Ever heard of Spreepark? The story of this former DDR fairground is a local legend in Berlin with about as many ups and downs as the roller coasters that used to run there.
Once upon a time, it was East Germany’s wildly popular premier amusement park. But since 2001 the site has laid fallow, leaving behind a graveyard of rust-covered rides and chipped paint in the underbrush of the Plänterwald.
They installed rollercoasters, whitewater rafting, a Wild West town and an English village
Now, even these eerily intriguing ruins are facing another transformation: The park is set to be reinvented as a centre for art, culture and nature by 2026.
In the meantime, join us as we wade through all the moss and thickets to explore the park’s history, from its bright beginnings in the DDR to its eventual decline post-reunification and beyond. Strap in – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
East German origins: VEB Kulturpark
October 4, 1969: The DDR’s 20th birthday – and the date of the grand opening of East Germany’s first and only permanent theme park.
Though it lacked some of the pomp and circumstance of its Western equivalents, the VEB Kulturpark had many of the same features, from its rows of food and souvenir stands to its rides. The crown jewel among its attractions was the 45-metre-tall ferris wheel, still an iconic symbol of the park’s heyday.
Between the Kulturpark’s rides, concerts, dance events, children’s programs and general novelty, it became a popular destination for people of all ages, drawing in up to 1.7 million visitors a year.
Reunification and reinvention
After Germany’s reunification, Berlin’s Senate for Culture decided to reinvent the park – which is how it fell into the hands of the Witte family. Given their history of carnival operation, Norbert Witte, dubbed the “King of Carousels” by his friends, took on the task of turning the fairground into a theme park that was up to West-German standards.
On a totally harmless note that holds absolutely no sinister implications for the eventual fate of the park, Norbert’s grandfather Otto was a notorious showman-slash-charlatan who, among other things, claimed to be the king of Albania. What’s that? Foreshadowing, you say? Never heard of it.
Spreepark’s grand re-opening
The gates to the new and improved theme park finally opened on April 4, 1992. In the early days, the Wittes attempted a balancing act between the old features of the Kulturpark and the trappings of a western theme park.
They installed a canal around the ferris wheel that offered boat rides, aiming to capture the fairytale atmosphere of the Spreewald, followed by rollercoasters, whitewater rafting, a Wild West town and an English village. They also introduced a flat rate for park tickets that gave visitors access to all the park’s attractions, rather than charging individual fees for each one.
Trials and tribu-locations
Attempting to repair a ride, Witte crashed a crane into a nearby carousel, resulting in the tragic deaths of seven people
Things took a turn when, in 1997, Witte and the city reached a leasehold agreement for the 74-acre site, which stipulated that the owners would need to minimise the environmental impact of the park on the surrounding forest area.
That sounds nice on paper, but for the owner it posed a problem: He had to avoid cutting down trees and conducting construction operations as much as possible. The Plänterwald being declared a nature reserve complicated matters further, as its parameters included part of the Spreepark.
The successful operation of the amusement park and the mandatory nature conservation guidelines proved to be incompatible, as Witte spent years seeking approval to build a sorely-needed parking lot by the park’s entrance only to eventually be denied.
Parking and price hikes
Where once the park drew in nearly two million yearly visitors, after 1997 the attendance numbers gradually dwindled to about 500,000 – a steady decline.
This was in no small part due to the parking situation, as visitors faced a 15-minute trek from the nearest lot, or potential tickets for unauthorised parking. Not only that, but the economic tensions of the late 90s had Berliners thinking twice before paying for a trip to the amusement park.
That hesitance was exacerbated by a yearly hike in entrance fees as the Wittes scrambled to recoup their losses, leading to a vicious cycle that sent the park into a downward spiral.
From delight to defunct
Under the guise of shipping the carousel to Germany for repairs, Witte stuffed it with €10 million worth of cocaine
Eventually, the Wittes had no choice but to terminate the ground lease in 2001. According to Norbert Witte, the Senate for Culture’s nature conservation guidelines made it impossible to build a solid foundation for his business. Meanwhile, his opponents argued that he had never implemented his original concept and failed to honour their contractual agreements. Witte’s competence was brought into question as some in the Berlin press scrutinised the city-state’s management selection process.
That scepticism isn’t totally unfounded. Witte had a family history of carnival operations, sure – but nobody said it was always a successful one. In 1981, while attempting to repair a ride, Witte accidentally crashed a crane into a nearby carousel, resulting in the tragic deaths of seven people and serious injuries for 15 others.
Compared to that, the problems with the Spreepark seem tame, no matter how bad the parking was. This, however, did not stop the Spreepark’s director from filing for insolvency, and the site was ultimately turned over to the Berlin Property Fund.
