“Creatures of pure blood, where by proper breeding all unevenness has been eliminated… far surpass all mongrels.” – Max von Stephanitz, developer of the German shepherd
“The more I know people, the more I love dogs.” – Adolf Hitler, March 1945, a month before committing suicide
Hitler, it’s true, loved dogs. Ever since his first experience with dog ownership in the trenches in the Great War, he became a deep student of the dogs he would own his entire life. This even extended to his obsession with racial purity, and his appreciation of German Shepherds in particular was inextricably tied to his undying conviction in “the right of the strong” and his belief in the necessity of pure bloodlines. (More pointlessly, I will add that owing to having been run down and nipped at by my grandparent’s neighbor’s German shepherd when I was 9, I was terrified of the breed my entire childhood.)
After The Sound of Music, Hogan’s Heroes and Raiders of the Lost Ark, my first real exposure to thinking about the Nazis came in eighth grade, when my social studies teacher Mrs. Hall was discussing the Holocaust. Knowing that I was Catholic, she started challenging me about what I would do if the Pope started insisting that all Catholics start killing one particular group of people. At the time—ignorant as I was of the Inquisition—I insisted that this would never happen since such a command would be in direct violation of church doctrine. But “what if?” she kept asking, and eventually I answered honestly that I would leave the church. But the question dogged me, and set off a whole chain reaction of new questions that led me directly to the profound skepticism that still rules my mindset to this day.
Hitler was no skeptic. He was a romantic—a twisted, demonic romantic of the most dangerously delusional kind, but a romantic nevertheless. Even his brutality grew out of a belief in a racially and culturally pure Edenic state bearing no resemblance to reality. As such, he was a great lover of mystical signs, and he deeply appreciated the fact that his name Adolf translated from Old High German as “noble wolf.” Wolves were considered the purer manifestation of dogs’ original warrior nature, and German Shepherds were bred to be closer to their lupine source. Hitler chose to go by the nickname Wolf, which was the basis for the name of his massive military bunker in Poland, the Wolf’s Lair. As a dedicated self-mythologist who read personal meaning into everything, he took this connection to wolves, the “pure” dog, seriously.
Hitler’s first dog came to him when he was in the trenches during World War I. A small white Jack Russell terrier, apparently the property of an English soldier, was chasing a rat and inadvertently jumped in the trenches where Hitler was stationed. Hitler caught the terrier and made the dog his own. He called him Fuchsl, meaning Little Fox. Over twenty years later, Hitler would remember, “How many times at Fromelles, during the First World War, I studied my dog Fuchsl… I used to watch him as if he’d been a man. It was crazy how fond I was of the beast.”
In August of 1917, while Hitler’s regiment was on the way to Alsace for rest, a railroad official offered Hitler 200 marks for Fuchsl. Hitler refused, saying, “You could give me two hundred thousand and you wouldn’t get him!” But after Hitler had left the station with the troops, Hitler couldn’t find Fuchsl and realized that his cherished dog had been taken. “I was desperate,” he said, “the swine who stole my dog doesn’t know what he did to me.”
On September 29, 1918, it became clear that Germany was going to negotiate for peace. Hitler, Austrian by birth but a fanatically devoted soldier for his adopted country, believed vehemently in the “stab-in-the-back” theory, prevalent among right-wing radicals, that Germany’s defeat was a result not of the enemy’s power but of the treachery of the socialists and the Jews within Germany itself.
This past week, I was re-watching an episode from Downton Abbey’s second season, when the Earl of Grantham has all of the residents and staff of his estate join him in a moment of silence for the tolling of the eleventh hour on November 11th 1918. It was with a chill on this second viewing that I realized—just having finished John Toland’s bio of Hitler—that the armistice being solemnly commemorated by the household was the very event that would plant the evil seeds of revenge and misplaced blame in Hitler’s brain destined to bear such globally devastating fruit twenty years later.
After the war, with his effed-up political beliefs beginning to coalesce, Hitler soon established a lifelong habit of dog ownership. As Toland says, “(After Fuchsl) he had need for the faithfulness he found in dogs, and had a unique understanding of them.” He moved on from terriers however, starting with his German shepherd Prinz, who he was given in 1921 while living in poverty and first making his mark as a gifted speaker and leader of the nascent NSDAP (National Socialists or Nazi party). A string of German Shepherds would follow, including ones called Muckl, and two named Blonda. Hitler’s love of German Shepherds would help make them a fashionable breed among Germans in the ’30s.
