Commemorative stamp for the Olympic summer games in Berlin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Letts | The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis | Ballantine Books | August 2016 | 19 minutes (4,567 words)


The excerpt below is adapted from The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts. The book describes an American colonel’s quixotic mission in the waning days of World War II: to rescue Europe’s purebred horses from a secret Nazi stud farm mere hours before the starving Soviet army arrived and likely slaughtered the animals for food. In this excerpt, Letts explains the origins of the Nazis’ secret horse breeding project. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

A herd of mares left Austria in October 1942. The herd made the 350-mile trip northwest from Piber to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, without incident, and were settled into the Third Reich’s most sheltered stud farm, located in Bohemia, just a few miles from the Bavarian border. Beyond the farm’s serene green pastures, golden valleys stretched toward distant mountains crested by dark waves of evergreens. The Böhmerwald, or Bohemian Forest, served as more than a beautiful backdrop for the farm; it formed a natural barrier between Germany to the west and Austria to the south and had withstood invasion and attack for centuries. During the Nazi era, this locale was known as “the Bohemian bastion.” Among Germans, it was thought to be the safest place to ride out the war, least likely to be invaded from east or west. It was here that Gustav Rau had secreted the Lipizzaner, as well as the finest Arabians from Janów, including Witez. Even in the middle of a war, here, all was deceptively tranquil.

Quiet villages dotted this part of Bohemia, each graced by a Catholic church with an onion-domed spire. Flanking each cluster of tidy whitewashed houses were well-kept farms growing crops that thrived in the region’s rich agricultural soil. But in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of the area following the Munich Agreement of 1938, its bucolic appearance was deceiving. Once a multicultural region where Czechs, Germans, and Jews lived side by side in peace, Bohemia, now called the Sudetenland, had turned into a firm cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. When the Nazis annexed the area in September 1939, the local German-speaking population had lined the streets cheering to welcome Hitler’s forces. Local Czechs and Jews had either fled or been forcibly evicted. Those who remained had been transported to concentration camps. By 1942, when the first Lipizzaner arrived in Hostau, the local Nazi apparatus held a firm grip on the region, but Czech partisans also operated in the area, finding refuge in the hideaways offered by the Bohemian Forest. Though the border with Bavaria, Germany, was less than fifteen miles to the west, the mountainous barrier made it seem much more remote.

The stud farm at Hostau, located next to the village of the same name, had been known for breeding cavalry horses long before Hitler’s time. The most prominent local landowners, the Trauttsmansdorff family, had historically served as imperial equerries for the Habsburg Crown. In addition to the main complex of stables adjacent to the village, there were pastures in three neighboring villages—the entire establishment covered fifteen hundred acres and could accommodate more than a thousand stallions, mares, and foals. All in all, it was more than twice as big as Alfred Vanderbilt’s showplace, Sagamore Farms, which Rau had visited in 1938.

Rau had selected this expansive facility to put into motion the most exalted part of his grand plan. Throughout 1942, he had systematically transported all of the purebred Lipizzaner from the stud farms of Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia to this sheltered location for safekeeping. He had also sent a personal emissary on a mission to purchase purebred Lipizzaner from wealthy noblemen who raised smaller strings of purebreds for private use. By the end of 1942, Rau had gathered almost every Lipizzaner in the world into a single location.

Austrian-born Hitler’s goal, expressed in Mein Kampf, was to bring all of the German-speaking peoples of Central Europe, including Austria, into the fold of the Third Reich. Just as Hitler aimed to eliminate “impure strains” and combine the different Germanic groups into a single “Aryan race” of people, so Rau planned to use the science of selective breeding to erase the individual differences characterizing the several strains of purebred Lipizzaner that had emerged since the end of World War I and replace them with a single mold: pure white, imperial, identical, and ideally suited for military use. Like Hitler himself, the horses, once quintessentially Austrian, would be given a distinctly German stamp.

