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Save Berlin: Paradises lost?

Dan Borden on two endangered sources of GDR fun: the former central zoo of East Berlin, Tierpark, and the seemingly forever-in-limbo Spreepark.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

Dan Borden on two endangered sources of GDR fun.

Life for Cold War East Berliners was, as we all know, a dystopian nightmare: brutally imprisoned, deprived of modern comforts and hounded by secret police. If things were so miserable, why didn’t they rise up, toss out their fake Coke and crappy cars and give Big Brother the boot? It could be they were just having too much fun.

The victorious West has meticulously preserved and spotlighted the most egregious examples of East Berlin’s ugliness, but the gray GDR capital was also littered with pockets of joy and colour, particularly green. While West Germany’s Green Party fought to raise environmental awareness, East Germans were already out in the wild, having a ball. Some remnants of this green Worker’s Paradise are still around, but, like hothouse flowers tossed out into a snowstorm, they’re struggling to survive the harsh winds of capitalism and face an uncertain future.


When Berlin was split after World War II, the East grabbed most of the goodies – museums, cathedrals, universities, operas – but Berlin’s celebrated Zoologischer Garten was in the West. On July 2, 1955, the East’s own Tierpark opened around an abandoned Baroque palace, the Schloß Friedrichsfelde, with grounds by 19th-century garden designer Peter Joseph Lenne. Unlike the tightly packed Zoo, the new Tierpark spread out over 160 hectares – one acre for each of its 400 animals. Today it’s still the biggest zoo in Europe, space-wise, and houses 7500 animals.

In 1990, the East’s Tierpark and West’s Zoo were joined under Zoo AG, a publicly held corporate overlord with very vocal shareholders. In the cutthroat world of modern zoos, Tierpark is an underperformer. It pulls in about a million visitors per year, one-third as many as its downtown brother. And Tierpark takes a lion’s share of Berlin Senate handouts: in 2011, it swallowed €5.7 million in subsidies compared to the Zoo’s €1.91 million. Critics ask why debt-ridden Berlin needs two animal parks and call for a “conceptual reorientation” of the zoos, a euphemism for shutting the Tierpark down.

To make things worse, zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz’s gruff style has earned him lots of enemies. Critics call him a Luddite – he refuses to use a computer – and misogynist – in memos, he refers to female colleagues with the notation “0.1”, zoological code for breeding females. Some even blame him for the 2011 death of beloved polar bear Knut. Key politicians want Blaszkiewitz out now and last month named his successor, veterinarian Andreas Knieriem. But he vows to stick out his contract through June 2014. Until he’s replaced, the Tierpark and its East Berlin beasts will live with an axe over their necks.


This ruined amusement park in Treptow is best known for its tragicomic post-Wall history: in 1991, it was handed over to a shady thrill ride operator, Norbert Witte, who went broke and tried to pay his debts by smuggling cocaine – in one of his rides.

But for 20 years, this 30-hectare fun fair was Kulturpark Plänterwald, a beloved oasis of Socialist family glee. Built to celebrate the GDR’s 20th birthday in 1969, it was, by Western standards, little more than a humble county fair midway with low-impact rides and shooting galleries. Its crowning glory was a 40-metre-high Ferris wheel whose coloured lights hovering over the trees of Plänterwald became – like the TV Tower, finished the same year – a symbol of East Berlin’s renaissance.

Witte’s log flumes and roller coasters brought Spreepark up to modern standards, but high ticket prices and lack of parking turned guests away. Yearly visitors dropped from a GDR peak of 1.7 million to 400,000 in 2001. Witte filed for bankruptcy in 2002, and Spreepark has been rotting in limbo since.

That should have changed this year with a long-planned tax auction on July 3, but the Spreepark sale turned into a circus when authorities mysteriously shut down bidding just as it started. Insiders suspect a bid from Berlin’s own property management company, Liegenschaftsfond, clued local district officials they were being ripped off. The profit-driven bureaucrats bid nearly twice the asking price with the clear intention of reselling it at an even higher price. Smelling a chance to make their own windfall, Treptow-Köpenick authorities are holding on to the park, possibly to market directly to developers. For the time being, Spreepark is back in limbo, which means it’s still open for public tours on weekends – see www.berliner-spreepark.de.