A Story of a German Shepherd Dog in 1940s Austria
Editor's note: If the wording seems odd, that's because Fred Lanting literally translated the story as told.
Our dog Donar was a German Shepherd Dog, a first-class, purebred dog with a first-class pedigree. Still he was once declared not worthy according to the Breed Standard of the German people.
Our dog belonged first to a master chimneysweep. The chimneysweep had a passion for hunting and wanted a hound. Donar was not of use, however, as a hound. He was “gun-shy”; i.e., he feared slams and bangs. He trembled, tucked his tail between the hind legs, and hid his snout in the folds of his master’s coat. His master beat him to expel the fear from him. But the more he beat him, all the more fearful the dog became. His Master half killed him, then gave up and gave him to us. When Donar came to us, he feared not only the loud sudden noises, but also was afraid of persons. He gradually forgot his fear of people after living with us, but not the fear of sharp cracking noises. Once Willi, the son of the farmer next door, inflated a paper bag and popped it, Donar crawled away behind me. Willi examined the trembling dog. “My Barry, he does not fear”, said Willi.
Willi’s Barry was a Saint Bernard, ponderous, intelligent, and brave. Willi had taught him many tricks: to bow with the front legs put down for example, to play dead, to sit upon the haunches and lift the front legs as if begging, to unlatch doors, and devour sausage-ends only after a certain command. I tried to teach our dog at least one of the tricks. I toiled at it much, but our dog did not understand what I wanted.
At the time we were given Donar by the chimneysweep master, war was being waged. Willi and I were twelve years old. When we were thirteen, our dogs received a military call-up. We were supposed to provide them for military service and help “der Führer” (the Führer), to win the war.
I went with Donar to the farm next door. I looked for Willi and found him/it in the barn, where the straw was stored. Willi crouched on one of the dusty hay-loft rafters. He had a slip of paper in the hand. It was the same dogs’ military call-up note, which we also had gotten. Barry sat before Willi. I sat beside Willi on the beam.
Willi said “My Barry will not go into the military!” Barry looked at him with his intelligent, droopy eyes. I stroked Donar. His silky-smooth fur crackled. He licked my hand. I could not stroke him further; I had a terrible choking in my throat. Willi once more said, “My Barry does not go to the military! When the dogs must present themselves, they must be evaluated with a gun-shooting test. And the dog that runs away is no longer needed — it cannot be used. The dog evaluation is one week from now. By then I will have taught my Barry a new trick!”
“What kind of trick?”
“Running — at any gun-type noise!” Barry wagged his tail. “Your Donar is cowardly!” Willi said, to comfort me.
Our dog was timid, all right, but he did not run if anything slam/banged. He only trembled and looked to my mama or pap, or at me for refuge. Our dog would have to go the military. And they would send him to the front. I could imagine the scene as the shells fell around him and he had nobody to whom he could flee. I visualized him being torn by shells.
“Poor dog!” said Willi to Donar. “Perhaps they will take you anyway, because of your having a stupid Germanic breed name!”
As he said that, I hated Willi, although he was my friend. I screamed, “You look like a stupid Teuton yourself!”.
“Take that back immediately!” yelled Willi.
In those days we were taught in school that there are members of the master race and there are subhuman races. Members of the master race are all who descended from the Teutonic stock, and whoever did not descend from the Teutons were all subhuman. Willi’s parents and my parents did not believe in any of that. Willi’s father said, “Whoever in our village remains a pure Germanic member of the master race must be a zombie. In our village the Celts had settled, the Slavs, the Romans and the ancient Bavarians. We were all mixed descent.” If somebody were blond and blue-eyed like Willi, was it pure chance.
Willi could do nothing to change his appearance. I took back everything and said he would definitely not have a Hun in his ancestry. The Huns were known, according to school, to be the lowest sub-humans. They had also been in the area where our village stood, at one time in history.
The Hun ancestry comment pleased Willi, and he promised me that he would teach my Donar the same trick as his Barry would learn. It was not successful with him. I personally donated in this week all the paper bags that I could find. Our Donar became always sad and confused; he stepped nervously from one paw to the other, and trembled always more furiously at the noises, but he did not run away.
The day of the dog evaluation came, a beautiful hot summer day. That morning I pulled on the hobnailed boots which I had already prepared the previous evening. My mother, who otherwise observed everything, did not notice the hobnail boots. She gave our dog a piece of sausage for breakfast. He never got sausage before. Sausage was obtained only with food ration cards, and one had to divide and ration it carefully, so that it would last for a week. Our dog was happy about the sausage.
Willi and I went with Barry and Donar to the dog evaluation site in the city. The dogs were examined on a meadow behind the Bulgariplatz. A man in civilian clothes made a speech. He said we must all be proud that our dogs might fight for our leaders, people and country.
I looked around at the other dog owners. They made that same face that my mother did that morning. I do not and cannot believe that they were proud. The man in civilian clothes inspected the row of dogs and dog owners. When he got to Barry, he stood still, for Barry pleased him.
