One day when I hadn’t yet started working on The Age of the Horse, I was at a National Trust property in England, vaguely on the trail of a woman who fascinated me and whose story I had researched but was unsure how to tell. I was trying to find a work-around for the limitations of biography, where lives tail away tamely and the people whom you want to introduce to one another never meet.
The stately home had a second-hand book shop, and as I rummaged through the boxes I drew out an album for a horsey magazine. It included a feature on the Przewalski horse, then thought to be the last surviving true wild horse – a pony-sized creature whose very image is on the walls of the Lascaux caves. The book mentioned the story of a pair of Przewalskis or takhis who were brought back to Berlin in 1943 in the teeth of the German retreat from Ukraine, and said that this journey was described in a book called Wild Animals, White Man by the keeper of Frankfurt Zoo, Bernhard Grzimek. So I went home and ordered a second-hand copy.
The old Perth and Kinross County Library edition that I managed to get hold of had the subtitle “Some wildlife in Europe, Soviet Russia and North America.” “Dr Bernhard Grzimek is an amazing man,” began the blurb. Grzimek was born in Neisse in 1909 and had qualified as a vet by the outbreak of the Second World War. He served in that role in the Wehrmacht and for the Food Ministry, and afterwards became director of Frankfurt Zoo. During the post-war denazification period, he was accused of having been a member of the Nazi party but later found innocent. Although Grzimek returned to his post at the zoo, Heinz Heck – whom you may know of from the Przewalski’s history in The Age of the Horse – continued to accuse him of being a collaborator. Grzimek went on to lead the zoo for another forty years, working in the global conservation movement, making documentaries (one of which won an Oscar) and writing books.
I quickly found the story that interested me and read on. It included long extracts from a letter written to Grzimek by a “Dr Hilmar Döring” who “has been living in Venezuela for some years” but “was then working for the German Commissioner-General for the Crimea, Alfred Frauenfeld, as an administrative official.” It was a very detailed account of Döring’s autumn 1943 mission to the Crimean wildlife estate of Askania Nova, then held by the German Army but under threat from advancing Soviet troops. Reichsmarschall Göring had telegraphed Frauenfeld in autumn 1943 telling him to fetch a Przewalski stallion and mare from the park so that they would be saved for the Heck brothers’ mission to “recreate” the extinct tarpan. The Hecks had already helped themselves to five Askania Nova Przewalskis.
Döring had written a detailed description of the food and goods (sausage, cooking oil, radio, etc.) that he took to bribe railway officials and workers to help him to get the horses back. There’s a description of the way the horses were transported, and at which stations they changed engines or were delayed before reaching Berlin. As dramatic stories go, it was pretty irresistible stuff for The Age of the Horse book proposal I was trying to write. On 13th October 1943, Askania Nova was overtaken by the Red Army, who eventually followed the trail of the Przewalskis all the way back to Berlin.
However, as I got deeper into other Przewalski literature for my research, I found that some books stated that these horses had vanished en route – perhaps because a train was bombed. And then there was the problem that the Berlin Zoo wasn’t really a safe space for rare animals, having been bombed multiple times – most comprehensively on 22nd November 1943. I wasn’t sure. I decided I wanted to know more. I asked Lee Boyd, a professor of biology and expert in the history and reintroduction of the Przewalski horse to the wild. Lee was unaware of the story, so I contacted Dr Waltraut Zimmerman of Cologne Zoo. She was the keeper of the comprehensive studbook for the horses. She told me that the dates were far from clear, but she believed the horses were as follows (and sent me a copy of their records):
A stallion called Charzis, number 194, moved to Schorfheide [Goering’s hunting estate outside Berlin] 16 February 1944. Year of move to Germany believed to be 1942.
Mare number 195, transferred to Schorfheide 19 October 1943. Year of move to Germany believed to be 1942.
Oh. Wrong year. Or was it?
Dr Zimmerman told me that it was possible that the horses had first been kept in a city called Alfeld, near Hannover, where an exotic animal dealer called L. Ruhe was based. He had contacts with the man to whom Askania Nova had belonged, Falz-Fein. She said she had no proof, however.
The information in the studbook had been collected by Erna Mohr, a conscientious and scholarly zoologist who had worked throughout the war and later wrote a book about Przewalskis. She was probably in a better position than Grzimek – working in the food ministry – to know what was happening with zoo animals in this period. Dr Zimmerman said she would have seen the horses on a regular basis. She had also been deeply involved in a related saga about the reintroduction of the European bison. So how could I fact check the story? I kicked off my wild horse hunt.
