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Hitler's GeographiesThe Spatialities of the Third Reich$

Paolo Giaccaria and Claudio Minca

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226274423

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226274560.001.0001

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Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

(p.138) 6 Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum
Hitler's Geographies

Clemens Driessen

Jamie Lorimer

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter investigates the bio-geographical imaginations behind the animal 'back-breeding' programs carried out by Lutz and Heinz Heck - two influential German zoologists who ran Berlin and Munich zoos. Partly with close connections to and patronage from the National Socialist elite, the Heck brothers sought to resurrect the wild cow (aurochs) and horse (tarpan) by breeding out the degeneration they associated with domestication. These back-bred animals were released during the war to roam the expanding territory of the Third Reich, and figured in propaganda films and newspaper articles legitimating that expansion. Drawing on archive material, this chapter situates these back-breeding initiatives in relation to the emerging field of geopolitics. It traces how the project to recreate extinct primordial wildlife functioned as part of discourses and practices of nature conservation that emphasized the ideal Germanic character of the European landscape and required ethnic cleansing as a form of ecological restoration. The chapter describes how back breeding of primordial wildlife was part of a legitimation of the violent Eastern expansion, emanating from a particular combination of mythological, geographic and ecological imaginations, not merely aiming for industrial and agricultural autarky but also to extend the Nazi governance of landscape conservation.

Keywords:   Lutz Heck, Heinz Heck, rewilding, aurochs, landscape, back breeding, animals, hunting, nature conservation

Volk without space and space without wildlife! These are both bad things.


The extinct aurochs has arisen again as a wild German species in the Third Reich.

LUTZ HECK (1939, 537)


The aurochs is the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. It went extinct in 1627. In the 1920s two German zoologists—Lutz Heck and Heinz Heck—embarked on separate programs to bring it back to life. The brothers believed that the Erbmasse (hereditary material) of the aurochs could be recombined through “back breeding,” thereby reversing the process of domestication. To forge their “reconstituted aurochs” they selected cattle breeds for their desired wild characteristics: one with the right horn shape, another with the correct coloration, a third for its anatomy and behavior, and so on. Lutz and Heinz were the sons of Ludwig Heck, the famous director of the Berlin Zoo, and became high-profile figures themselves. In the 1930s Lutz’s project gained patronage from the Nazi elite, in the person of Hermann Göring. His wild cattle became entangled with wider Nazi efforts to conserve natural landscapes and to reintroduce indigenous species to the occupied lands of Eastern Europe.

This chapter reflects on the symbolic and material roles the brothers’ scientific programs played in the Nazi geographies of occupied Eastern Europe. Lutz managed to align back breeding the aurochs with a broader legitimation for the Nazi plans for Eastern expansion. His interest in back breeding conjoined mythological, geographical, and ecological desires for hunting large animals, restoring natural landscapes, and ensuring industrial and agricultural autarky. In conversation with a wider network of Nazi spatial planners, Lutz and other nature conservation officials argued for expanding “non-human Lebensraum.” This would involve comprehensive Landschaftspflege (p.139) (landscape care) beyond the mere protection of animals and plants. In publications he called for the “complete reshaping” (for example, L. Heck 1942) of the newly conquered Eastern land in accordance with the mythical Germanic landscapes described in the ancient Nibelungenlied. This required reintroducing charismatic animals and addressing the “Versteppung” (becoming-Steppe) of the landscape that he believed to be caused by the wrong type of racialized (“Slavic”) land management. His project to recreate extinct primordial wildlife was firmly integrated within wider discourses and practices of planning and conservation that emphasized the Germanic character of the European landscape. In contrast, our archival research suggests that Heinz differed markedly from his brother in his back-breeding practices and discourses. He was much more ambivalent about National Socialism, the Germanic provenance of the aurochs, or the need for German expansion to benefit landscapes and wildlife in the East.

The novel ecologies and future geographies imagined and created as part of the Heck brothers’ projects touch upon a series of themes, practices, and disciplines that have come to concern historians of German science under National Socialism. These include zoology, animal breeding, and eugenics, alongside nature conservation, spatial planning practice, and geopolitical thought. We draw on and develop these literatures in our analysis of the brothers’ projects. We flag the character and significance of a particular mode of “reactionary modernism” (Herf 1984) in nature conservation during this period that entangled mythologized and nationalistic hunting practices with the science of animal breeding and land management. However, as we will demonstrate, the differences between the brothers’ endeavors complicate an overly schematic understanding of the ways in which natural science became entangled in National Socialism. The histories of back breeding draw attention to a series of paradoxes, tensions, and inconsistencies in Nazi ideology and conservation policies. In conclusion we bring this discussion to the present to explore whether the contemporary “Heck cattle” that descended from those animals bred during this period should be considered tainted by their Nazi genealogy. This is a timely question given their involvement in a revived interest in bovine back breeding and the ecological restoration or “rewilding” of Eastern Europe (Lorimer and Driessen 2013).

