Humans, Animals, and Nazis: The Berlin Zoo in German History


In 1943, fierce aerial bombardment razed the Berlin zoo and killed most of its animals. But only two months after the war’s end, Berliners had already resurrected it, reopening its gates in the heart of a shattered city. How do we explain this profound attachment of Berliners to their zoo?

Much of the answer lies in the history of this enormously popular attraction, one that embedded itself into the day-to-day cultural life of the German capital. Given its enormous reach, German governments of various stripes used the zoo to spread their political message, from the colonialist display of Africans, Inuit, and other “exotic” peoples in the late 19th century to the Nazis’ bizarre attempts to breed back long-extinct European cattle. The Berlin zoo therefore helped to shape German views not only of the animal world but also of the human world for more than 150 years.