Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment, c. 1870 to 2000 , by Corinna Treitel

In: Journal of Religion in Europe
Thomas Rohkrämer Lancaster University UK Lancaster

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Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment, c. 1870 to 2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 402 pp., ISBN: 9781107188020, £ 95.99 (hbk.)

Life reform is usually seen as the polar opposite to biopolitics. One is the individual attempt to improve one’s own life, that is a politics of the self; the other is the attempt to optimize the whole of society. Corinna Treitel, however, shows how the two are deeply intertwined in the attempt to eat more naturally. She also disproves the common assumption that eating naturally is not necessarily part of an “alternative life-style.” As historians of German history know well, it can connect with all forms of politics.

With impressive competence and knowledge, Treitel tells a story with many twists and turns. The attempt—frequently put forward with missionary zeal—to eat and live more naturally emerged strongly toward the end of the nineteenth century. When the industrial world gradually became “second nature,” both the fear of living unnaturally and the wish to eat in a more natural way emerged with full force. While there was a deep gulf between life reformers and scientists at first, a fruitful conversation soon emerged. Scientists came to accept that a vegetarian diet without sugar, alcohol, coffee, and tea was quite healthy, and life reformers adopted wider arguments, above all the powerful point that a vegetarian diet was better for society as a whole: as the production of meat is more costly, vegetarianism is a more efficient way to feed a growing population. This argument was first connected with the memory of the last natural famine in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century and with the poor nutrition of the working class in Imperial Germany, but it became even more persuasive during the First World War. The war effort combined with the naval blockade led to a severe famine, and a vegetarian diet seemed to offer a possible solution.

While the call for a more natural and vegetarian diet emerged largely in progressive circles, the political Right soon became part of this discourse, in particular after the defeat in 1918. Vegetarianism was supposed to strengthen the Germanic race and help to feed the population in a future war. It is thus not surprising that Nazism also promoted a change in the eating habits of the German population. Racial health was a topic, but the main goal was to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of food. In particular, the lowering of the consumption of meat stood at the centre of propaganda campaigns, while sugar, for example, was also promoted as a cheap way of supplying calories. Some experiments with more natural forms of farming were made, but an increase in production was the main goal. Thus, the call for a modernization of agriculture dominated.

With growing affluence after the Second World War, the question of health moved to the forefront again in the Federal Republic of Germany from the 1950s. Treitel shows—as was the case in other sectors of society—a continuity of elites. The Nazi advocates of natural eating continued their careers, but changed their argument: There was a growing concern about artificial fertilizers and other unnatural substances in food and about an unnatural lifestyle more generally. The rapid modernization and Americanization of the Federal Republic combined with a strong critique of civilization.

Further east, the German Democratic Republic combined the attempt to feed the population more efficiently with the promotion of a more healthy diet. Increasingly, the state avoided the association with life reformers, because they were allegedly too unscientific, but they followed their traditional recommendations. Big campaigns were launched to change eating habits, but the effect was disappointing. Their top-down approach struggled to reach into everyday life, and many of the advocated products were difficult to come by.

While the post-war promoters of a natural diet tended to be conservative (and frequently ex-Nazis), the change toward a more natural diet moved to the left again with the rise of a green agenda. While previous attempts to change the eating habits of the population had met with quite limited success, they have now become more mainstream—although the meat consumption in Germany is still quite high in comparison to other rich nations. Treitel is so focused on her topic that she tends to underplay the persistence of more traditional ways of eating.

The book does not only offer a convincing account of eating naturally in modern German history, but also succeeds in making important points: The call for living more naturally is not antimodern, as early historians of life reform have argued, but deeply connected with the modern world of science and consumption, lifestyle and individuality. It is not automatically left-wing, but can connect with very different political orientations. It is a lifestyle choice, but also links with the biopolitical goals of feeding the population more effectively than with a meat-based diet, and promoting public health.

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