Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nazi Myth Transformed German Shepherds from Sheep Dogs into Tame Wolves

The German shepherd is a relatively recent creation. The Society for the German Shepherd Dog (Verein fur deutsche Schaferhunde) came into existence in 1899 in Stuttgart, the concept of a retired Prussian cavalry captain, Max von Stephanitz (1863-1936). Sheepdogs in that area were rather polymorphous and were not recognized as a breed, and the Society resolved to change this. The first German shepherd was not exhibited until 1907, but by 1923 there were 50,000 members of the Society, and its popularity had already spread well beyond Germany. The breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1927.

The Aryanism of the German Shepherd

Captain Stephanitz saw his breed as distinctly German, but breeders and owners in other countries venerated the dog for its purity of blood, bravery and loyalty, a dog soldier. German shepherds became popular with police departments in Germany and elsewhere, and an historian at Brigham Young University, Aaron Skabelund, suggests that the dog began particularly to be associated with imperialistic regimes, and even to become a symbol of racism and repression. Skabelund describes German shepherds as being “extremely conspicuous in the maintenance of power.”

In his massive volume, The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture, translated into English in 1923 (Anton Kampfe, Jena), Stephanitz wrote that "the German is a real dog-lover, for it is part of his nature ... to enter into the spirit of the Aryan mysticism, which makes us feel at one, interiorly, with clouds, trees, lake and heath, and with all living creation.... This appears in his religious beliefs, for the eagle and the wolf were dedicated to All-Father Wotan, King of Battlefields, Bestower of Victory.... [H]is wolves ... roam the battlefields, crouch at his feet, and are cared for by the Lord of the World himself.... [T]wo stones with bason-like hollows were erected to the right and the left of the ancient altars of sacrifice, from which poured the blood of the sacrifice which had been offered in honour of Wotan, so that his wolves could feast on the entrails of slaughtered enemies."

Stephanitz contrasted this "Aryan" attitude towards canines to that of the Jews:

"In ancient Rome as well, and in Assyria, Babylon and Egypt the dog stood in high esteem. Not so with the ancient Jews however; to them the dog was 'accursed', therefore a part of the later and present day contempt and hostility of the Aryan people for the dog can be traced back to the great influence of the Jews, which in Christian times somewhat altered itself and preferred to act in a manner which was skulking and therefore typically Jewish. In the Old Testament we scarcely ever find the dog in the service of man; on the contrary, more often than not we find him mentioned in a way that makes him hateful and accursed. That this could be the case even in the oldest relics of a genuinely pastoral people, as the ancient Israelites originally were, ... is at any rate an indication of a lack of sympathy between dog and Jew. It could be attributed to the very old feeling of fear and hatred which this unwarlike, pastoral people had for the wolf, and naturally for his successor the dog, and by reason of which they cursed him as the spoiler of their goods, treating him thus in a manner quite unlike that of a hunting folk who were both warlike, and knew how to respect their enemy."

Stephanitz clearly thought the Jewish attitude had affected some "Aryans." Sexism can also be found in Stephanitz’s writings. He said that a German shepherd only renders obedience to the master of the house, “for when a man is in the house, he only obeys the woman with reservations.”

In World War I, German shepherds were mobilized by a number of countries and served in national and colonial armies. Between the wars, the breed so quickly dominated law enforcement that in many places it is still just called the “police dog.” The “Germanness” of the dog obviously appealed to the Nazis, who made it into an icon of the Third Reich. They were picking up on the views of Stephanitz himself, who as noted above had seen the dog as reflecting the character of the Volk and described it, despite its mixed origins and recent breed status, as having an ancient and intimate relationship with Germans. Hitler named his first German shepherd “Wolf.” In Hitler's Table Talk, 1941-1944, Hitler is recorded saying:

"I love animals, and especially dogs.  But I'm not so very fond of boxers, for example. If I had to take a new dog, it could only be a sheepdog, preferably a bitch.  I would feel like a traitor if I became attached to a dog of any other breed.  What extraordinary animals they are—lively, loyal, bold, courageous and handsome!"

Shepherds were used by the Nazis to control prisoners of war and guard concentration camps.

The German Shepherd in the Axis

Germany’s alliance with Japan entered the history of the German shepherd. Stephanitz wrote the president of the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Dog, Saito Hirokichi, that German shepherds and Japanese dogs were closely related, both moving from central Asia, but in different directions (again, possibly true but if so true of all dogs). Despite this praise from Stephanitz for Japanese dogs, Japanese military authorities seem to have preferred German shepherds, importing thousands of them with the help of Stephanitz. In the annexation of Manchuria, two German shepherds being used as messenger dogs, Kongo and Nachi, became Japanese national heroes for supposedly joining a battle, killing a number of enemy soldiers, and giving up their own lives. The Japanese army had 10,000 military dogs by 1944, and used them as messengers, sentries, draft animals, trackers, and patrol auxiliaries. Perhaps 90% of Japanese military dogs were German shepherds (shepado).

