You must be warned, this post might get a little bit emotional on some passages.
Of all the myths surrounding Heck cattle, this one is perhaps the most repelling. It states that the idea and attempt to rebreed the aurochs is a product of a national socialist Germanic cult and that the Heck brothers themselves were Nazis and therefore their Heck cattle are “Nazi cows”.
I know that especially in the English speaking world everything that has to do with the national socialists is entertaining, especially when it is something as grotesque as “Nazi cows”. But try not to turn the facts, make up stories, or claim things that are simply not true. What is purported in forums, on blogs, sometimes on Wikipedia and that god-awful NatGeo “documentary” concerning "nazi cows" is simply not true.
In this post I am going to cover the relationship of the Heck brothers to the national socialist regime and what their true motives of their breeding-back attempts were.
Were the Heck brothers Nazis?
I don’t have statements of neither the Heck brothers themselves nor their relatives at hand that might give a clue on that question, so this paragraph is based solely on extrapolations that I did based on what I know about their biography.
Lutz Heck is the older one of the two. It is a fact that he was a supporting member (Förderndes Mitglied) of the SS from 1933 onwards, the first year of Adolf Hitler’s reign, and joined the NSDAP in 1937. While many heads of German organisations, institutions, companies and so on were members of the NS party, simply out of opportunism, his supporting membership of the SS right from the beginning could be suspicious. Herman Göring was interested in Lutz’s work because he was a fanatic hunter and the idea of hunting big game like the Wisent or a reconstructed aurochs was very appealing to him. Every hunter is keen on hunting big game, and on the other hand, it met Göring’s Germanic fanaticism because these species were native and prey of the ancient Germanic peoples. This fanaticism went to quite a ridiculous extent: sometimes he put on a bear’s coat and stabbed captured deer with wooden spears, “just like the Germanics”, as he believed. Seemingly Göring also interpreted the selective breeding scheme as an analogue to social Darwinism, eliminating the “weak” (in this case domestic) and enforcing the “strong” (wild-type here). Of course this was very comfortable to Heck, because his breeding programs were expensive and needed a lot of space. He would have been a fool not to seize the chance to have a mighty lunatic on his side that would provide him with what he needed. I doubt that Heck, as a zoologist, was prone of such a ridiculous cult around animals, and I cannot imagine that he was that uneducated to share Göring’s idea of breeding-back as an analogue to social Darwinism. All he had to do is to sing along and to lick Göring’s brown boots. The fact that Lutz also created a “German section” in his zoo in Berlin, showing only native animals and ornamenting some of the signs with little swastikas was probably a kind of attraction. I guess that he was particularly interested in European game, it is apparent from his breeding programs, and showing these native species together might also have been inspired by the geo-zoo concept of his brother (placing the paddocks of animals from the same region next to each other). Although it might be morally questionable that Lutz bred with Polish rural horses that were “forcedly sold” to the Germans for his purposes, it certainly was scientific pragmatism. He seized what he could get. Furthermore, it would be ridiculous to claim that the fact that he introduced a few small herds of Heck cattle into game parks of East Prussia and occupied areas of Poland is a sign of German imperialism. He simply wanted to restore an extinct species on its former range, and considered his cattle and his relationship to Göring to be the tool for that.
All in all, I would say that Lutz Heck’s work as director of the Berlin zoo does not suggest that his relationship to the NS ideology and Göring was more than a pragmatic one. However, his supporting membership of the SS indicates a kind of sympathy to me. But I think that calling him Nazi is too much and – not to forget – a massive accusation.
As to his brother Heinz, it is important to note that he never joined the NSDAP as so many men in leading positions did. In fact, he was one of the only two zoo directors in the German Empire that had never been members of the NS party. He also refused to accept a professor title, what clearly suggests an opposition to the regime. Heinz had, as far as I know, never been in contact with Göring or any other NS official. While the relationship of his brother with the regime and ideology probably was a mix of opportunism and sympathy, I see no sign that one of both was the case in Heinz Heck.
