By Tristan Landry
During and after the First World War, food was of critical importance in Germany. As a result, large sums of money were invested in science by the State (“Germany’s last national resource”) during the Weimar Republic. The funding went particularly into nutrition science, a scientific trend the Nazis exploited once they came to power. The Blockade of Germany by the Allies during WWI (which was not lifted until July 1919 when the Reichstag finally ratified the Treaty of Versailles), and the high inflation with which Germany struggled until 1923 (when the Rentenmark was introduced) aggravated food shortages and poverty, prompting the state to devise a new regime of food control through totalitarian means.
The goal was to achieve agrarian autarky, to put the economy at the service of war and industrialization, and to create a “new man.” In order to achieve this, the state implemented measures not only to improve agriculture, but also to transform the human diet. This was done in two ways: by examining the amount of food needed for a person’s particular level of physical activity, and secondly by taking into account the quality of an individual’s intestinal flora or what we would call today the microbiota. Whereas the first measure has received considerable attention in the existing literature, the Nazis’ emphasis on gut bacteria and foods that support bacterial growth (what we nowadays would call probiotics and prebiotics) is less well known.The discovery of the beneficial role of certain bacteria in food was not made in Germany. In the early twentieth century, the Russian zoologist Elie Metchnikoff observed that peasants in Bulgaria lived longer on average than in other nations, and he proceeded to analyze their diets. He concluded that their longevity was a result of high yogurt consumption, specifically due to a constituent ingredient that he isolated and named bacillus bulgaricus. Based on these findings, he formulated a theory of good and bad bacteria in the human gut. Eating yogurt, according to Metchnikoff, helped the good bacteria to replace the bad ones (sound familiar?), prevented constipation, promoted intestinal health and thereby increased good health in general.
German nutritionists deepened Metchnikoff’s research and fused it with their own body of knowledge on microbial life. According to Professor Wilhelm Henneberg, a member of the Reich Health Council (Reichsgesundheitsrat), microbial diversity was characteristic of a healthy intestinal flora. The consumption of meat, he continued, promoted the development of so-called putrid bacteria (Fäulnisbakterien: we speak today of alistipes, bilophila and bacteroides), while the consumption of vegetables rich in cellulose favored the development of cellulose bacteria (Zellulosebakterien or in today’s language: Firmicutes, Roseburia, Eubacterium rectale and Ruminococcus bromii), which dissolved the envelope of plant cells, thus releasing their contents. Consumption of foods rich in carbohydrates promoted the development of lactobacilli which fought putrid bacteria. Apart from some pathogenic bacteria, such as cholera or typhus which were fortunately rare in most human guts, most bacteria were harmless, even helpful, Hennenberg assured.
Henneberg illustrated in detail how eating particular foods could influence the composition of the intestinal flora. According to him, consumption of fermented dairy products (whey, kefir, yogurt, Reformjoghurt) had a beneficial effect on the digestion, at a low cost, although lactobacilli from whey and kefir did not colonize the intestine as did those of yogurt. Bacteria contained in Reformjoghurt (i.e. unpasteurized yogurt) settled in the intestine for longer. Consumption of cheese, not too mature, was a rich source of lactobacilli, which multiplied in the gut especially when eaten with milk. Cottage cheese (Speisequark) and unpasteurized cheeses were considered particularly effective in colonization, but Hennenberg concluded that the time and degree of intestinal colonization varied widely from one individual to another.This research on the human microbiota helped redefine what was meant by eating healthily. It no longer meant only to eat natural, organic food which had been altered as little as possible (as advocated in Germany since the Lebensreform), but also to eat live food which was supposed to contribute favorably to the microbial life of the digestive system. An important consequence of this approach was that the quality of food greatly depended on the quality of its digestion. The better the digestive organs functioned, the greater would be the food’s health benefits for the consumer. Dr. Felix Buse – Director of the Institute of Nutrition and Modern Kitchen and author of Healthy Food and German Cuisine – summed up this philosophy in a few words: “A meal should not only look appetizing and have a good taste, it also should not mobilize the digestive organs more than necessary.” A microbiotic regime should make the individual’s digestion more efficient, because his/her body spent less energy on this digestion, an energy which could then be used in the implementation of the Third Reich’s objectives: “a nation does not need poorly performing or defective digestive organs.”
This approach to nutrition was consistent with the ideology of Blut und Boden (which viewed ethnicity as being based on blood and soil). For the Nazi nutritionists, the human diet could only be considered in its entirety. Every single element had to find its place and harmoniously blend in with the rest of the component parts so as to integrate into a whole. This organic conception of health and nutrition was central both to the Lebensreform and to Nazi nutrition. Instead of studying food for itself, food was to be considered in its relation to the environment and its impact on the gene pool of the Volk. This meant not only the least possible human intervention, but also the most natural processing and production environment possible. It was thus important that food no longer be assessed according to its vitamin and caloric content, but within a larger whole in which living microorganisms in food had a role in regulating the metabolism.The interest German nutritionists took in the microbiota during the 1930s and 1940s seems very avant-garde today, not to mention their study of the relationship between cancer and nutrition. But we should bear in mind that these ideas were completely perverted by a conception in which the health of the “German race” took precedence over the oath of Hippocrates: concentration camps and death centers were a field of experimentation for Nazi doctors working, among other topics, on nutrition issues.
Tristan Landry is a Canadian historian specializing in the cultural history of food in Central and Eastern Europe. He is a professor at Sherbrooke University. His forthcoming book examines Nazi gastropolitics.
Works cited and suggested readings:
Buse, F., Gesunde deutsche Kost und Küche: Das Lehr- und Kochbuch der gesunden, fleischarmen Küche und Ernährung für jedermann, Munich, Kösel-Pustet, 1938.
Cocks, G., “Sick Heil: Self and Illness in Nazi Germany,” Osiris, vol. 22, n° 1, 2007, pp. 93–115.
Eckart, W.U., Medizin in der NS-Diktatur: Ideologie, Praxis, Folgen, Vienna, Böhlau, 2012.
Heim, S., Kalorien, Kautschuk, Karrieren: Pflanzenzüchtung und Landwirtschaftliche Forschung in Kaiser-Wilhelm-Instituten, 1933-1945, vol. 5, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2003 (Geschichte der Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft im Nationalsozialismus).
Henneberg, W., “Beeinflussung der Darmflora durch den Genuß von Milch, Sauermilch, Joghurt, Reformjoghurt (Acidophilusmilch), Käse und Milchsäurebakterien-Reinkulturen,” Zeitschrift für Volksernährung, vol. 9, n° 19, October 1934, pp. 334‑335.
Metchnikoff, E., “Études sur la flore intestinale. Deuxieme mémoire. Poisons intestinaux et scléroses,” Annales de l’Institut Pasteur, vol. 24, 1910, pp. 755‑70.
Plesser, T. et Thamer, H.-U. (ed.), Arbeit, Leistung und Ernährung : Vom Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Arbeitsphysiologie in Berlin zum Max-Planck-Institut für molekulare Physiologie und Leibniz Institut für Arbeitsforschung in Dortmund, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.
Proctor, R.N., The Nazi War on Cancer, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Sarasin, P., Reizbare Maschinen: Eine Geschichte des Körpers 1765-1914, Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001.
Stoff, H., Wirkstoffe. Eine Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Hormone, Vitamine und Enzyme, 1920-1970, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012.
Treitel, C., “Nature and the Nazi Diet,” Food and Foodways, vol. 17, n° 3, 2009, pp. 139‑158.