Book Review:- Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust by Charles Patterson

If you haven’t studied Animal Rights (AR) philosophy in any depth it would be understandable to assume that it’s just about promoting the interests of animals without any interest in helping people at all. In fact a common accusation amongst opponents is that the promotion of AR is actually detrimental to human interests and that the philosophy of AR is actively ‘anti-human’. In reality however, nothing could be further from the truth.

To understand exactly how our treatment of animals really does influence our treatment of each other, and vica versa, Charles Patterson’s book “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust” is a must read.

Published in 2002, this Pulitzer Prize nominated volume is an insightful work. Comments from readers have included claims that ‘it will change the way you see the world’. High praise indeed.

The book’s title is taken from a short story called “The Letter Writer” written by Yiddish writer and Animal Rights proponent Isaac Beshavis Singer (1904-1991), to whom Patterson dedicates his book. In Singer’s story, one of his characters remarks of animals “In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka”.

The book is essentially divided into three parts. The first section looks at how our relationship with animals changed from the advent of farming (our first enslavement of animals) onwards. It considers what Patterson refers to as ‘The Great Divide’ in which he explores our fundamental relationship with animals in various historical contexts, in all of which we have considered ourselves superior, using criteria we have selected to support our own view. The book starts by setting the tone as follows…

“Sigmund Freud put the issue of human supremacy in perspective in 1917 when he wrote…’In the course of his development towards culture man acquired a dominating position over his fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with his supremacy, however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descendance which permitted him to annihilate the bond of community between himself and the animal kingdom.’
Freud called man’s self-appointed Lordship over the other inhabitants of the earth “human megalomania’.”

Patterson observes that in order to successfully exploit animals without guilt we have had to distance ourselves from them emotionally. From the moment we farmed them, it became necessary for us to invent self-deceptions which allowed us to happily diverge our path from that of all nature around us.
Following this, he states, it was only a small step from distancing ourselves from animals to actively vilifying them. Referring to other humans as animals became a method of insulting each other as anyone who has heard one human call another a “pig’, ‘cow’, or ‘beast’ can attest.

In the second part Patterson examines the disturbing links between the post-industrialised slaughterhouses of the United States and the Nazi death camps of the 1940s. He follows the links between the Eugenics movements of the US and Germany in the 1920s-30s and how U.S. industrialised animal slaughter was used as a model for human genocide.

In fact in his autobiography “My Life and Work” (1922) the American industrialist Henry Ford declared that his inspiration for assembly-line production stemmed from a visit he once made to a Chicago slaughterhouse. Most people are unaware of the central role the slaughterhouse played in the history of both American industry and the Jewish Holocaust. Patterson writes…

“Henry Ford, who was so impressed by the efficient way meat packers killed animals in Chicago, made his own contribution to the slaughter of people in Europe. Not only did he develop the assembly-line methods the Germans used to kill Jews, but he launched a vicious anti-Semitic campaign that helped the Holocaust happen…..Hitler regarded Ford as a comrade-in-arms and kept a life-sized portrait of him on the wall next to his desk in his office at the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich. Hitler spoke of Ford (the only American to be singled out in ‘Mein Kampf’) in glowing terms to his followers and frequently bragged to them about Ford’s financial support.”

Next Patterson examines the experiences of those who were among the first to see the death camps following the end of the war. Of note amongst those was the artist Judy Chicago who later went on to write her book “Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light” in which she explains how she came to realise that the designation of Jews as animals was what led to their being treated – and slaughtered – in the manner of animals. She admits that it took time to come to this conclusion as, prior to this, “she new terrible things happened but she always saw them as isolated events.”

Later, as Chicago began to study and understand the slaughterhouse-like aspects of the Holocaust, she started to realise the connection between the industrialised slaughter of animals and the industrialised slaughter of people. When she visited Auschwitz and saw a scale model of one of the four crematoria, she realised… “they were actually giant processing plants – except that instead of processing pigs they were processing people who had been defined as pigs.”

As Chicago reflected on the model of the crematorium, she thought of the ‘processing’ of other living creatures, to which most of us are so accustomed as to think little about, and she wrote… ‘I began to wonder about the ethical distinction between processing pigs and doing the same thing to people defined as pigs. Many would argue that moral considerations do not have to be extended to animals, but this is just what the Nazis said about the Jews.”

For Chicago it was a revelation, and she went on to write….

“I saw the whole globe symbolised at Auschwitz, and it was covered with blood: people being manipulated and used;, animals being tortured in useless experiments; men [and women] hunting helpless, vulnerable creatures for the ‘thrill’; human beings ground down by inadequate housing and medical care and by not having enough to eat; adults abusing children; people polluting the earth, filling it with poisons that foul the air, the soil and the water; the imprisonment of dissident voices; the elimination of people of opposing political views; the oppression of those who look, feel or act differently.”

It’s impossible, in such a short space, to cover all the political, social and historical connections via which Patterson identifies how our treatment of animals has been a model for, and mirror of, our treatment of each other. However, the remainder of the second section discusses white supremacy, particularly as displayed during the imperialist expansion by white Europeans into the Americas, including the dehumanisation of the indigenous Native American peoples during their subjugation, exploitation and slaughter during that time, which provides a contextual background to the concept of how racial (specifically white) supremacy, and species (specifically human) supremacy are connected.

Patterson then discusses the roots of the Eugenics movement in the U.S. as propounded by some of the descendants of those same Irish, British and other European settlers who systematically oppressed the Native American people during their colonisation of the continent, the backdrop to which was justified by a continual process of attributing to them animal personas.

In the third and final section of the book, entitled “We Were Like that Too”, Patterson moves closer to the present day and publishes discussions with Holocaust survivors, and members of their families, as well as some Germans growing up in Nazi Germany, who themselves have all since become Animal Rights campaigners. The text records how and why each of the included cases became involved in Animal Rights campaigning after the Holocaust and how they relate their experiences during that time to the treatment of animals in the factory farms and slaughterhouses of today.

In putting all this together, the book draws the reader’s attention to how each of these historically factual aspects of our relationship with non-humans, and each other, have been in paralleled proximity at the core of human existence since the very first idea of farming was realised in our distant past. So much so in fact, that the industrialised slaughter of sentient beings, at the rate of well over 60 billion individuals every year now goes almost unnoticed. And when it is, it is often (ir)rationalised away as the most natural thing in the world.

Yet, for me, the overriding conclusion of the book is is one of hope. It is only by identifying, confronting, and ultimately stopping our atrocious treatment of non-human life on earth that we can seriously hope to realise our true humanity with each other, and for anyone who genuinely wishes to do that (as we surely all should) , Charles Patterson’s book really is the perfect place to start.