What was the true motivation behind the breeding-back experiments?
The idea to rebreed the aurochs was born in the early 1920s. That alone must give you a clue that no Germanic cult could have been the ideological background for this idea. Fanatic Deutschtum (the cult around the German nation and “Germanic race”) was restricted to nationalistic circles back this time, and only the most radical amongst these would have been that straightforward to integrate cattle into German nationalism.
Actually, it was the fact that their father, Ludwig Heck, had created an extensive collection of cattle breeds at the Berlin Zoo that made his sons realize that some breeds preserve more aurochs traits than others. Heinz Heck made an analogue to domestic budgerigars, which also preserve all traits of their wild type but split up among various newly developed types. Also, it inspired Heinz Heck that a chaotic bunch of domestic rabbits with all kinds of shapes and colours evolved into something that is virtually identical to their wild type when they ran loose in central Europe. He therefore suggested that the same selection on wildtype traits done by nature could be executed by humans and therefore create a look-alike of the aurochs.
This idea had two main motivations: 1) to reconstruct a species that was exterminated by man, and therefore to “correct a mistake”, 2) to show what an aurochs looked like and to point to the fact that the aurochs existed as a species different to the Wisent, with which it was often confused.
Heinz Heck writes:
“Due to the lack of the living animal, the aurochs became slowly forgotten, and constantly confused with the wisent […]. So there was the idea of breeding a kind of cattle that looks exactly like its wild predecessor, the aurochs, to rescue it from oblivion.”
“Another reason is the idea that, if man cannot be hindered from raging that insanely against himself and all creatures and killing off species after species, it is a very enjoyable fact if one of those species he had already killed off, became resurrected.”
I translated this from Frisch’s 2010 Der Auerochs – das Europäische Rind.
So the motivations behind their rebreeding experiments were solely scientific curiosity, educational and an attempt of species reconstitution. There is not the slightest hint that they did this out of a “Germanic animal cult”.
Also it is not true that Göring himself ordered these breeding attempts. The Heck brothers did it on their own, and Göring was not in any politic position back in the 1920s. I don’t know how Göring came to know about their experiments, but he certainly was the only NS official that knew and cared about it. Adolf Hitler himself probably never heard of that, and even if so, he would not have cared about that. I am not even sure if this man ever visited a zoo or joined a hunt. And it is also a fact that Göring was an eccentric, often to such an extent that he was ridiculed in NS circles. Like when he hunted dressed in a bear’s coat (see above), or his exaggerated uniforms. There is an anecdote that Göring joined a supper dressed in a uniform ornamented with a lot of guns and sabres, and suddenly his belt with all the guns fell of. Hitler was amused and said “Well, as long as he likes it…”.
So the truth behind all that is that two zoo directors did a zoological experiment out of curiosity and passion that coincidentally awoke the interest of one eccentric NS official who was a fanatic hunter. This was convenient for Lutz at least, because their projects were expensive and needed space. Any connection between the attempt at rebreeding the aurochs and the national socialist Germanic cult is baseless. Calling any of the Heck brothers “Nazis” is an unfair accusation (at least for Heinz), and if I personally were a relative of one of the two, I would sue anyone who claims such things.
And how does it fit the Nazi myth that the brothers also tried to rebreed their conception of the “Tarpan”, which they also believed to have inhabited the Russian steppes, or that Lutz Heck also suggested to rebreed the Quagga from living plains zebras, which is certainly not an “ancient Germanic animal”?
To put it in a nutshell: Before you claim or believe such a grotesque story like that, do your history homework. Thanks.
And to the makers of that god-awful NatGeo-documentary, any talentless muckraker of any tabloid purporting that nonsense and anybody who copied it onto Wikipedia and forums to spread it: Shame on you. Yes, shame on you. I hope you guys read that.