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The Nazi breeding program that resurrected an extinct species

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An indelible characteristic of fascist ideology is the celebration of a mythic past, an over-the-top nostalgic fixation often accompanied by attempts to restore things to the way they used to be "back in the good ol' days". For the Nazis, this meant a return to Old Germania — the old Germany of the Nibelungenlied — a time of (supposed) unparalleled prosperity, happiness, and pride.

The Nazis, of course, took this imperative to extremes, including a little known attempt to restore its forests back to their original medieval splendor. But in order to do so, they would have to bring back an animal that went extinct in 1672 — a problem that two German zoologists tackled with a curious breeding program.


Writing in Cabinet Magazine, Michael Wang describes the lengths the Nazis went to to bring back the ancient auroch, a large oxen-like creature. Once found "everywhere in Germany," the absence of the species riled the Nazis who in turn recruited two scientists to help, Heinz and Lutz Heck. Undaunted by the challenge, the brothers set upon the task of "recreating" the auroch by interbreeding similar creatures from around the world. Wang describes the Nazi rationale behind the project:

This conflation of biological and aesthetic destiny coincided with a strain of Nazi thought that sought to apply pseudo-Darwinian theories in support of a racialized conception of the state. In this mode, the zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified parallels between the changes he observed in animals as the result of their domestication and what he saw as the deleterious genetic effects of civilization.


By referring to centuries-old accounts and preserved illustrations of the aurochs, the Heck brothers crossed several modern breeds of cattle, including Corsican breeds, Hungarian grey cattle, Scottish Highland cattle, and others. The end result was a creature that bore a startling resemblance to the auroch.

But not content to have the neo-aurochs locked inside of zoos, the Nazis set about the recreation of its "natural" environment. Wang writes:

In Lorenz's conception, however, biological unity extended beyond the physical and behavioral attributes of the animal itself. Following on the work of the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll, Lorenz understood an organism as essentially linked to its environment. Together, organism and environment formed a "unified functional cycle," a phenomenon that Lorenz observed exclusively in relation to wild animals. Just as Lorenz saw the effects of domestication as deleterious fragmentation (the modification of discrete traits), the original act of domestication was itself a kind of fragmentation. Domestication severed an organism from its natural place within an environmental whole.

According to this system, then, the recreation of the aurochs would be incomplete were this animal to be confined to the artificial sphere of a zoological garden. To restore the biological unity of the aurochs would require the restoration of its original environs. In the imagination of the Hecks and their research patron-Reichsjägermeister Hermann Göring-this environment was not in fact entirely lost to time. The ideal site for the introduction of the Heck aurochs would be the primeval forest of Bialowiez˙a, one of the last old-growth forests remaining in Europe. At the border of Poland and Belarus, the forest had been historically protected as the privileged hunting grounds of Polish kings and Russian tsars.

In addition to the reconstructed aurochs, the Nazis also worked to restore all natural game to the forest, including bison, boar, elk, and deer. The bison were a particular challenge, leading them to interbreed European bison with Canadian wood bison to return the dwindling stock to larger numbers.

All these efforts, however, were largely thwarted on account of the war — but not before the new aurochs were set loose on the forest. Wang explains what happened next:

As the Hecks had envisioned, their regenerated aurochs persisted in a semi-wild state in the Bialowiez˙a forest. When Lutz Heck heard that some of the animals had survived the war, he proudly cited this fact as evidence of their suitability to the natural environs. To the Polish forestry service, however, the stray cattle were profoundly unnatural: they had no place in the forest as it had been known for hundreds of years. At Karpin'ski's request, a provisional corral was built with the intention of capturing the Heck animals, which, forestry officials correctly assumed, would not survive on their own. The post–World War II revision of Poland's borders hindered this task. Bialowiez˙a forest had been carved in two, with the eastern side under Soviet jurisdiction. By crossing the border into Belarus for increasingly long periods, the Heck aurochs evaded the Polish foresters, and most likely soon perished. "It seems that nothing can be done at this point," Karpin'ski lamented, "to save the remaining animals from extinction."


But the Heck aurochs did not disappear altogether. Now known as Heck cattle, these animals can be found in various farms in Germany and Europe. There have even been attempts in the Netherlands and elsewhere to introduce the breed into state nature reserves to replace the missing megafauna there. Wang concludes his piece rather nicely,

The realization of the Hecks' wild ideal proved unsustainable. Their vision of biological reunification continually sought to expand its borders: from the regeneration of a single animal to the violent reshaping of an entire landscape. No curve of a horn, or shade of an eel-striped coat could satisfy this totalizing vision. Ultimately, the Hecks' biological methods were inadequate to their task-for the aurochs was not a species, but a symbol.


Be sure to read Michael Wang's entire article as there's lots more to this fascinating story.

Via Disinfo.

Top image via The Sixth Extinction. Inset images via Cabinet and Sixth Extinction.