Animal rights and the holocaust

PETA, Fredriks, and Animals in Striped Pyjamas

At 6pm on the 19th of September, the RQAS Gallery in Broadbeach, Brisbane opened its doors to inaugurate Jo Fredriks’ solo exhibition The Animal Holocaust. The art on display was, predictably, provocative. Instead of bald and emaciated men, women and children, the paintings featured cows and sheep dressed in striped pyjamas and driven down train tracks to grim, block buildings emblazoned with swastikas. The pieces carry titles like “I Am Not a Number”, “All Are Individuals” and “Everyday”. On her website’s biography, Fredriks’ is described as “a passionate animal rights advocate, speaking through her art to create awareness of animal cruelty.” Unsurprisingly, Jewish groups reacted violently to what they perceived as an extremely disrespectful comparison which minimised the suffering of Jews during the Second World War.

Image credit: Farm Sanctuary

However, this comparison is hardly original. In 2003, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) launched a campaign in the US entitled The Holocaust on Your Plate which featured photographs of concentration camp inmates next to factory farmed animals. Astoundingly, PETA even exported this poster series to Germany! This move however, wasn’t just met with public criticism: PETA was taken to court, and in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the 2009 German Supreme Court ruling which banned PETA from displaying the images.

Image credit: Farm Sanctuary

Now, I am certainly not going to defend PETA for what was clearly an intentionally polemical and distasteful approach to animal welfare advertising. There is, however, one crucial detail of the campaign that everyone seems to have missed. One of PETA’s posters bore the text “During the seven years between 1938 and 1945, 12 million people perished in the Holocaust. The same number of animals is killed EVERY 4 HOURS for food in the U.S. alone”. 12 million Jews didn’t die in the Holocaust, 12 million people did. That number includes homosexuals, transgender people, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, Freemasons, Roman Catholics, the mentally and physically handicapped, political dissidents, Poles, Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples. Many people use “Holocaust” synonymously with the Jewish genocide, but PETA is clearly using the more inclusive definition. While Jews made up the largest percentage of victims, no single group of people should have an historical monopoly on the mass murder committed by the Nazis. Furthermore, if anyone wants to play a numbers game, the Russians are way out in front; around 26 million Soviet civilians and soldiers died as a direct result of the war, and between two and three million of these were POWs murdered in concentration camps. So while many members of the Jewish community found PETA’s campaign highly offensive and even dangerous, the fact is that PETA was not intending to make a specific comparison between the meat industry and anti-Semitic violence. They were instead drawing a correlation between two examples of systematic slaughter on a massive scale. This, I can understand.

Image credit: Farm Sanctuary

I can also see a similarity in terms of the role of socially constructed axiological hierarchies. Nazi eugenicist ideology placed the Aryan archetype at the apex of the human ladder and dehumanised other racial and social groups. Likewise, many people imbue their pets with great anthropomorphic value, but couldn’t care less about the three-week old calf killed for their veal scaloppini. Some wild animals, also, are ‘worth’ saving while others aren’t; the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society picked up on this bias in their When You See Tuna, Think Panda campaign which is well worth a look:

Now, I don’t need to say that the Nazi’s value-systems were entirely arbitrary and not a reflection of innate human worth. However, it seems I do have to say that our attitudes towards animals are similarly socially constructed. In many Asian countries cats and dogs are considered vermin; cows still hold a special status in India; the French are happy to eat horse; and the Japanese eat dolphin. Our belief in Australia that pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens are ‘food animals’ is entirely culturally specific and based largely on the assumption that these animals can be farmed ‘efficiently’. I use inverted commas because it takes about 500 litres of water and 6 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Nonetheless, the classification of ‘food animals’ is so deeply engrained that in 2010, Perth butcher Vince Gareffa received death threats after advertising horse meat for sale.

  Drama on Altiplano

The overlooked reality is, however, that normalised meat-eating is just an ideology. It is a behaviour underpinned by a set of anthropocentric ideas, like that animals are less valuable than humans, that they have a lesser capacity for suffering, that they don’t have the right to autonomy, that their familial bonds and social structures are unimportant, and that we need to eat meat (despite the fact that many dieticians agree that adult vegetarians can get all their necessary vitamins, minerals and energy from other sources including modern soy products and supplements).

So, the Holocaust comparison works to some degree, and more so than I initially thought. However, as soon as one delves into any detail the similarities are subsumed by the number and significance of the differences. To identify just a few:

  1. The killing of animals is far more directly functional; it produces food. The Nazi extermination campaign, however, was geared towards achieving an abstract, utopian ideal. In this way, death was effectively an end in and of itself; the point of murdering minorities was so that they wouldn’t be alive.
  1. Animals killed for meat were usually bred for that purpose.
  1. The actual methods of slaughter are very different.
  1. While pigs have the intelligence of the average three-year-old child, the victims of the holocaust did have a far greater capacity to comprehend their own suffering.
  1. Establishing personal responsibility in the case of Europeans who participated in some way in the Holocaust is ethically highly ambiguous. Meat eating, on the other hand, leaves no room for unwilling complicity. Every time you consume meat you are making an active moral choice to financially support and thereby maintain intensive farming practices.

Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/Animal Equality UK

However, the difference that matters the most, the difference which is really at the heart of the reaction against Fredriks and PETA, has little to do with the functions of the two industries of slaughter. The difference is that the Holocaust is the single event that has most harrowed the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century. It has shaken our faith in humanity itself in a way that nothing else ever has and cast a long, dark shadow over Europe. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t consider anything else in human history to be as bad. This is why the comparison doesn’t work as a piece of persuasive advertising; people feel too strongly that any comparison to the Holocaust can only devalue it, not raise something else to the same status. If a promotional strategy doesn’t have the desired effect then it should be discontinued, and for or no other reason than this the Holocaust analogy should be abandoned. The animal welfare advertising we really need is the sort that breaks down those culturally specific value-systems with regard to animals. If we could get the picketers from Vince Gareffa’s butcher shop to care as much about cows as they do about horses, the meat industry would be very different.

Annathea Curry is a First Class Honours graduate from the University of Western Australia, with a BA in English and History.  In a family of entomologists, psychiatrists, doctors, physiotherapists and engineers she is the literary exception.


‘Europe High Court Upholds Ban on PETA’s Holocaust Ads’, JSpace,
Gwen Sharp, ‘PETA’s Holocaust On Your Plate Campaign’, The Society Pages,
‘Jo Fredriks Homepage’
Josh Jerga, ‘Perth Butcher Selling Horse Meat Sent Death Threats’, Perth Now,
Sherry F. Colb, ‘The European Court of Human Rights Upholds German Ban on PETA’s “Holocaust On Your Plate” Campaign: Lessons for Animal Activists and for Animal Product Consumers’, Verdict