Some books are hard to read. Itís not that they are poorly written, but that the subject matter is so ugly that each line is excruciating to contemplate. Eternal Treblinka is one of those books.
The premise starts with the idea that the relationship between humans and members of other species can be cruel and intrusive. We claim ownership of these other beings: dogs are chained, bird wings are clipped, cats are spayed or neutered, and ďinferiorĒ bulls and stallions are castrated. We harvest cattle for their skins, meat, and body fats through mechanized assembly lines in slaughterhouses. Through breeding, we even steal an animalís power over its own genetic destiny in order to create offspring with characteristics that we consider desirable. Ultimately, author Charles Patterson says, our societal comfort with such activities against other creatures leads to atrocities against other people.
Using that assertion as a background, Patterson explores the history of Nazi Germanyís racial policies. Political and religious biases mixed with harsh economic conditions led to Hitlerís determination to rigidly control his environment, he says. Many German scientists of the time shared a fascination with eugenics. They wanted to apply the fundamentals of natural selection used in animal breeding to humans. The goal would be to build a healthy and robust master race. The idea was to "cull" undesirables so that only those with the appropriate characteristics could enjoy societyís resources and live to reproduce.
At first, malformed German babies were the only targets of euthanasia programs -- then older children, and finally adults with chronic mental and physical diseases were killed. Soon Jews and Gypsies were classified as "life unworthy of life" and racial "pollutants". In that frame of mind, the Nazis set about the enormous task of exterminating millions of human beings.
Up until this point, Pattersonís work is cogent and well presented. The meat-eating tendency of most humans requires the death of animals bred for food -- the reality of that process leads to human desensitization to the killing and butchering process. Once that happens, itís possible for humans to turn on their fellow man. History is filled with examples of people treating other people "like animals." The Nazis arenít the only ones to go down that road. Obviously, this is not a good thing. The solutions for this evil wonít be found in this or any book, though.
Perhaps seeking controversy as a way of getting people to think, Patterson moves into the issue of vegetarianism and animal exploitation. He submits the idea that the way animals are treated today is the same way that Jews were treated in concentration camps. Quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer in The Letter Writer about a mouse,
ďWhat do they know -- all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world -- about such as you. They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.Ē
Thus, the argument becomes that meat-eating is an activity that is inherently evil and leads to depredations beyond the death of animals. Well, slaughterhouses ARE pretty awful. The idea of actually butchering anything is distasteful to most of us. The thought of animals being tortured is disgusting, and we have laws to prevent it. It is sad to look at flat-faced dogs who can barely breathe or hairless cats and featherless chickens shivering with cold, all bred for the amusement and utility of humans.
However, the idea of vegetarianism being the solution to human cruelty seems overly simplistic. Most meat-eaters have never harmed another human being or tormented an animal. The argument can be made that distancing ourselves from the actual death by buying our meat wrapped in Saran Wrap at the Piggly Wiggly doesnít absolve us of responsibility. That, of course, is the same point made by anti-drug commercials everyday. If you donít buy meat, animals wonít die in the process of supplying you with frankfurters.
Man is not the only animal to devour other beasts. We are the only ones to do it on a mass scale, though, and perhaps that is the image that I take away from this book. I canít imagine that meat-eating is the true cause of Treblinka and Auschwitz. The world was a slaughterhouse long before the Nazis set jackboot on the Fatherland. That it remains one now canít be laid at the foot of Oscar Meyer.
Reading the book over lunch induced me to select soup and salad. By dinner, the graphic descriptions from the meatpacking plants had faded and I went back to a burger and fries. In the final analysis, I donít believe Iím a Nazi.