Sunday, October 18, 2020

"German Pigs and the Autocrats Who Loved Them"

East Germany was a strange place. What Ulbricht, Honecker and the gang created was just twisted. And may be coming to a country near you. But with fancier tech.

And maybe no pigs. But first, some history that is more interesting than it might appear at first glance.

From the Los Angeles Review of Books:

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....