OCTOBER 15, 2020
IN CERTAIN CIRCLES in Germany today, meat is taboo — such is the strength of the vegetarian movement sweeping the country. But pork has long held a special place in German cuisine, and it has also held a special place in the hearts of successive authoritarian regimes in Germany — first Adolf Hitler and his Nazi technocrats, and later Erich Honecker and the Socialist Unity Party that crumbled along with East Germany in 1989. It was a curious country while it lasted, perhaps best remembered today for the Berlin Wall, its all-encompassing state surveillance apparatus, its elite athletes doped to the brim on the state’s dime, and its comically crummy car, the Trabant (Trabi).
Less well known is its leadership’s love affair with industrial pork production — an engaging tale now told in Thomas Fleischman’s Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany’s Rise and Fall.
Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) was a Nazi motto to evoke Aryan racial ties to German soil. The motto was popularized by Richard Walther Darré, who was minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 until 1942, and a major proponent of pork. For Darré, the pig was the supreme animal for Germanic people and the gods of ancient Aryans, who, he argued, preferred the swine sacrifice above all. Darré was interested in mapping the bloodlines of different hog breeds and he went on to apply this reasoning to humans, famously advocating for selective breeding to promote a “pure Nordic race” to restore a racially cleansed Germandom.
He also argued that the Aryan connection with the soil was made possible through pig rearing. There could be no true Germans without pigs. And pigs, he argued, are what separated Germans from Jews. The Nazis went on to pursue an intensive pig breeding and farming effort, seeking to rebuild the German swine stock that had been decimated by World War I. Tiago Saraiva’s work Fascist Pigs, which details this story of pigs under the Nazi regime, is the obvious prequel to Fleischman’s book.
Communist Pigs advances the swine history of Germany, taking readers to the era of authoritarian rule in the GDR. Having previously read Saraiva’s book, but not giving much thought to how pork production was handled in the GDR, I was surprised to learn that East Germany so enthusiastically embraced the industrial pig. Surely this must have been coded as “too fascist” for the vociferously antifascist leaders of the new communist country. The new East German leadership did want to distance itself from the Nazi agricultural structures, and the government quickly embarked on a massive farm collectivization campaign after the end of World War II, following the lead of the Soviet Union and other communist states.
But East Germany was not so quick to get rid of the pig. The regime ultimately allowed farmers to keep “garden pigs” in their peri-urban plots, and over time, the wild boar population exploded. Fleischman’s book covers the fate of these pigs, with a primary focus on the industrial pig. And in his telling, we see how dramatically East German leaders shifted the ideological framing of the pig’s place in society, the economy, and in the natural environment.
Whereas the Nazi Blut und Boden ideology promoted a bodenständig (“rooted”) pig that could be reared on the root vegetables suited to German soil, East Germany’s industrial pig relied on commodity-level feed. “It was not bred to support local or regional markets,” Fleischman writes. “Factory conditions put new demands on the animal, which could only be met with unprecedented amounts of grain.” Mass-produced grain was the key to the GDR’s industrial pig production. At first, the country’s agricultural production model was reoriented to make this possible, giving preferential status to large-scale commercial agriculture. But ultimately, there wasn’t enough land to sustain the industrial pigs with so much grain. So leadership eventually started to import grain — not just from Soviet allies, but increasingly from the West. Although the GDR’s investment in industrial agriculture was modeled on American industrial farming, it rapidly became apparent that it could not keep pace:
By the late 1960s, without access to the world of cheap inputs such as grain, labor, and capital, the East German factory farm faltered. It was “rescued” by changes in the 1970s to global capitalism and Erich Honecker’s turn to the West. While the first secretary believed cheap credit and grain would accelerate the transformation of the country into an export land, the shift pulled the country’s pork and pigs into global flows of capital and commodities.