The man did not consider my Donar even though my Donar was not intimidated from the many persons and the many dogs and worked especially bravely.
A couple of soldiers deployed and fired their guns simultaneously. At once Barry scurried loose. He was a dog that learned easily. Only a week had been needed for the new trick. He ran over the meadow, and his bushy tail waved behind him. The man in civilian clothes checked him off with full indignation and disdain.
My dog did not run. My dog crowded me instead. Willi came forward a step and partially concealed me. I lifted my right foot a little. The evening before I had pinched a nail-head off the sole with tongs. The pointed nail-end protruded. At the second volley I stepped on Donar’s foot with the shoe that had the nail sticking out of it. Donar whimpered. He turned his head to me. It seemed he could not believe that it was I, who stepped on him.
I stepped on him a second time. Donar howled and ran off. He ran away from me. I followed him. His right hind leg bled, and he limped a little. But only I could see that. The man in civilian clothes could not see it, as he was too far off. He saw only that my dog ran.
Donar fled up to the end of the meadow and crawled away in the corner of the hedge. I cowered beside him there. When I stretched out my hand to stroke him, he recoiled. At home, I gave him the remainder of the sausage ration. He was a gentle, soft-hearted dog, and he forgave me for stepping on him the way his chimneysweep master once had.
A couple of days later my parents received a registered letter. In the letter it stated that our Donar was found to be unworthy for defense. Any German Shepherd Dog that is unworthy for defense or protection is not breed-worthy and therefore is not allowed to be used at stud for any German bitch. We were commanded to return the first - class pedigree, so that it would be destroyed in a certain place by persons responsible for the breed.
I ran with the letter to the farm next door. Willi and Barry sat in the kitchen, where Willi’s mother cooked the lunch. The radio was on. It played very loudly. It carried a speech by “der Führer” to his people.
If the Führer made a speech, everybody had to listen to it. Whoever did not listen to a speech by the Führer, was marked. In a village like ours, everybody knows everything about everybody else’s business and actions. The whole village knew who believed in the “tausendjährige Reich” (millennial empire) and who did not. For that reason we played the radio especially publicly and loudly whenever the Führer spoke, even though we did not believe in it. It was so that anyone who passed by a house could hear it. We did not want to be locked up because of a speech by the Führer. He was not worth that much to us.
I waved the letter. Willi grinned. Before him on the table lay exactly the same letter.
The Führer roared on the radio that he would lead his people to the final victory. “My Barry does not help you get the final victory!” said Willi to the raging Führer on the radio. “Hold your mouth!” his mother said, rushing to the open window and striking the side of the window to peer out. “ Do you want the Gestapo to talk to us while holding us up by the throat?”
At the time our dogs became “unworthy for defense”, the Hitler troops had conquered half of Europe. For all who did not want it, it still was very hard to believe that there would not be his “final victory”. Four years later the Americans, the Frenchmen, the Englishmen and the Russians marched near of all sides, and found Hitler’s troops in retreat. The Führer continued to promise the final victory.
We began to hope for our deliverance. But our deliverers were still remote, and meanwhile they sent us their airplanes and their bombs. The bombs fell without prejudice upon final-victory believers and non-believers alike. The bombs did not hit the Führer. The Führer sat in his bomb-proof bunker.
Around about our village stood many anti-aircraft guns. If the defensive firing of the anti-aircraft gun was too strong, the flyers turned back before they reached the city. If they turned back, they unloaded their bombs, completely and immediately, regardless of what they were flying over at the moment. Therefore one was nowhere safe from the bombs.
For our dog it was one evil time. At the first clamor of the air-raid sirens, which announced the arrival of the airplanes, he ran down into the cellar. I had never been able to teach him the trick of opening doors, but now he learned it by himself. He stood up on his hind legs and unlatched the cellar door with the front foot.
He was always the first and could hardly wait until we came. At each air-raid warning, we dragged our mattresses from the bedrooms into the cellar. These were genuine horsehair mattresses, and they originally were from my grandmother’s family. I had no interest in the mattresses; for all I cared, they could have been able to remain in the bedrooms. But my mother was very much attached to them. If our house were to be bombed to pieces and everything gone kaputt, my mother wanted to know that at least she had saved the horsehair mattresses. Schlepping the mattresses around got on my nerves. Once I refused. When the anti-aircraft gun began to shoot next time, my mother then ran around the last mattress in the bedroom. At the next alarm I again dragged the grandmother-mattresses down into the cellar.
One day a fleeing stranger joined us in the cellar. He was from a German city. The German cities were bombed to ruin even worse than our cities in Austria. The foreigner was shocked that we took along the dog in the cellar. He asked us if we did not know that dogs would become mad if confined in bomb shelter cellars. He assured us that this upset had befallen their own dogs. My parents therefore wanted no more to have our dog in the cellar. They agreed to confine him in the woodshed. The chickens were also there, they explained, so he was not completely alone.