Lutz, Göring, and the Hunt

Lutz and Heinz Heck were born in 1892 and 1894 respectively and grew up in the family home in the Berlin Zoo. They witnessed their father develop a plot of land with a few cages into one of the world’s foremost zoos (“Urmacher (p.140) unerwünscht” 1954) and after World War I, both set out to follow in his footsteps. The eldest brother, Lutz, rose to prominence in Berlin in the 1920s and took over the position of zoo director from his father in 1932. Heinz moved out of Berlin to pursue his career and in 1928 was granted the role of reestablishing the Munich Zoo. Here he created the first “geo-zoo” featuring naturalistic dioramas of regional landscapes with multiple animal species (Hirsch and Wiesner 1986).

To determine their breeding goals the brothers took cues from the Spanish cave paintings known at the time, as well as several “images and artworks” and “precise contemporary descriptions” (see L. Heck 1936, 247; and H. Heck 1936, 9). They added bone and skull finds to help establish size and horn shape (L. Heck 1936, 284). In Berlin the emphasis was on Spanish and French fighting cattle valued for their “ferocious character” (ibid., 255). Lutz traveled extensively through southern France and Spain in the late 1920s and early 1930s in search of specimens. Heinz claimed to have started back breeding as early as 1921 but without a predefined plan. In an account of his efforts he explained that “Hungarian and Podolian steppe cattle and Scottish Highland cattle were mated with grey and brown Alpine breeds … and with piebald Friesians. To save time I bought a few crosses…. All were thrown into one pot, so to speak” (H. Heck 1951, 120; cf. H. Heck 1934a, 13). Both claimed success in bringing back the aurochs during the mid-1930s.

Back breeding was well underway before the Nazis seized control, but it took the patronage of the Nazi authorities for it to come to fruition. Lutz became a paying member (Förderndes Mitglied) of the SS soon after the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or Nazi Party) came to power and joined the party on May 1, 19371 (Neumärker and Knopf 2007; Gautschi 2010b). This in itself is sadly not very remarkable. Recent historical analyses have shown that large numbers of German geographers, spatial planners, conservationists, and biologists took advantage of the possibilities the Nazi regime offered to further their personal careers and their causes (e.g., Rössler and Schleiermacher 1993; Deichmann 1996; Uekötter 2006; Barnes and Minca 2013). However, Lutz’s involvement runs deeper. It didn’t take him long to befriend and gain patronage from the Nazi authorities. He dropped off animals at Goebbels’s household (Fröhlich 2008, I, 4, 138), presented Göring with a pair of lion cubs, which he personally collected after they had grown too big to handle (Neumärker and Knopf 2007), and was in conversation with Albert Speer about plans for an ideal zoo on the outskirts of Berlin.2

Lutz found a kindred spirit and his strongest ally in the figure of Hermann Göring. He shared Göring’s passion for big game hunting and his fascination with Germanic myths such as those recounted in the Nibelungenlied. This epic (p.141) tale, in which Teutonic knights dwelling in the primordial forest hunt deer, elk, wisent, and aurochs (Reichert 2005, 149), was prominent in the German nationalist self-understanding cultivated by the Nazis (Stoehr 2000, 167–68).3 For Göring, the mythology of the lost aristocratic hunter apparently generated the need to restore the heroic ecology of Germanic leadership. Lutz and Göring went on numerous hunting parties together, during which they sought to relive these myths, wearing traditional dress and even carrying spears. Lutz documented their adventures in a series of intimate photographic portraits. On occasion they were also photographed together (see figure 6.1).

In 1938 Lutz released his first new aurochsen into the Rominten Heide hunting reserve in the presence of Göring.4 A year later, Lutz vividly described

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Figure 6.1. Lutz Heck and Göring carrying spears on a hunting trip, December 1934.

Source: Bundesarchiv, Image 102-04224. Photographer: Georg Pahl.

(p.142) in the hunting journal Wild und Hund an encounter between Göring and an aurochs bull. He celebrated Göring reveling in the violent character of the animal, as a “Sinnbild der Urkraft” (symbol of primal force) (L. Heck 1939, 537). Lutz defined the real aurochs not solely in genetic or hereditary terms but also by virtue of its aggressive behavior and development in its correct environment. It is only after having revealed its ferocious character that Lutz claims: “The extinct Auerochs has arisen again as German wild species in the Third Reich” (ibid.). The desire for bovine ferocity and combative hunting explains his selection of Spanish fighting cattle in his back breeding.

