By John Alexander Williams (Stanford University Press, 2007)
Even though present-day enviros may protest that their movement is for all people, in the beginning—the early twentieth century—the conservation movement had some pretty unsavory roots. In the United States, the picture wasn’t pretty—scientific racists like Madison Grant and William Hornaday loved the mountains and wildlife of the American West, even while they hated the un-American immigrants they thought were ruining everything. In Germany, things look even worse—the Nazi regime was noted for its conservationist ethic, or at least its conservationist rhetoric, which associated purity of the German race with purity of the homeland (this is a topic that historians like Frank Uekotter and Franz-Joseph Bruggemeier et al. have chewed over at length). John Alexander Williams enters this fray in his book, in which he tries to reject the narrative of a backwards-looking, antimodern German environmentalism that led inexorably down the road to racism and Nazism. To that end, Williams uncovers various groups operating in the early twentieth century that tried to equate environmentalism with the liberation of German workers. These groups included nudists (whom we have to thank for some fantastic photographs of naked Germans doing group calisthenics), hiking clubs, and youth culture organizations.
Williams succeeds in showing that a range of different ideas of “nature” existed in Germany during this era, and that some of them were very much linked with socialism and seemingly blameless, un-Nazi-ish impulses toward personal freedom. Williams’s argument tries to save environmentalism from Nazism partially by showing how environmentalists who thrived in the Weimar era were put out of commission by the Nazi program. The freedom-loving socialist nudists, for example, were reduced to trying to survive with a variety of political strategies, including writing letters to Nazi leaders, as one such nudist did, praising the Hitler salute for its calisthenic properties (“the salute makes it impossible to have a crooked or rounded back”). Williams’ strategy sometimes leans overmuch toward an admiring glorification of socialism, but overall the book scrambles the green Nazi image enough that environmentalists can heave a momentary sigh of relief.
Rebecca Onion is a freelance writer and a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.