#ShelfieSunday: The Perfect Horse: The Daring US Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped By the Nazis

lettsby Jeannette Vaught

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. 

 

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#MemberMonday: Kathryn Renton

kathrynr
 Education

University of California, Los Angeles
PhD Candidate, History

MA, History

Harvard University
BA, History and Literature

 

What got you in to history? In to equine history?

     I think a family trip to a medieval walled village at an impressionable age first got me interested in history, and I’ve been fascinated with trying to imagine what life was like “back then” ever since. After majoring in History and Literature, I worked in the field of disaster relief for several years before thinking about returning to graduate school. I’ve always had an interest in culture, and reading travel literature and perceptions of “human-ness,” intelligence and emotion got me interested in the human-animal question. But when looking for a dissertation topic, it was the seeming loss of memory and/or familiarity with horses in recent historiography that got me thinking about horses in terms of historical methodology. Having dabbled in horseback riding in different traditions (hunter-jumper, dressage, wilderness horse-packing, trail rides — more or less any chance I could catch), I knew that the language, philosophy and forms of partnership varied in nuanced ways that were not commonly reflected in standard treatment of historical horses.

Who is your favorite historical horse?

     So many legendary horses… but as far as historical horses go I love the story of “Sergeant Reckless,” a Mongolian mare that became a mascot and companion for a Marine division during the Korean War, earning herself retirement and a statue at Camp Pendleton in 2016.


What are you working on right now?

     My current research examines the introduction of the horse to the Americas by the Spanish as part of the Columbian Exchange. I was very curious about the culture of the horse in Spain, well known especially in Andalusia, and the effects it had on strategies in expansion and conquest within the Iberian Peninsula and then across the Atlantic. By re-introducing modern, domesticated horses to the American continents, this moment provides a key test case for the impact of the horse in various realms of historical study.  In my dissertation, I argue that new forms of governance and new definitions of noble status in the early modern period bore the specific imprint of the horse. For example, structural elements of horse breeding in Spain directly influenced conquest and settlement strategies in the Americas, as well as shaping local forms of resistance in colonial society. Using archives from Spain, Mexico and Peru, this project foregrounds the role of experiential knowledge with animals and demonstrates negotiated limits of power that horses were used to represent in the developing early modern Spanish empire.  

#ShelfieSunday: Le cheval et la guerre du XVe au XXe siècle

By Kathryn Renton

Daniel Roche and Daniel Reytier, Le cheval et la guerre du XVe au XXe siècle (Paris: Association pour l’académie d’art équestre de Versailles, 2002).

     The application of new, industrialized technology in World War I changed warfarecheval dramatically, instrumentalized by tanks, and later helicopters, that replaced horse cavalry. Yet, despite the use of new technologies for weapons and transportation, powered by steam, gas, or electricity, and telecommunications that moved information faster than by horseback, horses continued to influence modern warfare — for example, used in large numbers as dependable “all-terrain” logistical units for supplies and reinforcements in World War II — and left an enormous imprint on the terms and forms used to structure battle tactics and military hierarchies. 

     This cultural memory of the horse that features in the work of social historian Daniel Roche, who dedicated three volumes (La culture équestre occidentale, XVIe-XIXe siècle : l’ombre du cheval) to the topic of—as his phrased it in a summative essay for Past and Present—“the culture of the horse.” Following a career illuminating the history of everyday things, Roche has argued that the horse was not just one facet of life that could be interchanged for any other as a simple tool; rather, the horse created a culture around it as a form of social interaction, cultural expression, economic value and political force. The outlines of that culture changed over time, but persist in many pockets—even those as subtle as equine metaphors and aphorisms used without second thought in conversation. 

   War and military associations represent a fundamental facet of the culture of the horse, and Daniel Roche and Daniel Reytier produced an edited collection called “The Horse and War from the fifteenth to twentieth century” (Le cheval et la guerre du XVe au XXe siècle) in 2002. The volume explores the value attributed to the horse, as a military technology, as well as the cultural structures that emerged in concert with this perceived function of the horse. Many forms of equestrian exercises could be attributed to military training, but acquired a cultural life all their own in court performance, equine or veterinary science, and diplomacy or public affairs. Fittingly, the volume was sponsored by the Equestrian Academy of Versailles, dedicated to preserving and performing historical forms of horsemanship. Each individual essay, situated chronologically, pursues a different angle of horse training, equipment, stable management, and tactical engagements ranging over continental Europe. As a whole, the volume demonstrates the flexibility and adaptation possible in equestrian techniques and technologies as they evolved alongside the demands of military realities. 

     This volume, while only available in French, speaks to the general revision of histories of the so-called Military Revolution that privilege the use of infantry formations and firearms in shaping the direction of modern warfare. Rather than a story of the declining relevance of the horse and its medieval accoutrements of knights and armor, Roche’s approach to the culture of the horse demonstrates its evolution as a vibrant and active element of military (but also political and social) engagements into the twentieth century. Modernization and industrialization did not self-evidently render the horse obsolete (an argument shared by Anne Greene in Horses at Work), at the same time that other scholars of military history question the characteristics and requirements of the fiscal-military state model (see Rogers, Duffy, and Storrs). 

     If the in-depth discussion of techniques for training and deploying horses are perhaps of more interest to a specialist, the volume itself is meant to be accessible to a general audience. The luxurious format of the book, including full-page color photos, illustrates the vivid impact of mastering these cultural and logistical demands to conduct war as “politics by another means.” 

Bibliography: 

Daniel Roche, “Equestrian Culture in France from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century,” Past and Present 199, no. 1 (2008): 113–45.

Daniel Roche, La culture équestre occidentale, XVIe-XIXe siècle: l’ombre du cheval (Paris: Fayard, 2008).

Daniel Roche and Daniel Reytier, Le cheval et la guerre du XVe au XXe siècle (Paris: Association pour l’académie d’art équestre de Versailles, 2002).

Daniel Roche and Daniel Reytier, Les Écuries royales: du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle (Paris; Versailles: Association pour l’académie d’art équestre de Versailles ; Château de Versailles, 1998).

Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, 1 edition (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Michael Duffy, The Military Revolution and the State: 1500-1800 (Exeter: Exeter Univ. Publ., 1986).

Clifford J Rogers, The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).

Christopher Storrs, The Fiscal Military State in Eighteenth-Century Europe: Essays in Honour of P. G. M. Dickson (Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008).

#ShelfieSunday: Crowdsourcing

     We put out a call for a crowdsource bibliography on twitter, and the crowd went wild! We’ll be adding these suggestions to our bibliography, and look forward to more. For this one, we talked about equines in war, 1800 to the present, which will be our theme for November, and flatracing which we will talk about in December. We still have space for a couple of reviews, so take a look through the recommended reading list! If you’re looking ahead, January is ancient equids and still wide open.

 As a reminder, our full bibliography is available as a zotero file. Contact us for a copy!