The Time Germany Kidnapped Hundreds of Stallions in an Attempt to Breed a Super-Horse

iStock.com/Somogyvari
iStock.com/Somogyvari

During World War II, the Nazis invaded foreign countries and stole millions of dollars' worth of priceless valuables, from jewelry to famous works of art. The attempts to recover those stolen treasures have been documented countless times (George Clooney's 2014 film The Monuments Men—and the 2009 book it was based on—among them). Lesser known, however, is the Nazi program to kidnap a treasure of a different kind: hundreds of the world's most prized horses.

It's all because Hitler wanted to create a "super horse." Just as Nazi ideology peddled pseudo-science regarding breeding a human "master race," Hitler also believed he could selectively breed horses to create the finest, bravest, and "purest" warhorses in world military history. This decision was not some extracurricular pipe dream of the Führer, but a deliberate response to the country's poor fortunes during World War I. As Elizabeth Letts writes in her fantastic book The Perfect Horse, Germany's equine industry took a shellacking during the so-called Great War, and Hitler wanted to return the country to its former glory:

"After World War I, several factors combined to almost destroy horse breeding and equestrian sports in Germany. The numbers of equine casualties were so high during the war that the horse population declined by half. In addition, the inflationary conditions in Germany made the sale and upkeep of horses difficult, and to further complicate matters, Germany was required to export horses as part of the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles."

To say the least, when Germany went to war two decades later, horses were very much on Hitler's mind. And despite the country's strong industrial output and recent advances in technology, German leaders genuinely believed they needed more horses for the war effort. (Letts writes that by 1938, their army was using more than 180,000 horses and donkeys—and Hitler was convinced that he needed even more.)

For the task of breeding this assembly line of horses—as well as for creating a perfectly pure "super breed"—Hitler chose Gustav Rau, a hippologist who had spent years tirelessly promoting Germany's horse-breeding industry. To do so, Rau set his eyes on the famous Lipizzaner stallion, a beautiful and regal breed known for its dexterity and fairy-tale looks. Rau believed he could create legions of identical, pure white military horses through aggressive inbreeding of Lipizzaners in just three years, writing, "We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines." (Rau clearly did not understand the link between genetic defects and inbreeding.)

To aid Rau's mission, German soldiers began stealing purebred Lipizzaner stallions from famed stud farms and riding schools across Europe. These kidnapped horses were transported in style, placed in spacious train cars and taken to beautiful, well-kept farms in the countryside. "It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness," Letts writes. By 1942, Rau was in possession of nearly every purebred Lipizzaner in the world.

But when the tides of war began turning against Germany, a Nazi veterinarian at a Nazi stud farm in occupied Czechoslovakia began to fear for the horses's lives. The Russians, who regularly slaughtered and ate enemy horses, were moving in. According to the New York Post, the Russians showed no sympathy for or interest in famed stallions, reporting that, "the fabled thoroughbred racehorse Alchimist was shot to death by marauding Russian soldiers in the spring of 1945 when the stallion refused to load onto their truck." The veterinarian, named Rudolf Lessing, feared that the rare Lipizzaners under his watch would be next.

So Lessing did the unthinkable—he reached out to the Americans and asked for help. He wanted them to steal the horses back.

When word reached General George Patton that the stallions were stuck deep behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia, he sent the cavalry to save them. "Get them," Patton told his men. "Make it fast." (The mission was to be secret because, as the Express reports, "The U.S. Army had agreed with Stalin to advance no further than Germany's border with Czechoslovakia and the horses lay miles beyond.")

With help from Lessing, the commanding officer of the Second Cavalry in Europe, Hank Reed, negotiated a surrender with the occupied horse farm and placed the animals under the American military's watch. In autumn of 1945, 151 horses were loaded onto a boat and taken to America—all of them survived.

"We were so tired of death and destruction," Reed said when asked about the mission to save the horses. "We wanted to do something beautiful."

To learn more, Mental Floss recommends Elizabeth Letts' best-selling book, The Perfect Horse.

Survey: People Show More Affection to Their Dogs Than Their Humans

iStock.com/damircudic
iStock.com/damircudic

Valentine's Day is marketed as a celebration of love between two people, but for some human beings, the relationship they share with their dog takes precedent. Nearly half of pet owners have plans to celebrate the holiday with their pet, whether they're buying them a gift or making them a treat from scratch. That's one of the findings from a new report from Rover that shows just how much humans love their dogs—and how much dogs feel love from their humans.

After surveying 1450 U.S. adults who are dating or in a relationship, Rover found that many of them prioritize spending time with their canine companions. Sixty-seven percent reported gazing lovingly into their pet's eyes, and about 33 percent do this more often with their cute dog than with their human significant other.

The way our pets respond to this behavior suggests that dogs feel love, too. Phil Tedeschi, a University of Denver researcher and member of Rover’s Dog People Panel, says that dogs will wait for the opportunity to make eye contact with their humans. Previous research has shown that some dogs also express empathy when they think their owners are in distress.

When dog people aren't gazing at their pooches, they're finding other ways to show their affection. Nearly a quarter of dog owners take more pictures with their dog than with the humans in their life; a quarter spend more money on their dog than on their partner; and nearly half cuddle with their dog more often than they do with the person they're dating.

Pet parents also aren't afraid to cut people out of their life if they threaten their relationship with their dog. Forty-one percent say it's important that their dog gets along with their potential partners, and 53 percent would consider breaking up with someone who didn't like dogs or who was severely allergic to them.

You can check out the results of the report in the infographic below. And if you're looking for a last minute gift for Fido this Valentine's Day, here are some suggestions.

These Nature Posters Show the Most Endangered Animal in Each State

NetCredit
NetCredit

The U.S. has more than 1300 endangered or threatened species, from South Dakota's black-footed ferret to Colorado's Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly to the blue whales that live off the coast of Alaska. These wild animals could disappear if prompt wildlife conservation measures aren't taken, and people are largely to blame. Globally, human activities are the direct cause of 99 percent of threatened animal classifications, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Some of these animals may even be in your backyard. A research team commissioned by NetCredit used data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to highlight the most endangered animal in each state. For this project, "most endangered" refers to the animals that face the greatest risk of extinction. An art director and designer then teamed up to create gorgeous illustrations of each animal.

Since some regions are home to many of the same creatures, a different animal was selected from the shortlist of endangered species in cases where there were duplicates from one state to the next. The goal was to cast light on as many threatened species as possible, including the ones that rarely make headlines.

"We hope this will start a conversation around the fact that it's not just the iconic species we see on nature documentaries that we're at risk of losing forever," the research team said in a statement.

Take the black-footed ferret, for instance. It's the only ferret that's native to North America, but its ranks have dwindled as its main food source—prairie dogs—becomes harder to find. Prairie dog eradication programs and loss of the ferret's habitat (due to farming) are some of the factors to blame. A ferret breeding colony was established in the past, but only 200 to 300 of the animals still remain, rendering them critically endangered.

To learn more about some of America's most at-risk species, check out the posters below and visit NetCredit's website for the full report.

California's Point Arena mountain beaver
NetCredit

Alaska's blue whale
NetCredit

South Carolina's frosted flatwoods salamander
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Minnesota's rusty patched bumble bee
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New York's Eastern massasauga snake
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West Virginia's Virginia big-eared bat
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Florida's red wolf
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The poster of endangered wildlife in all 50 states
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