The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II

Khalid Elhassan - May 10, 2019

In 1841, Prussia’s King Frederick William IV gifted his private menagerie to his subujects, and founded the Berlin Zoo. The establishment grew over the years, and today, Berlin’s Zoological Garden and Aquarium hosts one of the planet’s most comprehensive collections of animals. With some world famous residents such as Bao Bao the giant panda, and Knut the polar bear, the zoo attracts millions of visitors each year, making it one of Berlin’s biggest tourist attractions, and one of the planet’s most popular zoological gardens. Its current state marks an impressive comeback from its fate in World War II, when the Berlin Zoo was totally demolished, and lost all but 91 of the roughly 4000 animals it had housed in 1939.

The Berlin Zoo Until World War II

19th century Prussian monarch Frederick William III of Prussia, and his wife Louise, had a great passion for exotic animals, and established a private menagerie that was open to the public. For the era, it was impressive, with a collection that included monkeys, mongooses, kangaroos, raccoons, bison, stags, and other animals from all over the world. After William’s death, he was succeeded by his son Frederick William IV in 1840. The new monarch found himself heir to a huge menagerie, but lacking his father’s passion for animals, he got rid of it by gifting the lot to the citizens of Berlin. Thus was born the Berlin Zoo.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Berlin Zoo. Berlin Zoo

The zoo was established as a public holding company. It did not generate revenue for its shareholders, but that was never the intent. Instead, being a shareholder became a mark of status and some social distinction. Instead of receiving dividends, the Berlin Zoo’s sockholders and their families enjoyed free and privileged access to the establishment, and basked in the prestige of supporting a highly respected institution. When the Nazis took over, they set out to “Aryanize” the zoo by removing its Jewish board members, and forcing the Jewish shareholders – about a quarter of the 4000 total – to sell their stock at a loss.

The Nazis’ obsession with purity did not stop at humans: it also extended to specially breeding Nazi engineered cows. Initially produced by German zoologist brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, who were commissioned by the Nazi party to do so, the breed of Nazi super cows turned out to be murderously aggressive. The Nazis, nostalgic for the days when “pure” Germans wandered Europe’s dark forest, wanted a breed of cattle based on the aurochs – a big wild European bull that had been hunted into extinction by the 17th century. So they used selective breeding to extract wild genes from cattle descended from the aurochs.

The result was Heck cattle, a breed that had a muscular physique, dangerous horns, a fierce disposition, and a powerful and menacing look about them, that the Nazis just loved. Heck cattle were thus used in propaganda posters as symbols of the Third Reich’s strength. They were initially housed in the Berlin Zoo, were they were prominently featured as symbols of German might. Many were killed during Allied bombings, but fortunately, one of the Heck brothers had relocated a significant number of the herd to other German zoos, only a few days before the most devastating bombing raids. As a result, the breed survives to this day, troubling ranchers with their Naziesque aggression and murderousness into the present.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Heck cattle. Wikimedia

By the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the Berlin Zoo housed nearly 4000 mammals and birds, and over 8000 specimens in its aquarium. The Nazi authorities had made some nebulous plans and promises to evacuate the animals of the Berlin Zoo, as well as those of other German zoos such as Dresden’s and Dusseldorf’s, but they never followed through. As a result, the animals were not spared the destruction that visited German cities during the war, and most died from injuries, mistreatment, hunger, or thirst. Others were slaughtered and killed by hungry Germans. Some of the larger and potentially dangerous animals, such as jaguars, panthers, or gorillas that managed to escape their bombed out and burning enclosures, were chased down the streets and shot dead.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Berlin Zoo elephants before the war. Elephant Gate

The Destruction Begins

The Berlin Zoo’s baptism of fire occurred during an RAF air raid on September 8th, 1941, when it was struck by about half a dozen 100 kilogram bombs. The stables in which the Heck cattle were housed caught fire from incendiaries, and a forest themed restaurant and the surrounding area sustained damage. All in all, however, the damage was relatively light – especially compared to what was to come a few years later. Repairs were completed within a few weeks, and the zoo was soon back in business, as if nothing had happened.

The zoo was not hit again during the next two years, other than for five 100 kilogram bombs that struck some empty space between the wolves’ enclosures’ and the cattle pastures. Then catastrophe struck in November of 1943, when Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, launched the “Battle of Berlin” – an attempt to win the war by reducing the German capital to rubble, and destroying the Luftwaffe in the process. The effort failed, but Berlin suffered heavy damage before Harris acknowledged that and the bombing tapered off. By then, the Berlin Zoo had been wrecked.

