CHICAGO — For too many people, history is dead, nothing more than a collection of antiquities gathering dust. But some days history roars back to life, snapping its jaws at us and claiming a new hold on our imaginations.
Take, for instance, Hitler's talking dogs.
In his new book, "Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities," Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson reports that Adolf Hitler was so convinced of dogs' intelligence and capability to think abstractly that he was actively trying to breed an army of talking, reading and writing dogs.
Hitler's twisted mind thought trained SS dogs could go beyond serving alongside German troops in the trenches and he set up an "Animal Talking School" that kicked off by recruiting "educated dogs" from across the country.
The stories Bondeson uncovered as he plumbed the depths of obscure German periodicals range from the ridiculous to the horrifying. There are documented experiments in human/dog telepathy, tales of dogs who had been trained to spell out answers to questions by paw-tapping on lettered boards, and anecdotes about dogs who learned to imitate the human voice in order to bark requests.
Interesting, but here's the part that shocks: Bondeson puts this respect and love for both scientific inquiry and intelligent animals into perspective. "Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature. They believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend," the author told the London Daily Telegraph. "Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind."
There's your cultural insight, the thing that takes you past silly puns such as "Howl Hitler" and brings you to the very heart of what this historical nugget represents. A charismatic monster bent on ridding the earth of "life unworthy of life," who bullied and seduced everyday people to the point that they were concerned about the welfare of the pets of those about to be mass-exterminated.
This is real history. Not a condensed and sanitized collection of bullet points and timelines but a gritty glimpse into the lives of people who were trying to make it through each day while the entire world was changing around them.
If there's any justice in this world, the electronic, interactive history "books" of tomorrow will include the tale of Germany's brush with canine militarization. Thankfully, like so many of Hitler's other atrocious scientific experiments on humans and animals, the ability to make dogs talk and do the bidding of Nazis never came to pass. Just imagine the horrors they would have spoken.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.