In addition to being prime minister of Prussia and commander in chief of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), Göring had also taken upon himself the positions of Reichsjägermeister (Reich hunt master) and Reichsforstmeister (Reich forest master) (Gritzbach 1942; Gautschi 2010a). Lutz was keen to bothexert and highlight his own influence on his patron’s nature conservation efforts. His eulogy for Göring as a conservationist (L. Heck 1943a) was summarized in the Nazi biology journal Freude am Leben:

The Reichsmarschall, already soon after the takeover of power in 1933, and after foundational conversations with [Lutz Heck], had far-reaching plans put into effect. With his unique power and warmhearted love of the German forest and wildlife, and in his powerful efforts to retain the German people’s age old nature values and strengthen their Heimat5 feeling, Reichsmarschall Göring put himself to the task of protecting the endangered, German, large, wild species such as the wisent, aurochs, and steinbock. Yes, even for the last indigenous predators: bear, wolf, and lynx. (L. Heck 1943b, 7)

With such sycophancy, Lutz soon became central to Göring’s efforts to repopulate the expanding Reich with his favored indigenous wildlife. In 1935, Göring opened a 60-hectare public park near his Carinhall residence in the Schorfheide conservation area north of Berlin. Here Lutz was charged with breeding the wisent (European bison) back from near extinction for use in future reintroductions (Rubner 1997). With Lutz’s assistance Göring also sought to reintroduce elk in the Schorfheide (Gritzbach 1942). The aurochs back-breeding project promised to complete the list of animals Siegfried hunted in the Nibelungenlied and to restore their imagined lost Teutonic ecosystem.

Nature Conservation, Hunting, and the Nazis

A consensus is emerging from recent debates among historians that the “green” image of the Nazis, popularized in some quarters, was mostly a matter (p.143)

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Figure 6.2. Lutz Heck (left) and Hermann Göring (right) studying a relief map with wildlife figurines, during a visit to the 1937 International Hunting Exhibition in Berlin. The mounted animal in the background is a wisent; on the table is an “aurochs” horn.

Source: The official exhibition catalog, Waidwerk der Welt, Erinnerungswerk an die Internationale Jagdausstellung Berlin 1937 2.–28. November, Paul Parey, Berlin, 1938.

of paying lip service (Lekan 2004; Landry 2010). While prominent Nazis were keen to publicly promote environmental and conservation causes, in practice few projects were realized, and the interests of industry and armament often received priority (Brüggemeier, Cioc, and Zeller 2005). Nevertheless, the inordinate amount of time that Göring spent on his hunting estates and his patronage of expensive conservation efforts indicate that concerns over nature played some role in his decision making.6 Göring celebrated hunting culture as an issue of national prestige in the International Hunting Exhibition he organized in Berlin in 1937 (see figure 6.2).

Uekötter dismisses accomplishments in Nazi nature protection as “merely the accidental by-product of Göring’s penchant for hunting” (Uekötter 2006, 135), but this claim may unduly underestimate the centrality of hunting in the understanding and practice of many conservationists at the time. German hunters in the late 1930s considered hunting essential for maintaining the quality of a natural area. Hunters prevented the unchecked growth of game populations that would otherwise damage the forest, while selecting the right deer at the right time in order to optimize the antlers of the major bucks. Hunting became a tightly regulated and elite practice under the new national hunting law passed in 1934. Decisions on who could shoot which animals and (p.144) when were from then on controlled from Berlin (Bode and Emmert 2000). Wild animals were thus subject to closely controlled “breeding” (Hege) and conservation practices, which integrated the creation of appropriate environmental conditions, the selection of individuals, and the management of population size, structure, and dynamics. Hunting offered a conception of nature in which human (ideally German) management and care was central to the optimal functioning of the “ecosystem” in relation to the environmental preconditions of an area.

While Göring was a keen advocate of this approach to land management, his wider responsibilities generated a mixed and sometimes conflicting set of allegiances—specifically to reconcile the creation of hunting reserves with the demands of the armament industry and the Four Year Plan, including the demand for agricultural autarky and wartime timber production. Moreover, his desire for expansive and uncultivated territory for hunting in the East was in continuous tension with Himmler’s geography of völkisch resettlement as envisaged in Konrad Meyer’s Generalplan Ost (General Plan for the East) (Barnes and Minca 2013). This focused on the domestication of the wilds and the creation of agricultural landscapes, for example, through the reclamation of marshland (Blackbourn 2006) and the implementation of Christaller’s central place theory (Barnes and Minca 2013). Working in this context, as Göring’s henchman, Lutz Heck had to align his interest in animal reintroductions with wider Nazi goals. He sought to present the newly conquered areas as offering renewed opportunities for German people and nature. In the rest of this chapter we will argue that nature conservation, as Göring and Lutz Heck imagined it, should be considered as significant in motivating, legitimating, and to a lesser degree actually shaping the colonization of Eastern Europe.

