Blame the Buddy Bears for popularising the notion that Berlin derives its name from ‘Bär’, German for ‘bear’. These colourful sculptures were born in Berlin in 2001 and hundreds dot the city, a huge hit with I-was-there tourists.
In truth, the origins of the German capital’s name is more prosaic. It actually descends from a word in an extinct Slavic language that means ‘swamp’. To be more exact, German Wikipedia translates the word as a “dry place in a wet area”.
As a Malaysian, I was delighted to learn of this boggy origin, considering the name of my capital city, Kuala Lumpur, translates to ‘muddy confluence’.
Still, the use of bears as symbols has a long history in Berlin and an even longer history among ancient Germanic peoples (5th/4th – 1st century BC). According to Norse Mythology for Smart People, bears were animal spirits associated with nobility and a totemic animal for military societies.
When heraldry came into widespread use 900 years ago, bears became popular as symbols of “strength, cunning and ferocity in the protection of one’s kindred”.
Fast forward to the 13th century and soon after its formation, Berlin’s town seal depicted two bears. But they were probably used in relation to the creature’s historic totemic and heraldic association.
Somewhere along the line though, the nominal association became stronger. Whatever the reason, bears continue to be linked to Berlin.
The brown bear Ursus arctos is native to Eurasia and probably the descendant of the species that became totemic for the Germanic peoples. In Germany though, it was hunted to extinction in the 1930s.
Then in 2006, a single bear crossed the Austrian border to Germany, killed sheep and nipped back, causing great consternation. Known as JJ1 and informally as Bruno, he was shot with the blessings of the Bavarian government, who claimed they did not know he was part of an Italian conservation project. His stuffed body is displayed in Munich.
Home of Berlin’s “official mascots” since 1939, this controversial bear pit in the middle of the city courted protests from animal rights activists for decades. Despite the activists garnering public support against the lack of space and inhumane treatment of the bears in that pit, the city held firm till the death of the last of its mascots in 2015. Brown bears live more comfortable lives in the Berlin Zoological Garden (Zoo).
This polar bear was the Zoo’s most internationally-famous attraction. ‘Knutmania’ stemmed from intense media coverage of this cute orphan being hand-raised 24 hours a day by a keeper and the resulting controversy. Knut generated huge income for the Zoo, was celebrated on stamps and coins and in an Annie Leibowitz photoshoot and became a climate change icon. Sadly, he developed encephalistis and died in 2011, drowning in front of hundreds of visitors.
This tourism project for Berlin comprises cheerful and colourful bear sculptures that are scattered throughout the city. In 2002, it spun off a peace project whereby artists from every country were invited to decorate the bear sculptures. The project, titled ‘United Buddy Bears’, has been touring since then and helping to raise money for Unicef and children’s charities.
The bear appears on Berlin’s flag and coat of arms. The latter has been used since 1913; during the Cold War, East Berlin used a variation of it. The current coat of arms featuring the bear with a crown only came into being in 1990 although the West Berlin coat of arms bore similar features. These are used extensively in souvenirs and artwork. ω