When you dwell in a heavily conditioned society such as ours, those who spout conventional wisdom (sic) are rarely asked for evidence.
Case in point: Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian.
In his 2004 book, Hitler: Neither Vegetarian Nor Animal Lover, author Rynn Berry boldly dispenses with any protocol by getting his decidedly unconventional declaration out of the way right up front in the book’s title: “neither vegetarian nor animal lover.”
There, he said it. Now what…and why does/should it matter?
Hitler’s dietary choices may not be of vast historical importance…but they do hold polemical value. Belligerent meat-eaters often toss off the “But Hitler was a vegetarian” line as a method of allegedly discrediting a plant-based diet. After all, their “logic” goes, if the epitome of evil himself eschewed meat, what possible good could come from such a lifestyle? While this premise obviously lacks even a shred of intellectual validity, one cannot discount the emotional power invoked by associating Nazism with vegetarianism.
Rynn Berry himself has dealt directly with this phenomenon. As the author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Recipes, he tells of facing “at every bookstore signing, at every lecture, on every phone-in talk show, at least one person (who) has asked…half-mockingly: ‘Is Hitler in your book?’” Thus, in the name of setting the record straight, Berry marshaled the evidence necessary to take on the Hitler-as-veggie dogma.
Most of what Berry has dug up displays an even more variable use of the label “vegetarian” than we endure today. Robert Payne, a Hitler biographer, explains that the German dictator “had no fondness for meat except in the form of sausages, and never ate fish, he enjoyed caviar.” (Is sausage considered a vegetable in Germany?) A second biographer wrote: “Hitler’s vegetarianism was quite strict… He avoided any kind of meat, with the exception of an Austrian dish he loved, Leberknödl.”
For those of you scoring at home, Leberknödl = liver dumplings.
It should come as no surprise that the venerable New York Times also fell prey to the amazing elasticity of the term “vegetarianism.” In a May 30, 1937 NYT article entitled, “At Home with the Führer,” the newspaper of record found this passage fit to print:
“It is well known that Hitler is a vegetarian and does not drink or smoke. His lunch and dinner consist, therefore, for the most part of soup, eggs, vegetables, and mineral water, although he occasionally relishes a slice of ham and relieves the tediousness of his diet with such delicacies as caviar.”
That revealing description—veggies are tedious, flesh is a delicacy—is pretty much how the Times portrays a plant-based diet to this day. It also helps illustrate why Nazis like Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels attempted to portray Hitler as a veggie lover. As the Times cleverly hinted at, the tedium of vegetarianism (even with the occasional slice of ham to relish) would require a man of remarkable discipline to adhere to it.
In a culture less inundated by propaganda, Hitler’s non-vegetarian status would be apparent and even if the Führer didn’t eat meat, few would regard this as a judgment on vegetarianism.
However, this is America: the land of denial.
(Image by Kranky)