The Cold War was fought by proxies, to be sure—but pandas and pangolins? An offbeat tale from the Cold War and a bestseller in Germany after its original publication in 2017.
As journalist Mohnhaupt writes in his first book translated into English, Berlin’s zoo animals, like its people, suffered terribly during World War II. After the war, in an occupied city isolated from the surrounding countryside, animals were valued even more, and two rival zoos, one in the Russian-governed eastern sector and the other in the Allied-governed west, sprang up. Over the years, each drew a steady stream of visitors—millions, in fact, and this in a (divided) city that, during the Cold War years, didn’t draw many tourists. A rivalry developed, punctuated in the opening pages by an unseemly moment between the respective zoo directors: “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.” The Berlin Zoo on one hand and the Tierpark on the other became the beneficiaries of an unlikely race for animal-keeping supremacy, and with plenty of near-comical turns—e.g., when the East German institution had to use capitalist shipping to send “four hyenas and six lions from its world-famous breeding center” to China in exchange for Siberian tigers. More fraught were efforts to keep elephants, the ostensible subject of the directors’ brawl, and other exotic creatures. As Mohnhaupt notes, the East German zookeeper was fierce enough to keep the Stasi away, the secret police agency reasoning, by way of face-saving, that animal lovers were harmless. Meanwhile, his West German counterpart was shrewd at corralling huge sums of money that eventually made the Berlin Zoo “the world’s most biodiverse.” Reunification did little to stem the rivalry at first, writes the author, though the turf war has since simmered down.
It’s not quite a Bridge of Spies–level thriller, but there are plenty of unexpected, entertaining twists behind bars.