A Passion to Survive - Story 1

A Passion to Survive - Story 1

By: Kerrin Winter-Churchill  Date: 11/3/2006

Until the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York City, Americans have lived – at least in our minds - in an insulated shell of peace and prosperity. Dog people especially, seem to be able to let world events pass by, as we pursue our dreams of showing, training and breeding. Americans have been in the fortunate minority. Worldwide, many people now as before our time, have lived with violence as a daily reminder of prejudice, hate and fear.

Most of us know our breeds well enough to recite their land of origin, their original purpose and can list a name or two connected with their development. But the real history of dogs is written in the lives and perseverance of deeply committed human beings struggling, not just for their own survival, but for the survival of their beloved dogs as well. As we step back in time to the events of the Second World War, try to imagine what you would do, were the survival of your own beloved breed placed squarely upon your shoulders.

Hitler’s Germany
When Hitler began shouting from the streets of Berlin none thought the lowly Austrian would rise to power. All were wrong. Appealing to the downtrodden, Hitler blamed Germany’s horrendous economy on the Jews. In desperate times, Hitler’s popularity caught fire. By 1933 Hitler was German Chancellor. One-year later, through illegal political manipulation and espionage, Hitler proclaimed himself Furher. Beginning by forcing German citizens to a sworn oath of loyalty, he then barred Jews from all German clubs and agricultural pursuits.

A Visionary
Captain Max von Stephanitz will forever be known as “the Father of the German Shepherd Dog”. His breed organization, the Verein Fur Deutsche Schaferhunde, SV was his opus. Within its structure, the breed’s evolution flourished under the focused eye of president, Stephanitz. From the beginning, all SV members have followed the Captain’s creed, “utility and intelligence”. Their goal has always been that each new generation of Shepherd ads something positive to the next. AKC licensed judge, Ann Barbash explains, “Captain Stephanitz was a man of vision. He knew that the breed was destined for greatness and took extreme measures to ensure its survival in a man-worthy capacity, long after he was gone.”

Von Stephanitz knew that as society evolved the role of the dog would change too. As sheep herding gave way to urban life, he encouraged members to use the dog for utilitarian purposes. Developing a program for obedience, he formed its first serious competitions. Persistently nagging authorities to use the breed for police work; Stephanitz became the local laughing stock but in time, no one could deny his dogs.

The Meddling Nazis
When Hitler rose to power, von Stephanitz had been perfecting the shepherd for over forty years. At a time when he should have waxed poetic, von Stephanitz life’s work came under the scrutiny of Hitler. The Captain considered the Nazis beneath his station in life but the times were against him. In her book, the German Shepherd Today, noted authority, Winifred Strickland tells us, “there were many SV members who were Nazis and they tried to meddle in the affairs of the SV. They persistently used vile means to cut von Stephanitz off from his life’s work and when he resisted they threatened him with a concentration camp. He gave up, after having managed his SV for thirty-six years.” Stephanitz died one year after stepping down from the SV, but his legacy lives on in the veins of every German Shepherd. Maybe even more profound, is the influence Stephanitz had in creating working dogs. In the face of ridicule and persecution, it was his singular dedication to the idea that dogs could be useful, which gave birth to utilitarian pursuits such as Search and Rescue, Drug and Bomb Detection work. Trainers today owe a great debt to Max Von Stephanitz, the Father of the modern Service Dog

Nazi Dogs
Beginning in 1933 with dogs belonging to Jewish breeders, Hitler began seizing entire kennels. The German military made great use of dogs during WWII. Non Jews, who bred working dogs deemed valuable by the Nazis, were given ration cards to feed them. The dogs remained with their breeders but it was understood that the Nazis could take them at anytime. In his book, “The Complete Boxer”, Milo Denlinger explains “the Nazis muscled in on the dog fancy, as on so many other things.” In German Shepherds as well as Dobermans and Boxers, the Nazis helped themselves to thousands of dogs. In doing so, they destroyed some of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines of all three breeds.

Hitler-appointed officials held private kennel inspections but they weren’t knowledgeable breed people. Hard pressed to evaluate a dog, their decisions were often impulsive. Dogs that didn’t suit Nazi ideals of the moment were shot on sight. This horror has been overlooked for years as the atrocities done to mankind in the name of the Third Reich have overshadowed all else.

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