“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

George Orwell, Animal Farm 

Red Army tank men feeding a polar bear in Chukotka Peninsula, Soviet Far East,  ca. 1950

From a popular craze of the Twenties to the brutal wartime encounters of WW2, we have sought to reaffirm our humanity in the weirdly intertwined stories of bears and soldiers

War is hell, any person would agree. Men at war are confronted by their animal nature, exercising their basest instincts while trying to hold on to a semblance of humanity. But there’s a place somewhere between the two extremes, where our dual nature can appear both ferocious and kind : thus we dream of poppy fields in Flanders, balancing horror with delight in a coping mechanism that Albert Camus summarised in the phrase “Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is”. Frequently this process has involved, one way or another, an Ursus : the majestic bear. In popular perception, there is an ancient and persistent analogy between wild and tame in the character of bears. Their similarity to people has often been reinforced by their protective nature, as well as their uncanny ability to stand on two legs (especially when they’re threatened, or threatening). 

The constellation Ursa Major, from a 1541 edition of Ptolemy’s Opera (Works)

Then there’s a series of mythological stories around their motherly appeal : Zeus, the father of Gods and men, and Atalanta, the virgin huntress, are both reared by bears when abandoned in the wild. The image of bears as spiritual parents is widespread beyond European folklore, and can be found in cultural narratives across North America and the Far East. In historic times, we see these ingrained beliefs manifesting in meaningful interactions between man and animal : in the 2nd century, Ptolemy of Alexandria will name two of the most recognisable constellations after bears, while in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt refuses to shoot a prize bear tied to a tree as unsportsmanlike. The latter incident sparked the creation of the most universally recognisable children’s toy – the cuddly teddy bear. This is only the beginning of mankind’s mysterious fascination with bears..

The Murmanska Baska

The Baska with men of the Polish Murmansk Legion, ca. 1917

In 1917, as Imperial Russia collapsed into civil war, groups of free Polish men formed into brigades and joined the Allied efforts to quell the Bolshevik October revolution. The Polish Murmansk Legion was one of those impromptu fighting formations : they fought in the bitter confrontation between Whites and Reds at the Russian arctic north. During a recovery period in the frozen port of Archangelsk, a Legion officer procured a polar bear cub from the local market, in an effort to woo a particular lady who reportedly had an affection for exotic animals. It is not known whether the romantic gesture was successful, but it is certain that the legionnaires were elated by the appearance of little bear cub, who was soon adopted and named Baska Murmanska. Baska stayed among the men throughout the fighting and subsequent evacuation of the multinational Allied force, by which time she had grown considerably. It was reportedly prone to succumbing to its nature now and then, once killing a British officer’s dog, or otherwise showing its teeth to its captors. But with patient training – a remarkable achievement, given the ferocious character of polar bears – she would soon be formally enlisted with the special rank of “Daughter of the Regiment”, furnished with rations, and even acquiring the habit of standing on its hind legs and salute militarily.

Baska meeting Marshall Józef Piłsudski, contemporary painting

When the Allied expeditionary force evacuated Russia after the end of hostilities, the Polish volunteers left with them, and so did Baska. After a brief stay in Scotland, she returned to a free Poland, where she got the chance to meet and salute Marshall Józef Piłsudski. Baska lived uneventfully among the men of the regiment, but couldn’t cope well with the warm continental climate. The soldiers would often take her to a nearby river for a cooling dip, until one day in summer 1920, she escaped, and was killed by farmers.

The Berliner Teddybär fad of the 20s

A trendy Berliner – from TEDDYBÄR © Jean-Marie Donat

A few decades back, French vintage photo collector Jean Marie Donat happened upon an old photo of someone striking a smiling pose alongside an adorable polar bear. There was something surreal about that image, making it instantly collectable. And then more and more similar images began surfacing a few years ago. Donat soon discovered that this was something of a fad that had taken Weimar Germany by storm : “At the beginning of the 1920s, two polar bears came to Berlin Zoo. Many families go to the zoo to see the bears – they’re in fashion – and all of the children want photographs in front of the zoo with these guys in bear suits. It’s a huge success in Berlin. And after, throughout Germany for the next 60 years, there are lots of these teddy bears.”

At the school – from TEDDYBÄR © Jean-Marie Donat

The agreeable cuteness of polar bears – masking their sometimes vicious nature – must have had something to do with the craze, as well as the fact that a bear has been Berlin’s symbol and mascot since medieval times. Along with cabarets, Bauhaus and Josephine Baker, this was another manifestation of the escapism people needed to cope with life in a gloomy, unstable Weimar Germany. Soon, every man, woman and child wanted to have their photo taken with a polar bear – or at least a person disguised as one. By the time the Third Reich peaked, the bear photo bombing craze began to include sinister photos of Nazis posing with men in polar bear costume. Thus the polar bear trend followed the troops to the front, becoming part and parcel of the German military’s entertainment provisions for their men at war.

