In 1945, as the Allies were marching through Germany, Chicago Tribune reporter Sigrid Schultz found herself in the lakefront villa of Heinrich Himmler, the vicious head of the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS. Like any good reporter, Schultz recognized the opportunity of a lifetime and began rummaging around the large home looking, she later wrote, for Himmler’s personal copy of Mein Kampf.
Schultz never found Hitler’s autobiography, but instead found a book tucked away in a large grey trunk. The curious book was a handcrafted photo album, its cover bound in woven rabbit wool, two Sig Runes (the insignia of the SS) stitched across the front, as well as the stitched word “Angora.”
Inside the album were nearly 150 photographs of bunnies; page after page of well-keep angora rabbits posed alone or with smiling Aryan women or well-groomed SS officers lovingly stroking the bunnies’ pristine white fur. Other pages have photographs of the sanitary, modern huts that the rabbits inhabited, rows of white hutches where the bunnies ate a prescribed diet and received some the best veterinary care available. On the top of one of the pages, beneath three photographs of rabbit hutches, “Buchenwald” is written in elegant script.
The photo album that Schultz had uncovered was some of the last remaining evidence of Project Angora, an obscure program begun by Himmler for the purpose of producing enough angora wool to make warm clothes for several branches of the German military. The project officially began in 1941 with 6,500 rabbits. Rabbit breeding wasn’t particularly new to Germany, the angora had been introduced to the country from the United Kingdom sometime in the 17th century and the country took to breeding the rabbits with a typical German rigor.
Records show that by the mid-1930s there were between 65 and 100 rabbit breeders registered with the state. Himmler must have seen the native resource as a boon of sorts; angora wool, a fiber associated with luxurious evening wear, would be an elegant solution for keeping SS officers and the German military warm and able to endure rough wartime conditions.
At one point, a Reich Specialized Group of Rabbit Breeders was formed and customized cutlery was produced for the group–along with the scrapbook, the dinner knives from the set are one of the only material objects that seem to have survived.
By 1943, Project Angora had bred nearly 65,000 rabbits, producing over 10,000 pounds of wool. The photo albums shows sweaters produced for the German air force, socks produced for their navy and long underwear for ground troops. It’s hard to gauge whether or not the program was a success, but we do know that the coddled rabbits lived in close proximity to human prisoners.
The well-fed rabbits were housed in some of the Nazi regime’s most notorious concentration camps: Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen, and nearly thirty more camps around central Europe. The contrast between the brutality of the camps, with their cruel disregard for human life, and the well-cared for rabbits is deeply unnerving. This jarring context makes the remnants of the program–the book found by Schultz–seem all the more sinister.
Schultz later described the casual cruelty of her discovery:
“Thus, in the same compound where 800 human beings would be packed into barracks that were barely adequate for 200, the rabbits lived in luxury in their own elegant hutches. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings were starved to death, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals. The SS men who whipped, tortured, and killed prisoners saw to it that the rabbits enjoyed loving care.”
Indeed, in one of the photographs, three men wearing the familiar uniform of the SS hold one of the large rabbits housed at Dachau. It’s a striking image: the soft white fur of the rabbit; its clean hutch in the background, the almost loving inspection of the large angora by officers wearing rigid visor caps. Indeed, concern for animal welfare was part of the Third Reich’s representation to itself and the populations they sought to control.
The regime banned vivisection and Hermann Göring described the law as “necessary…to protect animals and to show sympathy with their pain, but it is also a law for humanity itself.” And at Buchenwald, one of the camps where the angoras were kept, the commandant Karl Koch kept a zoo directly adjacent to the camp’s fence. The zoo was kept for the “amusement” of the SS officers and frequented by Koch’s wife, Ilse, a woman infamous for her sadistic cruelty.
It was, perhaps, for this reason, a nagging sense that the world would not perceive his rabbit breeding project as an innovative approach, that led Himmler to hide the existence of Project Angora. At the end of the war, the rabbit hutches were entirely abandoned; the once cared for angoras, left to their own devices. There were rumors that the rabbits had been eaten, perhaps used in stews by the American liberators.
In 1945, the Nazi War Crimes Commission heard testimony about Project Angora, though they were unable to locate any evidence of its existence; virtually all traces of rabbits had disappeared, and the small handmade volume that Schultz uncovered in Himmler’s chateau was unknown to the Commission. It’s not even clear that Schultz herself was completely aware of what was in her possession until decades later.
In 1965, Schultz donated the book to the Wisconsin Historical Society, where it is housed today. Two years later, she wrote a brief essay for the society, the only thoughts about the relic that she ever put on record. In that essay, she cited Himmler’s own words, his insistent reminders that the Third Reich’s humanity was found in their kindness to animals.
“The tools used for the grooming of the rabbits could have come out of the showcases of Elizabeth Arden,” she wrote, contrasting the posh Manhattan salon with the savagery of the camps where the Angoras were housed. The comparison captured the brutal surreality of Project Angora and its remnants.