A fluffy tail of two cities: The legacy of the rabbit colony that occupied the death strip between East and West Berlin

Rabbits certainly aren’t the first things that spring to mind when thinking of Cold War era Berlin. But, for the 28 years the wall stood, thousands of the fluffy creatures made their homes among the mines, automated machine guns and anti-tank barriers in the border strip around West Berlin.

Wikimedia Commons

A guest post for Omnified by Anja Samy

Rabbits certainly aren’t the first things that spring to mind when thinking of Cold War era Berlin. But for the 28 years the wall stood, thousands of the fluffy creatures made their homes among the mines, automated machine guns and anti-tank barriers along the border strip around West Berlin.

Rabbit memorial Berlin
More photos are available via the artist’s website

While freedom of movement was denied to the human inhabitants of the city, the wild rabbits could roam, or rather burrow, wherever they wished. But instead of taking up residence in Berlin’s many fields and parks, a huge number of the creatures chose the confinement and, ironically, the safety of the death strip.

Although it is safe to say their involvement in the political climate of the Cold War was minimal, the rabbits’ presence in the border strip has since captured people’s imaginations, inspiring a number of creative projects linked to the wall.

If you have ever traveled along Chausseestraße in Mitte, you may have noticed, or perhaps unknowingly driven over, one such project. Set into the tarmac and paving slabs of the road are dozens of brass plaques, the size and shape of rabbits. This often-overlooked memorial is known as Kaninchenfeld, meaning “Rabbit Field,” and was completed in 1999 by Berlin-based artist Karla Sachse.

Sachse was one of the winning artists in a competition staged by the Senate Department for Construction, Housing and Transport in 1996. The aim of the competition was to find designs to commemorate seven sites around the city center where border crossings once stood.

The choice of rabbits as the central motif for the memorial is certainly an offbeat one and this is something which was acknowledged by the competition’s judging panel. In an excerpt from their meeting minutes in September 1996 published on the Kaninchenfeld website, it is stated that, “the artwork initially appears to move away from the seriousness of the competition task.” But it could be argued that this unconventionality is what makes the rabbits such an inspired choice of motif.

The neutrality of the rabbits makes them the ideal motif for the memorial and it is because of this that, as the judging panel concluded, “the work convincingly asserts its autonomy against the imposition of political didactics.”

An informational plaque included in the installation explains the background of the artwork. In Sachse’s words, the rabbits “were observed and loved by the people of both sides” and their ability to dig tunnels meant they could “peacefully inhabit one of Europe’s most materialistic building works.”

There is perhaps something darkly humorous about the idea that the wall, which is a symbol of the volatility of Western politics during the Cold War, was also essentially a bunny sanctuary.

Sadly, just as the real rabbit colony dispersed and dwindled after the wall came down, the Kaninchenfeld plaques have also been affected by the ever-changing landscape of the city. Originally, 120 brass rabbit plaques were set into the surface of Chausseestraße but 40 have since been lost over the year to roadworks and construction.

Read A (Fluffy) Tail of Two Cities Part 2:  examining Bartosz Konopka’s pseudo-documentary, “Rabbit à la Berlin.” 

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