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Real Teddybär encounters

Real encounters between man and beast become more frequent as war progressed. War begins to encroach natural habitats, in an ever increasing number of arctic missions. Soon, U-Boot wolf packs roam the northern seas on the lookout for Arctic convoys. Here’s U-601’s odd encounter with a polar bear from 1943. For lack of a costumed stand-in, the polar bear is killed, and then poised for an impromptu photo shoot – perhaps to momentarily lift the spirits of men at sea for months at a time, and somewhat remind them of home.

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Not all wartime encounters presented polar bears with such one-sided odds. Beast sightings became a daily routine for the 11 men of Operation Haudegen in September 1944, when the Nazis established a meteorological station in the northern archipelago of Svalbard. The arctic base would report back on weather conditions over the Atlantic, a key factor for the success U-Boot operations. They spent the next few months braving the fierce Svalbard winter, fighting off polar bears, and transmitting weather reports – until May 1945, when they heard news of Germany’s surrender over the wireless. They  were ordered to destroy their equipment, and effectively became marooned without contact or resupply for 4 months, until a Norwegian whaler sailed in to effect their surrender. Leutnant Wilhelm Dege, the leader of the expedition, became the last German soldier to surrender on September the 4th, 1945.

Men of Operation Haudegen with polar bear cubs, Svalbard, winter 1945

Wojtek, the Polish fighting bear

No wartime bear story would be complete without the story of Wojtek, another Polish veteran bear who fought in the Italian campaign. With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, all Polish soldiers previously held captive in Soviet camps were freed, and encouraged to enlist for the creation of a new Polish fighting force in Soviet soil. This became the 2nd Polish Corps, led by General Anders. The new – and not yet fighting fit formation – was ordered to evacuate the collapsing Soviet front. They began a long journey through the Persian corridor, that would take them through Azerbaijan and Iran to the British Middle East, where they would be able to rejoin the war after a period of R&R. While waiting for transport at a railroad station in Iran, soldiers of one the corps’ artillery companies were mesmerised by a cute bear cub belonging to a local kid… they promptly purchased it, named it Wojtek, and made it their mascot.

Wojtek as a cub with men of Anders’ Army

In the next few months, Wojtek would become the darling of the troops. As the cub grew bigger, it took up a somewhat rowdy lifestyle : he would often playfully wrestle with the men, share their bunks on cold nights, and even drink vodka and smoke – or sometimes eat – cigarettes. By Christmas 1943, he had become a 90kg beast, and as much a soldier as anyone else in the 2nd Corps. In early 1944, the Polish were preparing to be transported on British ships across the Mediterranean to join the Allied push up the Italian peninsula. The Royal Navy had strict rules against animals on board, but there was no question about leaving Wojtek behind either. There was only one way to go : Wojtek was enlisted as a private in the 22nd Artillery Company, and like everyone else, he was given a pay book and serial number, and prepared to join the fight alongside his comrades.

Private Wojtek being handy around the bivouac

The Polish 2nd Coprs fought with distinction in the fierce 4th battle of Monte Cassino, where they suffered thousands of casualties. Wojtek fought too : seeing the other artillerymen carrying and stacking the heavy 25lb shells in groups of four, he began copying them, picking up 100lb (45kg) crates on his own, and stacking them onto trucks or other ammo boxes – and never dropping any ! He was promoted to the rank of Corporal for his exceptional service at Monte Cassino,  and has featured in the emblem of the 22nd Artillery Company ever since.

Wojtek on a 22nd Arty Company truck featuring himself on its emblem

Wojtek and Baska had a lot more in common than their Polish military service, and their human like behaviour – acquired by growing among young fighting men. Both bears were subsequently evacuated to Edinburgh, Scotland, after the end of the hostilities they participated in. Mimicking  many Polish service men who chose to remain in the UK after the war instead of returning to a Communist Poland, Wojtek spent the rest of his life at Edinburgh Zoo, where he passed away in 1963 aged 21, weighting a humongous 35 stone (220kg).

Cold War Teddybär

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The affection between soldiers and bears didn’t fade after the war. There’s evidence of ongoing polar bear photo opportunities in post-war Germany, a fun activity that appears to have transcended walls, boundaries, and sectors. Whether it’s DDR border guards, or Allied servicemen, this was still Berlin, home of the polar bear photo bombing. Men and women from either side of the Iron Curtain seem to have made the most of the fad – a now very much forgotten crowd-pleasing pastime, that is also an allegory for the perseverance of humanity in times of conflict and hardship.


Images from TEDDYBÄR by Jean-Marie Donat as indicated. His interview excerpt can be sourced at VICE

Some images and content about Baska and Wojtek sourced from this article on BBC Scotland





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