Gustav Rau believed that these intelligent and tractable animals possessed a nearly ideal temperament. But he had a less favorable opinion of the breed’s conformation. The Lipizzaner had some very specific breed characteristics: a relatively small stature, a Roman or convex profile (this was less pronounced in some stallion lines than others), a very straight shoulder that resulted in a choppier gait, low withers (the bony prominence at the base of the neck that the saddle rests against), and a short back. All of these qualities were especially well suited to the art of classical riding, which differed from modern riding in many respects, but Gustav Rau was determined to remold the Lipizzaner according to a template that he held in his mind’s eye.

Rau’s vision of the ideal military horse had been forged in the crucible of World War I. As a young man during the Great War, Rau had served as a cavalry soldier; his abdomen was latticed with battle scars, including a stoma from a lance wound sustained during a mounted charge. Despite evidence of mounting technological change, Rau remained stubbornly antiquated, convinced that vehicles could never replace horses. Instead, he believed that the military horse could be perfected, through selective breeding, to outperform any machine. According to Rau, “The military horse . . . should be noble, but not too forceful, energetic, but not excited.” He aimed to breed a horse with endless endurance and an efficient digestive system that could run on little grain. But the cause to which Rau had devoted his life was being threatened by an endless supply of motor vehicles that rattled off Germany’s assembly lines, each one identical to the next.

As head of the Polish stud farm administration, Rau had modernized the production of horses, increasing the number of stallions, mares, and foals born in Poland year upon year, and feeding the voracious pipeline of horses to the war. Yet horses—living, breathing animals that require fodder, exercise, nurture, and care—could not be fabricated like nuts and bolts in a factory.

As the war continued to escalate, Rau pedaled ever more furiously, trying to produce a perfect standardized horse. He believed that with aggressive inbreeding, he could rapidly expand the number of Lipizzaner without sacrificing anything in quality; in fact, he believed that the Lipizzaner could be enhanced and changed, elongating the back, increasing the height of the withers, and changing the slope of the shoulder. He had predicted that he could completely change the breed in just three years. Perhaps Rau envisioned hundreds of thousands of purebred Lipizzaner fanning out in formation across the German empire, each as reliable and identical as Germany’s BMW automobiles— even better, as they would require neither scarce rubber nor costly gasoline.

* * *

We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines.

Without access to a modern understanding of genetics, Rau’s views regarding horse breeding were rudimentary, drawn largely from later discarded nineteenth-century notions of blended inheritance, in which an offspring’s traits were supposed to be a fifty-fifty mix of mother and father. For example, a tall father and short mother should produce a child whose height was exactly midway between the two parents’ heights. The problem with this theory was that if it were true, then over time, the population would become increasingly homogenous as the blending process evened out outliers. Not only did this not occur, it was precisely the opposite outcome of the highly differentiated forms that resulted according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, he knew that traits were passed from parent to offspring, though he did not understand quite how. The father of the science of genetic inheritance was Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar whose experiments with pea plants, published in 1866, provided the first demonstration of the principles of inheritance. But Mendel’s findings were not widely disseminated during his lifetime, and throughout the late nineteenth century, scientists continued to believe that offspring could inherit characteristics acquired by parents from their environment. Lamarckism, named for French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), supposed that children inherited characteristics that had been developed in the parents— for example, giraffes elongated their necks by reaching into high branches for food, and these longer necks then were passed along to their offspring. But later in the nineteenth century, scientists were beginning to question that line of thought. German scientist August Weismann (1834–1914) postulated that there was a substance, which he called the “germ plasm,” that could be passed from one generation to the next without changing its essential form, discounting entirely the influence of nurture or environment on inherited traits. He performed an experiment in which he cut the tails off six generations of white mice to prove that the next generation would still be born with tails. While the purpose of Weismann’s experiment was scientific and not social, the increasing belief that inherited traits were not mutable or affected by the environment contributed an underpinning to Nazi racial beliefs. Weismann’s germ plasm theory seemed to provide a scientific rationale for bigotry, leading some to argue that no matter how assimilated a Jew might appear, every Jewish baby was born with certain immutable (and, in the bigots’ view, negative) characteristics.

