Friday, February 27, 2004

But Hitler Was a Vegetarian

My all-time favorite example of the argumentum ad hitlerum has to be the statement "Hitler was a vegetarian!" This statement has to be the most transparent instance of ad hominem around, and I've often wondered how anyone could possibly be stupid enough to be swayed by it. As the old saying goes though, no one's ever gone broke underestimating the stupidity of the public, and it really does seem to nettle some people that Der Führer wasn't exactly a beef and mutton sort of guy.

Rynn Berry wants to set the record straight about Adolf Hitler. "There's absolutely no evidence he was a vegetarian. It simply isn't true." Berry, a 54-year-old raw-foodist and "vegetarian historian" who is the author of Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions, is on a mission to dispel the commonly held view that the 20th century's most notorious mass murderer was also an adamant herbivore.

I first learned of Berry this winter while listening to the radio. An adviser to the North American Vegetarian Society, Berry was on lefty WBAI's weekly animal-rights show, "Walden's Pond," to explain what Hitler really ate for dinner. According to his research, while Hitler for the most part followed a vegetarian diet, some of his favorite treats were liver dumplings, ham, and caviar. "Mainstream historians have an elastic definition of vegetarianism," he says. "They don't hold Hitler to the same standards as a practicing ethical vegetarian. You can't be a vegetarian and eat liver dumplings." But Berry's quest raises some obvious questions: Why investigate what Hitler ate? Does it matter, considering his ghastly crimes?

It matters to Berry. He, like other devout vegetarians, whose diets are inextricably linked to their self-avowed, pacifistic lifestyles, can't stand being associated with Hitler. Berry neither eats nor wears animal products and avoids all cooked foods. He first became interested in Hitler's diet after he wrote a book in 1990 called Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes. It includes Leonardo di Vinci's love for fried figs and beans; George Bernard Shaw's favorite, brussels sprouts casserole; and Plutarch's classic, asparagus with tahini. It doesn't, however, include any mention of Hitler. At talks and seminars, Berry says, it's rare that someone doesn't point out the omission: "I've been the target of a lot of abuse and taunts from hostile non-vegetarians who bring out the alleged fact of Hitler's vegetarianism and tax me for not having put him the book."

Berry's new book, Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover, is an attempt to clear the table on what we know about Hitler's diet. The book, published by Pythagorean—a small house that specializes in vegetarian and animal-rights topics (and named after the Greek genius, Pythagoras, who was apparently history's first famous vegetarian)—is a slim paperback whose cover features a black-and-white photo of Hitler dining with Neville Chamberlain. There's a plate of appetizers on the table, but it's hard to tell if there's meat in them. In any case, Hitler looks like he has other things on his mind.

What a pity for Mr. Berry's argument that we have the word of several witnesses testifying to Hitler's vegetarianism, including Albert Speer, his secretary Traudl Junge, and both of his cooks, Constanze Manziarly and Marlene von Exner. To be frank, this guy is both a nutcase and a moron for caring enough to write an entire book about such an inane topic. Sure Hitler was a vegetarian, but he was also a lot of other things as well: he was fastidious about washing his hands after playing with his dogs, he showered regularly and kept himself scrupulously clean, he detested cigarette smoke, and he liked to read. Are all these things to be condemned because of his association with them?

That a vegetarian also happened to be a genocidal megalomaniac doesn't say anything one way or another about vegetarianism. That so many vegetarians care enough about Hitler's eating habits to seek to "set the record straight" does say a great deal about the allure vegetarianism has for mushy-brained new-age types.