The GSD as Archetype
It is important for all dog enthusiasts to understand the history and culture of the German Shepherd dog because in several ways they are a benchmark breed for dog culture, show culture, trial culture, breeding ethics, and breeding methods that are pervasive across many breeds and which persist to this day. Over several posts I will examine these aspects of the GSD and hopefully draw relevant parallels to dog culture in general.
The fusion of the breed image with an identity group, the mostly undocumented use of several breeds during creation, the advertising of a different set of breeds used, emphasis on appearance of efficacy over existential ability, the bogus ancient breed history, the Platonic standard of perfection, the structure and organization of a breed/kennel club, the style of competition and evaluation, the belief in and imperative for “improvement,” and the formula to get there are all documented and often championed in the GSD.
In constructing the new German national identity at the dawn of the modern era, native intellectuals had to overcome the last thousand years of regional, ethnic, and religious identities of the constituent groups within the new German state, and that necessitated finding or creating a more ancient and more inclusive narrative. They found this narrative in one of the first historical mentions of the Germanic peoples, Roman historian Tacitus’ work “Germania,” an oft quoted source of inspiration. The following passage was the most mined:
I myself accept the view of those who judge that the peoples of Germany have never been contaminated by intermarriage with other nations and that the race remains unique, pure, and unlike any other. As a result, their physical appearance too, if one may generalize about so large a population, is always the same: fierce blue eyes, red hair, and large bodies. Their bodies, however, are strong only for a violent outburst. These same large frames cannot last out for work and effort, and can scarcely tolerate thirst or heat, although their climate has made them accustomed to cold and their poor soil to hunger.
- Tacitus, Germania
You can see how this one paragraph was grossly distorted to justify an entire generation of genocide and persecution in the form of eugenics, the Final Solution, forced sterilizations and planned breedings; not only in Germany but across the globe. The notions of physical conformation, breed purity, and superiority are all embodied in this quote. This passage alone has elevated Germania to one of “the most dangerous books ever written.”
The Tacitus Lie
Given how integral Tactius’ work was to the intellectual foundations of the new German state, it’s not a far leap for advocates of this new breed to seek similar ancient roots for their new concoction. While almost every modern GSD website fails to mention the Nazi’s role in the history of the breed, almost all of them evoke Tacitus mentioning the “the wolf-like dog of the country around the Rhine.”
I read Latin and have a copy of Germania within arm’s reach, and no such attribute exists in any edition I have or have been able to track down. Mark Derr repeats this in Dog’s Best Friend, but when asked for the source he now concludes that it’s a “misattribution.” Bruce Fogle D.V.M. can likewise supply no source to this quote from his book on the GSD other than repeating what other authors have said without reference. Some webpages even say that breed founder Max von Stephanitz wrote of the dog being mentioned in Tacitus, but again, I find no mention of Tacitus in the works of von Stephanitz I’ve found translated into English. I fully suspect that this is yet another in a long line of entirely bogus ancient breed histories by modern breeders looking to tie their dogs to ancient culture.
Be it fabrication or misattribution, the important observation is that so many GSD aficionados have adopted the story as truth. This is what they want to be true, what is compelling, what they would wish to be true unbound by facts and reality. This is where we discover more about the men and movements behind the dogs as opposed to the actual dogs themselves.
The GSD, like most other breeds, comes complete with an entirely fabricated and dubiously ancient breed history, meant to provide evidence of quality or longevity or superiority; and this breed history is intrinsically linked with the special interest, in this case the German people, and the formation of its public identity.
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