A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Where farming is concerned, beware romantic European nationalisms.....

Recently, there have been a spate of alpine flower-tinted articles on old-fashioned European farming by middle-class journalists just home from their continental holidays, as well exemplified by Magnus Linklater writing in The Times ('Picturesque little farms, delicious local produce ... Obvious clue: not Britain' - apologies, no link for copyright reasons: see The Times, July 5).

The themes are common: small, quaint farmsteads; hosts of meadow blossoms; delightful anti-industrial rural inefficiency; delicious slow meals of regional fare, washed down with local wines; hardy hands-of-the-soil defining 'La France profonde' and the true spirit of Europe; and, all under a glowing, cloud-free sky, redolent of summers long past.

And the plea is basically the same too: let's keep these landscapes free from the taint of horrid 'capitalism' and of the nasty, real world.

Richard-Walther DarreUnfortunately, we have heard such tropes before, and the context was extremely nasty. Although one must never tar with an unfair brush, and one must be careful of drawing crass historical parallels, the romanticisation of European 'peasantry' recalls too dangerously for my liking the language of Richard-Walther Darré (1895 - 1953), SS-Obergruppenführer, and the leading Nazi 'blood and soil' theoretician, who was Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture between 1933 to 1942 and Reichsbauernführer, National Farmers' Leader, for some twelve years [Opposite: Darré, Berlin, 1940(?)].

In his many publications, including, for example, Das Bauerntum als Lebensquell der Nordischen Rasse (1928), Um Blut und Boden (1929), and Der Schweinemord (1937), Darré argued that it was the European farmer who had been the creator of European culture, and he proposed the formation of a Germanic 'aristocracy of the soil', rooted in the old agrarian community, which would be protected from, and be a bulwark against, the 'capitalist' (for which, read 'wandering Jewish') world, the "chaos of the market", and industrialisation. The movement was to be 'völkisch' (nearly impossible to translate), with a romantic focus on folklore, the 'organic', and purity. Provocatively, he even placed the pig at the heart of this cult, a celebration of German peasant life, coupled with unsophisticated racism, and, above all, anti-Semitism. The process was to be progressed through Erbhofgesetz, entail farm legislation, which would tie the peasant to the land. Moreover, the Reich would seek autarchy - self-sufficiency.

Inevitably, it didn't work, even in the ugly 'Fairy Tale' that was Nazi Germany, and Darré was soon in conflict with the Reichsbank, with the free market economics of people like Hjalmar Schacht, with the progressive, industrial side of Nazism, but, more importantly, with 'the peasants' themselves, many of whom were more than happy to turn 'capitalist', or who fled the land altogether. By 1939, Darré had lost Hitler's confidence, and he was sidelined under Himmler, but not before he had ordered Jews to be cut off from German food supplies, a crime for which he was given a five-year prison sentence at Nuremberg.

Of course, there is no direct parallel today. Nevertheless, there are resonances in the protection of patently-inefficient 'peasant' agriculture from 'capitalism' by extremely heavy and costly EU subsidies at the expense both of the urban poor in Europe and of developing-world farmers - a problem which could yet derail vital current world trade talks at the WTO. I also think we must be ever-wary of the 'organic' concepts of purity and of the persistent cry that farmers are a special 'aristocracy', a defence against the evils of a globalising world. It is further worth noting that threatening political figures, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, draw much of their support from 'La France profonde' and its ilk. And one must even be cautious about the incipient autarchy behind such concepts as 'the local' and 'food miles'.

I thus think it wise to distrust over-romantic views about European farmers and peasants, even from well-meaning journalists.

And, as Zola reminded us: agriculture is "dur" - damned hard work! You only romanticise it when you don't have to do it for subsistence.

[Suggested further reading: Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler's "Green Party" by Anna Bramwell (Kensal Press, 1985, ISBN 0946041334)]

Philip, ever on the look out for Spode and his ilk. "Tea, sir?" "Tickety-boo, Jeeves!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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