Matthew Piper
Matthew Piper

The Nazis are remembered for their brutality and cruelty, so it is surprising to many that when the party was in power it also passed laws to protect animals. Matthew Piper, who recently graduated from U of G with a master’s in history, became intrigued by these apparent contradictions and made them the focus of his thesis. He successfully defended in January.

The first law, according to Piper, was passed in 1933, not long after the Nazis rose to power. Under the Animal Protection Act, it was forbidden to mistreat or handle animals in any way that would harm them. Force-feeding fowl was banned, and the law also provided protection to animals in circuses and zoos. In the initial version of the act, experimentation on animals was prohibited as well. People who neglected their pets could be arrested and fined.

“These laws were very progressive at the time,” says Piper.

A year later, the Nazis passed an act that dealt with hunting wild animals. “At the time, only Great Britain had any laws protecting wild animals, but they were nowhere near as strong as the Third Reich laws,” says Piper. This law prohibited hunting on horseback, poisoning wild animals and using traps. In addition, only German citizens and those who met the Aryan racial standards were permitted to hunt.

By 1935, additional restrictions on hunting protected some animals, such as wolves. “What is interesting is that wolves were already extinct in Germany at that time,” Piper points out. “Wolves did exist in Poland, though, and I think this law showed that the Nazis were already looking across their borders and planning to take over.”

Piper sees the restrictions of the hunting laws as essentially a precursor to the Nuremburg laws passed a year later, which stripped those of Jewish descent of their German nationality. “The Nazis saw the land and the animals living on it as sacred to Germany, but they saw the ethnic minorities as invaders in their country,” he says.

The Animal Protection Act also attacked the methods of kosher slaughter. Piper recalls seeing one very graphic film in which a kosher slaughter was taking place. The narrator described it as a cruel practice, something Germans would never do but that the Jews would engage in. “They used the law to demean ethnic minorities and make the Aryan race seem superior,” explains Piper.

These laws gained support for the Nazis from the animal protection groups and conservationists in Germany at the time. These supporters were usually not Nazis or interested in the party’s other policies, but because they were in favour of these laws, they added their support to the regime.

When Germany invaded France, the animal protection laws were put in place there and again received support from French citizens interested in these causes. “They were not happy about the German occupation, but they supported the laws and would post signs about the restrictions on hunting, for example,” says Piper.

However, in Poland the laws were used in a different way. The Nazis chose areas of land and designated them as nature preserves for animals such as wolves and beavers. The people living on these parcels of land were forcibly removed and sent to death camps.

Reconciling Hitler’s concern for animals with his cruelty towards certain groups of people is difficult, Piper acknowledges. “There is some evidence that he did love and care about animals,” he says. “But I think the laws were more closely related to a couple of things. One was this idea of the sacred soil of Germany, and the animals belonging to the ‘natural’ Germany like the Aryans did, so they deserved protection. Secondly, it was a first step to restricting and controlling the non-Aryans in the country.”

When the Nazis were defeated in 1945, the laws were still on the books. In 1951, they were amended to remove the racist and anti-minority aspects but still covered many of the same issues. For example, foot-hold traps and hunting with hounds are still illegal.

Researching this topic has been a fascinating experience for Piper. “These laws seem like a positive thing at first glance, but there is a dark side to them, and they foreshadow the true goals of the Nazis,” he says.