I contacted Grzimek’s family, but they had no information or old research notes. I emailed several NGOs concerned with the Przewalski horse, but either got no response or an apology that the organization was unable to help. I found the original German version of the Grzimek book and realized some text was missing from the English translation. From this I learned that Grzimek’s death dates for the horses matched those of the studbook, and that Grzimek contacted the Hecks to find out what happened to the horses from Askania Nova – but does not specify which ones – and was told they ended up in Schorfheide. Many things were matching up. Others, not so much.
I wrote to the Deutsche Dienstelle, a government agency that oversees the records of German military personnel of the Second World War. This was a long shot but I thought I might as well try – many officials and bureaucrats ended up fighting by the end of the war. They replied with details of two Hilmar Dörings – one was a soldier who had been killed in 1942. The other was an older Waffen-SS member who fought in a front-line unit and lived in Bavaria after the war. In neither case could they confirm – or eliminate – a connection with Frauenfeld, but it didn’t sound likely that either had held that post in the Crimea. Nor could the Deutsche Dienstelle say if that Döring had really existed.
Dr Kai Artinger, who’d written about Przewalski horses and Berlin Zoo, kindly checked his notes for me but found no new information. I contacted Berlin Zoo but have lost their response – if there was any. Next, I hired a professional researcher called Christian Mögwitz to tackle the Bundesarchiv.
Christian found plenty of letters and records relating to Frauenfeld, and lots of records about the requisitioning and movement of horses, but none of them were wild horses. They were cavalry and draught animals for the war effort and breeding. Of Dr Hilmar Döring there was no sign. Christian suggested a trip to root around in the archives in Koblenz but I didn’t have the funds for this.
One question was now dogging me. The horses had definitely made the journey from Askania Nova to Berlin – despite what some accounts said – but why would Grzimek invent these other details? I could understand getting a date wrong, although who could confuse the events of 1942 with those of 1943? And why go into such detail about the journey if the supposed author had perhaps never existed? The story included a goose that Döring smuggled home – a comic touch to an already unorthodox journey.
I started – belatedly – to research Grzimek beyond the English language Wikipedia. Was he really who he seemed to be, this “amazing man”? There’s the dodgy results of his colonialist efforts in Africa, for one. Then, in 2015 as I was researching the horses, Die Welt published an article on Grzimek’s wartime activities. That Grzimek had lied about his Nazi party and SA membership was known, the article said – the biographer Claudia Sewig had already exposed these facts after his death. But now a TV drama and documentary were further broadcasting the details. His claim to have helped persecuted Jews was also questioned. Research also uncovered his desertion at the end of the war when he was called up to the Eastern Front. The end verdict, however, seemed to be that he had not been an ideologically committed Nazi, but just an ordinary German trying to get along in life (not unlike many other Nazi party members).
Cash-wise and experience-wise, I was at something of a dead end at this stage, only confirming my suspicion that Grzimek was an unreliable narrator. I decided to contact Askania Nova.
In very little time I had a reply. the deputy director for research, Natalya Ivanovna Yasinetskaya, sent a long email explaining that there were many blind spots in the Przewalskis’ history. She included extracts from the biopark’s records, one detailing the slaughter of both animals and people at Askania Nova by the Nazis. Another stated clearly that “many animals were taken to the Berlin Zoo by the fascist leader, Baumgarten.” A third said, “In the summer of 1942, two more purebred wild horses, a stallion born in 1930 and a filly born in 1939 … were taken to Germany by the Nazis …” The stallion was called Charzis; the mare was unnamed. There had been seven Przewalskis in the Crimea estate in 1941. All had been removed by the Germans.
What happened to them ultimately? I had another wild-horse hunt on the go, to find out what happened to the horses at Schorfheide. The situation was rather like that of Askania Nova – Germans said Russians had destroyed them. Russians said Germans had destroyed them.
At this point, I was out of funds and time and deep into writing The Age of the Horse, which had a delivery date and publishing schedule, so I was left with these threads. I wrote up what I knew of Przewalski and tarpan history in a long scholarly essay later published in two parts (one here and one here). I wrote a piece about their literary history for LitHub. And I occasionally wondered about this complicated horse hunt and all the loose threads I was left with.
Who was Baumgarten? Did Grzimek know him and disguise him as “Hilmar Döring” in his account, perhaps changing the date for added excitement? Is this saga in anyway connected (and HOW?) to Grzimek’s post-war feud with Heinz Heck? Did the Soviets get Baumgarten’s name wrong, or were they told a false name? Why were two horses left in Askania Nova in the first Heck sweep of the occupied estate? Why the goose? I’ll leave my threads here because this is one biography I can’t tie up neatly, although I don’t want it to tail away tamely either. As Hilary Mantel put it in her Reith lectures:
“Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It’s no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It’s the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and it often falls short of that.”