Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

The School to Teach Nazi War Dogs to Speak

Hitler wanted dogs that could communicate with their SS masters.

Hitler dog german shepherd Blondi

Hitler and his favorite dog Blondi

New historical research suggests that the Nazis were trying to create a corps of war dogs, that not only could reason independently, but also could effectively use human language to communicate. Dr. Jan Bondeson, a historian at Cardiff University, has combed through many German World War II documents and uncovered an amazing story.

According to Dr. Bondeson, "In the 1920s, Germany had numerous 'new animal psychologists' who believed dogs were nearly as intelligent as humans, and capable of abstract thinking and communication.

"When the Nazi party took over, one might have thought they would be building concentration camps to lock these fanatics up, but instead they were actually very interested in their ideas.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

"Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature - they believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend.

"Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind.

"Hitler himself was praised for his attitude to animals and Goering was a forerunner of animal protection. They seemed to think nothing of human rights, but lots about animal rights.

"There were some very strange experiments going on in wartime Germany, with regard to dog-human communication.

Apparently Hitler believed that with adequate instruction dogs could be trained to communicate with their SS masters, and thus become more effective soldiers for tasks such as guarding, reconnaissance, and even covert surveillance. To this end Nazi officials were sent out to recruit intelligent dogs and to enroll them in a special school. The Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Speech School) was located in Leutenburg, near Hannover, and led by headmistress Margarethe Schmitt. It was set up in the 1930s and continued throughout the war years.

In the early part of the 20th century, Germans were quite taken with the idea of intelligent dogs. This perhaps began with Don the Speaking Dog. Don actually was supposed to have had the ability to say German words. A journalist who visited his home in a village near Hamburg asked the dog his name and he apparently barked a gruff 'Don' in reply. When asked 'What do you have?' he replied 'hunger' (the same word in German as in English). And when pressed on what he would like to eat, he demanded 'kuchen' (cakes). Don soon became an international celebrity, earning a fortune for his owner When he appeared in music halls and variety theatres across the world.

However, the Nazis recognized that vocal speech would be difficult for most dogs, and instead they based their canine schooling on the behavior of another dog, Rolf, an Airedale terrier who also appeared on stage to give demonstrations. Rolf developed his own system of communication, spelling out letters of the alphabet by assigning them a certain number of taps with his paw. Rolf was apparently a great thinker, dabbling in mathematics, writing poetry, and speculating on religion and ethics. He even had a bit of a sense of humor such as when he and asked a visiting noblewoman 'could you wag your tail?' One of the things about Rolf which appeared to impress Hitler, was his patriotism. Apparently Rolf actually expressed a wish to join the Army because he disliked the French.

There was a certain bizarre inconsistency associated with Nazi ethical and moral attitudes towards living things at that time. In early 20th century Germany, there had been widespread public concern about a number of animal welfare issues, including vivisection and "no-stun" slaughter of animals. The Nazis took up these concerns and developed them further. Hermann Wilhelm Goering, one of Hitler's most important political and military associates, was important in this movement. He is quoted as saying that people who "still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property" would be sent to concentration camps. He banned live animal trapping and imposed restrictions on hunting. This is the same man who ordered one of his subordinates to  "submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative, financial and material measures necessary for carrying out the desired Final Solution of the Jewish question." This is the plan that eventually led to the killing of millions of Jews in the early 1940's.

In 1933, strict legislation against animal cruelty was introduced and passed by the Nazi government and Hitler and his well loved German Shepherd Dog, Blondi became a symbol of the animal rights movement. The journal of the German Animal Defense League included a photograph of Adolf Hitler, with the caption "Our Fuhrer, the ideal animal friend." In 1945, in the Berlin bunker where he later committed suicide, this "animal friend" had Blondi's puppies taken from of the arms of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbel's  children who were playing with them, then brought out into the garden and shot. Blondi did not have Tier-Sprechschule communication training, so she did not have the ability to plead for her puppies lives, nor for her own, when Hitler ordered his physician Werner Haase, to put his faithful dog to death by poisoning.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

more...

Subscribe to Canine Corner

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.