Two New Histories of Rivalries and Revisionism, From Cold War Berlin and Lenin’s Soviet Union

The Zookeepers’ War: An Incredible True Story from the Cold War, by J.W. Mohnhaupt, translated from German by Shelley Frisch (Amazon / Book Depository) published November 12, 2019 


The English translation of J.W. Mohnhaupt’s German bestseller The Zookeepers’ War opens with scenes from (West) Berlin’s Zoological Garden as the Second World War reached Berlin’s doorstep. It follows Katharina Heinroth, the wife of the Zoo’s aquarium director Oskar Heinroth. Highly educated, she took over the zoo after her husband’s death and ran it until she was forced out in favor of Heinz-Georg Klös, one of the two directors at the center of this story, a fierce rivalry between East and West Berlin’s zoos, and underneath it, between capitalism and communism.

The second director is Heinrich Dathe from East Berlin’s Tierpark. Establishing backgrounds and personalities of the two men, Mohnhaupt goes on to show how a sort of proxy cold war was waged between the zoos for resources, popularity, and proof that their zoo was flourishing and thus better reflective of their side of the city and its government, and their Germany by extension, in that tense postwar period.

The book presents a vivid picture and microcosm of life in Cold War Berlin. Mohnhaupt touches on important cultural touchstones and explains issues that might not be otherwise familiar to readers outside of Germany with little background knowledge of why the zoo rivalry was significant or what it meant to the divided city, which I think is incredibly valuable. On the flip side, it’s not necessarily the most thrilling or exciting story, so you do need to have some existing interest.

It’s helped by being surprisingly light, considering the heavy subjects, as well as surprisingly fast-paced. Although I occasionally felt my interest wandering, especially in the personal politics and bureaucracy around the two directors, the narrative pulls you back in fairly quickly with another interesting turn.

Side stories are highlights, reflecting what was happening throughout this pivotal time in Europe, like the plight of a white whale that found itself in the Rhine River. Its release “took on political dimensions” and eventually “helped environmental protection become mainstream.” Or the look it takes at various zoo patrons and their connections to these local institutions. Like “Hyena Heinrich” — I’ll let you discover what he gets up to — and of course, the animals themselves.

There’s Chi Chi the panda, a resident of the East Berlin Tierpark and geopolitical bargaining chip, who would become the recognizable likeness of the World Wildlife Fund. And Knautschke the hippo, born in Berlin Zoo in 1943 and utterly beloved by Berliners, who made sure he was fed even when they didn’t have much themselves in the war’s last years.

There’s also attention to the small but telling ways people made everything all about the era’s politics. After getting two pandas from China, a very big get, the chancellor of West Germany quipped, “They’re so wonderfully silent. We ought to vote them into the party executive committee.” A very sick burn, Cold War Germany-style.

The Zookeepers’ War has echoes even in the present, where some divisions still exist between the city’s two halves:

“The way things are going now,” a reader wrote to Neue Zeit in January 1991, “we will never really come together.” That impression would endure for quite some time. And as far as Berlin’s two zoos are concerned, it remains true to this day.

Seidenstücker-Ausstellung - "Von Nilpferden und anderen Menschen"
The legendary Knautschke, beloved by West Berliners, with his son Bulette in the Zoologischer Garten. Photo: Friedrich Seidenstücker



For two years, the ARA fed over ten million men, women, and children across a million square miles of territory in what was the largest humanitarian operation in history.

Now, almost a hundred years later, few people in America or Russia have ever heard of the ARA. The Russian Job seeks to right this wrong.

Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration was dispatched to the Soviet Union in 1921 to stem the tide of one of the worst famines in history. Although it was a well-known operation in both countries at the time, and Lenin’s Soviet government heaped praise on America for saving lives and ending the horrific consequences of famine (read: cannibalism) it’s barely acknowledged now. Indeed, I’d venture a guess that even many Russophiles were mostly unaware. That’s good old Soviet rewriting of history at work!

Douglas Smith writes a concise but information-packed (sometimes overly so) account of the ARA staff who carried out this work and what it actually entailed as they traveled through the impoverished Russian countryside, alongside plenty of political and social context. He also covers the workers’ social lives in Russia, which highlighted some culture of the era and differences they observed between US and Soviet societies, as well as their relationships with Russian women, some of which ended better than others.

The displays of gratitude from Soviet citizens were overwhelming, and underscored how dire this situation was, like a poem presented by a committee chairman which included the line “at the edge of the grave you saved us.” Amazing that this bit of history was successfully buried for so long considering the massive impact and implications it had. What might have happened if Lenin’s Soviet Union was brought to its knees instead of rebounding in time for Stalin to take over? What different course might things have taken? I couldn’t stop thinking about that after reading this.

