Sometimes the best events at book festivals aren't the ones that draw huge queues. One of the delights is stumbling across the unexpected: a book or an author of whom you have never heard, telling you things you didn't know, or kindling an interest in something you previously thought of as dull.
I hit the jackpot on this week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, when, on a whim, I went to hear the Dutch Author, Frank Westerman, talking about his book Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse. I was completely unprepared for the revelations that followed, and the new light they shone for me on a huge range of historical events. As a good Festival-goer, I bought the book. It made me dump the blog I had started for this month, to share with you just a few of its highlights. My apologies if you knew all this already. Most of it (and much more I have no room for here) was news to me.
Westerman’s book is about the famous Lipizzaner horses – the beautiful grey stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. There was a time in the 1960s when their stylised dancing to music was shown quite often on British telly, and I have to admit that I had always thought of them as rather naff – even slightly comic -- coming in a close second behind the Greek soldiers who kick up their legs as they march along in silly bloomers. Well, I’ve changed my mind, and not just because I now know more about the rigorous training they and their riders undergo. It’s because of the insight their story offers into our past and present.
When Westerman was a child, he was told ‘touch a Lipizzaner, and you are touching history’. And what a history! Originally the ‘living crown jewels’ of the Hapsburg Empire, the fate of these beasts, and their enforced peregrinations across Europe and beyond in times of war, reflects not just political changes over four centuries, but the intellectual ferment centring on the concept of pure bloodlines and genetics which shaped the horrors of the twentieth century.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons, by Machoxx
From the late sixteenth century to the present day the horses have been status symbols for kings and tyrants. As human societies crumbled around them, heroic efforts were made to preserve the breeding stock – not just by Austrians, but by invaders from Napoleon to the American General George Patton who, in 1945, oversaw ‘Operation Cowboy’ which (bending the rules so recently established at Yalta) diverted military resources into ensuring that the Lipizzaners were a prize for the West.
Nevertheless, some ended up on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Because the first of the line came from Lipica, in what became Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito was given the makings of a Lipizzaner stud farm (the offspring of which were starved, or massacred and buried in mass burial pits in war of the 1990s).
Tito used the horses as prestigious gifts, to leaders including Ceausescu of Romania, Nehru and Nasser. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia bought thirty – who came to a sticky end. In Western Europe, the Pope, our Queen, and Hollywood stars like Gary Cooper and Walt Disney all celebrated the Lipizzaners, despite their staus as emblems of the Nazi mindset. General Patton took some back to the USA. Their descendants performed at the inauguration of President Regan in 1980. Everybody wanted them – not just for what they looked like, or what they could do, but as representations of perfection, and for the majesty they projected onto their owners.
That, Westerman argues, had a lot to do with their place in the evolution of ideas about genetics – the science inaugurated by the nineteenth-century monk Gregor Mendel (hence the book’s title).
Picture from Wikimedia
Mendel's story is well-known. It was he who, long before the discovery of DNA, introduced the world to the science of genetics, and the possibility of the deliberate propagation of inherent characteristics. Mendel demonstrated it with peas, and his name is not a dirty word. But, of course,
by the mid 20th century his theories were being taken to their logical extreme. We all know about the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele, and his experiments in the concentration camps. You may not know, as I did not, that Auschwitz also housed a Lipizzaner stud farm – though the fact may not surprise you. Obsessed with the horses’ pure breeding , which condemned ‘substandard’ specimens to work or the butcher, Hitler was bound to be a fan.
One of the most chilling moments in Frank Westerman’s talk was when he produced a biology text book for children issued to German schools in the late 1930s. Along with the main tenets of Mendelian theory of heredity, it included a fold-out form, on which pupils were required to enter full details of their families, working backwards through their parents, grandparents, and so on, listing not just names but physical characteristics such as colour of eyes and hair, etc.
Then Westerman unfolded another, almost identical document. It was the pedigree of one of the Lipizzaner horses.