As the siren howled, I led our dog across the yard to the woodshed. He wanted in the cellar and did not understand why he had to be in the woodshed. He looked at me with that same amazed look he had when I had stepped on him with the nail from the shoe. I closed the door of the woodshed behind him and secured it.
We sat silently in the cellar and heard the whining from up the woodshed directed down to us. We did not look at each other.
The flying squadrons growled above our village. Anti-aircraft guns fired in response. Our dog howled in the woodshed. Never in my life could I have imagined that a dog could howl and despair so.
“I can’t take it!” screamed my mother. “I will get him!” She wanted to run up the cellar stairs. Outside in the yard, “ack-ack” shrapnel rained down. The distance to the woodshed was extensive. In the neighboring village one had been killed by the ack-ack shrapnel. My mother stopped still. A bomb sang through the air. From when you hear the singing of the bomb up to the impact, those are the longest seconds in the world. The bomb exploded. The floor under us quaked. The cellar walls wobbled. Bottles fell clattering from the shelves, and broke.
The anti-aircraft guns shot. The flyers growled. But something, however, was unlike at what it was at first. It took a while before we comprehended: our dog was no longer howling!
Then the cellar door flew open. Our dog came crashing down the staircase. He whimpered with delight. He jumped high in the air at us. He licked our faces. Finally he calmed down beside me.
When the anti-aircraft gun stopped shooting, we went from the cellar. The bomb had driven into the field behind the garden. In the field now was a crater almost as large as our house.
The woodshed still stood. We thought that the shock wave from the concussion would have to have sprung open the door, otherwise our dog would have not squeezed out of there. The door was still shut. It had at the bottom a tiny opening for chickens. As the bomb fell, our dog had crawled in his fear through this hole, a hole, just barely large enough for a chicken. We never again confined our dog in the woodshed. If the siren howled, he could be with us in the cellar.
The Führer on the radio still ranted for the final victory, but the front was already at the boundaries of his Reich. Not only did the bombers come to us now, but also the low-flying fighter planes. For these “dive-bombers” and fighters, there was no alarm. These planes suddenly appeared out of the heavens, swooped down, shot from their machine guns, and disappeared again. One had to take great care for himself because of those strafing planes.
One exceptional day, when there was no air-raid warning, Willi and I got our dogs and wandered from the village. It was the end of winter. The snow had already melted. The soil glistened wet and dark brown. Our dogs ran ahead of us. We walked on the ridge behind them.
We went on some distance from the village, along the pasture ditch. Behind the pasture ditch was an anti-aircraft site. Just as we almost got there, the strafing planes came. We fled with our dogs into the ditch and flattened against the earth. The meadow shrubs still had no leaves, and through the network of the bushes’ twigs we saw the pale-blue spring sky.
The planes dove down on the anti-aircraft site. Their machine guns rattled. As Barry heard the clatter, his learned trick worked on him. He jumped from the ditch and ran across the open field. His bushy tail waved behind him like a battalion flag on the meadow.
Everything went so very quickly. One of the diving planes pulled up and away over Barry. As Barry was hit, it tore him apart in mid-leap. Then he collapsed in a heap.
Willi wanted to run to him. The plowed field’s extremely soggy dirt clung to the soles of his shoes. Willi tumbled down. The fighter plane came back. I heard the clatter and saw how the field’s dirt sprayed around Willi. I pressed my face into the fur of my trembling dog, because I wanted to see nothing more.
As it became still, I climbed from the ditch. The planes had not hit Willi. He knelt beside Barry. I trudged over the field to them. My feet became difficult to pick up because of the adhering clods of earth.
My dog prodded Barry with his snout, the odor of blood confusing him. He backed away and whimpered. He would not stop his whining.
Willi did not survive Barry very long. As the Allies crossed the Rhein, the Führer needed new soldiers for his final victory. Willi was required to join the army. He was a little over 17 years old. He was sent immediately to the front.
Our dog survived the thousand-year empire and the war by many years. But each Saturday, when the siren of the small factory howled in our village at twelve o’clock noon, Donar unlatched the cellar door and descended the stairs. As he became very old and bothered by arthritis, he no longer could open the door by himself. He set himself before it and waited until somebody came and opened it. Then he hobbled down into the cellar.
When Donar died, we buried him behind the flowerbeds. Barry is buried in our neighbor’s orchard.
Where Willi lies buried, we do not know.
Translation by Fred Lanting, with apologies for not remembering where I got this old story.
Note: Fred is even older than this story, and got his first GSD in 1947. He likes to think that it might have been a relative of Donar. Fred judges GSD specialties and is an international judge with many years experience judging SV, AKC, UKC, rare-breeds, and many foreign clubs’ shows. He is the author of The Total German Shepherd Dog, the definitive book on Hip Dysplasia and other orthopedic disorders (order direct from the author), in addition to innumerable magazine columns and articles. His seminars on structure, movement, and other topics are much in demand.