Nature Conservation as Geopolitics and Landscape Planning for the Volk

In 1938 Göring appointed Lutz as the head of the Obersten Naturschutzbehörde im Reichsforstamt (Nature Protection Authority within the Forest Service).7 This made him a central figure among nature conservationists. In December of that year, Konrad Meyer’s journal Raumforschung und Raum-planung dedicated a special issue to forestry and nature conservation (issue 11–12). This featured articles by the conservationists with whom Lutz was now formally collaborating, including the landscape architect Heinrich Wiepking-Jürgensmann, and Göring’s Oberstjägermeister (chief hunt master) Ulrich Scherping. Wiepking-Jürgensmann emphasized how German culture—from (p.145) myths and fairy tales to major authors and composers—and thus the German people were the expression of their forest landscape. This Germanic human being was said to organically emerge from the plant and animal world. In a contribution titled “Wild und Raumordnung” (wildlife and spatial planning) Scherping described how modern technological developments and the hard necessity for Germany to till every square foot of usable soil “in its struggle for food security” (im Kampf um seine Ernährungsfreiheit) had reduced the Lebensraum of the animal world (Scherping 1938, 542).

When Germany invaded Eastern Europe in the following year, Lutz was in a powerful position to contribute to shaping plans for the eastern “Germanic” land. Six months after the occupation of Poland, he wrote in an article published by the official Nazi newspaper (the Völkischer Beobachter) that “landscape protection is Volk protection, since here Nature protection works for the most precious possession we have, our greater German Heimat” (L. Heck 1940). Just as the true resurrection of the aurochs for Lutz was not a purely genetic affair, so the true German Volk is imagined as both the outcome of, and essential to, being rooted in the right landscape. Here the Nazi eugenicist project gets a spatial dimension, in which the right environment, achieved through landscape conservation and design, is just as important for Volks-pflege as racial hygiene aimed at purging the hereditary base.

In May 1942 Lutz signed a formal agreement with Meyer on integrating his Forest Protection Agency with the Dienststelle des Reichskommissars für die Festigung des Deutschen Volkstums (the Commissariat for the Strengthening of Ethnic Germandom, RKFDV),8 under which Meyer’s Generalplan Ost resided (Oberkrome 2004, 241–42; see also Radkau 2003, 36). Soon after, he published an article in the journal Neues Bauerntum, a publication (also edited by Konrad Meyer) aimed at those involved in extending the German population into the East (L. Heck 1942). This particular edition was dedicated to Himmler’s Allgemeine Anordnung Nr. 20/VI/42—a general standing order laying down the aims and regulations for landscape planning in the “integrated Eastern areas” (cf. Rössler and Schleiermacher 1993). Lutz stresses how the landscape of the “Ostraum” (“Eastern space”) itself would need to be made Germanic, in addition to the creation of new German villages and towns. He explains how this will be achieved by integrating the regional authorities of Landschaftspflege and Naturschutz into a single organization. This would explicitly align the Reichsforstmeister’s (Göring) nature conservation with the Reichsführer SS (Himmler) spatial planning efforts.

Lutz argues that nature conservation should move beyond the mere care of rare species to landscape-scale conservation, linking zoology and landscape planning, and turning geopolitics into a more-than-human affair. In (p.146) sketching the task ahead he evokes the monotonous, boundless landscape seen by soldiers from the train to the eastern front and suggests that:

The vast Eastern space, as ardently desired settling area, must therefore be comprehensively conquered again by us for a second time through complete transformation. The reshaping of this dull and strange landscape into a German one must be our most important goal. For the first time in history the imprinting of a cultural landscape will be consciously taken up by a people (Volk). (L. Heck 1942, 214)

A few pages earlier in the same issue of this journal, Konrad Meyer had stressed the need for Germanic “Gestaltungsdenken” (formative ideas) and “Gestaltungskraft” (formative power) on the “shapeless landscape” to “replenish the racial substance” of the East (Meyer 1942, 205). In this and previous issues of the journal these authors sought to demonstrate how “non-Aryan” peoples had destroyed the Polish landscape (see especially Wiepking-Jürgensmann 1942). Using maps and aerial imagery the articles claimed to prove the degenerative processes of “Versteppung” (becoming-steppe) associated with deforestation and the resultant soil erosion (see figure 6.3). Here the need for both human and non-human Lebensraum was legitimated by the racial and cultural superiority of the German Volk in land management (see Blackbourn 2006). In different ways these authors argued that the German Volk should “retake” possession of these lands and extend their beneficial care to the robbed soil. By highlighting the treeless and eroded state of the land under Polish rule and inhabitation, the eastern expansion of Germanhood and the ethnic cleansing of these areas were understood and promoted as (what we now would call) an “ecological restoration” project.

