This month we review a provocative book that draws a parallel between man's treatment of animals and the treatment of Jews during the holocaust.
Lantern Books, 2002
In Eternal Treblinka Charles Patterson draws a striking parallel between the extermination of the Jews and man's extermination of animals ostensibly used for food. The phrase "eternal Treblinka" is used by Isaac Bashevis Singer in his short story, "The Letter Writer," to describe what animals suffer in modern society. Singer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, became a vegetarian as a protest of the way his fellow men treated animals. In Singer's stories many of the main characters are either vegetarian or are thinking of becoming vegetarians. Patterson not only dedicates this book to Singer, but in it he details the author's vegetarian/animal views.
"There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin," Singer wrote. "There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is."
Patterson tells of political artist Sue Coe who traveled around the United States for six years visiting slaughterhouses. Her sketches and descriptions appeared in her book Dead Meat. One visit took her to a slaughterhouse in Utah that kills1600 cattle a day using assembly line methods she describes as "Dante's Inferno." Not able to witness the killing of animals in areas off limits to visitors, she does describe how each animal is hoisted after being stunned by one worker as another slits the throat and still another pierces the heart. The overwhelming noise, steam, blood, and smell contribute to the inferno.
The author compares this to a statement made by Franz Stangl on his first day as commandant of Treblinka.
"Treblinka that day was the most awful thing I saw during all of the Third Reich" he buried his face in his hands "it was Dante's Inferno, " he said through his fingers. "It was Dante come to life. When I entered the camp and got out of the car on the square [the Sortierungsplatz] I stepped knee-deep into notes, currency, precious stones, jewelry, clothes. They were everywhere, strewn all over the square. The smell was indescribable, the hundreds, no thousands of bodies everywhere, decomposing, putrefying."
Drawing a parallel between the slaughterhouses of today and the Nazi extermination camps of World War II may be quite disturbing to many people. How can animals be compared to human beings? In delving into the history of human attitudes toward the treatment of animals, Patterson says that man's attitudes toward animals changed when he began to domesticate animals and plants instead of hunting and gathering.
Domestication meant controlling the animals and included castration, hobbling, ear cropping, chains, and collars. Man believed he was morally superior to the animals, and he could dominate, control, and manipulate them as he wished. To Patterson this enslavement of animals led to "a higher level of domination and coercion into human history by creating oppressive hierarchical societies and unleashing large-scale warfare never seen before." He cites one researcher who believes the domestication of animals "was the training ground for male violence."
Once society accepts this exploitation of animals, the next step is to treat other human beings like animals. Human slavery and the subjugation of women are both modeled after the domestication of animals. In the pre-Civil War United States, for example, many slaves were treated like livestock.
In times of warfare enemies were often dehumanized so that killing them would become an easier task. Patterson cites numerous instances where opponents were described in subhuman terms.
The Native Americans were called wild beasts, cruel savages, swine, snakes, and one step above the monkey.
When the US assumed control of the Philippines after the Spanish American War, the native insurgents were described as niggers, treacherous savages, and more fun to kill than rabbits.
In World War II Americans characterized the Japanese as yellow monkeys, cockroaches, and vermin to be annihilated. Even in the Gulf War American troops described chasing the Iraqis as a "turkey shoot" and the civilians who tried to escape as fleeing "cockroaches."
In the same way, Patterson writes of Jews being placed in this animal category early in Christian history. By labeling Jews as vermin, pigs, and mad dogs, anti-Semites found justification in punishing and killing Jews. By dehumanizing the Jews and making them into pigs and vermin, Hitler was able to embark on his final solution, their extermination in the gas chambers.
Patterson shows how the eugenics movement that flourished in the United States and Germany prior to World War II began with the breeding of animals and then was utilized to deal with humans. At first eugenics involved creating superior animals by selecting the best and castrating or killing the remainder.
The Americans went one step further with compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally incompetent. The Nazis took eugenics to another level in their efforts to create a master race. Hitler was a great admirer of the U.S. sterilization program, racial segregation and our immigration laws. Soon the Germans were sterilizing the undesirables or as they called them, "life unworthy of life."
The Jews were not included in the sterilization program because they would be dealt with in the gas chambers. According to Patterson, both Germany and the United States had patterns of slaughtering animals that became a model for atrocities like the final solution. "America gave the modern world the slaughterhouse; Nazi Germany gave it the gas chamber," he writes. Both have many features in common.
Patterson shows how Henry Ford used the modern slaughterhouse as a model for his assembly line that in turn became the prototype for Hitler's efficient methods of eliminating Jews in the concentration camps like Treblinka.
Patterson devotes the last two chapters of the book to personal stories of Jews and Germans whose animal advocacy was influenced by the Holocaust.
Eternal Treblinka is not an easy read. It is like a ride on an emotional roller coaster with the reader constantly asking how man could be so cruel and insensitive in his relationships with fellow beings. Many people who have not made the connection between the treatment of animals and the treatment of human beings will be enlightened by the voluminous research materials that support the author's thesis. Patterson admits that he never thought the book would find a publisher. Fortunately, Lantern Books had the courage and the faith in this volume to bring it to the public.
This well-researched volume contains over 40 pages of notes delineating the author's extensive research. It includes a bibliography and is indexed.
Reviewed November 2002