The Japanese military’s use of the dogs makes them unpopular still in areas once subjected to Japanese aggression, such as Korea and China. (See Aaron Skabelund, Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the “German” Shepherd Dog, Society and Animals, 16, 354-371 (2008).)

The Incipient Guide Dog Movement

Learning that some of his colleagues in the Society were training veteran ambulance dogs to guide wounded veterans of World War I, Stephanitz expressed his doubts. 

“There is a certain connection between the Ambulance dog and the blind man’s dog.  The Ambulance dog Association therefore took up this Service dog type and devoted its considerable resources to secure its training.  According to the statement of blind people who have used such a leader for any considerable time, our shepherd dogs are said to be especially fit and reliable in that service.  The blind man and his dog have been a familiar feature in our streets for some time; formerly, it is true, the dog, generally a poodle, was only known as the receiver of gifts with the hat in his mouth, but the blind-man’s dog of the present day is not used for such a purpose; he must rather be the eyes of his master, lead him safely through the maze of traffic, and promptly call his attention to unevenesses in the road, and obstacles in the traffic, by sitting down.  Experience has proved that a careful training develops the dog to this extent, but again, in this respect, it depends entirely on the leader how long he remains efficient or, vice versa, how soon he becomes slack.  But this leader is a blind man, who unfortunately cannot see, and therefore cannot correct the faults of the dog; accordingly we must not build too fond hopes on the efficiency of these dogs for the sake of the poor blind people themselves, to save them disappointment.  At all events, we cannot lay down a hard and fast rule, for although such an animal may be useful under favourable circumstances with an animal loving blind man—preferably in the country and in small country towns—he can, and must be equally useless under other conditions, as for instance, in the traffic of a great city and in the keeping of a careless man with no real sense for the dog.  In such cases the dog, instead of being a help to the blind man will become a danger.  For my part, I regard him chiefly as a companion for his master to be a source of comfort and pleasure to him in his quiet lonely hours.” 

It was not long after the italicized words were written that they were given the lie, as indicated by the experience of Dorothy Harrison Eustis.

Behavioral Study Debunks Wolf Similarity

One research project on ancestral behavioral patterns in dogs found that the fact that German shepherds have been bred to have the physical appearance of wolves does not mean that wolf-like behavior has come back into the breed. Describing the German shepherd and the Shetland sheepdog, the researchers state that "the physical appearance of these two breeds is more wolf-like than their behavioural scores would predict, suggesting that once a behaviour has been lost from the repertoire it cannot be reconstructed merely by altering the physical appearance of the breed. The German shepherd, which was developed from shepherding stock with the deliberate intention of producing a physically wolf-like animal..., displayed fewer wolf-type signals than did the Siberian husky and the golden retriever." D. Goodwin, J.W.S. Bradshaw, and S.M. Wickens (1997). Paedomorphosis Affects Agonistic Visual Signals of Domestic Dogs. Animal Behaviour 53, 297-304. Stephanitz must have rolled over in his grave (assuming corpses have access to scientific journals).

As has happened with pit bulls in the United States, the glorification of a breed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons can do more harm than good.

Additional Notes

Writing about 1890, Rawdon Briggs Lee described the German national favoritism with regard to dog breeds as being divided between the Great Dane and the Dachshund, both of which had become so popular in England as to be widely admired there as well. Lee makes no mention of the German shepherd dog sharing German national affections, which he might have had to do had he been writing a decade later. R.B. Lee, A History & Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain & Ireland (Sporting Division) (1893). Horace Cox, London, 1893, at 186, 530.

I revised this blog in December 2011 because I had received several emails saying that I was unjustly suggesting that Stephanitz was a Nazi. He was not, and died in 1936, before the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime. There are websites stating that Stephanitz was ruined by the Nazis. Nevertheless, as Joachim Köhler argued in Wagner's Hitler (Polity Press, 2000), some responsibility for those atrocities can appropriately be projected backwards to those who refined or repeated the philosophy that ultimately led to the death camps. As the descendant of German Americans who arrived in America in the late 18th century but many of whom continued to speak German until the early 20th century (including my father, whose Missouri village was told to stop speaking the language when America entered the First World War), I have asked all my life, as my father did, how far guilt can or should extend. I am also aware that Stephanitz made many valuable contributions to the study of dogs. The matter is not simple. Even those who attempted to correlate their own thinking with the Nazi philosophy, such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Jung, could be brilliant men.


