The Leipzig zoo: from »Völkerschau« to African evening

Pfaffendorfer Straße 29

The connection between the Leipzig zoo and German colonialism is not one to be grasped immediately. Looking for example on the official website of the zoo, no reference at all can be found to the Völkerschauen. This, although these exhibitions were an inherent component next to the presentation of animals. Today, an exotic flair can by established by a visit to the Kiwara lodge in the zoo, with »typical African specialities(1) and a spectacular view on the savanne with giraffes, zebras or sabre antelopes. Sometimes the animals approach the terrace of the lodge during the opening times of the zoo«.(2)

Zoo 1913, Lageplan

Layout of the zoo in 1913. Between bear- and predator pavilion the so-called »Völkerbühne« (people’s stage) was located.

The Leipzig zoo was founded in 1876 by the entrepreneur Ernst Pinkert. Pinkert was a friend of the Hamburger zoo director and probably best known organiser of anthropological exhibitions, Carl Hagenbeck. It thus comes as no surprise that already in the year of the opening, people were being exhibited alongside alligators and turtles. Those deemed worth to be looked at were naturally not Saxons, Bavarians or French but for the large part representatives from the colonised societies.


Between raptor pavilion and seal basin, the zoo director set up a special »Völkerwiese« for the display of humans.(3) The adjoining building built later and fitted with a stage in jungle setting where exhibitions took place as well, was in vernacular called »Hotel zum wilden Mann«.(4) Untill the last show in 1931 there have taken place about 40 »Völkerschauen«. As such the Leipzig zoo was after Hamburg and Berlin one of most important locations for »Völkerschauen« in Germany.

The integral integration in the normal operating of the zoo is demonstrated by an article from 1928, published in the magazine »Leipziger Hausfrau« on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the zoo: »Through a skilful allusion to popular entertainment, a roller skating rink, in winter an ice rink and furthermore displays of groups of foreign people, Pinker understood how to turn the zoo into an even more lavish space, gathering critical acclaim.«(5)

There were three types of »Völkerschauen«: »A circus-like show, the so called indigenous village and the freak show«.(6) At the circus-like show the visitors observed the events from a distance while the construction of »indigenous villages« allowed the public to enter the huts and the main intention of the freak show was to present ostensible »abnormal body characteristics«.

One of the few documents in which the experiences of the participants are directly documented, is the diary of Abraham, the participant in an Eskimo Völkerschau: »Th. 7th of November we again were in sadness. Our companion, Tobias, was hit by our Mister Jakobsen with a dog lash...«(7). Abraham was participant in the »Eskimo- Völkerschau» and like all others died of smallpox. »Mister Jakobsen» is one of the brothers Jakobsen, whose ethnographical collection from Northwest America was bought by the Leipzig Museum of Ethnography in 1885.

One exhibition of people in the Leipzig Zoo was for example the so-called show of »Lips-[N*]«, which in 1930 presented the people of the Sara (from the south of present-day Chad and Central-African Republic). Especially the woman were attested a »feature of a very special attraction as they had almost unimaginable large lips«.(8) Here the view of the the exhibited people as mere objects becomes more than clear. A contemporary article in the Leipziger Volkszeitung furthermore reported pejorative of the appearance of the Sara-women,for example accentuating the perceived repulsiveness of the lips.(9)

Though of a different tone but not less problematic were the reports on another exhibition, the Schau Lebende Bilder – The Suaheli Caravans, which took place some decades before. The press reported this time in positively exoticising manner: »neither the woman nor the men of the caravan have that unsympathetic, even repulsiveness, that we otherwise observe with oaf kinds, on the contrary, some figures even make a congenial impression«.(10) In addition extrinsic characteristics were described in detail and the Suahele portrayed as more beautiful and less primitive – fitting to the image of the »noble savage« also extensively conveyed through novels.(11)

The supposed ethnological education aspect stressed by the contemporary press functioned principally only as an additional point of attraction, at the most supporting the general entertainment value. The concept of the display is similar to a theatre performance which should offer amusement.(12) The object character of the humans put on show becomes particularly clear in the process of embedding of the »Völkerschauen« in the zoo, where it was supposed to complement ice bear dressage and kangaroo shows. Moreover, a proximity was created of those exhibited to the animal world, not only in spatial terms but as well in terms of a professed overlap of characteristics such as wildness, nativeness, proud, martial skills etc. These are incidentally all element which could also be found in the reports and images from the 2010 world football championship in South Africa.