The worst damage was sustained on the nights of November 22nd and 23rd, 1943. On the 22nd, over 750 RAF heavy bombers struck western Berlin, including the Tiergarten district in which the zoo is located. During a fifteen minute stretch that night, starting at around 7:15 PM, numerous high explosive bombs, and more than 1000 incendiaries, rained on the Berlin Zoo, blasting and setting alight many animal enclosures, including those housing the elephants, monkeys, and predators. Firefighters were unable to contain the blazing infernos, as the city’s water mains had been broken by bombs.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Siam, the elephant. iHeart Berlin

Within a quarter of an hour, almost a third of the zoo’s animals had been killed. It was not over, however. The RAF returned the following night for another heavy raid, and around 8 PM on November 23rd, the zoo’s aquarium was completely demolished when a stick of bombs scored a direct hit, killing most of its inhabitants, blasting and scattering them far and wide. The following morning, pedestrians making their way along the nearby Budapeststrasse were greeted by the startling sight of crocodile bodies on the street, their carcasses having been flung there by the blast.

Such episodes gave rise to frightful rumors that some dangerous animals had escaped the zoo, alive, and were prowling Berlin’s streets in a maddened state. Stampeding elephants were said to be running amok amidst the city’s rubble, while tigers were supposedly stalking the streets, slaughtering and mauling all they came across. As with most rumors, the stories were greatly exaggerated: some potentially dangerous animals did escape their enclosures, but almost all were chased down and killed within the zoo’s confines. The only animals that made it out of the zoo were a dingo – that was recaptured – plus some monkeys and birds.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Antiaircraft guns atop the Zoo Tower. Bundesarchiv Bild

Demolition and Recovery

Making things worse for the Berlin Zoo’s animals was the nearby Zoo Tower – one of the massive concrete towers brimming with antiaircraft guns, that sought to protect Berlin from Allied bombers. Picture the distress felt by pet dogs or cats when fireworks go off, and multiply it by orders of magnitude to get an idea of what the Berlin zoo’s residents must have gone through. The caged denizens were forced to endure the roar and drone of heavy bombers overhead; the shrieks, explosions, and concussions of the detonating bombs; the ensuing smoke and fire and dust; and the rapid cracks and booms of the flak guns firing away. Many of the zoo’s animals went insane from fear, and others died outright from terror.

Among the casualties of the November bombing raid were 2 giraffes, 2 hippos, a black rhinoceros, a sea elephant, and half the deer and antelopes. Out of 8 elephants, the only survivor was a bull named Siam, who exhibited signs of psychological trauma until his death in 1947 from natural causes. Meat being scarce during the war, the dead animals were butchered to feed the staff and the teams of soldiers and prisoners of war who were put to work clearing the rubble.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Shoebill, temporarily housed in his Berlin Zoo keeper’s home, as the Red Army stormed into the German Capital in 1945. Reddit

As one of the Heck brothers put it: “We had meat coming out of our ears. … Many of the edible animals which had fallen victim to the air raid ended up in the pot. Particularly tasty were the crocodiles’ tails; cooked tender in big containers, they tasted like fat chicken. The dead deer, buffalo and antelopes provided hundreds of meals for man and beast alike. Later on, bear ham and bear sausage were a particular delicacy.

The bombing raids of November, 1943, were not the end of the zoo’s ordeal, as it was struck again and again in subsequent months by explosive bombs, incendiaries, and aerial mines. In 1944 alone, it was hit on January 29th and 30th, February 15th, March 4th, May 8th, numerous times in October, and on December 31st. It was struck again on February 24th, 1945. Despite the damage, the Berlin Zoo remained open almost to the end, not closing its gates until April 22nd, 1945, as the Red Army stormed into the city. What little had been left of the zoo was completely destroyed in the ensuing battle.

The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II
Knautschke, the hippo. Berlin Zoo

Among the few survivors was a shoebill bird, whose keeper took it home, and somehow managed to keep it alive as Berlin was systematically destroyed in bitter street fighting. Another survivor was a baby hippo named Knautschke, that had miraculously made it through the raids of November, 1943, when some boys braved the fires engulfing its shelter to help it escape into a nearby pond. Knautschke survived the war, and became a darling of the public when the zoo reopened. He went on to sire 35 offspring, before he died decades later, in 1988. Today, a life size sculpture of Knautschke stands at the entrance to the Berlin Zoo’s hippo building.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ha’aretz, December 3rd, 2013 – Berlin Zoo Comes to Terms With Nazi Past, Seeks Out Former Jewish Shareholders

I Heart Berlin – The Tragic Fame of a Hippo and an Elephant From the Berlin Zoo

Prenger, Kevin – War Zone Zoo: The Berlin Zoo and World War 2 (2018)

Smithsonian – When the Nazis Tried to Bring Animals Back From Extinction

War History Online – War Zone Zoo: Remarkable Story of the Berlin Zoo in WW2

Zoo Berlin – History of Zoo Berlin