Colonizing the East was presented as an issue of Landschaftsgestaltung (landscape formation) and Landschaftspflege (care for the landscape). This causal link between Volk and landscape was thought to operate both ways. For Wiepking-Jürgensmann, who worked for both Lutz’s Nature Protection Department and Himmler’s RKFDV, Landschaftspflege (care for the landscape) equaled Volkspflege (care for the Volk), since “humans are the product of two forces, genes and the environment” (Oberkrome 2004, 242). This discourse and its associated practice of “landscape formation as caring for the Volk” integrated both the geographical determinism of some geopoliticians (Bassin 2005) and the emphasis on innate racial völkisch qualities that was so central to Himmler’s and Hitler’s ideology. Thus, it promoted a spatialized form of eugenics that mirrored the hunter’s management of wildlife through the control of populations and environmental conditions. Here shaping the (p.147)

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Figure 6.3. Page from Konrad Meyer’s journal Neues Bauerntum, showing the “robbed empty landscapes” of the East. The images depict areas in eastern Poland and the Ukraine, the erosion of which is claimed to lead to human induced “ Versteppung” and climate change.

Source: “Bildbericht: Ausgeraubte Landschaften des weiteren Ostens,” Neues Bauerntum 34 (1): 5.

(p.148) environment created both German land and a population naturally at home in its Heimat landscapes (Scherping 1938). In this way a particular conjunction of nature conservation, economic requirements, a sense of international geopolitical justice, and a völkisch racist understanding of what it means to inhabit a landscape were combined into a single murderous logic that promoted ethnic cleansing as a form of landscape restoration.

Lutz Heck took part in this project of restoring Germanic landscapes in the East in his formal role as the head of Nature Protection. Lutz’s discourse echoed many of the most poisonous elements of National Socialist ideology. But he did not extend his rhetoric to advocate more explicitly murderous forms of racism like other central figures competing for power in the landscape planning and nature conservation bureaucracies. For example, the Autobahn landscape architect Alwin Seifert (Zeller 2005, 161), Wiepking-Jürgensmann who we encountered earlier, and the conservationist Walther Schoenichen9 added staunch anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic rhetoric to this mix. Similarly, although Lutz was keen to connect his back breeding to the work of contemporary eugenicists, and proudly claimed that bothErwin Baur and Eugen Fischer had responded sympathetically to his project (L. Heck 1939), he did not link his discussions of genetics, breeding, and domestication to the popular discourse of racial hygiene associated with these figures and others such as Konrad Lorenz (Sax 1997).

Białowieża and the War for Non-Human Lebensraum

Göring commissioned a film on the European bison (wisent) that was released in 1941. It opens with a close-up of an ancient copy of the Nibelungenlied and is set against the backdrop of the ongoing war. The narrator explains that “the swiftvictory over Poland has brought a welcome return of pure blooded wisents to Germany…. Giving justified hope for the conservation of the wisent, the strongest wild animal and the last witness of former Germanic primordial forest.”10 Here the war in the East is celebrated for its liberation of authentic wildlife from incapable management. Hopes are expressed that early successes will lead to a return to the style of big game hunting associated with ancestral Germany. Furthermore, the film offers a rationale for the war as the (“re-”)possession of the famous ancient forests of Białowieża in Poland and Askania Nova in the Ukraine.11 Göring had visited Białowieża on hunting expeditions every year between 1933 and 1938 and was keen to gain control (Neumärker and Knopf 2007, 55). Soon after the forest was conquered he gave orders to reintroduce bears, and some of Lutz’s back-bred aurochsen were transferred there in 1942 (L. Heck 1943a).

(p.149) In the spring of 1941 Göring ordered that the forest be expanded from 100,000 to 260,000 hectares. He turned it into an official hunting ground that was cleared of people to prevent them disturbing the wildlife (Gautschi 1997, 386). Ulrich Scherping, the hunting authority leader, and Walter Frevert, who was formerly Göring’s chief forester at his Rominten Heide estate, were made responsible. Under orders from Göring, Frevert’s foresters embarked upon a ruthless campaign to burn down villages, evict villagers, and hunt down and execute “bandits”—local partisans and Jewish resistance fighters (Gautschi 2010a, 232; 2010b, 118). Protecting the recently introduced aurochsen provided an extra motive for this “bandit hunting,” as Göring had personally ordered that any “poachers” in the area be shot (see Blood 2010). The Führer Directive No. 46 of August 1942, titled “Instructions for Intensified Action against Banditry in the East,” categorized “bandits” as legally killable (Bode and Emmert 2000, 154n302). While the Hunting Commando (Jagdkommando) order of the same month called for the application of hunting techniques traditionally used for stalking wild game to people (Blood 2010). In the spring and summer of 1943, Frevert went to Białowieża on a special mission for the “pacification and evacuation” of the Białowieża Forest on behalf of the Reichsmarschall (Gautschi 1997; Blood 2010). Soon after, in the winter of 1943/44 Lutz met with Frevert and Scherping for a wild boar hunting party in the forest (see figure 6.4). Later that year Frevert reported in a letter: “All is fine with me here. Like before I am leading a hunter-battalion and shooting bandits dead as if on a conveyor belt” (Neumärker and Knopf 2007, 132).

