Why Did the Nazis Like Dogs?

Canines 'enjoyed supreme social status' in the Third Reich, writes one scholar, but perhaps also symbolized the obedience of the German nation to Hitler.

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If dogs could write, Blondi might have written an autobiography entitled “I Was Adolf Hitler’s Bitch.” As a motto for the autobiography she could have quoted the Furher’s words at the end of March 1945, about a month before he committed suicide. “I am surrounded on all sides only by traitors and betrayals,” said Hitler to his crony, architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer. “Only my bad luck is loyal to me – my bad luck and Blondi, my German shepherd.”

Like revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s famous cat, Mimi, and Laika, the dog who was launched into space by the Soviet Union – Blondi too was a pet that became a cultural heroine. She starred in Nazi propaganda aimed at depicting Hitler as an animal lover; posters of her with her master were sold throughout Germany and she inspired many Germans to adopt a German shepherd of their own in addition to the entire country’s political shepherd.

And like most Germans, Blondi too evinced loyalty and obedience to Hitler – but he betrayed his loyalty to her. He brought his beloved pet with him into his bunker in Berlin in the last months of the war and allowed her to sleep in his bed, but on April 29, 1945, after the soldiers of the Red Army had already occupied extensive parts of the capital of the Third Reich, she met her death – a day before her master met his own. Hitler claimed the mere thought of her falling into the hands of the Russians made him sick, but he also ordered the dog-handler to poison her in order to check the efficacy of the cyanide pills.

Blondi was a concrete symbol of the Nazi regime’s love of dogs. True, signs common in public places in Germany with the words “No Entry to Jews and Dogs” are engraved in the collective memory. However, while the Jews were toppled, excluded, persecuted and in the end slaughtered, dogs received preferential treatment, whether as part of the regime's tendency to protect fauna and flora or out of a specific preference for canines.

“Dogs enjoyed supreme social status from the very beginning of the Third Reich,” writes literary scholar Dr. Noam Gal in his article “‘Nazi Dogs and Other Problems of Photography” in Hebrew in the collection edited by A.D. Lusky, “The Inner Grammar of Photography."

Gal and other researchers have shown that beginning with the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, certain breeds of dogs were improved and trained for military needs. Moreover, laws for the protection of animals were passed, among them special provisions for dogs such as a prohibition on clipping their tails and their ears and an institute for the improvement and promotion of the German shepherd breed where the researchers tried to classify the breeds of dogs as “Aryan” and “non-Aryan.” In accordance with this classification, owners of certain breeds of dogs were denied membership in the kennel clubs German cities.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, an official campaign was launched to encourage enlistment of citizens’ dogs to the front. Gal notes that among the high officers at the concentration camps and in the German army it was common during the war to photograph them alongside their dogs.

Some of the dogs in the camps served to attack prisoners: Among them were Rolf, the dog that belonged to Amon Goeth, who commanded the Plashov camp in Poland, and Bari, the dog that belonged to Kurt Franz, the last commander of the Treblinka camp. Bari was trained to attack prisoners’ genitals.

An irremovable collar connects the attitude toward dogs to some of the major questions about the Nazis. Was Hitler’s movement a bestial, unrestrained outburst in the midst of a modern and advanced society? Did its heads succeed metaphorically in training German citizens to become obedient dogs? Did the dehumanization of their victims transform the latter into animals? Was the enthusiasm for dogs connected to Hitler’s vegetarianism? And why has Hitler himself been described in many contexts with the help of canine characteristics? (For example, British historian Ian Kershaw attributed Hitler’s survival of all the attempts to assassinate him to him being “a lucky dog” and historical testimonies of people from the period depicted Hitler’s shouts in his speeches as “barking.”)

Dr. Gal’s article touches upon a number of these questions. Gal, who in his doctoral thesis for the comparative literature department at Yale University investigated the personification of animals in World War II, concentrates in his article on an analysis of photographs of dogs whose owners were Nazis – or as he calls them, "Nazi dogs.”

He looks at what he refers to as the “animal rhetoric” that has been used to characterize the experience and the depiction of the Holocaust. According to him, “Animal rhetoric makes use of animals not only as a metaphor in language but also as a visual image – for the purpose of establishing the re-imagined ontological hierarchy concerning various ethnic groups that exist under a racist and oppressive regime. This rhetoric serves and is developed by both victims and victimizers, each side for its own uses.”

Gal tries to re-think the differences between the human and the animal. The deeds of the “Nazi dogs” he describes, considered in conjunction with the status the Third Reich attributed to dogs, lead him to wonder about the extent of the validity of the cultural tendency to grant moral innocence to animals, or as he puts it: “The thought of collaboration or political involvement by animals in acts of murder undermines the systems of classification and the conceptual attitudes that exist today towards animals.”

The moral judgment of dogs during the Nazi period has another aspect. Just as a dog can be called bad, it can also be called good – that is, it can also be an agent of humanness and not of bestiality. Gal cites several examples of this, first and foremost testimony of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who as a soldier was imprisoned by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp near the city of Hanover.

He told of a stray dog answering to the name Bobby, which found its way into the camp and spent several weeks with the prisoners. The dog’s affectionate behavior toward the prisoners caused Levinas to write that from Bobby’s perspective there was no doubt that they were human beings. Levinas added that Bobby was “the last Kantian in Nazi Germany,” referring to the great German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who formulated the categorical imperative that obligates humans to behave humanely towards one another.

Nevertheless, one may wonder whether animals are at all able to be humane or inhumane, or whether one can assign humane and inhumane characteristics, in the deep sense, to any creatures besides human beings. In this respect, the personification of animals is implied and is also a punishment of them, and is nothing but the obverse of the punishment of human beings by means of the denial of their humanity – that is, transforming them into animal figures.

Undated photo of Adolf Hitler, with his dog Blondi, and his mistress Eva Braun posing on the Terrace of the Berghof, Berchtesgaden, Germany.Credit: AP

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