Review of Elizabeth Letts, The Perfect Horse: The Daring US Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped By the Nazis, New York, Ballantine Books, 2016.
Elizabeth Letts, a noted author of popular equine histories, uses the lens of World War II to lead her readers directly into concurrent cataclysms: mechanized warfare, and apocalyptic eugenic racism across cultures and species in Europe. Letts explains how the meaning of the Lipizzaner, and other carefully bred European horses, depended on human allegiance to national, eugenic, or cultural ideals, and she introduces a host of actors – representatives of The Spanish Riding School and post-Hapsburg Austria, Poles, Russians, the National Socialist Party, Germans, Americans – whose alliances shift in unexpected and often uncomfortable directions when it comes to these horses and what they come to signify.
Despite the breadth and horror of this tale, Letts attends carefully to the relations between humans and equines who form the core of the story. This attention results in a narrative that teaches readers much about several topics. The general knowledge readers gain finds real traction in her use of it to deepen readers’ understanding of what happens to the Lipizzaner horses who anchor the book.
One example of how Letts’ balances the interplay between big historical shifts and their impact on the particular story of the Lipizzaner is her clear treatment of the uneven military transitions from equine cavalry to tanks and jeeps in American and European armies. This knowledge has a direct impact on readers’ understanding the motivations of people who later act on behalf of the Lipizzaner, despite grave danger to themselves and an otherwise unclear reason why they would care about these horses. Certain American officers, those who had been raised with horses and trained in the equine cavalry, had themselves recently transitioned from horse to machine warfare. These men, when confronted by a dire situation regarding European horses they had never heard of, nevertheless had the knowledge needed to understand the cultural importance of the Lipizzaner, and the ability to understand the urgency and sincerity of Europeans who spoke on their behalf. This small number of American officers who had themselves transitioned from horse to machine warfare were also uniquely able to understand the consequences of preventing Lipizzaner horses from falling into the more equine-centric military system of Russia, which would certainly have destroyed them. This is just one example among many of how large threads of knowledge are made intimate in this narrative.
Letts also does great justice to the complex relationships between humans and horses, and it is clear that she writes these encounters from experience. For dressage riders in particular, her treatment of the relationship between Spanish Riding School director Alois Podhajsky – a towering figure in my own youth and training – and his Lipizzaner horse Neopolitano Africa is emotionally powerful and fully embodied, as attuned to the movements and signals horses express as well as how humans feel. Letts does not diminish the role of emotions in human-equine partnerships, and she also ensures that the nature of these relationships is integral to the historical narrative of the meaning of the horses in this war.
Many current fans of dressage in general and Lipizzaners in particular may not be familiar with the role that Nazism played in preserving these traditions of equine genetics and culture. For much of the book, Letts carefully details how many horses were kept safe, while others brutally perished, because they were gathered into Nazi eugenics programs designed to create a pure, white “super horse.” Readers learn much about equine breeding and genetic theories that operated in Europe before and during the war, trends that run concurrently with the decimation of human populations in Poland. As this entwined story unfolds, Letts shows how several actors accepted or even sought Nazi protection in order to advocate for horses. Letts details this complex tale with sensitivity to the horses, but without flinching from or sentimentalizing the human and equine costs of these decisions.
The first half of the book builds up the prewar and wartime context of the people and horses involved, spanning several decades and continents while leading to a suspenseful midpoint. The second half of the text takes time explicating a single moment of danger to the horses we’ve followed to this point, how it was resolved, and the consequences of this resolution into the present. Based primarily on thorough archival research and oral history interviews, as well as drawing from Letts’ own experience as a horsewoman and military descendent, the well-illustrated book holds its own among academic and popular histories of World War II as well as equine histories. To the great credit of its popular imprint, it has a sizable bibliography and notes section.