Spreepark, Berlin

A series of images of the abandoned East German ‘Spreepark’ taken in May this year.

Spreepark is one of those abandoned places place with a tragic personal history behind it. Opened in 1969 the park, which was then called the Kulturpark Plänterwald was the only theme park in the old German Democratic Republic. It featured a giant 40 meter high ferris wheel looming over a number of permanent attractions including canals and roller coasters, a circus tent, a carousel and a cinema as well as a herd of giant fibreglass dinosaurs purchased secondhand from a defunct French theme park.

It was an isolated bit of normalcy for an East Berlin population that was beginning to recover from the second world war but was still adjusting to the constraints of Communist rule. Escaping to the west was becoming more and more difficult and even travel within the GDR was difficult as the general population was only allowed to visit certain pre-determined holiday resorts if they could manage to get approval for an internal passport. So in those early days the Kulturpark must have been a pleasant escape from the pre-fab concrete appartments popping up all over the GDR.

When Germany was re-unified in 1991 a number of state-run businesses, including the park, were put up for tender. A man named Nobert Witte, together with his wife, was awarded the contract despite a somewhat suspect history with heavy machinery. It’s not clear whether the local authorities knew about Witte’s past or not but he had already served time for manslaughter following an accident at his travelling carnival a few years earlier in which seven people were killed and fifteen others injured.

Witte rapidly went about installing new attractions and rides but struggled to recoup his expenses. Added to this there was very little public parking available nearby as the park was established at a time and in a place where personal vehicle ownership was rare. At the height of its popularity Spreepark attracted 1.5 million people annually but visitor numbers declined even as financial and bureaucratic problems mounted.

Before he was forced to close the park due to bankruptcy Witte disassembled a number of the rides and shipped them to Peru under the auspices of having them repaired. His plan was to escape his debts and start fresh with his family and a new theme park in South America. But his planned Peruvian ‘Luna Park’ never got off the ground and, with further debts mounting, he turned to organised crime contacts and negotiated a deal to bring 160 kilograms of cocaine back to Germany in the support mast of his Magic Carpet ride. Unfortunately one of his contacts was an undercover narcotics agent and the deal unraveled. Witte’s son Marcel was arrested and imprisoned in Peru while Witte himself virtually escaped punishment back in Germany.

The scandal was well publicised in Berlin at the time but since then the park has been allowed to languish with no one willing to take on the outstanding property taxes or clear the site for future development. Ever the optimist Witte insists he can secure the release of his son and make the park viable again. He currently lives alone on the property among the dinosaurs on a constant vigil to prevent scrappers and vandals from adding to the damage that time and neglect have already done.

 

You can read more about the demise of Spreepark and the Witte family in this article in Germany’s Spiegel.

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