Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse
Man and Beast in an Age of Human Warfare
By Frank Westerman
Translated by Sam Garrett
Harvill Secker, 2012
Just think for a moment of the myriad human, supra-human, near-divine qualities which we are prone to attribute to the horse: beauty, grace, nobility, courage… and then reflect on the extent to which the horse – no less than the dog – is a human creation.
Frank Westerman’s fine book, close to three years in the making, focuses on the Lipizzaner, the horse that arose out of the Habsburg Empire, becoming more prominent as the Empire itself grew in scope and influence. They even acquired their own portraitist, one Johann Georg von Hamilton. This wondrous creature became a constant presence at ceremonial occasions, coming to symbolise power and aristocracy, yes, yet as well decorum, culture, civilisation, artistic excellence… On reading about such state occasions you might almost believe that they were in celebration of the Lipizzaner itself.
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna lies at the centre of the Lipizzaner Universe; it is the place where the archives of the breed are housed. And you can see the Lipizzaner now in Vienna still, the city that was once the Easternmost outreach of the Roman Empire, though their role is much diminished. They do their dancing on New Year’s Eve and on other special occasions, their twists and turns for the tourists. Ballet dancers they are, artist and athlete both, and a cultural commodity of Vienna. Along with say Klimt at the Belvedere, Sachertorte at Demel’s and new wine from the Vienna Woods.
When the Habsburg Empire fractured following the First World War, that was a severe jolt for the Lipizzaner. The stud farms were all of a sudden dispersed across several countries and the very existence of the breed was in danger. The Nazi ‘occupation’ of Austria (there was very little resistance to this armed occupation, curiously enough) brought a curious respite: the Lipizzaner were a valuable breeding material, and could perhaps be put forward as evidence in support of Nazi Biology. There was even a stud farm at Auschwitz, run by Gustav Rau, Hitler’s equerry. Then, later, the horses had to contend with the Cold War and the dissolution of the Iron Curtain. The war in the former Yugoslavia, the atrocities at Jasenovac extending to the Lipizzaner as well, were a lowlight.
It is a vivid history that Westerman recounts and he draws out the lessons that can be learned about the human animal, considering our flawed custodianship of nature and own not entirely innocent history, the flirtation with ‘pure blood’ and eugenics. Biotechnology and synthetic biology are the forms that this urge for power over nature currently takes. The book explores many fascinating byways; the unhappy fate of Paul Kammerer and the ideological tussle in Stalinist Russia between Vavilov and Lysenko being two such.
Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse is a classy work of creative nonfiction, which has been very ably translated by Sam Garrett. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.