In his approach to horse breeding, Rau followed Weismann’s theory. He believed that purebred horses had an uncorrupted substance that was passed along ancestral lines. This germ plasm was inherently fragile and needed to be protected from corruption from outside influences, such as “mixed blood.” Rau wrote, “We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines to get identical germ plasm to prevent corruption and to preserve it.” Not understanding the dangers of inbreeding, Rau believed that increasing purity would improve quality.

With a modern understanding of genetic inheritance, animal breeders are now well aware of the problems that can accrue in animals bred too closely—one result is that inherited genetic defects or susceptibility to disease can increase. But these insights were not available to Rau. And so, like a painter working with a palette of colors, Rau tried to fashion the perfect horse from each of a million small equine details— the angle of the shoulder, the set of the eye, the curve of the barrel, as well as elements of temperament that once were considered ineffable and not suitable to manipulation: courage, intelligence, fortitude, and spirit.

A chart explaining the Nuremberg Laws, which established a pseudo-scientific basis for racial discrimination. Via Wikimedia Commons.

To lead this enterprise on the ground, Rau had chosen his personal protégé, forty-six-year-old Czech-born German Hubert Rudofsky. As a civilian, Rudofsky had been considered one of Czechoslovakia’s foremost experts on equine breeding. He first attracted Rau’s attention when horses bred in this region of Bohemia had made a strong showing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Now a colonel in the German Army, Rudofsky was over six feet tall, a bachelor known for his dapper manner and immaculate dress. He owed his love of horses to a youthful fascination with mounted dragoons, uhlans, and hussars, whose silver bayonets, shiny knee-high boots, and colorful regimental uniforms had impressed him as they paraded through the world of his childhood. Rudofsky had learned to ride at the age of ten, instructed with great precision by a cavalry squadron commander. And so, when World War I broke out, the seventeen-year-old Rudofsky eagerly enlisted in the Austrian cavalry. At the war’s end, he was awarded a silver medal for courage.

In peacetime, Rudofsky was a civil servant who directed stud farms in both the Czech and Slovak regions of the country, where he maintained excellent relationships with his fellow citizens. When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, like all other eligible ethnic German men, Rau was called up to serve in the German Wehrmacht. Through the patronage of Count von Trauttmansdorff, a family friend, he joined the 17th Bamberger Rider Regiment, later to become famous when Claus von Stauffenberg and four other members of the regiment plotted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Soon after, Rudofsky was pressed into service training carriage drivers at a Wehrmacht training center. A year later, Rau summoned Rudofsky to serve in the stud farm administration of Poland. Rudofsky acquitted himself well, so he was put in charge of what was at the time the largest stud farm in Europe, at Debica, in occupied Poland, which housed more than four hundred mares at its height. Among the horses at Debica, Rau had placed forty-four Lipizzaner mares, as well as two Lipizzaner stallions imported from Yugoslavia, among the few he had kept outside of Hostau.

Hubert Rudofsky was an expert at carriage driving, possessed of an advanced diploma in this complicated art. The ability to drive a fourin-hand is one of the equestrian world’s most rarefied skills. Traditionally, four harnessed horses pulling a heavy carriage or coach required two drivers, one to control each pair of reins. During World War I, the demand for ambulance carriages to evacuate wounded soldiers led a German count to develop the four-in-hand driving method known as the Achenbach system, which for the first time allowed a single driver to control all four horses.

