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The Berlin Zoo, set up in 1844 has been the centre of amusement and events in Germany for a century and a half. On reading Through the Lion Gate, you are met with a story rather than a historical account, as Gary Bruce sheds light on the politics around the Berlin Zoo, while also tackling changes in human-animal and human-human conflict in Berlin during this time. The zoo has been under various leadership: the Kaiser, the Weimar Republic, Nazi rule, and the role of the zoo during each time has varied. It is the first extensive report on the history of the Berlin zoo in the English language.

Like any detailed account of a subject, Bruce starts off with a history of animal enclosures and unpacks the various threads of context which lead to the zoo being an important element of cultural identity to the Berliners. Zoos were initially in the form of menageries for the royals and rich aristocrats as a scenic view for their daily meals. They kept animals in captivity only for aesthetic purposes and Bruce draws an important analogy to the “national collections of art” set up by the same elites. But zoos later were made with the purpose of educating the public about “animal classification and taxonomy” (4). It becomes apparent to the reader that there was an important transition from viewing animals as art to viewing them as subjects for a study. The focus of study also shifted from studying dead and stuffed animals to live ones.

The Berlin Zoo was the first public zoo in Germany which removed the status tag from the private menageries and animal reserves. Bruce goes on to highlight the change of attitude from thinking that animals are emotionless till anthropomorphism became prevalent in the late nineteenth century. It was interesting to notice the difference in relationship between visitors and the animals as opposed to the trappers and the animals. While visitors saw these animals for their entertainment, the trappers took pleasure in dominating beasts which humans were previously afraid of. The success of the zoo rose to new heights when the officials decided to exhibit, as Bruce put it, “the most charismatic megafauna of them all : human beings” (43)

The display of various indgenious people from different parts of the world was kicked off by the large network of animal trade by Carl Hagenbeck, who also pioneered animal enclosures which mimic their natural habitat. The late 1800s recession negatively hit Hagenbeck’s market which eventually led him to expand his business to “exotic humans” like the Inuits, Nubians and the Sinhalese. These exhibits were called “Europeans of the distant past when life was a constant struggle with nature and animals” (62). As per Hagenbeck the three points which guaranteed a show’s success were: “foreignness, physical distinctions and a “picturesque way of living”(81).

Berliners saw their ancestors in the foreigners and their “savage” way of living. The readers get a sense of the ideology of the time: Since these “exotic” people were being put on display like animals, they were a part of nature that needed to be conquered unlike Eurpoeans who were not being put on exhibit anywhere in the world. This same idea is seen today in the form of fascination with tribal life and their habitat. Missions to ‘civilise’ indegenious groups by teaching them the ways of the ‘ideal life’ is a common occurrence even today.

The presence of these foreign groups facilitated anthropological studies about civilization and its relation to evolution. Moreover, studies and talks on the contrasting physical traits between Germans and the foreigners were conducted at length. While the academicians of the time considered these exotic humans inferior and to be on the same level as animals, the visitors of the Zoo went a step further, bringing food for the foreigners and protesting when a show was cancelled. Synonymous actions from different parts of the Berlin public.

The author’s argument that the zoo and its displays act as an escape for the Berliners from the grim realities of the time took root during World War I. The Berlin Zoo was so important to the people of Berlin because it represented a constant during times of change. But with the negative economic effects of WWI and the dearth of food everywhere, people found another way to enjoy zoo animals: by consuming them.

The Weimar rule was chaotic in terms of ideology. Carrying over from the time of the war, the large consensus was that animals should be preserved because of their intrinsic value. But on the other hand, human zoos made a comeback during this time of economic recovery and brought in huge profits for the Zoo. Despite the hustle to ensure a packed show, the directors of the zoo refused to consider this display a “freak show”, saying that it is “informed by science”. What finally put a stop to such human displays was the emergence of the film industry during the earlier 20th century.

The Nazi rule brought yet another change in the zoos of Germany, as they adopted the strictest of animal protection laws. These laws, however, were mainly targeted at Jewish practices like Kosher Butchering. When it came to the Nazi’s larger aim to industrialize Germany and stop the propagation of Jews, many of the nature protection laws were ignored. In addition to this, Jews were banned from attending the zoo. Lutz Heck, the director of the Zoo in the mid twentieth century, believed that humans—just like animals—were a part of the “law of nature” and that the hierarchies in the animal world—as per evolution—found a parallel in the human world in racial differences in humans. This coincided with the ideas of Hitler and thus led Heck, an affiliate of the Nazi Party, to use his position as the head of the zoo to spread their propaganda.

Heck believed that “earlier species contained at least a critical mass of hereditary genetic material from their ancestors”(168) and went on to “breed back” the aurochs, an extinct bull-like creature. This project of took place during the Nazi era as their motto ‘blood and soil’ suggests that the Nazis glorified Germany’s rural past, where men were tough and were “close to the land”. Bringing back such extinct species, according to Lutz Heck, was analogous to restoring Germany’s might. This animal, now called ‘Heck cattle’, exists till this day. The bringing back of extinct animals, and exclusion and extermination of existing Jews happened simultaneously in Nazi Germany. Heck pushed for Jews (shareholders, visitors, and board members) to be banned from the Berlin zoo in early 1938—a few months before the Nazis officially banned Jews from public spaces. This section of the book constantly reminds the readers that under Nazi rule, even a cultural institution like the zoo, was used as a tool to further political goals.   

A pattern which can be observed is that the Berlin zoo reflected the ideals of the rulers of each era. Under the Kaiser rule, animals were viewed as aesthetic and equivalent to art, and dominion over them meant dominion over nature. A hierarchy of animals based on how “exotic and beautiful” they were was created during this era. The zoo during the 1920s reflected the chaos and indecisiveness of the Weimar rule with conflicting thoughts about animal conservation, their intrinsic value and human exhibits.

The rise of the Nazi party brought along the idea of a purer race and idealization of the past which led to land being used to serve the said race and the “breeding back” of extinct species and banning of Jews from zoos earlier than any other public space. An enclosure for animals having such strong state influence could arise from the fact the Board of Directors for the Zoo during each of these eras supported the ruler’s ideology strongly. Even if they didn’t, no opposition could be voiced because state funds covered a major portion of the Berlin zoo’s cost. The state, thus, had control and ownership over the zoos over the years. Bruce manages to convey such an elaborate series of events in enough detail to form an accurate historical narrative, but also with enough anecdotes for it to read like a memoir. An interesting mix of writing to keep the material engaging for all audiences.

Overall, Through the Lions Gate sees German politics and social life through the perspective of one important institution of the time which was the Berlin Zoo. The Zoo was not only a cultural hub, it was a subject of study for evolution and civilization because of its exhibits—both animal and human. The zoo also acted as a unifying factor for people from all classes of society. Gary Bruce paints the picture representing the Berlin public’s relation to the animals, but in retrospect, it seems as a reflection of the German rulers’ control over their capital city. 

Through the Lion Gate: A History of the Berlin Zoo

Gary Bruce

Oxford University Press, 320pp,

ISBN 9780190234980

Published 1 August 2017

Ashika Thomas is a third-year student who is pursuing an Economics major and an Environmental Science minor at Ashoka University.

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