Sometime in 2016, as Germany was reeling from disagreements over migration, politics, and national identity, the country received a magical visitor. The unicorn appeared on hats, liqueur bottles, cereal boxes, condom wrappers. By last summer, it seemed as much a part of the German landscape as bratwurst.
In Frankfurt, a stately painting of a unicorn overlooks the businessmen dining inside the Thurn und Taxis Palais, a restaurant near the seat of the German stock exchange. At a restaurant in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s hippest neighborhood, a drawing of the creature plunging chopsticks into a bowl of bibimbap advertises food for unicorns. Someone on the Berlin subway has been altering the dogs allowed signs with a little horn to welcome fairy-tale creatures, too. This whimsical infatuation has made its way into the fictional world as well: In an episode of the hit German time-travel television show Dark, a dead body from the present era is revealed to have a unicorn tattoo. “I’ve seen some weird things,” one of the investigators from the 1950s—the pre-unicorn era—says. “But this here definitely outdoes it all.”
During the Middle Ages, unicorns represented purity; in many paintings and tapestries, they were paired with virgins. In Silicon Valley, unicorn famously signifies a particularly valuable start-up. Germany’s unicorn craze seems to evoke something more basic. In a country that prides itself on its orderliness and rationality, the fanciful creature represents a means of escape.
“The unicorn promises harmony and friendship,” says Peter Wippermann, a trend researcher who has now become something of a unicorn explainer. “It’s a sign of optimism and hope.” When we talked in February, he told me he was preparing to go on the radio to discuss unicorns.
He traces the beginning of the unicorn trend to November 2016, when the chocolate brand Ritter Sport launched a limited-edition unicorn candy bar, and a frenzied bidding war erupted on eBay. (A pack of 10 bars sold for 200 euros.) Since then, the big supermarkets have caught on to the trend. Last year, the chain Edeka started selling unicorn-print toilet paper—complete with cotton-candy scent. Several stores sold out. Online search queries for unicorns in Germany tripled from 2016 to 2017. Local press outlets refer to “unicorn fever.”
The unicorn hasn’t been claimed by a particular party or social group, Wippermann told me. But as Germany’s political situation has become rockier, the unicorn has remained a soothing symbol. According to the newspaper Die Zeit, both the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) used the unicorn in the run-up to Germany’s September election. One SPD campaign ad showed Martin Schulz, then the party’s leader, on top of the mythical beast, below a colorful slogan announcing “Young power for Schulz.” The CSU sold unicorn sneakers and T‑shirts, which substituted Munich’s famous Olympic Tower for the animal’s horn.
Following the election, a cohesive vision for the next four years of German politics proved elusive, and the two major parties have continued to squabble. Meanwhile, local papers reported, in the country’s recent carnival celebrations, the unicorn was a favorite costume.
This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “Big In … Germany: Unicorn Fever.”