Jurassic Park fifty years prior? Cabinet Magazine on a strange form of zoology in Nazi Germany, centered around the cordoning off of untainted forests for the re-creation of pure, ancient breeds of ponies, boars, and a mystical striped oxen called the auroch:
In 1920, the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck, directors of the Berlin and Munich zoos, respectively, began a two-decade breeding experiment. Working with domestic cattle sought out for their “primitive” characteristics, they attempted to recreate “in appearance and behavior” the living likeness of the animals’ extinct wild ancestor: the aurochs.
This conflation of biological and aesthetic destiny coincided with a strain of Nazi thought that sought to apply pseudo-Darwinian theories in support of a racialized conception of the state. In this mode, the zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified parallels between the changes he observed in animals as the result of their domestication and what he saw as the deleterious genetic effects of civilization.
Following the German occupation of eastern Poland in 1941, [Research patron Hermann] Göring envisioned the transformation of Bialowiez˙a into a vast game reserve. The agenda dovetailed with the Hecks’ back-breeding programs. One of the last European forests largely undisturbed since the Ice Age, Bialowiez˙a also sheltered rare game animals: bears, wolves, capercaillies, and the last of the lowland European bison, an animal which appears alongside the aurochs in Lutz Heck’s constellation of ancient German game.
The reintroduction of these two animals into the German landscape was part of a larger project of constructing a national identity based on mythic foundations. Germany under the Third Reich would be restored to the Germany of the Nibelungenlied.
To realize this historical fantasy, however, required a series of spatial and temporal displacements. While Göring traveled east to Bialowiez˙a to seek Germany’s lost game, the Hecks arranged for the export of Bialowiez˙a’s bison west to Schorfheide, Göring’s reserve north of Berlin. There, they were integrated into ongoing efforts to cross European bison with Canadian wood bison in an attempt to strengthen the diminished European genetic stock. Subsequent breeding would then restore a more European phenotype, while carrying over the “robustness” of the American.
The Hecks’ back-breeding projects themselves would continue only a short while longer. When the Allied bombs rained down on Berlin for two nights in January 1944, what remained of the battered zoological gardens went up in flames. Animals succumbed to shrapnel wounds or burned to death in their cages. Dangerous species broke loose and were shot. Such was the fate of the Heck aurochs. Lutz Heck’s son gunned down the agitated and stampeding aurochs, together with warthogs and wild boar, after they had escaped their burning enclosures.
The Heck aurochs did not altogether disappear. At the Munich zoo, Heinz Heck’s aurochs survived the war unharmed. Heck cattle—as the breed is known today—trace their lineage to these animals. There have even been recent attempts, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, to introduce the breed into state nature reserves as surrogates for the megafauna that once grazed on lowland grasses. But the Heck fantasy of the aurochs no longer clings to these animals, despite their atavistic features, and the aurochs itself, Bos primigenius, has lost much of its unique scientific status. Current nomenclature no longer distinguishes the aurochs as a species distinct from domestic cattle.