“Four-in-hand” refers to the four reins, one for each horse, that a driver controls in a single hand—the left. With the right, the driver holds a long carriage whip anchored between the thumb and little finger, freeing up the middle three fingers to control the reins during turns. The whip, with a weighted silver base and braided leather lash, is held erect at a precise angle to avoid accidentally obstructing the view or dislodging the hat of a passenger. Driving a four-in-hand requires no fewer than thirty-one separate pieces of harness equipment. Even more, it requires a deep knowledge of horsemanship. One turn-of-the-century enthusiast’s journal put it thus: “To become an expert driver and thorough coachman one should be more or less a lover of horses; indeed a large percentage of the best drivers have been associated with horses the greater part of their lives, have ridden everything from a rocking-horse to a runaway thoroughbred, and had become competent drivers of single horses and pairs long before they essayed the tooling of a four.” Only highly trained drivers, such as Rudofsky, had the requisite skill to drive a four-in-hand, an expertise that took no fewer than five years of practice to master. Imperial coaches pulled by matching pairs of Lipizzaner once whisked the members of the Habsburg monarchy around Vienna on official and royal business. With Rudofsky’s expertise and Rau’s white horses, these same conveyances could be used to display the reach and might of the Third Reich.

* * *

Rau kept his pistol pointed at the SS officer’s heart.

In the fall of 1943, Rudofsky would show off his skills at a grand parade to be held at the stud farm in Debica. The staff of the stud farm had spent weeks preparing the horses for this special occasion. On the day of the parade, a large viewing stand, draped with freshly cut tree boughs and a scarlet swastika banner, filled with Nazi officials and high-ranking German military officers. Lining up along the railings of the grand exhibition fields were beleaguered Polish citizens of the occupied town who had come out to watch the fine horses, hoping for a few hours of distraction.

Rudofsky, splendidly clad in a full dress uniform, oversaw the proceedings and prepared for his turn in the driver’s box. He meticulously inspected each horse from top to toe, checking the brass-studded imperial harnesses as he gave hurried last-minute instructions to the grooms.

The parade began with uniformed grooms entering the vast exhibition field on foot, leading a group of fine yearlings. As they circled in front of the viewing stands, a heavy rain started to fall. The horses’ hooves churned the wet ground into soupy mud, which flicked up to stain the horses’ legs and bellies. Despite the bad weather, the audience did not move. A few people pulled out umbrellas. Most of the officers on the viewing stand seemed impervious to the storm, simply letting the rain soak their wool uniforms and drip off their visored caps.

Rudofsky was focused on the horses, so at first he did not notice that a hubbub was brewing, but soon he heard a commotion. Near the spot where he was preparing horses for their entrance to the field, Gustav Rau was engaged in an increasingly heated conversation with an SS officer. Rau’s adjutant, Rudolf Lessing, stood next to him, visibly struggling to maintain his composure. Rudofsky realized that while the Poles had been lining up to watch the horse parade, a regiment of SS soldiers had moved in behind them. The grounds of the stud farm and all of the spectators were now entirely surrounded by armed SS storm troopers.

The SS officer had approached Rau to explain that he had orders to arrest every member of the crowd. All of the Polish men between the ages of eighteen and thirty would be sent to a forced-work camp to manufacture German munitions. The horse parade, which had drawn a large crowd, was simply being used as a trap.

Gustav Rau pulled a pistol from his hip and pointed it directly at the SS officer.“You have no authority here,” he said. “This horse farm is under the jurisdiction of the German Army.”

Rudofsky watched, scarcely daring to draw a breath. Out on the large exhibition field, the horses continued to prance and dance. The group of officers up on the viewing stand was too far away to hear the altercation.

Rau kept his pistol pointed at the SS officer’s heart. Neither man moved until, with a curt nod, the officer stepped back. He agreed to remove his men. Only then did Rau lower his pistol. A few minutes later, the SS regiment withdrew. The assembled crowd never realized what had happened.