Lutz continued transporting animals throughout the Reich right up until the very end of the war. In an official letter to a general on the Eastern Front he implored him to remain on the lookout for rare wild herbivores. He also persevered with his back breeding, repositioning his wild horse back-breeding program as part of the war effort by proposing a plan to create a hardy fighting horse. This resembled the project of the Ahnenerbe explorer and zoologist Ernst Schaefer, who was breeding a hardy “steppe horse” (Hagen 1950, 92–93) for an imagined elite breed of frontier SS men. These so-called Wehrbauer were modeled on Teutonic knights. Schaefer hoped they would pioneer landscape development and farming while policing the Reich’s extended borders on horseback (Kater 2006, 217). As the German Reich began to implode, his primordial forests and their wildlife became one of Göring’s main concerns. He ordered his personal regiment to shoot as many wild animals as possible—including Heck’s aurochs—in their retreat from Rominten Heide. He charged his personal Luftwaffe division with protecting his Schorfheide estate from the advancing Soviets. When these forces were summoned by (p.150)

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Figure 6.4. A wild boar hunting party in Białowieża forest, presumably winter 1943/44. On the leftstands Göring’s forester Walter Frevert. Third from the right, with hands in pockets and smoking a pipe, is Lutz Heck. To his right stands Ulrich Scherping, the hunting authority leader.

Source: personal archive A. Gautschi.

Hitler to defend Berlin instead, Göring himself shot the wisents before fleeing to Bavaria (Gautschi 1997, 361).

Heinz Heck: Cosmopolitan Back Breeding?

It is clear that Lutz closely aligned his mode of nature conservation and rare species (back) breeding with violent territorial expansionism and the reshaping (Gestaltung) of landscapes legitimated by völkisch and mythological imaginations. These were practices fully in step with National Socialist ideology. However, if we take a closer look at the ideological commitments and zoological practices of his younger brother Heinz, the back breeding of the aurochs emerges in a different light. For one thing, Nazi authorities seriously doubted his personal allegiance to Nazism. In November 1936 Heinz applied to the Reichsschrifttumskammer for formal approval to be allowed to publish and give public lectures. This led to a protracted inquiry into his “moral and political reliability” involving a series of exchanges between the regional Nazi Party headquarters and other Nazi authorities.12 In January 1937 he was reported to be “a difficult to fathom character.”13

Serious allegations had generated numerous suspicions. Not only had he briefly been married to a Jewish woman during World War I, but also he (p.151) was suspected to have been a member of the Communist Party and for this reason to have been interned as a political prisoner in Dachau in 1933. At the time of the inquiry he was said to be separated from his wife and cohabiting with an English woman whose Aryan descent was questioned and who allegedly maintained friendly relations with Jews.14 Zoo employees who were questioned on his opinions of National Socialism claimed to have heard him say, “I’d prefer one Jew over ten Nazis.”15 And for no apparent reason he had shot a lion he received as a giftfrom Rudolf Hess, an act interpreted as deeply suspicious and clearly in contrast with his brother’s use of animals to deepen relations with Nazi leaders. Heinz eventually received his permission to write in June 1937, as a friendly official vouched that he had not been in Bavaria at the time of his supposed stay in Dachau. Many of the other allegations were unresolved.

Heinz was a prolific writer. Every month he published several articles on the background of the animals in his zoo in his own popular animal magazine. Unlike his brother he did not deploy Nazi discourse to discuss his back-breeding efforts or other interests. In contrast to Lutz’s rabid advocacy of völkisch nationalism and violent spatial practices, Heinz’s work evokes a set of cosmopolitan historical as well as geographical imaginations of primeval wildlife. It provides peaceful rationales for European conservation. For example, when it discusses the Urwildpferde (primordial wild horses) and how wild horses figured in the European past he notes that “there was no Bavaria back then” (H. Heck 1934a, 5). It affords no special role for the Germanic nation or Volk in landscape conservation, expresses no geopolitical desire for expanding German nature conservation territories, and (after 1939) does not celebrate the incorporation of land in the East. He attributes the extermination of rare animals by local inhabitants to the complex political situation of nomadic, hunt-loving peoples (ibid., 3) rather than any hereditary or cultural inability to appreciate nature and wildness.