Not everyone took the same political message from Mendel’s theories, but the ideology and practicalities which lay behind the establishment and maintenance of the Lipizzaner breed could govern very different policies. Tito, for example, saw in Mendelianism the potential for making bloodlines less pure, in the cause of uniting the disparate set of territories he was handed under the post war settlement.
Picture from Wikimedia
Tito insisted that the troops of the new country of Yugoslavia should be stationed in different provinces from those in which they had been recruited (Croats in Kosovo, Serbs in Slovenia, etc). This was in the expectation that they would mate with local women, producing a mixed, and therefore more stable, ‘Yugoslav’ population.
As we know, it didn’t turn out like that.
The biggest revelation for me was the Soviet response to the Nazis’ genetic engineering. Before and during the war, the Soviet Union was home to a state-sponsored centre of excellence in Menedelian studies and application. In 1948, Stalin obliterated all scientific institutes that followed Mendel’s theories. Through the biologist Tromfin Lysenko, Stalin imposed a scientific regime under which it was a crime to maintain that inherent characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next by physical means which could be analysed and manipulated.
The notion was replaced by a gene-less one which acknowledged that a species could share features of its predecessors, but that these were imparted entirely as a result of (influencible) experience. This force of evolution could be harnessed by ‘drilling’ plants, animals and humans. Until the time of Brezhnev, Nature was entirely rejected in favour of Nurture. For the soviets, acquired characteristics could be inherited.
So pigs were to be made hardier by being subjected to freezing weather. Crops would be stronger if many seedlings were planted in the same hole and had to compete for light and nutrients. What one generation of animals or vegetables ‘learned’ they would pass on. ‘Mendelian’ cross-breeding was forbidden, with the result that Soviet agriculture failed to support the Russian people. And the idea of long-term reprogramming was applied to humans, too, in the labour camps.
Under Lysenko's influence, all commemoration of Mendel was expunged from his home town of Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic) and any Lipizzaner horses which had ended up on Soviet territory after the upheavals of World War II were destined for the cooking pot.
Stalin died just before the double-helix was revealed to the world. In the era of the genome, his attitude might seem laughable (were its consequences not so tragic). Mendel has been rehabilitated with a new museum in Bruno. But Westerman postulates that, because of our forefathers’ history and our own scientific outlook, we are in danger of slipping into a mindset where we feel compelled to take one side or the other in the Nature/Nurture debate (at a time when the latest experimental science suggests that the two are probably interlinked). There is, for example, no mention of the Lysenko years in the reconstituted Mendel museum in Brno.
Are we tempted to believe that, in the age of cloning, the argument is over, and DNA determinism has won? Once again, the horses of the Spanish riding school (now subject to artificial insemination) and their American cousins (one of whom has been cloned) are in symbolic of society's attitude to breeding. In this climate, Westerman warns, genetic tyrants of all political persuasions may find space to grow. And we can guess which horses they would like to ride.
Picture from Wikimedia
Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse is not a perfect book (no index, no pictures) but it would be satisfying enough as an exciting account of the preservation of prized animals in the most extreme circumstances. That Westerman describes hidden corners of history and raises questions with profound implications for our understanding of our past and our future is a bonus. And he leaves us with a stark assessment of where we stand now:
'The ‘eighth day of Creation’ dawned some time ago. The human species has not only deduced the workings of evolution, but has succeeded in taking apart its motor, boring out the cylinders and reassemblng the whole contraption. On this souped-up moped we then hurtle forwards at breakneck speed -- cockily and without a helmet.
By the way, at the Edinburgh Book Festival today at 5pm, I will be interviewing History Girl contributor Sally Nicholls about her novel set at the time of the Black Death: All Fall Down.
Until Monday, you can still see the dramatisation of my book, Montmorency, at C Venue in Chambers Street. 7.25 every night.
And, passing though Brimingham after I heard Frank Westerman speak, I saw a huge poster announcing that the Spanish Riding School of Vienna is coming to the National Exhibition Centre in November, to perform alongside our Olympic dressage stars.