When the time came for the grand finale, Rudofsky sat aboard the driver’s box of his immaculate carriage, ready to take his turn in the arena. His feet were braced against an angled toe box, which provided the traction needed to control the two pairs of horses. In his white-gloved left hand, he held the four reins; in his right, he balanced the ten-pound whip. His back was ramrod-straight and his face showed no emotion, but as he circled in front of the viewing platform, crowded with smiling, applauding officers and Nazi Party officials, the cold rain dripped down his face like tears.

German stamp depicting the four-in-hand driving method, 1941. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few weeks later, Rudofsky was admitted to a hospital in Krynica, Poland, suffering from chest pains and severe agitation. The doctors were unable to find any physical cause for his ailments. He had suffered from a heart condition since childhood, but he showed no cardiac symptoms now. Rather, his symptoms appeared to be the result of severe stress. Upon his release from the hospital, Rau, perhaps realizing that this highly skilled horseman could no longer handle the fraught conditions in occupied Poland, sent him back to his home region of Bohemia, where he would assume the job of overseeing the Reich’s greatest equine treasures: the Lipizzaner.

Rudofsky returned from Poland to find his home much changed. Hostau, a village of only a few thousand inhabitants, was located just adjacent to his family’s home in the seat of a county where the Rudofskys were prominent citizens. The stud farm itself was in tip-top shape, with no luxury spared to care for its precious horses. But the war had fractured and splintered this quiet community. Within Rudofsky’s own family, sentiments toward the Third Reich were bitterly divided. His father’s first cousin owned the local bank and had personally bankrolled the departure of at least one family of Jews when the Nazis took over the area in 1939. His younger brother, Waldemar, a physician, had joined the German Army and was stationed at a field hospital in the Ukraine. His younger sister was director of the local Nazi women’s organization.

As a young man, Rudofsky had considered himself Austrian; his father had been a personal consultant to the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph, but between the end of World War I and the German annexation, young Rudofsky had served the Republic of Czechoslovakia, proud of his role in bringing the republic to prominence in horse breeding on the world stage. Privately, Rudofsky disdained the Nazis. But after 1939, he had donned the Wehrmacht uniform without complaint. In his eyes, he had no choice; the civilian horse-breeding system he worked within had been swallowed whole by the German Army, and his expertise made him a valuable military commodity. But in the eyes of the Czech citizens who had been chased from their homes when Hitler’s forces arrived, he and his German-speaking compatriots were traitors. When Rudofsky returned to Bohemia, now “cleansed” of its ethnic minorities, he found his homeland sadly diminished.

Being closer to home did have one advantage for Rudofsky. Though he did not have any children of his own, he had a ten-year-old nephew, Waldemar’s son, Ulli, whom he adored as his own child. The angel-faced altar boy gazed upon his suave uncle with tremendous pride each time the six-foot-tall officer strode into Mass at the Church of St. James in his full cavalry uniform, the heels of his shined high-top boots clicking on the stone floor. The devout Rudofsky carried in his pocket a military card stating that if he were in extremis, he wanted to receive final unction.

Rudofsky made it a point to keep watch on the young boy. When he stopped at his mother’s Italianate villa not far from Hostau for dinner, he never failed to quiz young Ulli, a clever and studious boy, on his arithmetic tables. Nobody had heard from the boy’s father in quite some time. The adults around the Rudofsky dinner table understood that the doctor might be languishing somewhere in a prisoner-of-war camp, or was perhaps already dead.

The stables full of white horses made a powerful impression on young Ulli. In the winter of 1943, soon after his uncle returned home from Poland, Rudofsky arranged for Ulli and his older sister, Susi, to visit the majestic horses at Hostau. Like something out of a fairy tale, a carriage pulled by two snow-white horses appeared in front of the children’s house, and a handsome uniformed coachman stepped off the driver’s box. His ornate uniform—which looked Polish or Russian— impressed the young children. The driver opened the carriage door and tucked Ulli and Susi into warm blankets sewn together like sleeping bags. The air was crystalline as the Lipizzaner trotted toward Hostau, their hooves ringing against the frozen ground. From inside the snug carriage, the children could see the straight back of the coachman up on his box and the snowy expanses of rolling fields, the Bohemian Forest dark and forbidding in the distance.

