Former Post reporter’s book reveals little known WWI plot

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is the often quoted observation by the late semanticist and philosopher George Santayana. The problem is that while history indeed repeats itself, it is never an exact repetition of prior events, as the French discovered when the Maginot Line it built to prevent another German attack, which could have protected France in World War I, was easily defeated by an “end-run” and improved technology by the Nazis in World War II. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Israel painfully discovered that the supremacy over the skies it attained early in the 1967 Six-Day War was neutralized by shoulder-held Sting missiles, which took a devastating toll on the IDF Air Force. Robert Koenig, a former Washington Bureau writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a contributing correspondent for Science magazine, and who now resides in South Africa, has published a fascinating book about a little-known plot, with a strong St. Louis connection, to use germ warfare to cripple the supply of vitally important horses and mules needed by the U.S. military during World War I.

Koenig, who formerly resided in Germany, and who has written extensively on both German and scientific topics, brought both of these skills to bear in his gripping book The Fourth Horseman: One Man’s Mission to Wage The Great War in America (PublicAffairs/Perseus Books, 349 pages, $26). During a recent visit to St. Louis, Koenig outlined his research for the book in a presentation at the Main Branch of the St. Louis County Library, and sat down for an interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. A native of Hawaii, Koenig grew up in St. Louis, graduating from Cleveland High School, and attending Washington University in St. Louis, where he enjoyed classes taught by Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov and William Gass. He later received a master’s degree in English from Tulane University and a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. He covered the European Union in Brussels for a number of years.

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Koenig, 55, told the St. Louis Jewish Light that he came upon the information about the plot by Dr. Anton Dilger to infect U.S. horses and mules, while doing research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “The 2001 anthrax attacks in Florida and Washington drew me to information on earlier uses of biological agents in warfare,” Koenig told the Jewish Light. The research led him to the discovery of the plot by Dr. Dilger.

Koenig’s book, which reads like a Michael Chrichton novel, but which is entirely factual, has been described as a “must read” by Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, Ph.D., president and director of the Institute for Genomic Research, who described the information as “a terrifying true story about the first coordinated campaign of agricultural bioterrorism in 20th Century America, carried out by the perfect perpetrator, Anton Dilger.” She adds, “Given the enormous potential impact of future agricultural biosabotage to disrput our food supply and economy, this is a must read for scientists, policymakers and the general public.”

Ironically, although Anton is of German parentage, he was a native of the United States, whose story “begins against the idyllic backdrop of a horse farm in Virginia. Anton’s father emigrated from Germany during the Civil War, fought as a calvaryman for the Union Army and had won America’s highest military honor after his life was saved by a horse.” The author points out that “Anton, though, never felt a deep loyalty to the United States, and when he returned to Germany to study medicine, he became a valuable potential agent: he carried an American passport, but his love was for Germany.”

Writing about his former colleague Koenig’s book, St. Louis Post-Dispatch military matters columnist Harry Levins, noted that Dilger’s germs (which cause the deadly disease glanders) weren’t meant to afflict the soldiers fighting Germany. Instead, Dilger targeted his germs at the enemy’s horses.” Levins adds, “In our motorized age, we’ve forgotten what a key role horseflesh played in the logistics of World War I. Although cavalry charges were fading in the face of machine guns, WWI armies depended heavily on horses (and mules) to haul their artillery pieces and supply their front-line soldiers.”

After the United States belatedly entered World War I in 1917, Dilger attempted to carry out his plot against American horses and mules, sending two German agents to St. Louis in the fall of 1916 in anticipation of President Woodrow Wilson’s expected decision to declare war on Germany and its allies. The germs were intended to target the National Stockyards in East St. Louis, which according to Levins, “had more horsepower than any place in America,” according to Koenig, 1.4 million horses and mules were traded there between 19l4 and 1919.

As fate and luck would have it, a cold snap in the fall of 19l6 killed the glanders germs and thwarted Dilger’s sinister plot. A later effort to infect some mules in Lathrop, Mo., at the hands of a hired sabateur, failed to cause much harm to those being shipped to Britain for the war effort.

During this season of Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, we associate the use of deadly agents, such as Zyklon-B gas, used in the gas chambers with the war crimes of Germany. The First World War, which Wilson called “The War to End All Wars” or the war to “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” was in many ways only a prepartion for World War II. Dilger’s plot, suspensefully and grippingly detailed in Koenig’s book, is a chilling reminder of the potential for ever-more-deadly weapons being put into use against both military and civilian targets. The recent scares when produce, such as spinach was infected and caused death and illness, or the deaths of hundreds of pets from contaminated pet food are scary reminders of just how vulnerable our food supply has become.