It was no accident that Hitler favored this breed. They had been bred around the beginning of the twentieth century by Max von Stephanitz, who who aimed to create the “germanischer Urhund,” or primeval German dog. According to Boria Sax, in the book Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust, "This dog was intended to embody the virtues of the German people, and its inception clearly anticipated the Nazi attempts to breed human beings back to a primeval Aryan stock.”
About the time that Hitler was becoming fixated on dogs, there was a curious movement in Germany aimed at proving that certain dogs possessed higher intellectual faculties. In his book Amazing Dogs, Jan Bondeson, Professor at Cardiff University in Wales, describes dogs that could supposedly read, spell words, write poetry, do math, and even engage in speculative philosophy. A wealthy merchant and jeweler named Karl Krall devoted much time and money researching the intelligence of various animals, but primarily dogs. He started with one dog in particular, an Airedale terrier named Rolf.
Rolf’s owner, a Frau Paula Moekel, had taught the dog to spell by tapping, and it was through this means that Rolf had communicated, among other things, his longing in 1914 to fight for Germany against the hated French in the Great War. Hitler would have been disappointed, however, to learn that as the war dragged on, Rolf changed his tune, now wanting not to join the war as a soldier but as a rescue dog helping the wounded soldiers. Additionally, he tapped out his wish that Europe should be under the leadership of women, who would never have let the war occur.
Krall even funded a research center where there were serious investigations into the possibility of psychic communication between humans and dogs. A strangely amusing picture remains from this research of a man with what looks like a large black wastebasket covering his head seated next to a dog with its head similarly covered by a smaller black wastebasket, each of them watched over by two nattily dressed gentlemen gazing like surveyors into mysterious instruments aimed at the lab subjects’ heads. What startling revelations these men found looking through their instruments has been sadly lost to time.
Krall died in 1928, before the Nazis came into power, and there are real questions as to how seriously this research into the higher intelligence of dogs was taken by the Nazis. When Bondeson’s book came out, there was an almost gleeful run of newspaper articles declaring that his book asserted that the crazy Nazis were experimenting with dogs, bearing headlines like HEEL, HITLER, ARF WIEDERSEHEN and FURRED REICH. The truth is that Bondeson merely suggests the possibility of Nazi involvement with these experiments. The Führer did authorize representatives from the Wehrmacht (Germany’s armed forces under the Nazis) to investigate the usefulness of intelligent dogs in the field. But, as smart, trainable dogs in war are genuinely helpful, it’s questionable how bizarre this request really would have been.
More relevant and disturbing, when he was interviewed on the book’s release in January of 2011, Professor Bondeson discussed the fact that, owing in part to the animal welfare laws that Hitler had passed, when the Jews were being arrested and sent to the concentration camps, there were endless letters to the press concerned not about the fate of the Jews, but of the dogs and other animals that were then being left behind.
Toland, in his Hitler biography, mentions that in 1939, during a study lecture, a lecturer told about her experience with a talking dog. The dog, she claimed, when asked “Who is Adolf Hitler?” replied, “Mein Führer.” Another Nazi in the hall angrily dismissed the lecturer, shouting that such a ridiculous story was in abominable taste. The lecturer, distraught, replied, “This clever animal knows that Adolf Hitler has caused laws to be passed against vivisection and the Jews’ ritual slaughter of animals, and out of gratitude this small canine brain recognized Adolf Hitler as his Führer.” It’s safe to assume that the story reveals more about the worshipful mindset of the lecturer and others in Germany than about the dog’s actual intellect or ability to speak.
Right from the beginning of the war, there had been a number of attempts on Hitler’s life, most initiated within Hitler’s own armed forces by men who had just cause for believing the Führer was leading Germany down a path of self-destruction. No assassination attempt came quite as close as the army bomb plot of July 20, 1944. Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg managed to bring a briefcase containing a bomb into a meeting with Hitler. At the last minute, because it was in the way of an aide attempting to point at Hitler’s map, the aide moved the briefcase from one side of the piece of heavy oak supporting Hitler’s table to the other side further away from him, thus miraculously saving him as he had been saved so often before—each time reinforcing his belief in his divine mission. With no more damage than some fried hair and a sprained wrist, he was playing the next day with Blondi. When she refused to obey a command, one of his secretaries heard him ask her, “Look me in the eyes, Blondi. Are you also a traitor like the generals on my staff?”
