and other opponents of scientific racism in the United States) it compels American readers to face what has been done often in their name by those who have claimed to represent American civilization and culture.

The United States from the early 20th century was the most important center for the funding of 'eugenics,' the 'science' of selective breeding, which produced US sterilization laws that the Nazis openly praised and emulated. This was especially true particularly in the 1920s when religious fundamentalists and Klu Klux Klansmen for a time outnumbered Nazis in Germany and a rightwing Republican political leadership appeared to be hegemonic in American politics and society.

American eugenicists for example, as Patterson mentions, 'noted with pride that the German [sterilization] law, which the Nazis were able to pass were able to pass only six months after they came to power, was based on the California sterilization law and the Model Eugenic Sterilization Law, which [leading US eugenicist] Harry Laughlin had developed in 1922.' Ironically, the Nazi law initially was more 'liberal' than Laughlin’s model law, since it did not 'include the sterilization of alcoholics, [prohibition was then in effect in the US] criminals, and economically dependant people, as Laughlin’s model law called for.' The Nazis also admired the US 'Indian Removal policy' of the 19th century and the immigration restriction laws right-wing Republicans established in the 1920s as examples of public policies that would advance the 'Nordic race' in its perpetual war against 'inferior races.' American eugenicists also admired and made propaganda for the Nazis both before and after they came to power, praising their 'racial science' and routinely accepting awards from Hitler’s government. Since scientific racism was still a significant force in US scholarly circles, this was not a small thing. Harry Laughlin, for example, proudly received a honorary doctorate of medicine from Heidelberg University in 1936, thanks to the work of Dr. Karl Schneider, physician and professor of 'Racial Hygiene,' who later served as 'scientific advisor' to the Nazis 'euthanasia' policy which murdered thousands of physically and mentally disabled people whom the Nazis regarded as 'life unworthy of life.'

In the 1920s, American foundations, established by tycoons to get around tax laws, became major funders for German eugenics, centered in research institutes such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Eugenics, Anthropology, and Human Heredity in Berlin which gave scientific respectability to the concept of 'racial hygiene.' The Rockefeller Foundation particularly played a leading role in funding German Eugenics.

As late as 1940, the prominent American racist anthropologist Lathrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color and other internationally popular racist tracts warning of 'race suicide' in the 1920s, visited Germany under the auspices of the North American Newspaper Alliance (a conservative anti-New Deal, anti-left press syndicate). The visit bolstered provided propaganda for the Hitler regime and for those rightwing US isolationists who actively opposed any aid to Hitler’s enemies.

Stoddard met with Hitler and Himmler, and visited various 'racial hygiene' institutes and 'sterilization courts.' Stoddard loved what he saw and, if anything, wished that the Nazis would go further. To his audience back home he wrote that Germany was 'weeding out the worst strains in the Germanic stock in a scientific and truly humanitarian way.' Concerning what he called 'the Jews problem,' Stoddard, whose anti-Semitism went hand in hand with his racist views of people of color, wrote it was 'already settled in principle and soon to be settled in fact by the physical elimination of the Jews themselves from the Third Reich.' Ironically, the sort of scholars who would most admire Stoddard today are Holocaust deniers, even though it is fairly obvious that Stoddard at the very least understood and approved of the policies which would be turned into full fledged genocide, or in the Nazi bureaucratic euphemism, the 'final solution.'

Patterson also helps to puncture a number of myths about the Nazis that historian have been aware of for a long time. Hitler for example was not the ascetic, non-drinking vegetarian that the Goebbels propaganda machine made him out to be. He had switched to a predominantly vegetarian diet before World War I to reduce his stomach problems and embarrassing flatulence (farting and soiling his underwear were major problems). He ate Bavarian sausages, elegant duck dishes and drank beer as he lived in luxury at Berchstesgaden.

The Nazis also suppressed vegetarian groups in Germany and later throughout occupied Europe, since those groups were often connected to pacifist and other ideologies that the Nazis opposed. Himmler, the unsuccessful chicken breeder, who was to direct the SS extermination policies, had as many of his key henchmen people who had come from the world of 'animal husbandry' where the exploitation and slaughter of animals had been their business. The murderers themselves constantly mentioned the wonderful meats that they had to eat as a sort of compensation for the stress of butchering men, women, and children in the millions.

Also, Hitler’s 'love' of dogs, part of the propaganda myth, is put in historical context. Dogs were often whipped and represented blind obedience to Hitler and the SS, who regularly brutalized animals in order to sic them on concentration camp in-mates. The Nazis routinely slaughtered the animals of those they regarded as their enemies. In Vienna on the night of the Anschluss (1938) they murdered thousands of house pets seized from the homes of Viennese Jews that they ransacked. In 1942, as another abuse against the small number of Jews who still 'legally' resided in Germany with their yellow stars, the Hitler regime passed a law barring Jewish people from owning pets and began to round up and brutally murder the animals. Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who survived the war and kept a diary, writes of having to put to sleep his and his wife’s cat with the assistance of a veterinarian to keep the animal from being turned over to the Nazis.

Part three of Eternal Treblinka deals positively with both reconciliation and resistance. Here remarkable stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors, the children of Holocaust survivors, non-Jewish German anti-fascists and, in a number of cases, the children of both Nazis and Germans who refused to see what was happening under Hitler are told. Rising from the real material hell that German fascism produced, these people became activists and leaders of the movements against speciesism, for a vegetarian diet on moral and ethical grounds and against racism and militarism in all their manifestations. Their stories really makes one realize that human progress is multi-faceted and ongoing and that people do and can both learn and change.

Patterson concludes his work with these words 'the sooner we put an end to our cruel and violent way of life the better it will be for all of us – perpetrators, bystanders, and victims.' It would have been great if he had understood that such a revolutionary change will necessitate the abolition of capitalist and all other exploitative society, but Eternal Treblinka is a great book that will both expose readers to a world of valuable information that is not available to them in other sources, and help them, if they choose to act upon what they read, become better human beings in their relationship to both humans and animals.

Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, New York, Lantern Books: 2002.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs and may be reached by writing to