The Heck cattle Heinz produced in Munich were also different from those created in Berlin. In his breeding choices, Heinz did not use fighting cattle and seems not to have been planning on hunting his aurochsen. He used more Central and Eastern European cattle, which are less connected to an exclusively Aryan/German imagination of the ur-cow. Heinz’s back-bred animals were not used in reintroduction projects in conquered areas, and he claimed to have been solely motivated by educational and scientific reasons, personal curiosity, and some consolation that the violent extinction of animals due to humanity’s “mad rage for destruction of himself and all other creatures” might be undone (H. Heck 1951, 122). Furthermore, the lenient sense of genetic purity expressed by Lutz in his rationale for back breeding (p.152) was even more pronounced with Heinz. He wrote gleefully that he had been “crossing all kinds of cattle races in a way that would have horrified a pedigree breeder” (ibid., 121). He seemed to have reveled in using terms such as Mischling (mixed-race) and Bastard to describe his aurochs breeding products. These terms were loaded due to their centrality in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he called upon Germans to “first and foremost halt any further bastardisation” (Hitler 1942, 444). Indeed, framed in this way, the uncontrolled mixing and joyful bastardization of what in the public mind were pure breeds could just as well be considered subversive to the strict notions of racial and genetic purity outlined in the Nuremberg laws.


Lutz’s back-bred aurochsen in Germany did not survive the bombing of the Berlin Zoo and Göring’s retreat. A few were reported to still roam Białowieża in the late 1940s (H. Heck 1951), straying into the Soviet side of the area before dying out (Wang 2012). However, some of the cattle Heinz back bred in Munich did survive the war, languishing in a few zoos and nature reserves. Their descendants have recently risen to prominence as popular tools for a new mode of European nature conservation known as rewilding (Fraser 2009; Marris 2009). These Heck cattle, as they are now known, have proved to be hardy grazers, able to survive with limited human care. They are often released as aurochs-surrogates with the aim of returning bovine grazing and other ecological processes to marginal landscapes throughout Europe, including those once coveted by Göring and the National Socialists (Schwartz 2006; Lorimer and Driessen 2013). The desirability and veracity of rewilding with Heck cattle is contested and, as a consequence, their Nazi history has been subject to popular interest. Publicists and critics invoke Hitler’s geographies to parody the cattle’s past and contest their authenticity (see figure 6.5). However, present-day Heck cattle are descended from those bred by Heinz rather than Lutz (H. Heck 1951). Their Nazi genealogy is complicated and their possible ideological baggage much more ambivalent.

We believe it to be nonsensical to arbitrate as to the guilt of contemporary cattle—and would flag the ironical (and contradictory) nature of any claim that they should not be allowed to flourish in a wilder Europe by virtue of any purported Nazi history. However, this episode highlights both the continued fascination with the historical geographies of National Socialism and the need to offer nuanced analysis of their character and consequences. The story of the Heck brothers offers a compelling and hitherto underexamined chapter in the history of German natural science and conservation under National (p.153)

Back Breeding the Aurochs: The Heck Brothers, National Socialism, and Imagined Geographies for Non-Human Lebensraum

Figure 6.5. Drawing accompanying an article with the title “The Herd Reich,” discussing the arrival of Heck cattle on a Devon farm, The Sun newspaper, April 22, 2009.

Socialism. Our analysis suggests that their entanglements are by no means as clear-cut as the sensational (but lazy) journalist accounts illustrated above would suggest. In various ways and to differing degrees both brothers became caught up in the discourse and practices of National Socialism. Lutz in Berlin was most clearly aligned with Göring’s, if not Himmler’s, mode of romantic nationalism. In his practice and presentation of back breeding and animal reintroductions he developed a distinct mode of “reactionary modernism.” This conjoined a scientific understanding of animal breeding and protoecological land management with a reinvention of mystical modes of hunting.

Although he was much more marginal to and ambivalent about the Nazi project, even Heinz was unable to resist the patronage the Nazi elite offered. Together with his brother he joined Himmler’s Ahnenerbea shadowy scientific research organization that sought to use science (archaeology, cultural geography, and even musicology) to legitimate mythological understandings of the Aryan people (Kater 2006). Both Lutz and Heinz were part of a research project named “Wald und Baum in der Arisch-Germanischen Geistes-und Kulturgeschichte” (Forest and tree in the Aryan-Germanic history of thought and culture), and were commissioned to write popular books on the zoological and cultural history of the aurochs.16

In sorting out the character and consequences of the Nazi geographies presented in this story, we would like to conclude by reflecting on this troubled and troublesome place of myth. The wartime propaganda potential that the back-breeding discourse offered the Nazi elites derived not so much from its particular scientific truth or ecological impact, but from the power and (p.154) performance of the myths it embodied about German Nature and the Nation. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (1990) have drawn attention to the centrality of myth to Nazism and argue that it is not so much the content of the myth that mattered but its performative function, especially the belief in its efficacy in producing a national identity. Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the back-breeding project was that it allowed Göring to stalk through the forest carrying a spear, legitimizing his policies and the Nazi war efforts by the purported truth of Germanic mythology—taken as serious as, and fully incorporated within, a form of (at the time) widely respected natural science. The tale of the Heck brothers serves as a cautionary tale to contemporary back breeders and “rewilders.” Although they are steeped in science, they must acknowledge the power, provenance, and persistence of myths of the wild and offer new, cosmopolitan, and democratic imaginations for European nature.


