Hertha the Polar Bear

So the Berlin Zoo has a new bear cub. The female baby polar bear, born on December the 1st, has been named “Hertha” in honour of Hertha BSC, a professional Football club I hope you are familiar with. Charming as the story may be, several minor faux pas surrounding the story have been overlooked in the anglophone media.

The bear is of course an animal that is entirely relevant to one of the continent’s most prominent cities and Germany’s seat of political power. On the nape of the neck of many a Hertha BSC jersey is visible the flag of one of the 3 Bundesländer named after a major German city (the other two being Hamburg and Bremen). The Berliner Bär proudly stands mid-roar with his claws outstretched on a white background between two horizontal red bars, and this image has become symbolic with the city as a whole. Berlin is of course not the only European capital city that identifies with the bear where multiple Football clubs whose fan bases have been shaped by 20th century politics compete in complex rivalries. Yet while Madrid‘s oso is visible on the badge of Club Atlético de Madrid, the Berliner Bär is arguably far more observable around the actual city. This is logically a predominant reason behind the naming of this bear cub in the Berlin Zoo.

Die Farben Blau Weiß tifo

Yet what of these faux pas? The first has been made by the BBC. Their brief report garnered a lot of positive reaction at a time when many around the world are eager to hear news concerning topics other than rising populism, helpless Venezuelan chaos and slaughter in Sri Lanka. I am certainly not one to detract from news that, while may not be entirely important, does lift the mood. Though it was not the fact that the BBC reported on the story, but instead their actual wording in the news bulletin.

Their claim that “she’s named after Hertha BSC – the city’s Football club” will be a painful read to many residents of East Berlin neighbourhoods. While it is without question the highest profile club in Germany’s capital, Hertha BSC is a long shot from being “the” Football team of Berlin. Fans of 1. FC Union Berlin and BFC Dynamo will certainly be disgruntled at the subtle way in which the BBC has failed to acknowledge their existence, but Herthaner will relish in the wording of the news report.

Union Berlin Choreographie
Original photo by Seppalot13.

To acknowledge the second faux pas, a wee bit of knowledge of the German language is essential. The German word for polar bear is “Eisbär”, the plural being “Eisbären”. This happens to be the name of Berlin’s ice hockey team; the Berliner Eisbären. The owners of the hockey club took over the entity previously known as “Dynamo”; a name that eludes to the previous links that the ice hockey club had to BFC Dynamo Berlin and the Stasi. Their decision to use the moniker “Eisbären” by adapting Berlin’s association with the bear to give it an arctic feel, as professional hockey franchises often do, has not dissuaded hockey enthusiasts in Berlin from using the Dynamo name during fan chants.

Polar bears and “Eisbären” are therefore eternally associated with East Berlin and the abuse of sport by the Stasi in the GDR. Enthusiasts of team sports in Berlin will therefore always make this link whenever mention of “Hertha the Polar Bear” is made in common conversation, a fact that makes the name a little awkward.

Berliner Eisbären fans

However, if a new-born bear cub in the Berlin Zoo is to be named after any Football club, Hertha Berliner Sport Club is the most appropriate choice; Union and BFC Dynamo are both former GDR clubs, and the zoo in question is located in the western half of the city, meaning that immediately any clubs located in the East are less fitting. Tennis Borussia Berlin is a club that does play its home fixtures in the far West of Berlin, but the club moved from East to West years ago. And finally Viktoria 1889 Berlin is a minor side, even though it is based in West Berlin.

What’s more, the actual location of the zoo is relevant to Hertha fan culture specifically. The metro stop “Zoologischer Garten” is a primary meeting location for blue and white bedecked fans making their way to the Olympiastadion for a Hertha Heimspiel, as several of the metro lines heading from East to West converge at this site. If the zoo were located further eastward, “Hertha” may perhaps have been a less suitable name for a new baby resident. The most likely conclusion of this lighthearted episode is that the zoo employee responsible for naming the bear cub is a big Hertha fan, who will be thrilled that we are writing these words.


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