During World War II, the Nazis invaded foreign countries and stole millions of dollars' worth of priceless valuables, from jewelry to famous works of art. The attempts to recover those stolen treasures have been documented countless times (George Clooney's 2014 film The Monuments Men—and the 2009 book it was based on—among them). Lesser known, however, is the Nazi program to kidnap a treasure of a different kind: hundreds of the world's most prized horses.
It's all because Hitler wanted to create a "super horse." Just as Nazi ideology peddled pseudo-science regarding breeding a human "master race," Hitler also believed he could selectively breed horses to create the finest, bravest, and "purest" warhorses in world military history. This decision was not some extracurricular pipe dream of the Führer, but a deliberate response to the country's poor fortunes during World War I. As Elizabeth Letts writes in her fantastic book The Perfect Horse, Germany's equine industry took a shellacking during the so-called Great War, and Hitler wanted to return the country to its former glory:
"After World War I, several factors combined to almost destroy horse breeding and equestrian sports in Germany. The numbers of equine casualties were so high during the war that the horse population declined by half. In addition, the inflationary conditions in Germany made the sale and upkeep of horses difficult, and to further complicate matters, Germany was required to export horses as part of the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles."
To say the least, when Germany went to war two decades later, horses were very much on Hitler's mind. And despite the country's strong industrial output and recent advances in technology, German leaders genuinely believed they needed more horses for the war effort. (Letts writes that by 1938, their army was using more than 180,000 horses and donkeys—and Hitler was convinced that he needed even more.)
For the task of breeding this assembly line of horses—as well as for creating a perfectly pure "super breed"—Hitler chose Gustav Rau, a hippologist who had spent years tirelessly promoting Germany's horse-breeding industry. To do so, Rau set his eyes on the famous Lipizzaner stallion, a beautiful and regal breed known for its dexterity and fairy-tale looks. Rau believed he could create legions of identical, pure white military horses through aggressive inbreeding of Lipizzaners in just three years, writing, "We have to promote inbreeding of the best bloodlines." (Rau clearly did not understand the link between genetic defects and inbreeding.)
To aid Rau's mission, German soldiers began stealing purebred Lipizzaner stallions from famed stud farms and riding schools across Europe. These kidnapped horses were transported in style, placed in spacious train cars and taken to beautiful, well-kept farms in the countryside. "It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness," Letts writes. By 1942, Rau was in possession of nearly every purebred Lipizzaner in the world.
But when the tides of war began turning against Germany, a Nazi veterinarian at a Nazi stud farm in occupied Czechoslovakia began to fear for the horses's lives. The Russians, who regularly slaughtered and ate enemy horses, were moving in. According to the New York Post, the Russians showed no sympathy for or interest in famed stallions, reporting that, "the fabled thoroughbred racehorse Alchimist was shot to death by marauding Russian soldiers in the spring of 1945 when the stallion refused to load onto their truck." The veterinarian, named Rudolf Lessing, feared that the rare Lipizzaners under his watch would be next.
So Lessing did the unthinkable—he reached out to the Americans and asked for help. He wanted them to steal the horses back.
When word reached General George Patton that the stallions were stuck deep behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia, he sent the cavalry to save them. "Get them," Patton told his men. "Make it fast." (The mission was to be secret because, as the Express reports, "The U.S. Army had agreed with Stalin to advance no further than Germany's border with Czechoslovakia and the horses lay miles beyond.")
With help from Lessing, the commanding officer of the Second Cavalry in Europe, Hank Reed, negotiated a surrender with the occupied horse farm and placed the animals under the American military's watch. In autumn of 1945, 151 horses were loaded onto a boat and taken to America—all of them survived.
"We were so tired of death and destruction," Reed said when asked about the mission to save the horses. "We wanted to do something beautiful."
To learn more, Mental Floss recommends Elizabeth Letts' best-selling book, The Perfect Horse.