I’ve never really been a fan of Circuses. I’ve been to a fair share, including some in Russia, and I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable with the often-dubious animal shows. Historically, Berlin had always been known to be a “Circus” City – with dozens of traveling and permanent circuses calling the city its home.
The second World War destroyed all of the permanent circuses the city had to offer – but by 1948 they had begun reappear – and by the late 1960s, the Staatszirkus der DDR – The State Circus of the GDR (sometimes also known as the VEB Zentralzirkus) had soon become famous beyond the borders of the German Democratic Republic.
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Three Circuses And A Merger
Circuses come and go, and it seems like whenever one goes bust – another circus swallows up what’s left of it. The story of the Staatszirkus der DDR isn’t just about one circus, but a mixed history of at least 3 circuses.
The founding origins of the Staatszirkus der DDR date back to 1950 with the Zirkus Barlay. The Zirkus Barlay was founded in 1935 in Thürigen by the Berlin Artist Reinhold Kwasnik – after he bought up the assets of the bankrupt Circus Alberty. After the end of the second world war the circus moved to Berlin, and by 1948 they had constructed a permanent circus building along the Friedrichstraße. The building could seat up to 2500 people, and was even heated – despite being made entirely out of wood.
Kwasnik set up shop in the wrong part of Berlin (read: the east) – and decided to flee to the western sector with his entourage in 1950. The Circus Barlay was first run by a trust until it was transformed into a municipal organization in 1952 and overseen by the Magistrate of Berlin.
By 1956 – as with virtually all companies in the GDR – it was turned into a Volkseigener Betrieb (a publicly owned enterprise). The circus building that Kwasnik had built along the Friedrichstraße was torn down in 1963 to make room for the New Friedrichstadt-Palast (which opened in 1984) – the “largest and most modern show palace in Europe”.
The Zirkus Barlay was soon joined by the Zirkus Busch. Jacob Busch had originally founded the Zirkus Busch in Nuremberg in 1919 – but by the end of the second world war it was located in Meerane Saxony. After handing over the reins to his adopted son Fritz van der Heydt, the circus began operating again as early as the fall of 1945 in the soviet occupation zone.
The VEB Zentral Zirkus
After van der Heydt died in 1951, the circus was put under the management of a trust, and then turned into a state owned enterprise run by the city of Magdeburg in 1952. By 1960, it was merged with the Zirkus Barlay into an enterprise known as the VEB Zentral-Zirkus (State Owned Enterprise Central-Circus).
Not long after the VEB Zentral Zirkus was formed, it was soon joined by the Zirkus Aeros. The Zirkus Aeros was founded in 1941 in Leipzig by Cliff Aeros (his real name being Julius Jäger). After his death in 1952, the circus was put under the management of a trust (can you see a theme here?) rather than being handed over to its rightful heirs – due to some unsubstantiated tax avoidance claims.
In 1961 it was merged into the VEB Zentral Zirkus, though it retained its permanent location in Leipzig. Until the 1980’s, the Zirkus Aeros had been the most technically modern of the three circuses, though it experienced a quick decline due a shortage of funds.
After the “founding” of the VEB Zentral Zirkus, the Zirkus Barlay was renamed into Zirkus Olympia. By 1968 – a multi-year tour through the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic had been planned, so the circus was renamed again, this time into Zirkus Berolina. While it had been initially planned that the Zirkus Berolina would tour the less densely populated countryside as a middle-sized circus, the circus soon developed into the most modern in the entire eastern bloc.
The Winterquartier of the VEB Zentral Zirkus
With the formation of the VEB Zentral Zirkus, the management began the construction of a wintering ground (Winterquartier)in 1963 in Dahlwitz-Hoppegarten. Dahlwitz-Hoppegarten is far out of Berlin, even by today’s standards. Back in the 1890s, a huge building boom broke out in the leafy area, primarily caused by rich race horse owners who were flocking to the area after a horse race track had opened up there in 1867. It’s because of this development, and the availability of “cheap” land, the VEB Zentral Zirkus began the construction of its Winterquatier.
The initial building phase saw the construction multiple housing units, a canteen, stables (which housed the giraffes, horses, elephants and all the other animals), workshops as well as offices for part of the circus administration. The Winterquartier of the VEB Zentral Zirkus was expanded in 1965 with the addition some storage halls, more workshops and a covered arena, which had been constructed out of salvaged parts of the original Barlay Circus when it was still located in the Friedrichstraße.
The whole wintering ground now covered over 11 hectares, and was the largest and most modern in all of Europe. It’s worth noting that the circus employs – at least the ones that were employed full time, were payed a full salary during the winter break (from November until March), received free housing and food all year around.
The VEB Zentral Zirkus had soon become a household circus name and famous all-around Europe – with the added (pleasant) side effect of bringing in hard currency for the GDR. Somebody probably realized at this point the VEB Zentral Zirkus wasn’t the best sounding name, so it was renamed “Staatszirkus der DDR” (State Circus of the GDR) in 1980.
The Zentral Zirkus After German Reunification
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. While the Staatszirkus der DDR remained internationally famous and prestigious, the reunification of Germany didn’t do it any good.
The Staatszirkus was handed over to the Treuhandanstalt in 1990, which by July decided to split it up into four separate limited liability companies – the Aeros, Berolina, Busch and Circ-Commerz (the wintering grounds). The now independent Zirus Busch stopped preforming by August of the same year.
After realizing that splitting up the Staatszirkus of the DDR wasn’t such a great idea – the circuses were joined back together in early January of 1991 under the name „Berliner Circus Union GmbH im Aufbau“- or BCU (Berlin Circus Union) in short. The Zirkus Berolina and Busch were merged and formed the Zirkus Busch-Berolina, while the Zirkus Aeros was rented out to a private circus known as Zirkus Olympia.
The Zirkus Aeros was dissolved by the Treuhand in 1992, and the Busch-Berolina circus was sold off to a newly formed company for the equivalent of 50 cents. This set off a spiral of events, with never ending liquidation attempts, buy-backs and failed revitalisation attempts – until the year 2000, the Berliner Circus Union was fully dissolved and all its assets stripped and sold.
Several of the circus animals as well as the equipment were sold off to other circuses while some ended up in German zoos. A small side not – while several circuses using some of the names in this article still exist today, none of them have any connection to the Staatszirkus as they merely bought the rights to the names.
The Winterquartier Today (2014)
The Winterquartier of the Staatszirkus der DDR had an equally unfitting fate. The largest portion was torn down to make way for a garden center. The covered arena was saved as a listed monument – though a housing project was built around it (the developer probably hoped that the building would fall apart due to neglect). Today only the ruins of an old Villa, the concrete shell of a training building and what seemed like a housing unit survived. All of them have been stripped of anything valuable and in most cases been set on fire.
The wilful destruction of the beautiful abandoned Villa is especially sad, and since these initial photos were taken back in 2014 – the building has deteriorated even more. Truly a shame what became of this once great institution. Its probably not worth venturing out all the way to Dahlwitz-Hoppegarten to visit whats left of the Winterquartier of the Staatszirkus der DDR, but it remains an interesting lost place on the outskirts of Berlin with a lot of history.
An interesting little fact to round this post off. Did you know that the mother of Berlins (and the worlds) most famous polar bear Knut, used to perform at the Staatszirkus der DDR? She was sold off in 1999 to the Zoo in Nürnberg after the Circus was liquidated, but then ended up in the West Berlin Zoo where she gave birth to Knut in 2006.
Winterquartier des Staatszirkus der DDR Address