Why is it acceptable to breed a perfect horse but not a perfect human being? That is the question at the heart of Dutch journalist Frank Westerman’s book.
Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse
by Frank Westerman
Harvill Secker, 310pp, £16.99
The book takes as its subject the Lipizzaner horses that have been bred for over four centuries with the aim of creating a “pure and noble horse” – the kind of horse fit for emperors, kings and dictators. While it might seem an arcane subject, the question turns out to offer a fascinating series of insights into history.
The story begins in 1580 at the Hapsburg imperial stud farm (the breed takes its name from Lipica, now Ljubljana in Slovenia but then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). “When you touch a Lipizzaner you’re touching history”, Westerman says, before proceeding to show that what at first might sound like a wild overstatement is nothing but the truth. For centuries, wherever historic events took place in central Europe, it was likely there was a Lipizzaner there as transport. After all, “on horseback the world around you seemed different”.
Saving the breed was considered to be as important as sheltering the people. Napoleon was given one as a peace offering. In 1915, the Emperor Franz Joseph evacuated the horses to his summer estate at Vienna as he was losing the war. In 1919, after the Treaty of Versailles, a separate treaty arranged for distribution of the Lipizzaner horses and an international commission oversaw the horses’ medical files and pedigrees. Mussolini got 109 horses to start his own military stud farm.
The Nazi party was also interested in the Lipizanners’ famous base at the Royal Spanish Riding School in Vienna, restoring its royal title which had been lost in 1919. In 1945, the United States army broke its territorial agreement with Stalin to steal the Lipizzaners on the direct order of General Patton who risked soldiers’ lives to get the horses. This manoeuvre was celebrated in the film Operation Cowboy in 1962. Marshall Tito acquired some Lipizzaners for Yugoslavia and in the civil war of the 1990’s they had to be rescued when they were found wandering in an emaciated state on the banks of the Danube.
So the horses mattered. Why? Westerman considers the link between the successful breeding of horses and the various attempts to “purify” the human race. As far back as 1767 a black horse was sent to Lipica to strengthen the breed and thereafter the parallels for human development were always implicit. The checking of each horse before registration is seen by Westerman as similar to the Nazi Aryan tables, which were concerned with the such matters as distance between the forehead and back of the head. Members of the SS had to show a certificate of their family tree going back five generations – as did the Lipizzaners. He considers the breeding of Lipizzaners to be “a mirror to Himmler’s birthing clinics”.
Early scholars of eugenics dabbled in ways of improving animal and human breeding, in particular Francis Galton and Brother Gregor John Mendel. Mendel was the father of genetic science but left none of his own offspring to test his theories. The Lipizanners were bred according to his model – hence the title of the book.
Mendel was unpopular with Soviet scientists who wanted to show that inherited factors were not the key to developing a pure breed of humans. They wanted environmental factors to be more important.
According to the Soviet minister of culture, “given a classless, egalitarian society, a new and uniform breed of human would automatically arise”. This view was popular in many countries in the 20th century which tried to remove certain disabilities from their population by special breeding techniques. Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and California all had programmes aimed at phasing out “undesirable subjects”. “The gene-less theory of heredity flourished from China to Cuba.”
The link between the breeding of the Lipizanners and the fascination with producing a purer breed of human beings is an intriguing proposition. Indeed, the crossover from the rules of selection and exclusion used to enhance breeds and its implications for attempts to affect the human race is inescapable.
Complex as all this may seem, it’s presented as a very accessible story, which is part history, part science and part travel writing.
The notion of sitting astride a horse might not interest you (I must admit, it doesn’t interest me) but this book will exercise your brain instead.
• Frank Westerman is at the Edinburgh book festival on 20 August
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