Fresh starts and tragic ends
Witte, chronically incapable of knowing when to quit, packed up six rides and moved to South America with his family in the hopes of opening a new fairground. Among the attractions was the Schmetterlingsflug or ‘butterfly flight’, a feature of the original VEB Kulturpark that fluttered on faithfully in Lima until 2009.
But the family’s hopes for the future were dashed once again: The new park was a flop and Mr. and Mrs. Witte filed for divorce. Pia returned to Germany with their daughter Sabrina, while Norbert remained in Peru with their son Marcel.
Ready to turn his life back around, Witte found a way to put the park’s Magic Carpet carousel ride to use after all. Unfortunately, that use turned out to be the alleged smuggling of 167 kilos of cocaine into Germany.
Desperate and in debt, Norbert had been recruited by an old friend from Berlin – who just so happened to be involved with the Peruvian mafia. Under the guise of shipping the carousel to Germany for repairs, Witte stuffed it with around €10 million worth of cocaine, only to be exposed by an undercover investigator.
He was arrested in 2003 – as was his son, despite purportedly having no knowledge of the drug operation. Norbert was sent to Germany and sentenced to a seven-year prison term. Marcel wasn’t so lucky. He was detained in a dilapidated prison on the outskirts of Lima until 2006, when he finally received his sentence: A staggering 20 years.
While Norbert was released after serving just four years, Marcel is currently still behind bars – though he was finally transferred to a prison in Moabit in 2016.
Mission Impossible: Reviving the Spreepark
The abandoned Spreepark became the prize in an international competition between entrepreneurs and businesses hoping to get in on the fairground floor. But all of them failed to reach an agreement with city officials, who were still mandating the same nature conservation guidelines that Witte claimed were too restrictive.
Meanwhile, sprayers, urban explorers and artists had free range of the park – that is, so long as they didn’t get caught trespassing. The overgrown attractions and broken set pieces imbued the site with an eerie charm, making for an enticing photo-op.
But it wasn’t until 2008, when the property was, against all reason, given back to the Witte family, that the park was officially open again – albeit just for guided tours and film productions. Sabrina Witte went on to open a snack bar named Mythos on the location, evoking the park’s legendary status.
Spreepark in the spotlight
The park wasn’t a complete relic yet, however: Between 2008 and 2014, it was the site of numerous large scale cultural events. Concerts, music festivals, historical reenactments and, at one point, a HAU theatre project featuring the burning of a giant effigy attracted visitors from far and wide.
Given its history, the park has also been a source of inspiration for creatives through the ages, from the DDR-TV series Spuk unterm Riesenrad to the award-winning 2009 documentary about the Wittes called Achterbahn. Even the odd Tatort-investigator has gotten lost in the weeds overrunning the former theme park, and its English village got a new coat of paint for the 2011 Hollywood film Wer ist Hanna?
Reinventing the wheel
After the Berlin Property Fund ultimately abandoned a forced auction in 2014 and bought back the leasehold itself for two million, the Wittes had to vacate the site once and for all. Since 2016, the non-profit Grün Berlin, a subsidiary of the State of Berlin, has been in charge of the property and is still working on an environmentally-viable concept for the former park. The project is being led by the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Latz + Partner.
The plan is to incrementally renovate and eventually reopen the park as a “Natur-und Kulturpark” by 2026. The Spreepark-Werkhalle, for example, is set to be transformed into an eventlocation. And of course, the pride of the DDR’s original Kulturpark, the ferris wheel, will be up and running again as well.
But for now, visitors can stop by the newly refurbished Eierhäuschen, a registered Berlin landmark, for delicious seasonal specialties and a stunning view of the water. The building also doubles as an exhibition space where artists can showcase their work.
2026: Things to come
In order to restore the park’s former glory as a Berlin institution, its abandoned buildings and rides will set the stage for arts and culture while preserving the natural landscape and historic architecture as much as possible. Above all else, the revamped park’s primary goal is sustainability. In recognition of this effort, the project has received accolades from the German Sustainable Building Council (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen e.V.).
In consultation with artists and other creatives, administrators in the “Spreepark Lab” are still working on developing programs that uphold the park’s unique character and hopefully delight future guests.
Though it’ll be a few years before these visions are realised, the Spreepark is still well worth a visit in the meantime. In addition to the countless art and nature exhibitions and workshops on offer, you can still book tours through the Plänterwald to explore the ruins of a bygone era – and catch a glimpse of what awaits in the next one.
- Spreepark Berlin Kiehnwerderallee 1-3, details.
This article has been adapted and expanded from the German by Seraina Birdsey.