Fleischman goes into great detail about the ramifications of these changes in global political economy for East German pig farming. He shows how the grain trap worked to bind the communist country into capitalist agro-commodity circuits. For the notorious General Secretary Erich Honecker, this was largely justified on the pretense that pork exports brought food self-sufficiency to the GDR. But ultimately, it was about bringing much-needed Western currency to state coffers.
Not only was this empire of pigs leveraged up to the snout, it was also dirty. The numbers are telling: with an average pig population of 10 to 13 million during the 1970s, “it was like adding the excrement of between 44 and 65 million people to a country of just over 16 million people.” With no government or technical solution on hand to manage the waste, the GDR became uncontrollably polluted with pig manure. Happily for the weak of stomach, Communist Pigs spares readers the gruesome scenes of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or the more recent account of industrial slaughterhouses in Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. But Fleischman’s insights about the manure crisis brought on by East Germany’s push for pigs are truly enlightening, if disgusting. Manure seeped into water supplies, piles littered the landscape, and the feces poisoned pigs and humans alike.
Murmurs of popular opposition to these problems began in the 1970s, but really gathered steam by the 1980s. The government began to prioritize export markets over domestic food needs. This message was truly driven home when a catastrophic series of events hit the country’s pork sector in 1982, and the Socialist Unity Party refused to halt its exports, setting off a cascade of food shortages across the country. Environmentalists set it over the edge, connecting food shortages and exported meat to agricultural pollution. As Markus Meckel, the founder of the Socialist Democratic Party, put it: “Cheap pork is sent to the West — lakes of manure remain here.”
By this time, it was no surprise that East German citizens doubted the official narrative of industrial pig farming. Environmental exploitation was always political during the Cold War. But in the late 1980s, protests reverberated across Eastern Europe and were crucial to the eventual toppling of communist regimes across the region. East Germany’s “lakes of manure” were among the many problems that protestors found intolerable. By fall 1989, the GDR had crumbled and reunification of the two Germanies was on the horizon.
Erich Honecker and Adolf Hitler both believed in the power of the pig to enrich the German people. Each built an agro-industrial scaffolding that was designed to bolster their own authoritarian hold on power, enriching their cronies and supporters while laying waste to the environment, human life, and the social fabric of the Germany they sought to master. Curiously, pork was at the center of each man’s vision of autarky — feeding the masses with the most German of commodities. Hitler and Honecker both tried to engineer the natural environment to achieve this feat, but each, in his own way, found the limits of the land. Hitler’s toxic foil was expansion in the name of Lebensraum, of more “living space” for the German Reich, whereas Honecker built his legitimacy on the material satisfaction he promised with his vision of socialist paradise. But both of Germany’s autocrats eventually came to be guided more by egoism and megalomania than reason — and while the architecture of geopolitics and political economy were appallingly bent to their will for a moment, it was never sustainable. Nor, Fleischman shows, is industrial pig farming.
But this novel story of German pigs, and the autocrats who loved them, is not solely about the ills of capitalist agribusiness; we already know that industrial farming is one of the most serious threats to human health and the natural world. Rather, what Communist Pigs masterfully shows is that authoritarianism thrives in an interconnected world that draws resources, ideas, and even pigs from nonauthoritarian places.
Authoritarianism is the catchall evil Other in mainstream liberal discourse today, but illiberal regimes cannot and never will exist in a political vacuum. Of course, Hitler’s and Honecker’s visions revolved around this fictional vacuum, which led them to pursue ever more ruinous policies to uphold their aspirations for autarky. Just like Donald Trump’s trade war with China and the “America First” policies that have obliterated domestic agriculture, these autocrats’ visions were obviously fictitious: they were never apart from the global system that enabled them for so many years, but always a part of it. The systems build one another. To deny liberal complicity in illiberalism is precisely what the East Germans were complaining about when they decried that their country had become the “garbage dump of the West.” Because, in the end, the same pigs that Germany’s autocrats loved were also loved by its democrats — piles of manure and all.
Natalie Koch is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. She specializes in authoritarianism, the environment, and geopolitics.