Hitler's Vegetarianism

The continual allegation that Hitler was a vegetarian is usually motivated by a wish to discredit vegetarianism by those who opppose it. Good morality or good health policy should neither be motivated nor discredited by whether evil people embrace a certain principle. As Peter Singer said, "The fact that Hitler had a nose doesn't mean we should cut off our noses." The Nazis implemented many health policies such as anti-smoking and anti-pollution legislation, pregnancy and birthing measures for women, that we regard as good measures. However, the allegation that Hitler was a vegetarian is so qualified that one can only call Hitler a "vegetarian" by excluding from the definition of "meat" food such as ham and sausages, which he ate all his life. Robert Proctor calls Hitler a vegetarian "of sorts" (The Nazi War on Cancer, p. 134), which is the most that one can say of his vegetarianism.

Biographical material about Hitler's alleged or qualified vegetarianism are contradictory. He was sometimes described as a "vegetarian," but his fondness for sausages, caviar, and occasionally ham, was well known. Proctor writes that while Hitler was often held up as "the model of Nazi lifestyle," witnesses also noted backsliding. "Otto D. Tolischus in 1937 in The New York Times pointed out that the Führer was a vegetarian who 'does not drink or smoke' but who also 'occasionally relishes a slice of ham' along with delicacies such as caviar and chocolates." (Ibid.) Proctor is content to state that Hitler was a vegetarian who "occasionally would allow himself a dish of meat," (p. 135) and quotes The New York Times as stating that in addition to ham and caviar Hitler also occasionally ate squab. Whatever kind of vegetarian Hitler was, he was not the kind that Gandhi was.

Hitler's alleged vegetarianism was often coupled with a description of him as an ascetic individual. For example, the April 14th, 1996 Sunday magazine edition of The New York Times, celebrating its 100th anniversary, included this early description of Hitler's diet in an article previously published on May 30, 1937, "At Home With The Führer."

"It is well known that Hitler is a vegetarian and does not drink or smoke. His lunch and dinner consist, therefore, for the most part of soup, eggs, vegetables and mineral water, although he occasionally relishes a slice of ham and relieves the tediousness of his diet with such delicacies as caviar...."

Robert Payne, in his biography of Hitler, The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler (Praeger, 1973) takes exception to the view of Hitler as an ascetic, and believes that it was deliberately fostered by Goebbels to project an image of Hitler as pure and dedicated to his mission:

Hitler's asceticism played an important part in the image he projected over Germany. According to the widely believed legend he neither smoked nor drank, nor did he eat meat or have anything to do with women. Only the first was true. He drank beer and diluted wine frequently, had a special fondness for Bavarian sausages and kept a mistress....His asceticism was a fiction invented by Goebbels to emphasize his total dedication, his self control, the distance that separated him from other men....In fact, he was remarkably self indulgent and possessed none of the instincts of the ascetic. His cook, an enormously fat man named Willy Kannenberg, produced exquisite meals and acted as court jester. Although Hitler had no fondness for meat except in the form of sausages and never ate fish, he enjoyed caviar.... (p. 346)

Another biographer, John Toland (Adolph Hitler, Doubleday, 1976) describes Hitler's early student diet as consisting of "milk, sausage and bread...." (p.30), which was most likely due to poverty.

Hitler described himself as a vegetarian in a letter to a friend, dated 1911. His vegetarian practice at this time seems to have been temporary and due to stomach problems. In 1938 he again declared himself a vegetarian. This declaration was regarded as an emotional response to the death of his niece, who was said to have been in love with him and who died under mysterious circumstances. (She may have committed suicide. There is even speculation that Hitler had her killed.) Hitler's friend, Frau Hess, described Hitler's response to his niece's death in this way: "From that moment on...Hitler never ate another piece of meat except for liver dumplings." p. 256). This is consistent with other descriptions of Hitler's diet, which always included some form of meat, whether ham, sausages or liver dumplings.

Some of Hitler's associates, such as Martin Bormann, ate the same food Hitler did at Hitler's dinner table, but later was observed to be eating meat in the kitchen.

Hitler's reputation for being a vegetarian seems to consist solely of his not having eaten red meat. The effort to describe Hitler's eating habits as vegetarian requires changing the definition of "vegetarian" to exclude liver, ham, and sausages from the list of meats, and changing the definition of "animal" to exclude pigs.

Hitler did exhibit a sympathy with a vegetarian diet, but paradoxically, vegetarians and the vegetarian movement in Nazi Germany were persecuted. Vegetarian societies were restrained, subject to raids, and "books that contained vegetarian recipes were confiscated by the Gestapo." Janet Barkas has a good account of this period in German history in her book, The Vegetable Passion. German vegetarian societies were forced to leave the International Vegetarian Union; they were prohibited from organizing and from publishing material, but individuals were not molested and "could exchange their credit notes for meat for dairy products. About 83,000 vegetarians participated in this program."

What kind of vegetarian was Hitler?---Obviously a limited and contradictory one. If you were a committed vegetarian and belonged to a vegetarian society, you wouldn't want him to know about it.