The Perfect Horse:
The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis
by Elizabeth Letts
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
More than seventy years after the end of the conflict, the events of World War II continue to be important to readers today. The human aspect of the war, the massive loss of life, the attempted destruction of various cultures and the genocide committed against the Jews are the primary issues addressed in most books about the war. And yet it is wise to remember that Hitler’s plans for the Third Reich included schemes that affected the animal world as well. Author Elizabeth Letts has focused on this aspect of WWII in her award winning book, The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis (Ballantine Books, 2016).
Letts special interest is centered on one particular breed of horse and the struggle that ensued when the royal Lipizzaner were seen by the Nazis as a potential candidate for “the perfect horse.” Letts explains that Hitler was keen to find acceptably “pure” animals which could be bred to produce perfect Aryan animals for Germany. This idea was a quasi-scientific scheme that thrived in the National Socialist pro-eugenics culture. The Lipizzaner, chiefly found in Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Poland, were a favorite of the Nazis and appealed to Nazi party members with an interest in “Germanising” animals. According to the Nazis, nothing should stand in the way of their producing “the perfect horse,” and they intended to obtain the Lipizzaner no matter the obstacle.
Letts has several objectives in The Perfect Horse. One is to inform the reader of the history and special qualities of the horse known as the royal Lipizzaner; another is to relate the harrowing events of the U.S. military’s end-of-war involvement in rescuing and protecting the Lipizzaner from the Nazis. Letts’ skillful narrative, her excellent research, and the numerous photographs included in The Perfect Horse create a compelling story about this very unique and highly problematic situation in WWII.
There are numerous individuals in The Perfect Horse who are vital to the narrative, but the central characters in the book are the royal Lipizzaner. An ancient breed of horses, author Letts writes this about the Lipizzaner in Vienna in the twentieth century:”[They were descended] from horses originally bred in Spain during the Renaissance. These Spanish horses uniquely combined the heavier boned blood-lines of European horses with the swift, fleet, and intelligent Arabian and Moorish breeds to create an entirely new equine type.”
One principal individual in The Perfect Horse is Gustav Rau, German horse expert and Chief Equerry in charge of all horse breeding in the Third Reich. Hitler’s program to find the perfect horse was overseen by Rau, who was well aware of the Lipizzaner characteristics of strength, equanimity, intelligence, and willingness, all attributes desirable in a military horse. Letts writes: “Just as Hitler aimed to eliminate “impure strains” and combine the different Germanic groups into a single “Aryan race” of people, so Rau planned to…erase the several strains of purebred Lipizzaner… and replace them with a (horse of a) single mold: pure white, imperial, identical and ideally suited for military use.”
But in the eyes of another important character in the Perfect Horse, Austrian Olympic riding medalist and director of The Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Alois Podhajsky, Lipizzaner were not meant for the military; they were precious symbols of hope for the Austrian people, and living, breathing works of art. The author tells us, “The Spanish Riding School of Vienna was one of Austria’s most beloved institutions. Named for the Spanish provenance of the original horses, the school famously showcased the finest specimens of the equine species’ most rarefied breed: the royal Lipizzaner. As priceless as any of the masterpieces that hung in Vienna’s museums, from their snow-white coats to their large aristocratic heads and deep brown eyes, the horses were unlike any others in the world.”
Letts notes that Podhajsky, Rau, and several other prominent horsemen of Eastern Europe had important roles to play in the disturbing and dangerous events surrounding the Lipizzaner. Each one had their own area of equine expertise; each hailed from a different country, yet their lives became perilously intertwined due to the horses, the demands of war and Hitler’s desire to produce special Aryan breeds of animals.
America entered World War II in December, 1941, but it wasn’t until April, 1945, that American troops made it to the German-Czechoslovakian border close to Hostau where the displaced Lipizzaner were being kept. Germany was collapsing, their infrastructure in shambles. The Russians, who cared nothing for horses, were moving swiftly toward Hostau from the east. The American troops, coming from the west, were also on the move toward Hostau. Remarkably, the American troops assigned to the area were Colonel Hank Reed and the 2nd Cavalry, all horsemen. Letts writes: “The next few days would determine the fate of all of them, men and horses alike, encircled by warring nations pointing the world’s most powerful guns in their direction.” No spoilers here, just a notification that the story of the rescue of the Lipizzaner by the Americans is a thriller. This section of The Perfect Horse reads more like a suspense novel than a volume of well researched historical non-fiction. The many dangerous skirmishes, shrewd negotiations and nighttime intrigues are skillfully written and well documented by Letts.
Elizabeth Letts has produced a captivating book in The Perfect Horse. As a war story focused on the Lipizzaner horse breed, it doesn’t diminish the hardships faced by humans, but reminds us of the difficulties faced by all living things during a time of military conflict. In addition to the well told history of the Lipizzaner in WWII, Letts also presents a rich story of the strong relationships that can develop between humans and animals and how each can offer the other trust, companionship and affection under the harshest conditions.
-  PEN USA Literary Award 2017 for Research Non-Fiction