As Hitler had found someone to mistakenly blame for Germany’s defeat in 1918, he now had found someone to shift the blame off of himself for the looming defeat of the Third Reich: his generals.
As the Soviets moved on Berlin in April 1945 and the inevitable end approached, Hitler stationed himself with Eva Braun and his central staff in the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery garden. The film Downfall depicts Hitler’s last ten days in depressingly gruesome detail. The film, or at least the four minutes of the film in which Hitler goes into a yelling frenzy upon learning that the Soviets have reached Berlin and that the war is truly lost, has yielded YouTube comic gold in parodies that change the subtitles to depict Hitler despairing over various setbacks in contemporary life. In fact, my first experience of Downfall was watching one of these videos in which Hitler reacts explosively to the possible passage of SOPA.
Hitler is played by Bruno Ganz in an almost miraculously coherent performance that somehow holds all of the contradictions that Hitler contained—kind one second and ranting the next, warm then suddenly demonically ruthless, calculating then completely unhinged. It was the first time—and nearly 60 years after the war—that a German-speaking actor had depicted Hitler, and Ganz spend four months intensely researching Hitler before playing the part.
Blondi appears in the very first scene, two years before Hitler’s demise in happier times, when one of Hitler’s last secretaries, Traudl Junge, first does dictation for Hitler. Hitler, in his office with Blondi at his side, calms Junge by saying, “You don’t have to get excited. I myself will make far more mistakes during the dictation than you will.” Traudl related many stories of Hitler’s kindness, and loved watching Hitler with his dog, whom he had trained to jump through hoops, leap over a six-foot wooden wall, and climb up a ladder, where she would beg once she had reached the top. Eva Braun was not such a fan of Blondi however, and confessed to Junge that she would sometimes kick Blondi under the dining room table.
Traudl Junge was herself the subject of a fascinating 2003 documentary, really just an extended interview, entitled simply Hitler’s Secretary. Ever since high school, when I first started entertaining an obscure guilt about my German blood despite the fact that the Fritzes had been in America since the 18th century, I’d been somewhat obsessed with the concept of “Hitler’s secretary”—literally, in those terms—horrified at the thought of becoming, if not evil oneself, nevertheless the tool—inadvertent or not—of another’s malevolent intent. As one of the few surviving witnesses, Junge also served as the source for much of the events that take place in Downfall.
The movie itself raised a great deal of concern on its release, voiced most straightforwardly by the tabloid Bild: “Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?” Filmmaker Wim Wenders suggested that the filmmakers consulted closely with historians for the sole purpose of inoculating themselves from criticism, and suggested that the film somehow defanged Hitler, even somehow glorified him. I can honestly say this was not the film’s effect on me. Yes, Hitler did gain complexity and even warmth from the film, but no more complexity than I’d gathered from reading his biography. Regardless, I was left as mystified and horrified by the evils he’d unleashed on the world as I’d ever been before. If anything, knowing that he was a far more complex individual than the ranting cartoon of evil I’d grown up with made this evil darker, more mysterious and more real.
As the film progresses, Hitler and Eva Braun begin to make repeated references to their impending suicides in tones more surreally blasé than resigned, and Hitler insists that they be thoroughly cremated, dreading the thought of being turned into an exhibit by the Russians. Near the end he doubted that the cyanide he’d been given by the SS was real, and forced his dog handler Fritz Tornow to test the poison on Blondi, an act that horrified Tornow. The cyanide immediately killed her, leaving Hitler distraught. The next day, on April 30th, after Eva had killed herself with cyanide and Hitler had killed himself by shooting himself through the temple, Tornow was ordered to shoot the puppies that Blondi had given birth to a month earlier as well as Eva Braun’s Scottish Terriers, Blondi’s companion Bella and Tornow’s own dachshund. In 2006, Erna Flegel, a German Red Cross nurse stationed in the bunker at the time, rather cruelly observed that there was more grief over Blondi’s death than that of Eva Braun.
This string of deaths grows mind-numbing, until one comes to the unspeakable evil which occurred the next day on May 1st, when Magda Goebbels would first drug all five of her children that were living in the bunker, and then, when they were asleep, kill them with cyanide, after which she and Josef Goebbels took their own lives. It was in this final onslaught of death—countless suicides and the murder of beloved pets and innocent children—that the Third Reich would come to its close.