The German Dog

Max Kerr and his dog, Fuhrer

German National Identity

Perhaps more than any other breed, the GSD grew out of a specific cultural movement and was fashioned to be an embodiment of the culture and values of German nationalism.  After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire there was hardly a “German” generation for centuries that did not suffer a civil or foreign war.

It’s easy to fall into the mistaken belief that the map of Europe has been settled into neat countries whose borders haven’t changed and whose languages fit nicely into those offered in high school: Spanish, French, Italian, and German; monolithic nations, cultures, and people.  But what we today call Germany was one of the most fragmentary corners of the globe: over 200 independent fiefdoms and the legacy of several waves of foreign invaders from every direction had to be distilled to create the German state.

This distillation was mimicked in the creation of the GSD.  It’s not a coincidence that a breed from the north and a breed from the south were combined and advertised as foundation stock; Germany has had a historical north-south divide and any breed that would be embraced by the entire country would need to appeal to both audiences.  Similarly, the Third Reich combined the militarism and discipline of the Prussians in the north with the beer hall culture and engineering prowess of Bavaria in the south.  Although it was a shock to modern ears to hear that the GSD was actually more mastiff than shepherd, such hybridization of purpose makes perfect sense not only in what the breed was designed for, but also as a reflection of the culture of the time: farmers beating their plow shares into swords.

Where that Tacitus Lie comes from

Hitler with a model GSD in what is most likely a propaganda photo.

In the early nineteenth century nationalism emerged as a force in Germany, as elsewhere. Johann Gottlob Fichte, in his ‘Speeches to the German Nation‘ (1807-8), inspired by Tacitus’ work, urged that the German people had retained its characteristics unchanged from Roman times and must fight to preserve its national identity. Remarkably, Fichte avoided the ‘biological’ or racial argument. It was left to the French writer, Count Arthur Gobineau, in his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-5) to proclaim the superiority of the Germanic or Nordic race, again and again basing his case on Tacitus (although also criticizing him for his excessively negative portrayal of the Germans).

The process was taken further by a naturalized German of English origin, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who enjoyed considerable success with his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1898): Tacitus’ Germany was again exploited to demonstrate that the ‘Aryans’ were responsible for all that was great and creative in European culture.  From here it was a short step to the glorification in the Third Reich of the ancient Germans as forerunners of the National Socialist racial ideas.

Writing on the origin and ethnic history of the Germans (in 1935), the leading Nazi race theorist H.F.K. Günther went well beyond the usual list of qualities vouched for by Tacitus: racial purity, love of freedom, moral rectitude, loyalty (the origin of the Treue stressed so much by the SS), and the rest.  Günther could even find in chapter 12 of Germany, on the old Germanic death penalty, justification for eliminating degenerate elements from society: bizarre as it may seem, Tacitus was being misused to justify the policy which culminated in genocide.  Given the approval of Tacitus’ Germany expressed by Rosenberg, Himmler, and others, it is no surprise that the work has been described as ‘among the hundred most dangerous books ever written’ (by A. Momigliano in 1956).

– Introduction to Tactitus’ Agricola and Germany, A.R. Birley

This is the very same Tacitus passage that early GSD adopters fabricated a link to and which modern breed boosters still evoke with pleasure.  So powerful is the desire to match one’s identity with history and importance, to merge name with meaning, that “the wolf-dog from the lands around the Rhine” is too irresistible to pass up, too precious to even verify.

By Any Other Name

The GSD invading Poland

But that’s what you do when your real identity doesn’t match the image you are desperate to portray.  You invent a pedigree and a good story.  Adolf Hitler was inbred (his parents were uncle/half-niece) in a family with prevalent and severe mental health issues, lacked Aryan heritage, and had a surname that was adopted on speculation so as not to go through life as Adolf Schicklgruber, generously translated as “shit hole digger.”

After the war when the name became too much of a liability, the surviving branch of Hitlers in America changed their surname to Stewart-Houston: an obvious homage to Houston Stewart Chamberlain.  It seems these Hitlers weren’t so troubled by the pan-Germanism, Aryan supremacy, or anti-Semitism advocated by Chamberlain, they just didn’t want to be associated with so obvious a name.

Likewise, the German Shepherd dog had a name change after the first World War, in the same sort of revisionist whitewashing.  The Allied Entente countries renamed the German Shepherd the “Alsatian Wolf-dog” to remove as much of the German stigma as possible.  There’s no evidence that the French or the people of Alsace played any significant role in the formation of the breed.  Unlike German Toast, which has successfully been renamed French Toast in the English speaking world, the attempt to remove the German from the GSD ultimately failed.

The conceptualization, genetic origins, and bureaucratic infrastructure of the breed was inherently and inextricably German, so much so that even the animosity of two world wars could not permanently unhitch the breed from its name and its German identity, nor could the anti-German sentiment prevent the GSD from making major inroads in popularity in the West.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.