Jörg Melzer. Vollwerternährung: Diätetik, Naturheilkunde, Nationalsozialismus, sozialer Anspruch. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003. 480 S. EUR 68.00 (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-515-08278-5.
Reviewed by Elaine Glovka Spencer (Department of History, Northern Illinois University)
Published on H-German (July, 2005)
We select the foods we consume for many reasons. Even in the light of modern nutritional research, dietary choices continue to be influenced as much or more by the price, availability, and marketing of foods and by the family traditions, tastes, experiences, gender, social status, and social ambitions of consumers as by the real or alleged health-giving properties of what is consumed. Joerg Melzer in Vollwerternaehrung traces the evolution, primarily in German-speaking lands, of prescriptions for healthy eating. He chronicles the efforts of selected individuals and associations to convince the public to put their particular nutritional recommendations ahead of other considerations in the selection and preparation of food. Changing and competing definitions of what constitutes an optimally nourishing diet form an important part of Melzer's study. Central to the recommendations he covers are arguments in favor of largely vegetarian diets consisting primarily of raw or minimally processed foods.
Although the main focus of his study of dietary reform initiatives is on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the latter, Melzer believes in beginning at the beginning. Thus, his first chapter is devoted to prescriptions for healthful living set forth by ancient Greek and Roman authors. He traces the origins of guidelines for improving the health of the individual to the Pythagoreans in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E. A crucial breakthrough was the assertion that the individual could and should take steps to improve his bodily well-being. This initial chapter is the one least integrated with the rest of the book. Melzer justifies its inclusion by noting similarities as well as differences between ancient dietetics and modern dietary reform advocacy.
From ancient Rome, Melzer's account takes a giant leap. In his second chapter, Melzer focuses on advocates of natural healing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Central Europe. He provides biographies of a number of promoters of therapies increasingly at variance with developments in academic medicine. Among the individuals discussed at some length in this chapter are Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), Vinzenz Priessnitz (1799-1857), Lorenz Gleich (1798-1865), Johann Schroth (1798-1856), Theodor Hahn (1824-1883), Louis Kuhne (1835-1899), and Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939). These men sought to bring "over-civilized" individuals into renewed harmony with nature, using the bounty of nature itself to accomplish this goal. Fresh air, sunlight, warmth, movement, and sensory stimulation were among the health-giving resources recommended. Water therapies were especially favored as a means of revitalizing the body.
Special diets were also assigned an increasingly important role. Individuals who took the cure under Schroth's supervision, for instance, were fed for four days on dry rolls, then revived with wine on the fifth. Hahn prescribed a vegetarian diet, with emphasis on the consumption of whole-grain bread. Such bread, Hahn argued, was much healthier than that baked with the refined flour produced by modern mills. Kuhne, following a similar line of thought, recommended a diet consisting of foods that had been subjected to as little processing as possible. Bircher-Benner, the Swiss promoter of muesli, likewise stressed the desirability of eating raw foods. The muesli served his patients, unlike what now appears under that name on grocery shelves, was made daily from fresh fruit and fresh, coarsely ground grain.
Advocacy of diets consisting largely of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains ran counter to nineteenth-century trends of increased consumption of meat, fats, sugar, and finely milled flour. World War I, however, bringing with it shortages of animal products and imported foods, provided proponents of largely vegetarian diets an exceptional opportunity to make their case. In discussing the impact on Central European diets of reduced agricultural production and the British naval blockade, Melzer focuses particular attention on Danish country doctor and nutritional researcher Mikkel Hindherde (1862-1934). In line with Hindherde's endorsement of a largely lacto-vegetarian diet, the Danish government imposed deep wartime cuts on livestock production by making certain that grain suitable for human consumption was used for that purpose and not for fodder. Had the Germans followed the Danish example, Melzer asserts, they need not have suffered nearly as much deprivation as they did. In making his comparison of Danish and German wartime provisioning, Melzer does not, however, go much beyond sketching Hindherde's position. He tells his readers little about actual German or Danish policies and their determinants.
The relationship between nutrition and war preparation recurs as an important theme in Melzer's chapter on the National Socialist years. Nazi planners, given their preoccupation with autarchy, productivity, and racial hygiene, were open to proposed dietary alternatives. They sought to restructure food supply and consumption both to improve the health and well-being of the German racial community and to make Germany as self-sufficient as possible. A noteworthy, if not wholly successful, government campaign to change everyday eating patterns was directed at fostering the baking and marketing of bread made from coarsely ground whole grain. Melzer does not fail to note the sinister side of Nazi interest in diet, which took the form of sanctioning the use of involuntary human subjects for nutritional studies.
In his coverage of both the Nazi era and the decades immediately following World War II, Melzer devotes particular attention to the career of Werner Kollath (1892-1970). Indeed, Kollath receives substantially more coverage than anyone else discussed in Melzer's book. Under the Third Reich, Kollath was professor and dean at the University of Rostock. Central to his dietary doctrine was the insistence that foods should be consumed in the most natural form possible. With the collapse of the Nazi regime, Kollath attempted to distance himself from his most incriminating statements and actions, particularly those relating to eugenics. Although he lost his university position, Kollath was active in various associations in the Federal Republic. In this capacity, he continued to stress the benefits of eating natural foods as a means of guarding against diseases linked to modern lifestyles. His recommendations found resonance among postwar devotees of health food stores and practitioners of alternative medicine.
In his coverage of the post-1945 era, Melzer focuses primarily on developments in the Federal Republic, although he does not ignore the GDR entirely. In his account of postwar associations focused on dietary reform, Melzer takes careful note of participation by activists from the Third Reich. His detailed biographical footnotes permit tracing numerous careers across the 1945 divide.
Taking his account up to the beginning of the twenty-first century, Melzer summarizes recent recommendations for dietary reform. The proposals discussed carry forth the advocacy of primarily lacto-vegetarian diets, consisting of foods that have been subjected to a minimum of processing. Further, in line with increasing ecological awareness, these dietary proposals for the new century take into account not only nutritional concerns but also environmental and societal considerations as well. In a final brief chapter, Melzer weighs the prospects of such recommendations in a world awash in fast food and convenience foods, as well as foods that have been genetically modified or fortified.
For recent developments, Melzer was able to draw upon interviews with contemporary nutritional researchers and advocates of dietary reform. For the twentieth century as a whole, he relied extensively on files relating to individuals and associations located in a wide range of national, state, local, and university archives. Throughout his study, however, the publications of advocates of dietary reform constitute his most important sources. Case by case, Melzer summarizes the content of such publications for his readers.
Melzer's book is ambitious in its chronological sweep, the number and variety of individuals and organizations discussed, and the quantity of detailed information presented. Less ambitious is its exploration of linkages between the individuals and associations of interest to Melzer and the broader society they sought to influence. A more substantial introduction, including discussion of issues raised by other scholars writing about nutritional debates, would have helped prepare the reader to place Melzer's account in context. The individual biographies and associational histories that constitute much of the volume, although informative, are too often presented in encapsulated form. To be sure, subsections and chapters end with substantial summaries, but these do little more than condense what has already been covered. Readers interested in the history of the advocacy of alternative diets in Central Europe will welcome Melzer's wide-ranging account but may wish it provided fuller explications of its underlying assumptions and significance.
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Elaine Glovka Spencer. Review of Melzer, Jörg, Vollwerternährung: Diätetik, Naturheilkunde, Nationalsozialismus, sozialer Anspruch.
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