Smith also follows the state of US-Soviet relations as they progressed throughout the ARA’s action. It was interesting, but not shocking, that Lenin’s government continued to scheme and manipulate behind the scenes even as the ARA fed its citizens.

ARA members weren’t always angels, though. Smith puts the Americans’ prejudices and social biases on blast, especially the ones around Russian peasants and the kulaks (who were soon to suffer much worse under Stalin). An official wrote that “One sometimes feels after conversation with them that they are little better than animals, and yet again they give manifestations of so much human feeling that one is inevitably led to the conclusion that given only the chance which human beings merit and which has been denied the Russians for so long, they will prove themselves.” As Smith points out, “a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.”

It’s strange to consider how rosy the relationship between the two countries once was, knowing what we know now: that the Cold War would forever change these relations, and what we learn here of how Lenin and Co. downplayed the ARA’s achievements even as they were still working, never mind the revisionist history put in place once they’d decamped.

Smith ends with a hopeful message underscoring why this story still has relevance. He reminds of the role America has assumed in the past to support struggling nations with our own reserves, and urges that we continue: “May the story of the ARA inspire that same spirit of generosity today toward all humanity, at home and abroad.”

The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin (Amazon / Book Depository) published November 5, 2019

I received advance copies of both books from the publishers for unbiased review.

13 thoughts on “Two New Histories of Rivalries and Revisionism, From Cold War Berlin and Lenin’s Soviet Union

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    1. I’m currently reading The Zookeeper’s War. I’m at the epilogue; it has been a great read! This is my first time to read so many details about Berlin, especially East Berlin. It’s a fascinating story of people, places, and animals. Obviously a large portion of the text centers on Berlin, but there is more too – about zoo directors and other staff from zoos across Germany – West and East. I highly recommend it!

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  1. I’m sorry if you’ve said this and I’ve missed it, but how did you get interested in books on Russia? Did you start with information made relevant by current events, or have you been interested for longer than that? I really enjoy hearing about these books from you, since it’s not a topic I know much about 🙂

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    1. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it! I have a lifelong obsession with Russia, I don’t know how else to put it. I read a lot about current events there but I think the interest started more with the history. I read older Russian history books (like Robert Massie’s biographies of Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra) and couldn’t believe how captivatingly weird it all was! I think I’ve been reading more of it lately because I took a long break after it was basically the majority of my reading for a couple of years pre-book blogging. Now it seems like one book in this area always leads me on to another similar one, but maybe it’s a good thing I have the blog now so I’m forced to switch off to other topics 😂

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      1. I’m the same way with popular science books, especially genetics. I don’t have a specific reason I’m interested; I’ve just always enjoyed the topic! I’ve found that my blog helps me encourage myself to read more widely too 🙂

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      2. Ooh, I do! The Violist’s Thumb by Sam Kean was a really readable look at what human traits are influenced by our genes. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee wasn’t quite as incredible as The Emperor of All Maladies, but it was the most comprehensive yet still approachable book I’ve read on genetics and if I remember correctly, he also talks about some interesting ethical questions raised by genetics. I’m a little hesitant to recommend Matt Ridley’s book, because I’ve seen him espousing some nonsensical views on twitter, but both Genome and Nature via Nurture were some of the books that first got me into genetics, so I’ll mention them too 🙂

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      3. The Violinist’s Thumb sounds amazing! That sounds exactly like what I’d like to read, thanks for the recommendation. I’d come across The Gene but was kind of daunted by it, it seemed like it could be dense. Good to know that it’s actually approachable. I’ll check out Ridley’s books as well, but thanks for the caveat!

        Have you read She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer? I found that one after reading Pleased to Meet Me, which was more about epigenetics but got me interested in genetics as a whole. Thanks for the recommendations!!

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      4. I’ve definitely seen Carl Zimmer’s name around, but I haven’t read anything of his yet. I have it on my to-read shelf, maybe from seeing your review. I’ll mark it as recommended in hopes that will help me bump it up my to-read list 😀 Thanks for the recommendation! And thanks for asking for recommendations – I always love suggesting some good science nonfiction.

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      5. Oops, maybe I didn’t explain myself! I haven’t read the Zimmer one yet, just came across it when I was looking for more on the topic and wondered if you’d already read it! It sounded really interesting though.

        And of course, you always read such interesting sciencey books and I realized over the past year how much I’m liking reading popular science. I think I’ll be asking you for more recommendations or browsing your past reviews soon! 🙂

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