The unbelievable true story of the Cold War’s strangest proxy war, fought between the zoos on either side of the Berlin Wall.
Living in West Berlin in the 1960s often felt like living in a zoo, everyone packed together behind a wall, with the world always watching. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the East Berlin zoo was spacious and lush, a socialist utopia where everything was perfectly planned...and then rarely successfully finished.
Berlin’s two zoos quickly became symbols of the divided city’s two halves. And so no one was terribly surprised when the head zookeepers on either side started an animal arms race—rather than stockpiling nuclear warheads, competing to have the most pandas and hippos. Soon, state funds were being quietly diverted to give these new animals lavish welcomes worthy of visiting dignitaries. West German presidential candidates were talking about zoo policy on the campaign trail. And eventually politicians on both side of the Wall became convinced that if their zoo were proved to be inferior, then that would mean their country’s whole ideology was too.
A quirky piece of Cold War history unlike anything you’ve heard before, The Zookeepers’ War is an epic tale of desperate rivalries, human follies, and an animal-mad city in which zookeeping became a way of continuing politics by other means.
Prologue PROLOGUE ANIMAL PEOPLE City dwellers in general, and Berliners in particular, love animals more than their fellow men.
—Wolfgang Gewalt, former director of the Duisburg Zoo, in an interview with Die Zeit, 1966
The following anecdote stems from the late 1980s, with the world on the brink of crisis, when it seemed that the Berlin Wall would stand for at least another hundred years, and West Berlin’s Zoo and East Berlin’s Tierpark were not only their respective countries’ most popular recreational facilities, but also symbols of their systems of government. The city of Berlin had been divided for nearly thirty years, and the only sign of unity was the two zoo directors’ dedication to cultivating their mutual aversion. It is hard to know who started the feud; as so often in life, though, it all came down to who had the biggest of whatever was being compared—in this case, elephants.
The setting was the West Berlin Zoological Garden, where Heinz-Georg Klös, the director, had recently enlarged his elephant enclosure and bought a few new animals, which he was now showcasing. Klös was an avid animal collector, and his zoo had the largest number of species in the world. He attached great importance to having more elephants than his counterpart in the East, because, in the world of zoos, elephants are prize possessions. Having more elephants meant winning a battle. Back in the 1960s, Willy Brandt, West Berlin’s mayor at the time, was said to have gone over the head of his own Department of Finance to secure the money needed to purchase additional elephants, with the sole aim of flaunting this acquisition in front of the East Berlin Tierpark and its director. At least, that’s how Klös remembered it.
Courtesy now dictated that Heinrich Dathe, the director of the Tierpark (“animal park”), be invited to the unveiling of West Berlin’s new elephant enclosure. Dathe’s presence could be to Klös’s advantage: the director of the Zoo would be able to make sure his rival saw just how badly he had been bested—after all, Dathe had been struggling for more than ten years to get funding for a new pachyderm pavilion despite East Germany’s floundering economy.
Dathe did not think much of Klös, professionally or personally. And Dathe, who was sixteen years older, made his junior counterpart fully aware of his disdain—he once made a show of serving dumplings at a gathering, pointing out the resemblance between the German word for dumplings (Klösschen) and his guest’s last name.
And so, when Dathe criticized the new elephants in the Zoological Garden for looking “a little puny,” Klös had reached the limit of his patience. One word led to another, and eventually a shoving match ensued between the two aging men—neither much taller than five foot five—right there among the elephants. Top Dogs Behind Tall Walls In retrospect, we have to wonder which was more responsible for driving these two men apart: their similarities or their differences. Both came to divided Berlin in the 1950s: Heinrich Dathe in 1954 from the city of Leipzig, several hours to the south, in order to create the world’s largest and most modern zoo in the capital of the newly formed communist German Democratic Republic (GDR); Klös three years later from Osnabrück, a smaller city way off in the country’s west, to restore the oldest zoo in the Federal Republic of Germany to its former glory. The Tierpark and the Zoo became their missions in life, and before long an intense rivalry developed. Jürgen Lange, the longtime director of West Berlin’s aquarium, described the relationship between the two: “If one of them buys a miniature donkey, the other buys a mammoth donkey.”
Dathe was an educator by nature. A short, stocky, prematurely balding man with a round head and horn-rimmed glasses, he tried to hide his receding hairline by combing his remaining strands of hair over the bald spot above his forehead. But he made no attempt to conceal his singsong, backwoods Saxon accent, pronouncing cockatoos “gagadoos” and camels “gamels.” Dathe was sought after not just locally, but throughout the world, owing both to his expertise and to his control of the central quarantine station for the transport of animals from the Eastern Bloc to Western Europe. He also published the influential trade journal Der Zoologische Garten. Everyone reached out to Dathe, and everyone wanted something from him.
On the other side of the Berlin Wall, Klös ran the richest and most important zoo in West Germany, but he lacked Dathe’s self-assured personality. Everything seemed to come easily to Dathe; Klös always came across as eager, yet oddly insecure. He was forever trying to wriggle his way into any new plans. If some organization was starting up, he would find a way to get involved.