The medial representation of the inhabitants of Africa (or in general, of non-Europeans) often operated and operates through the use of exoticising clichés and stereotypes. By means of establishing a connection to »wild nature« the one described in such negative terms thus becomes a counter model to the »civilised« European, an object for projecting external imputations from which one can distance him- or herself (f.e. barbaric, uncivilised, exotic versus educated, civilised, normal etc.).

Until today it shows that since the beginning of the colonial phase, representations and media reports are drenched in a particular set of images and a particular vocabulary. What is thematised in respect of the African continent are a living together in tribes, the talking of dialects (instead of languages), the »natural« rhythm, the martial conflicts and initiation rites as well as sexual permissiveness. It are these patterns against which one should agitate and establish differentiated sets of images and words.

  • (1) Actually it should be clear that a continent with circa 1 billion inhabitants cannot be reduced to one typical dish but encompasses uncountable regional specificities. Even when it might be hard to account for this fact, it would be desirable in the 21st century if the zoo would at least in its approach differentiate in its continuing colonial set of images and words – not at least in regard of its past as the location of »Völkerschauen«.
  • (2) Zoo Leipzig: -› Auf zur Safari der Sinne
  • (3) The Völkerschau »Afrikanische Wüstenjäger« (African desert hunter, opened 01. – 17.09.1876) was the first which took place in the newly opened Zoo. Vgl. Mustafa Haikal und Jörg Junhold: Auf der Spur des Löwen. 125 Jahre Zoo Leipzig. Pro Leipzig: Leipzig 2003, S. 64.
  • (4) Vgl. ebd., S. 53.
  • (5) Ohne Verf.: »Ein halbes Jahrhundert Leipziger Zoo.« In Leipziger Hausfrau, 1928. Archiv des Stadtgeschichtlichen Museums Leipzig, Dokumentkarton IG 145.
  • (6) Helmut Zedelmaier: »Das Geschäft mit dem Fremden. Völkerschauen im Kaiserreich.« In Nils Freytag und Dominik Petzold (Hg.): Das »lange« 19. Jahrhundert. Alte Fragen und neue Perspektiven. UTZ: München 2007, S. 195.
  • (7) Tagebuch von Abraham, übersetzt von Bruder Kretschmer 1880: 7.11. nach Thode-Arora 1989, S. 125.
  • (8) Leipziger Volkszeitung: Sudan[n*] im Zoo, 07.07.1930.
  • (9) Vgl. ebd.
  • (10) Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten: Die Suaheli-Karawane, 01.07.1894.
  • (11) Vgl. Erika Dettmar: Rassismus, Vorurteile, Kommunikation. Afrikanisch-europäische Begegnung in Hamburg. Dietrich-Reimer-Verlag: Berlin/Hamburg 1989.
  • (12) Vgl. Anne Dreesbach: Gezähmte Wilde. Die Zurschaustellung »exotischer« Menschen in Deutschland 1870 – 1940. Campus: Frankfurt a.M./New York 2005, S. 150ff.
Images on this page:

above left: from: Gebbing, Johannes: 50 Jahre Leipziger Zoo. Festschrift von 1928, S. 14.

»Leipziger Tageblatt« v. 25.07.1894

With the exhibition of humans, as the one of the »Suaheli-Caravans« the zoo presented a depiction of »Noble Savages«, leaving it to the visitors to project their attributions (advertisement in »Leipziger Tageblatt« from 25.07.1894)

Further reading: