The German Shepherd dog is currently a popular breed amongst dog owners and is well-known for its army and police work. In fact, the breed has been implicated in some of the darker aspects of twentieth century history. It was particularly associated with colonial and fascist regimes and the maintenance of state-sponsored social and racial hierarchies. In particular, the Nazi regime co-opted German Shepherds as agents of oppression in concentration and death camps. The Japanese empire also deployed German Shepherds (its army had 10,000 by 1944), as did the apartheid regime in South Africa. US police forces also used the breed against black protesters in the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s.[1] The dogs were also used in the Cold War, including the Korean War.

An unidentified soldier (possibly Canadian), leads a German shepherd war dog during a training exercise in Korea. The dog is being trained to detect the presence of the enemy and if necessary to ...

Unidentified soldier training a German Shepherd Dog, Korea 1954. Australian War Memorial website https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/MELJ0230

 

 

But the debate over the breed’s origins in the aftermath of the First World War is perhaps not that well known.

Between 1871 and 1945, the regions of Alsace and Lorraine became sites of struggle between Germany and France. Having lost Alsace and part of Lorraine in the wake of defeat to Prussia and its allies in 1871, France reclaimed the territory after the First World War. Nazi Germany then reconquered the provinces in 1940 and they became French again in 1945. This back and forth movement of the border led to clashes of national and local identities in Alsace and Lorraine that involved numerous actors, including local and national elites, the clergy, military officers, artists, writers, feminists, and teachers, amongst others.[1] As well as a constituting a political struggle, the “lost provinces” sparked strong emotions. For French nationalists between 1871 and 1918, Germany had unjustly amputated a key part of French territory, and they represented the new border as a traumatic site infused with the blood of French soldiers. After the victory of France and its allies in 1918, the French state made a concerted effort to reintegrate the recovered provinces into the nation and make them French, even if many Alsatians considered themselves German or Alsatian rather than French. [2]

Dogs became incorporated into this attempt to make Alsace French. In 1920 Paul Mégnin published a polemic on the origins of the German Shepherd/Alsatian, a breed that had become well-known and much-admired after its performance in World War One. He sought to make the dogs French at a time when French authorities sought to purge Alsace of its German influences. He traced their origins back to Scottish monks who had settled in Alsace in the middle ages. These dogs had remained ‘a pure state’ in Alsace until nineteenth century when the Germans had falsely passed off them off as German Shepherds and ‘infused [them] with foreign blood.’ In doing so, they had been aided by the fact that some French dog shows had had a category for German Shepherds. Mégnin did not stop there. Given the German ‘penchant’ for ‘stealing, pillage and lies,’ he posited that the vast majority of German breeds were ‘fabrications resulting from thefts from neighbouring countries.’ He claimed that his expertise and his pre-1914 trips to Germany allowed him to expose convincingly German breeders’ lies about the breed that they passed off as pure German Shepherds. It was clear to him that these dogs were not the pure dogs of Alsace as they contained elements of collies, spitzs, and wolves, as shown by their curly tails. The German breeders could not fight against the laws of ‘heredity’ and ‘atavism’: the dogs’ physiology revealed their true origins. Mégnin’s diatribe against German Shepherds had a less than subtle political message: ‘Alsace has never stopped being French, just as the very ancient Alsatian dog’ was never a German Shepherd.[3] In a similar vein to prominent French nationalists, such as Maurice Barrès, Mégnin bound Alsace organically to France. His expertise as dog breeder combined with nationalist celebrations of French Alsace. But rather than the blood of fallen French soldiers in 1870-71 and 1914-18 providing the nationalist glue, it was the blood that flowed through the dogs’ veins that provided evidence of the region’s inherent “Frenchness.”

How successful was Mégnin’s intervention? Not very. The German state issued emergency currency depicting German Shepherds guiding blind veterans. These images are likely to have reached far more people than Mégnin’s book.

German interwar currency note. Imperial War Museum website, http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30051426

German interwar currency note from Oldenburg, Lower Saxony (1921). Imperial War Museum website http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30051426

Nowadays, the American Kennel Club recognizes the German Shepherd Breed, rather than the Alsatian, as does the UK Kennel Club, despite referring to them as Alsatians in the immediate aftermath of World War One. Mégnin would probably not be too impressed with the UK Kennel Club’s current overview of the breed’s history: ‘The German Shepherd as we know it today was founded at the very end of the 1800s and a German cavalry captain, Max von Stephanitz, has been credited with its development. A group of people led by him promoted the Shepherd for 35 years to bring it to a position of respect. As demand for German Shepherds as herding dogs diminished, Stephanitz encouraged their use by police and the military, and in the First World War alone, 48,000 were enlisted in the German army.’  Perhaps most distressingly for Mégnin, the French Kennel Club similarly ignores the possible French roots of the breed. Despite Mégnin’s efforts, the breed is now treated as overwhelmingly German.

[1] Christopher J. Fischer, Alsace to the Alsatians?: Visions and Divisions of Alsatian Regionalism, 1870-1939 (New York: Berghahn, 2010); Elizabeth Vlossak, Marianne or Germania?: Nationalizing Women in Alsace, 1870-1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Laird Boswell, ‘From Liberation to Purge Trials in the “Mythic Provinces”: Recasting French Identities in Alsace and Lorraine, 1918-1920,’ French Historical Studies 23:1 (2000), 129-62.

[3] Paul Mégnin, Le Chien de Berger d’Alsace (Paris: Les Editions de Eleveur, 1920). 5, 7, 8, 10, 16, 18-19, 24. However, some French writers did recognize the breed’s German heritage. Xavier Garnier noted in 1917 that Alsatian Shepherd Dogs had formerly been known as German Shepherds. ‘Les chiens de guerre,’ Je sais tout, 13th year, no. 137, 15 April 1917, 433. Max von Stephanitz and other breeders created the Society for the German Shepherd Dog in 1899 and made similar claims for the German origins of the breed and its purity. The British Kennel Club insisted on calling the breed the Alsatian because of World War One. Aaron Skabelund, ‘Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the “German” Shepherd,’ Society and Animals 16:4 (2008), 354-5.

 

[1] Aaron Skabelund, ‘Breeding Racism: The Imperial Battlefields of the “German” Shepherd,’ Society and Animals 16:4 (2008), 354-71; J. Robert Lilly and Michael B. Puckett, ‘Social Control and Dogs: A Sociohistorical Analysis,’ Crime and Delinquency 42:3 (1997), 123-147; Robert Tindol, ‘The Best Friend of Murderers: Guard Dogs and the Nazi Holocaust,’ in Ryan Hediger (ed), Animals and War: Studies of Europe and North America (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 105-22.