Near Jannowitzbrücke, hidden behind a city museum that hardly anyone goes to, is a small enclosure housing two Eurasian brown bears named Schnute and Maxi. Brown bears once ruled all of Europe but today there are only small populations left in the wild, the largest being in Russia. It’s not like the US where hikers are occasionally killed or even see bears in the mountains. There are just too few bears left to encounter here.
Yet the brown bear has been the enduring symbol of Berlin since the 13th century, and I was curious how this came to be. I found my answer in the children’s section of the library in Mitte and with my arms loaded with books for young readers, I blindly stepped off a raised platform and dropped three feet to the floor. Luckily no one witnessed my spectacular fall as all the youths were on the computers in the other room. I won’t be entering the children’s section again.
Berlin’s founding date is set at 1237 because that is the earliest documentary evidence that exists for the city (a handwritten document naming a bishop of Cölln). The earliest city seal in existence from 1253 didn’t feature a bear but an eagle, which was the symbol of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, an important principality of the Holy Roman Empire that included Berlin. Then in 1280, a second city seal appeared with the Brandenburg eagle flanked by two standing bears.
This is the first evidence of the bear’s relationship to the city and by 1338, the bear had taken center stage on the seal -though with the Brandenburg eagle tether to its neck.
When Cölln and Berlin were officially merged into one city in 1709, the coat of arms featured the bear with a neck band below two eagles -red for Brandenburg and black for Prussia.
By 1875, the bear had lost the neckband and gained a wall-crown, signifying Berlin’s status as a free city. Today’s coat of arms still has these features.
But none of this explains why a bear? Unfortunately, a fire in 1380 destroyed all the documents that could have definitively answered this question -but there are some interesting theories. One is that the bear was chosen in homage to Albrecht the Bear, founder of the Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1157. This would have been about the time that Berlin was first settled, but then why did the first city seal feature the Brandenburg eagle and not a bear? The settlement was probably not important enough at that time to get its own mascot.
Another theory is that the bear was chosen to create a canting or singing arms, because the German word “Bär” (bear) sounds phonetically similar to the first syllable of Berlin. But linguists have shot down this theory having found no etymological connections between the two words.
In fact, Berlin was settled by Slavs so the prefix “Ber” may have nothing to do with German. There is however an old-Slavic word “berli” that describes a rigid net submerged in the water to catch swarms of fish. It could be that the first settlers built plenty of berlis in the Spree, and that they themselves became known to others as the “Berline,” thus spawning the name Berlin.
While the latter seems the most plausible origin of the name, it doesn’t explain the connection to the bear. Whatever the reason, the Berlin Bear remains. The bear pit behind the museum was built as a present to the people of Berlin on the city’s 700th birthday. A far cry from the fierce, upright emblem of the city’s coat of arms, Schnute (who I believe is pictured below taking a bath) was named the official Berlin Stadtbär (city bear) in 2007.