  1. Thanks for this post, I'm writing about the Nazi history of the German Shepherd dog [specifically how the dog became a isomorphic symbol of the state and how the dubious writings of Tacitus was used for both the dog and the people to justify racial purity] and the sources you collected have proven very useful.


  2. Historical facts are true and interesting but
    GSD is a most versatile and most recognized breed on the world. Thus just because someone used them in less then proper way does not make them German shepherd the aggressive and imperialist animal. Position like that is well silly in the least. I used to live in Communist Czechoslovakia where these dogs were used to guard border from people escaping to the freedom. Should we then call German shepherd dog communist socialist Marxist Leninist leftist dog?

    Also calling Stephanitz sexist is more then PC it is not very smart too. That is since GSD will respond to most dominant person in the household which often is a man . And even if he is not most dominant based on his ability to make a family decisions about the check book he still usually has a deeper voice then his wife and thus dog will perceive him as a dominant pack member.
    Give me a physical brake please.

    1. Hans- Just as GSD were used for evil does not make them evil. Pit Bulls have the reputation that GSD had back in Nazi and the Civil Rights of the 1950's in the USA. Neither of these breed are evil or genetically defective. Humans are the real animals.

  3. Hans, I am just finding out von stephanitz wrote that the gsd will only fully listen to the man of the house. It's sexist I guess, but I believe it is true. My german shepherd lexy used to listen to me and my father ...not so much with my mom. She was especially obedient with my father. Lexy would just walk by my mom/disregard what she had said to lexy. Also, I haven't found out for sure but I think the possibilty exists that German shepherds have a sense of racism towards Black/African Americans. Anyone have input on this? Possible racist traits from a dog?

  4. My German Shepherd never dares play rough with my brother but did with me for the first weeks. Then I learned a technique to assert dominance humanely on him by pressing down on his snout and turning him into the supine position, then growling while staring into his eyes. He stopped after I did that a few times. Now he is very affectionate to me and careful with his snout. It's not about female. It is about dominance.

  5. While I enjoyed this article it needs to be stated that dogs are not capable of being racist but their owners are and dogs pick up subliminal clues from their owners and react to please their owners.

    1. So true your statement! Dogs are not racist, people are. Pit Bulls are the Nazi German Shepherds of today. Unscrupulous criminals and animal abusers use Pitties , as the Nazi's used the GSD. Pit bulls should not have BSL sigma. I don't even think GSD after Hitler's Day were discriminated.

    2. Dogs don't have racist traits but the owner can alert the dog to the owners’ response to a particular race or gender by his/hers energy level. A dog, who is socialized will not have issues with race, gender, uniforms (Fed-Ex, UPS, USPS, Police, etc.). A socialized dog will not react to bikes, runners, walkers, screaming children, sirens, ambulances, trucks, cars and motorcycles, etc. due to being introduced to the activities on a consistent basis with the correct behavior. Dogs’ behavior is a direct response to the owner. Your Dog Is Your Mirror
      bottom line- correctly train your dog - have a positive, caring and confident attitude. It’s a win win.

  6. Mr. Ensminger,
    Our German Shepherd Dog Club has stripped its web site and is starting from scratch. As a subscriber to Dog Law Reporter, I recommended this article for inclusion on the site. How do I go about getting your permission to either republish (copy) it, or use a link to it? I know it was written in 2010, so I have no idea if you will even see this comment...

    Thank you for your consideration Sir!

    1. Deb: You could upload the piece onto your site as long as you give my site attribution with a link to the homepage of the blog in the attribution line (www.doglawreporter.blogspot.com). On the other hand, it might be easiest to include a link because I do revise this piece (and many others) from time to time and if you don't link to the particular blog itself, the version you have will sooner or later be out of date. You can email me directly at jensminger@msn.com. John

  7. It is not valid to say that Max von Stephanitz was sexist. Do not forget that women in Germany did not have the right to vote until the late 1920s

    1. thaaaaaaat doesnt make him any less sexist just as being born in the 1800's didnt make slave owners any less racist.

    2. Slave owners were racists? What do you base that opinion on? I own a dog it doesn't mean I hate dogs.

    3. You are comparing ownership of human slaves to ownership of dogs, are you sure you aren't racist?

  8. This is insane i cannot believe how it can be possible for me it's impossible to transform german shepherds like this you can check here Top 5 Most Efficient Police Dog Breeds

  9. I have a German Shepard named Heinrich, and I adopted him when I was in Germany. So I have an actual German Shepard, lol. He's so sweet and cute. He does bark at FedEx and Visitors, but since we live in the country, he doesn't always see other people. He isn't a real danger though, he whines while he barks so he's scared. Then he runs and hides...aww...poor thing. He's still a puppy, but it's 1 month until he's full grown. (No, I didn't just go to Germany for my dog. I live there, but I left for a little while since my mom is sick. I brought my little Heinrich along :)