Just when you think you've gotten to the end of the bizarre by-products of World War II, you learn about talking Nazi dogs. The question is: How official were they? We'll look into the school — or possibly the con game — of talking dogs.
Here's what we know. In 1930, Margarethe Schmidt lived with her mother in a relatively large house, and kept Asra, a Great Dane. Asra gave birth to five puppies, and the Schmidts took in a terrier. Somewhere along the line, all the dogs began learning to talk. And at some later point along the line, reports went out that these talking, spelling, and "reasoning," dogs, would go out into the battlefields and the villages and start working for the Nazis.
The idea that dogs could talk was not unprecedented in Germany. In the 1920s, a dog named Don, that would bark his name, tell people he was hungry, and ask for "kuche," became a celebrity and brought his owner a great deal of wealth. The Nazis harbored a sentimentality for animals, and a belief in the deep connection between humans and nature. Great Danes speaking German and helping their human comrades didn't seem that crazy. This might be why German newspapers published plans for educated dogs taking over low-level command posts and helping out on the battlefields. One dog, Rolf, reportedly learned to spell with his paw. He spelled out his thoughts on religion - in between hitting on women and asking them if he could wag their tails. Margarethe Schmidt was referred to as an "animal psychologist," in these pieces. Possible uses for the new educated dogs that she churned out were bandied about in the German power structure.
On the other hand, people who actually saw the educated wonder dogs generally agreed that they saw little more than the Clever Hans effect. Clever Hans was a horse who was said to talk and to do math problems by tapping his hoof, but was shown to be responding to clues in the body language of his trainer and the people around him. When the crowd relaxed back (after the proper number of taps that had been achieved), Hans stopped tapping. Animal behaviorists have, ever since, had to take pains not to let their expressions or body language show when they are gauging animal reaction.
The "speaking" dogs didn't speak. One guest was told they all had colds. They seemed to respond to trainers and to rehearsed commands. After the war - and after posing for a lot of pictures with her educated dogs - Margarethe Schmidt agreed with this assessment, saying that she received no money from the Nazi government and had no real plans with them. She was only running a sort of circus.
So the question remains a mystery. Did Germany actually try to train an army of talking Nazi dogs?
Image: Ildar Sagdejev