(1.) NSDAP membership nr: 3.934.018.

(2.) BArch R 4606/493, November 29, 1937.

(3.) A legend also taken up by Richard Wagner in his Ring des Nibelungen. The notion of Nibelungentreue (Nibelungen loyalty)—the total dedication to fight until the last man—was used by Göring in addressing the Wehrmacht just before the collapse of Stalingrad.

(4.) BArch NS 21/G120, 1124.

(5.) The notion of Heimat (which to some extent translates as “homeland”) denoted a combination of regional folk culture and personal rootedness through ancestry. The Nazis extended a “nationalized” interpretation of Heimat in an attempt to connect ideas of race, Volk, landscape, nation, and German superiority. Applegate (1990) has argued that under Nazism “Heimat ceased to mean much of anything.” See also Uekötter (2006).

(6.) Göring spent so much time hunting, even at crucial moments in the war, that according to some of his generals it amounted to “treason” (Gautschi 1997, 55; 2010a, 209). Hitler and other prominent Nazis, however, derided hunting (Rubner 1997, 172).

(7.) On April 20, 1938, he was made an honorary professor on the occasion of Hitler’s fortyninth birthday. Der Biologe, Nr. 8, Berlin 1938, 279.

(8.) The RKFDV was the authority headed by Himmler dedicated to colonizing the East with people of proper Aryan descent.

(9.) In a 1942 book Schoenichen emphasized the völkisch importance of Lutz’s back-breeding project (see Schoenichen 1942).

(10.) Wisente (directed by Schulz 1941; authors’ translation).

(11.) Göring also had his east Prussian hunting estate Rominten Heide expanded into Polish territories during the war (Scherping 1958; Rubner 1997, 130).

(12.) BArch NS 15/138, 18–31; BArch PK E38, 2845–916.

(13.) BArch NS 15/138, 31; BArch PK E38, 2862, cfr. 2912.

(14.) BArch PK E38, 2874.

(15.) BArch PK E38, 2874, 2884.

(16.) BArch NS 21/G120, 1071, 1074, 1082, 1111, 1112.

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(1.) NSDAP membership nr: 3.934.018.

(2.) BArch R 4606/493, November 29, 1937.

(3.) A legend also taken up by Richard Wagner in his Ring des Nibelungen. The notion of Nibelungentreue (Nibelungen loyalty)—the total dedication to fight until the last man—was used by Göring in addressing the Wehrmacht just before the collapse of Stalingrad.

(4.) BArch NS 21/G120, 1124.

(5.) The notion of Heimat (which to some extent translates as “homeland”) denoted a combination of regional folk culture and personal rootedness through ancestry. The Nazis extended a “nationalized” interpretation of Heimat in an attempt to connect ideas of race, Volk, landscape, nation, and German superiority. Applegate (1990) has argued that under Nazism “Heimat ceased to mean much of anything.” See also Uekötter (2006).

(6.) Göring spent so much time hunting, even at crucial moments in the war, that according to some of his generals it amounted to “treason” (Gautschi 1997, 55; 2010a, 209). Hitler and other prominent Nazis, however, derided hunting (Rubner 1997, 172).

(7.) On April 20, 1938, he was made an honorary professor on the occasion of Hitler’s fortyninth birthday. Der Biologe, Nr. 8, Berlin 1938, 279.

(8.) The RKFDV was the authority headed by Himmler dedicated to colonizing the East with people of proper Aryan descent.

(9.) In a 1942 book Schoenichen emphasized the völkisch importance of Lutz’s back-breeding project (see Schoenichen 1942).

(10.) Wisente (directed by Schulz 1941; authors’ translation).

(11.) Göring also had his east Prussian hunting estate Rominten Heide expanded into Polish territories during the war (Scherping 1958; Rubner 1997, 130).

(12.) BArch NS 15/138, 18–31; BArch PK E38, 2845–916.

(13.) BArch NS 15/138, 31; BArch PK E38, 2862, cfr. 2912.

(14.) BArch PK E38, 2874.

(15.) BArch PK E38, 2874, 2884.

(16.) BArch NS 21/G120, 1071, 1074, 1082, 1111, 1112.