Klös had the disadvantage of being “only” a veterinarian—someone who traditionally had a harder time of it in the world of zoo directors than a zoologist did. Today, a background in veterinary medicine isn’t unusual for a zoo director, but then it was regarded as a shortcoming. Klös, however, was a superb organizer and manager, with a knack for badgering politicians and business tycoons until they handed over money. “Don’t eat dinner next to Klös, otherwise you’ll lose your purse” went a rhyming quip in West Berlin. Some people claimed Klös was so good at rustling up money out of nowhere that he must also be able to pull rabbits out of hats.
Klös could be dogged, certainly, but he was determined to maintain his institution’s relevance to a country from which West Berlin had been physically blocked off. With the West German capital four hundred miles away, the far-off Bonn, he made every effort to ensure that each West German president visited his zoo at least once—and he got them all, even Gustav Heinemann, a confirmed hater of animals.
For Dathe in the East, it was important to gain a foothold for himself and his animal park not only within the GDR, but also beyond the confines of its borders. Cozying up to the men in the Politburo paid off handsomely, particularly if they were also animal lovers, such as Friedrich Ebert Jr. and Günter Schabowski, high-ranking members of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party. “Dathe would not have worked out in the West any better than Klös would have in the East,” says Lothar Dittrich, the director of the Hanover Zoo and a close friend of Heinrich Dathe. “They were two top dogs—each in the place that best suited him.” In the other’s Germany, they would have failed miserably.
But while Dathe and Klös were masters of their respective games, both could be naive. Through to the end of the GDR, Dathe clung to the belief that the East German secret police had never kept tabs on him, while Klös proved still more obtuse when he recommended that his predecessor, Lutz Heck, an old Nazi and close friend of Hermann Göring, be named an honorary member of the Association of German Zoos. Politics sparked their interest only where their animals were concerned.
For both men, their zoos came first, well before anything else—even their own families. Their zoos were their families, wives and children often little more than hangers-on. In Berlin, in the Cold War, being a zoo director was more than a nine-to-five job; it was a calling. Klös and Dathe were “animal people,” a description used by zookeepers and circus performers to describe those who get along better with beasts than with their fellow men. Politics by Other Means The political and social influence the two zoo directors had in their halves of the divided city was possible only in the context of the Cold War—but it was also an outgrowth of the special bond between Berliners and their animals. Berliners are not just animal lovers; they are animal-obsessed. No other city has made so many of its nonhuman residents VIPs, from Bobby the gorilla, the first of his species to join the Berlin Zoo in the late 1920s, to Knautschke the hippo, one of the only animals to survive World War II, to Knut the polar bear, who in death received almost as many flowers, condolence cards, and stuffed animals as Princess Diana.
The Wall was the bulwark between the administrators’ separate turfs, where they reigned without competition, the existence of the zoo on each side providing the justification for the other to flourish. Both became symbols of their half of the city and embodied its political system: the Zoo was the treasure of the island that was West Berlin, a cornucopia of species packed within the constricted space of a city hemmed in by the Wall. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Tierpark was spacious and expansive, planned on a drawing board, but not designed of a piece and never fully completed: the socialist utopia as a work in progress.
In divided Berlin, in the words of historian Mieke Roscher, whose research at the University of Kassel focuses on human-animal relationships, “the feeling of being enclosed within a border was palpable everywhere. In a sense, West and East Berlin were themselves two zoos.” Amidst the tensions of the Cold War, animal parks were havens in which visitors might get a glimpse of an unspoiled world. Yet within the gates of these purported paradises, rigid hierarchies ruled. And those in the know claimed the two zoos were run as strictly as any city hall, court of law, or international military alliance set up to guard against the outbreak of World War III.
Jan Mohnhaupt has written for many of Germany’s leading newspapers and magazines. The Zookeepers’ War is his first book to be translated into English. He lives in Munich, where he’s happy to be close to one of his favorite zoos.
“This is going to sound a little weird, but the entire history of the Cold War can be told through the story of two zoos. Because from the 1950s to the 1980s the zoos on either side of the Berlin Wall fought the Cold War’s strangest proxy war.” — Megan H., Associate Editor, on The Zookeepers’ War
“As riveting as any Cold War spy novel. TheZookeepers’ War is an immaculately researched, moving tale of two zoo directors whose careers became a microcosm of the struggle between two antagonistic ways of life. A captivating read.”
– Elena Gorokhova, author of Russian Tattoo
“J. W. Mohnhaupt’s engrossing tale features a mix of just about everything: outsized ambitions, clashing personalities, Cold War drama, and animals galore. It also encapsulates Germany’s history from the end of World War II until reunification. Quite a feat – and a must read.”
– Andrew Nagorski, bestselling author of 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War
“With the Stasi chipping in for a pair of bears, Ho Chi Minh sending an elephant, and the Kennedys gifting a decrepit bald eagle, J. W. Mohnhaupt’s portrait of two dueling Berlin zoos gives us a new understanding of the term ‘political animal.’ This quirky and delightful account of captive critters and soft (and occasionally scaly) diplomacy is colorful, provocative, and ultimately about the very human notions of power, pleasure, and the nature of freedom.”
– Abby Tucker, bestselling author of The Lion in the Living Room
“Cold War Berlin bursts to life in this riveting, lively German bestseller chronicling the fierce rivalry between zoos on either side of the Iron Curtain... Mohnhaupt is a keen guide to the difficulties of a divided Berlin and to the enchantment of a career devoted to wild animals.”
– Publishers Weekly
“An offbeat tale from the Cold War… with plenty of near-comical turns.”
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