“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Yes, Winston Churchill was referring to the Soviet Union’s geopolitical strategy in 1939 when he made that declaration, but it’s safe to say that same statement can also apply to the bizarre German affinity throughout the 20th century of posing with an unknown man dressed as a polar bear.
Had they not heard of stranger danger?
The vintage photographs, rediscovered by Jean-Marie Donat, a French art collector and publisher, often fall under the aegis of the absurd — nothing like a good family day at the beach punctuated by posing with a man sweating buckets underneath all that faux fur — to the more sinister: Two grinning Nazi soldiers can be seen standing arm-in-arm with the bear; a young, blonde haired girl happily poses, her shirt embossed with a swastika.
An intrigued Donat eventually amassed hundreds of the silly — burgeoning on bizarre — images, and ultimately culled them into “Teddybär,” a 200-page — that’s an inordinate amount of polar bear costume photos — compilation and overall bundle of photographic confusion.
“In the beginning I didn’t know it was a German image, until I found the second photo,” Donat told Vice in 2015. “It’s an incredible photo. … Nazis with a teddy bear in a friendly pose. What was this?”
As it turns out, taking pictures with a grown man dressed as a polar bear was, in fact, a genuine craze beginning in the 1920s after the Berlin Zoo acquired two actual polar bears.
“Many families [went] to the zoo to see the bears — they [were] in fashion — and all of the children want[ed] photographs in front of the zoo with these guys in bear suits. It [was] a huge success in Berlin,” said Donat.
The polar bear costume itself, which remained largely unchanged throughout its questionable period of employment, remained present amid Germany’s sinister advance towards the Second World War.
And while this peculiar trend somehow lasted until the 1970s, photographic evidence of the bizarre fascination thankfully remains to this day.
Additional photos from the 200-page book are below. (Even American soldiers got in on the action.)