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.