During the Cold War, Germany was cleaved into two countries: The Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, allied with Western democracies; and the German Democratic Republic, also known as the GDR or East Germany, which aligned itself with the Soviet Union. The once-shared German capital of Berlin was also divided, a split formalized by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

As each side rebuilt from the bombings of World War II, an unlikely battleground for the hearts and minds of citizens emerged: zoos.  

Laying Claim to the Past

In post-World War II Europe, divided Berlin was ground zero for Cold War tensions. “The Cold War was right there in one city like it was no place else, the two sides rubbing against each other, risking World War III every time there were tensions between East and West,” says Hope Harrison, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and author of After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present. The two halves of the city competed for resources and cultural dominance in a game of constant one-upmanship—including at their zoos.

Long before World War II, animals and nature held a revered place in German culture. In Imperial times, explorers like the Humboldt brothers were celebrated for their discoveries about the natural world. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, German Romanticism exalted nature as a pathway to knowing the self. “When Germany was divided, both sides wanted to coopt that history and spin it to their advantage,” says Harrison. “Which is why there was no way East Germany was going to allow West Berlin to have the only zoo. They had to have their own to continue what they saw as their German heritage.”

A Tale of Two Zoos

Berlin’s two zoos became showcases for their respective political systems, explains J. W. Mohnhaupt, author of The Zookeepers’ War. The West Berlin Zoological Garden, or Zoo Berlin, is the most biodiverse zoo in the world. It was founded in 1844, making it the oldest zoo in Germany. It was heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II; only 91 of the zoo’s 2,000 animals survived the war, and 82 human bodies were dug out from the shattered buildings. West Germans rebuilt it to look much as it did before the war. “Its architecture is a relic from the 19th century. You can still see the colonial heritage in the way they highlight building styes of the past,” says Mohnhaupt.

While the West Berlin zoo was the oldest in Germany, the East Berlin Tierpark, or Tierpark Berlin, is the largest zoo in Europe. It opened in 1955 following the partition of Berlin into East and West. It was built on the ruins of the abandoned Friedrichsfelde Palace, the seat of a noble family abandoned after it was “nationalized.” It was built “as a utopia in bricks,” says Mohnhaupt. “The way they showed animals was the way the GDR government wanted its people to live; it should look free; everybody has enough space.”

Animal enclosures were built to appear modern and new in direct contrast to the small and old-fashioned zoo across the border. The 1963 opening of a 50,000 square foot big cat exhibit at the Tierpark was billed by the East German press as the “most modern animal facility in the world.” The cage was draped in a banner proclaiming it “A milestone in achieving socialism.”

Even the Tierpark’s construction reflected GDR values: Due to the shortage of workers and supplies in East Berlin, citizens helped construct the zoo themselves. “They brought bricks, brought animals, and planted trees,” Mohnhaupt says.

To obtain funding for his fledgling zoo, East German Zoo Director Heinrich Dathe stoked fears of falling behind the West, writing to East German First Secretary Walter Ulbricht that “I would like to avoid the outcome, esteemed prime minister, of the West, which is watching our development like a hawk, noting triumphantly that after a year we are running out of steam.” Dathe’s grand plans for new buildings didn’t always come to fruition, however; several were abandoned as supplies and funds fell short in the chronically cash-strapped East.

Animal Diplomacy

Instead of stockpiling nuclear arsenals, warring zoo directors Heinz-Georg Klos in the West and Dathe in the East collected animals. “Their rivalry would become a proxy struggle with each director an emblem of his city’s politics….victory was no longer smarter if currying favor with visitors, but rather of pleasing the bigwigs in Bonn and East Berlin,” writes Mohnhaupt.

Both zoos housed bears, the symbol of Berlin. Beyond that, their collections (and who paid for them) were a primer in Cold War geopolitics. The Tierpark’s black bear exhibit was sponsored by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh donated a 2-year-old elephant who was allowed to freely roam the Tierpark, delighting guests.

West Berlin was an important showcase for Western powers because of its position as an “island in the Red Sea” of Communism. “If you visited West Berlin, you had to go to the zoo. It was the easiest way to show your sympathy for the people and for democracy,” says Mohnhaupt. In 1962, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brother to President John F. Kennedy, donated a bald eagle to the Berlin Zoo. He named it “Willy Brandt” after West Berlin’s Mayor. The eagle suffered from multiple ailments and died just two years after he landed in Berlin, though his early demise was hidden from the public; Zoo Director Klos passed off a younger eagle as the famed American one. And when West Berlin’s panda Tjen Tjen, a gift from China, died in 1983, rumors spread that the KGB had killed the panda because it had gone to West Berlin instead of the communist East (the panda had died of a viral infection).

Zoos as Escape From the Walled City

It’s not hard to imagine why zoos were a welcome distraction from the walls surrounding Berlin. As historian Mieke Roscher writes: “the feeling of being enclosed within a border was everywhere. In a sense, West and East Berlin were themselves two zoos.”

“East Berliners were walled in and so were West Berliners. They both needed a sense of escape,” says Harrison. Mohnhaupt puts the motivations of East German zoogoers more bluntly: “[There was] nothing worth watching on TV, there were few opportunities to travel, and hardly anyone owned a car.” By the early 1980s, he notes, “zoos were the country’s most popular leisure destinations, welcoming sixteen million visitors annually—meaning that there were as many zoogoers as civilians of the GDR.” For both sides, a trip to the zoo offered a nostalgic and affordable chance to reconnect with the natural world and life beyond the walled city.

Why Does Berlin Still Have Two Zoos?

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was much debate about which zoo would close. Neither did. “For the older generation, there is still a sense of that old identity, that ‘if we lost this, it would mean yet again a wiping out the history of the communist East,’” says Harrison. Berlin’s two zoos are just one of the duplicates and even triplicate institutions in Berlin alongside the city’s multiple opera houses and universities, a legacy of the Cold War.

Berlin’s two zoos now share a zookeeper, though their clientele still reflects patterns that existed before reunification. “In 2014, the Zoo and Tierpark asked visitors to share what postal code they came from. Afterward, they made a map of the responses in which you could clearly see the dividing lines of the old city,” says Mohnhaupt. “The wall lives on in people’s minds.”

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