Frank Westerman: The Horses that Witnessed War, EIBF 2012, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Frank Westerman with Alistair Moffat (Chair)
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Frank Westerman is a Dutch journalist who grew up amongst horses and has now written a history of the Lippizaner. Alistair Moffat chaired the session well and led the author through with considerable skill as he himself is not only a horse lover but also a genetic historian. He quoted the saying that, "when you touch a Lippizaner you touch history," and asked Westerman if he felt this could be justified.

In reply, Westerman explained that the domination of central Europe by the Emperors of Austria had continued for something like four hundred years and that the ruling family had a stud farm which had bred a strong horse strain taking the best from Arab and European stock. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna was established at this time and continues today with a group of twenty four stallions. The horses were so important to the Emperor that the riding hall was a part of the Hapsburg Palace.

What were they trying to produce, Moffat asked? This was meant to be a strain of the highest quality and the best trained horses that existed anywhere in the world. They were schooled in minute detail and with the greatest skill, being taught how to dance and perform the most complex dressage manoeuvres.

What do the horses tell us, Moffat asked? Westerman said that he saw them as emblems of empire. Napoleon saw the importance of a good horse and horses had been through two world wars. He pointed out that the Lippizaner horses were white or grey although they might start out a different colour when a foal. This is different from the Life Guards who all have black horses.

Moffat wondered how long it takes to train a Lippizaner and the reply was some twelve to fourteen years. So, during the Second World War, the Germans made arrangements to take many of the horses to Germany. But the Germans had other plans also and created development centres for the National Front which encouraged the breeding of a pure Aryan stock for "the master race".  

In fact, the Germans used the same certificates to register the birth of the children of pure Aryan stock as it was a symbol of purity. The Germans were simply carrying on from the research initiated by Gregor Mendel, now regarded by many as the man who carried out the the initial research for genetics and DNA.

In discussion, there were references about characteristics such as red hair and work carried out by other leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Marshal Tito. Much of the extensions to the breeding theories and implementation plans can be traced back to the work carried out to develop the breed of Lippizaner horses.

Event: 20 August, 2012.