How Nazi Scientists Tried to Create an Army of Talking Dogs

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REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

A German shepherd crossbreed dog named Adolf sits in his kennel in Berlin October 15, 2003.

It’s further proof that Hitler was barking mad.

In his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson mines obscure German periodicals to reveal the Nazis’ failed attempt to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, write and talk. “In the 1920s, Germany had numerous ‘new animal psychologists’ who believed dogs were nearly as intelligent as humans, and capable of abstract thinking and communication,” he writes. “When the Nazi party took over, one might have thought they would be building concentration camps to lock these fanatics up, but instead they were actually very interested in their ideas.”

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According to the book, scientists envisioned a day when dogs would serve alongside German troops, and perhaps free up SS officers by guarding concentration camps. So to unlock all that canine potential, Hitler set up a Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Talking School) near Hanover and recruited “educated dogs” from throughout the country. Teachers claimed a number of incredible findings. An Airedale terrier named Rolf became a mythic figure of the project after teachers said he could spell by tapping his paw on a board (the number of taps represented the various letters of the alphabet). With that skill in hand, he mused on religion, learned foreign languages and even asked a noblewoman, “Can you wag your tail?” Perhaps most outlandish is the claim by his German masters that he asked to serve in the German army because he disliked the French. Another mutt barked “Mein Fuhrer” when asked to describe Hitler. And Don, a German pointer, is said to have imitated a human voice to bark, “Hungry! Give me cakes!” in German.

Germany’s love of dogs may have blinded the Nazis to the outlandish goals of their project. “Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature. They believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend,” Bondeson says. “Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind.”

Hitler, a well-known dog-lover, had two German Shepherds named Blondi and Bella. He killed Blondi shortly before killing himself in 1945. (via The Sun)

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William Lee Adams is a writer-reporter at TIME’s London bureau. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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