Nazis and Woodchucks

Categories: Nazi Germany
About this essay

Nazi racial ideology has baffled the cultured mind since the atrocities were first made known to the world with the end of WWII. Though the inconceivable horror Jews and other nationalities endured under Nazi reign is common knowledge in our culture and is found in almost any modern history textbook, the mindset that made such atrocities acceptable to Nazis under Hitler’s regime remains a mystery to many. Maxine Kumin admirably conveys the thought process behind this oppressive outlook through the seemingly simplistic poem “Woodchucks”.

The purpose of the poem is to align the readers with the narrator’s apparently reasonable yet somewhat sociopathic view of the woodchucks as an inferior life form while building an allegory to the Nazi’s justification for mass extermination that will shock the audience when made explicit by the poem’s end. In the first stanza, Maxine introduces the narrator’s problem with the woodchucks and how she justifies attempting to gas them.

The narrator states how killing the woodchucks with gas “didn’t turn out right” (1).

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This phrase emphasizes how the narrator views killing the woodchucks as a mundane and emotionless task, the same way a batch of cookies or pot of coffee may not “turn out right”. Gassing has connotations of a slow agonizing death, but the poem continues: “the knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange / was featured as merciful, quick at the bone” (2-3). This contrast in connotation and given definition is meant to show how the narrator is striving to justify their deaths.

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The second stanza begins to make the narrator’s view of the woodchucks as lesser clearer to the audience. Maxine uses alliteration to draw attention to the words cyanide, cigarettes and state-store Scotch when the narrator states the woodchucks are “No worse / for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes” (7-8).

In this comparison, the narrator gives the impression that she considers gassing the woodchucks a favor to them, like giving them scotch or cigarettes. While it is not explicit in the poem by the second stanza, this metaphor hints at the narrator’s unbalanced views of life regarding the woodchucks. Maxine also introduces war imagery in this stanza. The narrator describes how the woodchucks “took over” the vegetables by “nipping” and “beheading” (11-12). These verbs not only personify the vegetables as victims, but turn woodchucks into a force of evil in a war-like manner in the narrator’s mind. It is important to note that the narrator never addresses the woodchucks’ need to eat and survive and only views it as an unjustified invasion. This mindset closely aligns with the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. The narrator treats the woodchucks with no right to the garden the same way that “Jews still carried the burden of proof that they simply had the right to be there” (Hartmann 636). By the third stanza, the Maxine solidifies the narrator’s hatred and blood thirst towards the woodchucks, using a Nazi related scapegoat excuse to rationalize killing them.

“The food from our mouths” (13) starts the stanza; a sentence fragment most likely muttered bitterly by the narrator that fortifies the idea that woodchucks are not simply invading and eating food, but stealing food from the narrator. To the narrator, the woodchucks become the scapegoat for the garden’s ruin the same way the Jews were used to “blame for the economic collapse of Germany” (Foster 13). However, Maxine also undertones the narrator’s scapegoat claim as unsubstantial and exaggerated. In a vegetable patch containing numerous vegetable types, a small family of woodchucks is unlikely to be as deadly of a threat as the narrator makes it out to be. Similarly, “The Nazi claim that Germany was being ‘Judaized’ can hardly be substantiated” as Germany’s Jewish inhabitants in 1933 made up a mere “.80 percent of the total population” (Foster 15). The third stanza also starts to unearth the poem’s greater implications towards Nazi ideology with the line “puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing” (16).

The “Darwinian” aspect is an outstanding piece of the third stanza because it applies a fairly exclusive human social concept to the killing of woodchucks. This is directly related to the Nazi’s ideology which had “evolved over the previous 80 years from the related notions of eugenics and Social Darwinism” (Erdos 6), but Maxine has not made this relation entirely explicit yet. With the last two stanzas, the narrator degrades the death of the woodchucks. Rather than describe it in detail, the woodchucks “died down” (18). The evasive language hides any aspects of horror in the killing and gives the deaths a cartoonish aspect when the mother “dropped” and “flip-flopped” (19-20). The narrator even portrays their deaths in an eerie sing-song tone when “O one-two-three / the murderer inside me rose up hard” (22-23).

This is linked to the way Holocaust victims were killed systematically (one-two-three) and their bodies were piled up for disposal. The language describing death in the poem and the way killing was carried out in Nazi concentration camps are connected in the way both were dehumanized. The fourth stanza also has a tone shift when the narrator explains “the murderer inside me rose up hard. / the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith” (23-24). This part of the poem shifts the tone from the woodchucks as aggressors to the narrator becoming the aggressor. The indirect yet clear tone change indicates that the poem is now less related to the Nazi’s perspective, but the modern view of Nazis as the invaders.

The last stanza in this poem brings an ultimate shock to the audience by directly referencing the Nazis in the ending line: “If only they’d all consented to die unseen / gassed underground the quiet Nazi way” (29-30). Any slight relations to Nazi ideology throughout the poem are now highlighted by this last line. At this point the readers have been carried through an unsteadily reasonable rant by the narrator of the woodchucks as a lesser life form, and then slammed into the allusion to the Nazi’s killings. The entire poem, even the spread-out rhyme scheme, threads into this central idea accented in the last line. Maxine, through the language and design of the poem “Woodchucks”, ultimately presented how frightening ideology similar to the Nazis is not as uncommon on a small scale as one may think.

Works Cited

  1. Erdos, E. G. “Regarding “German Science and Racism–roots of the Nazi Holocaust”” The FASEB Journal 22.6 (2008): 1623. Print.
  2. Foster, C. R. “Historical Antecedents: Why the Holocaust?” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 450.1 (1980): 1-19. Print.
  3. Hartmann, Dieter D. “Anti-Semitism and the Appeal of Nazism.” Political Psychology 5.4 (1994): 635-42. Print.
Cite this page

Nazis and Woodchucks. (2016, Dec 17). Retrieved from

Nazis and Woodchucks
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