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Nature and Nationalism: Right-Wing Ecology and the Politics of Identity in Contemporary Germany.

Nature and Nationalism: Right-Wing Ecology and the Politics of Identity in Contemporary Germany. By Jonathan Olsen. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 326p. $15.95 paper.

Obviously, the topic of this book is important, and there is no doubt that instances of a right-wing ecology can be found in pre-1945 Germany and again since the 1970s. How to define it and the related concepts properly, and hence how to classify and analyze these complex phenomena, however, remains problematic. This book is an ambitious and serious effort, and Jonathan Olsen presents a number of sound and poignant theoretical analyses. But in the end, for lack of a rigorous definition of such terms as "nature," "environmentalism," and the "radical right," the quarry threatens to escape his grasp.

The problems begin with the looseness of language common to German and English; words like "nature," "natural," and "environment" are used in contexts far different from ecology: The nature of Dewey's philosophy, naturally, may be related to the environment in which he grew up. Many of the quotations collected by Olsen from allegedly environmentalist writings and programs of known right-wingers leave doubts. For example, to say that the radical Right expresses the popular fear of "pollution" of the "purity of the Germany body politic" and responds with hostility toward immigrants and multiculturalism (p. 157), or proposes as a solution "a return to nature and her purported laws" (p. 160), seems at first blush tautological or simply right-wing boiler-plate. It hardly signifies, as the publicity for the book asserts, "that parties of the radical right are moving environmental themes to the center of their political programs." We have to define terms like "nature" and question whether this kind of rightwing eco logical rhetoric is truly nature-centered or is just nationalistic or ethnocentric. What is environmentalist about "ethnopluralism" or hostility to foreigners?

The author deserves credit for casting his net wide enough to include manifestations of ecological rhetoric in the Nazi regime and its voelkisch literary antecedents. He gets onto thin ice, however, when he seeks antecedents in the nature worship of nineteenth-century romanticism or in every movement critical of Enlightenment universalism unless he can demonstrate that they were also considered on the radical Right in their day. The Enlightenment came in for much criticism from religious and left-wing circles after the French Revolution. With some figures, of course, Olsen succeeds, and the Third Reich did enact massive protection of nature legislation. Yet, there is little compelling reason to consider Heimatschutz (protection of homeland) movements as environmentalist just because they vaguely include nature and landscape among the local features they vow to protect against threats from the outside, before and after World War I, especially refugees and Slavic minorities. Heimatschutz and Naturschutz (prote ction of nature) are not the same. To define the topic well, we need to narrow the choice to the truly influential combinations of environmentalism and radical Right politics among the multitude, of offbeat cults and gurus of every description roaming Germany at that time.

The reawakening of political environmentalism in the 1970s influenced all West German parties, even the radical Right, although its commitment to a nature-centered view rarely went far beyond lipservice. The Greens were very heterogeneous and included some former Nazis, and "browngreen" gurus, and not a few closet bourgeois nationalists. But they also felt rather distant and alienated from the world of parties and elections, and they only reluctantly formed the required common consensus for political action. For nearly a decade, different and mutually exclusive environmentalist conceptions prevailed among the (mostly red-green) Greens, but it is misleading to attribute the dissension mainly to a kind of missing link at the "metapolitical level" between them and the writers of the new Right, or the more environmentally inclined among them. New Right figures shared the antiimmigrant, antiasylum-seeker attitudes of the moderate Right, particularly the Christian Democratic Union. Olsen's choice of who belongs to the new Right is rather idiosyncratic, and his lumping together of the radical and moderate Right is dubious at best. The confusion mars especially the last quarter of the book, in which the author becomes so absorbed with the German radical Right and antiimmigrant actions of the government that he seems to forget right-wing environmentalism.

Even the examples of Christian Democratic actions against foreign resident cultures seem poorly chosen. A Berlin municipal attempt to ban cookouts by foreign residents in the Tiergarten park on grounds of trash and air pollution is reminiscent of the ban on open fires in environmentally conscious American cities. And a Bavarian government edict against the excessive noise of prayer calls at mosques reminds me of court cases to force Christian churches to curb their bells. It is true that the German preoccupation with noise as a form of environmental pollution may seem exotic to Americans, but are these--and the German devotion to natural foods and health cults--really compelling examples of radical Right environmentalism?

In sum, this book disappoints the reader who expects profound revelations about the secret nexus between environmentalism and radical Right thinking in Germany. It is undeniable that Olsen finds isolated writers and ideas representing both, but the demonstrable connections seem to consist mostly of the dross of right-wing propaganda verbiage. In the world of political reality of mass politics, the overwhelming evidence is still that of two separate movements, nature-centered environmentalism and ethnocentric nationalism, new and old.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Merkl, Peter H.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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