When they arrived at Hostau, their uncle greeted them. He took them to the stables so that they could see the white horses up close. Ulli was surprised to discover that when you blew on the white coats of the Lipizzaner, their skin was blue-black underneath. But when his uncle lifted him up onto the bare back of a coal-black horse named Tyrant, the boy was terrified to be up so high and screamed out, “It’s hot up here.” His uncle, perfectly comfortable around the beautiful animals, laughed and lifted him back down. Returning to their home, once again tucked snugly into the carriage, the children were left with an indelible impression of the seemingly magical horses that had been entrusted to their uncle’s care.

* * *

Rudofsky’s farm followed precepts laid out in a book called Regulation of the Stud Farm, written in 1656.

Rudofsky ran the stud farm at Hostau with unstinting precision. Every morning, his valet laid out his perfectly tailored and pressed uniform and buffed his boots to a high shine. At the stable, grooms had already hitched up his Lipizzaner mares. The silver tip of his braided leather carriage whip shone with the well-polished patina of use. This carriage master who could drive a four-in-hand with such ease had never learned to drive a car, and so his upright, elegant figure with the pair of white horses was a familiar sight all over town. As he pulled up in front of the large structure that served as an administrative building for the stud farm, his stable masters always had a report ready. No detail was to be considered too small to bring to his attention.

The day-to-day routine in Hostau was steeped in centuries-old tradition. Rudofsky’s farm followed precepts laid out in a book called Regulation of the Stud Farm, written in 1656. Grooms were in charge of the horses’ everyday care, feeding, grooming, exercise, and pasturing, a job that lasted from sunup to sunset. A good Landstallmeister, or rural stud farm director, would never tolerate a groom who was rough or slapdash with the splendid creatures in his charge. These horses were to be treated with the utmost care and kindness. Rudofsky followed these precepts to the letter.

Every Monday, Rudofsky inspected all the horses. Up and down the long aisles of the stables, grooms fussed with their charges, making sure every detail was perfect, from the tips of the horses’ well-formed ears to the very ends of their silky tails. Rudofsky watched attentively as each horse was led from its stall by a groom who then coaxed his charge to prick forward its ears, stand square on all four feet, and make the best possible impression.

Details of each horse were recorded in the voluminous stud farm books: the horse’s health, temperament, soundness, and physical characteristics. Pertinent information was passed up the line to Gustav Rau. Rudofsky was a consummate expert in the complex details of stud farm management, but decisions about pairings of mares and stallions remained in the hands of his superior.

One thing is clear: Rau’s plan to increase the number of specially bred Lipizzaner was successful. By 1944, the pastures around Hostau were filled with placid white broodmares with frolicking dark-coated foals at their sides. The first of Rau’s new breed of Lipizzaner were being born, though it was too soon to tell what the outcome would be; it would take years to fully evaluate the performance of these close-bred newborns, and several generations before selective mating could substantially alter the offspring. But for now, the German project to reshape Europe’s oldest and most refined breed, to place upon it the unmistakable mark of the Third Reich, was continuing unimpeded.

In German, the word Rasse means both “race” of people and “breed” of animal. Rau’s program at Hostau to produce a pure white race of horses shows parallels with one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous “other” breeding projects: the Lebensborn. At special “birth clinics,” SS officers mated with specially selected women who exhibited quintessential Aryan traits. The babies were baptized in a special SS rite, cradled beneath a symbolic SS dagger while incantations pledged that these Aryan babies would have lifelong allegiance to Nazi beliefs. The horses foaled at Hostau were also given a special rite: They were branded with the letter H, which was pierced through with a dagger. This was the mark of Rau’s pure new race of white horse.

* * *

From the book THE PERFECT HORSE by Elizabeth Letts.
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Letts.
Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.