History of Berlin

Mother Earth Travel > Germany > Berlin > History

Berlin is in pretty good shape - despite, not because of its 800 year history.

It all started in the aptly named "Mitte" (=centre) when, in 1300, the two thriving trading towns of Berlin and Coelln on the river Spree, joined forces. All but destroyed by the Thirty Years War, the young city invited its first immigrants to make up for the loss in population: French Protestants, persecuted in their home country and looking for religious freedom, were a welcome addition to the work force. Their influence lasts, for example in the French Cathedral or the Berlin dialect, which still calls a sidewalk a "Trottoir".

It fell on the Prussian king, Frederick William I, the famous "soldier king", to develop the city further, and in 1709, by merging more surrounding towns, he made Berlin his main residence. His son Frederick the Great strengthened Prussia's role as a major (military) player on the European map. At this time, his court became a cradle of Enlightenment, frequently visited by the philosopher Voltaire. This appreciation of the humanities would pave the way for centuries to come - the classicist architect Schinkel, whose sophisticated Schauspielhaus and Altes Museum and the fact that Berlin boasts three opera houses is a testament to this fact (Deutsche Oper Berlin, Deutsche Staatsoper, Komische Oper.)

The Napoleonic occupation in 1806 was met with fervent patriotism and a liberal reform movement. However, the bourgeois revolution of 1848 was short-lived and William I became emperor of the (second) German Reich in 1871, with Berlin as its capital.

Berlin was booming during those "Founding Years": new industrial giant Siemens built a modern subway that transported 30 million people every year. Scientists like Robert Koch were at the forefront of research and development, as were Gerhard Hauptmann and Wassily Kandinsky in the arts.

All this was cut short by the First World War. Berlin was the focus of the 1918/19 (failed) revolution, and went on to become the capital of the first fragile democracy, the Weimar Republic, in the 1920's. It assumed the status of glamorous European capital of arts and entertainment, while at the same time being a poorhouse. At this time, artists like Brecht, Gropius, and Feininger forged out a legacy that has left a lasting impression, not simply confined to the city of Berlin.

Berlin remained the capital during the "Third Reich". Hitler even envisioned it as "Germania", the capital of his coming global empire, and started to leave his megalomanic mark on the architecture and the infrastructure of the city. Berlin suffered under Nazi rule, especially the persecuted left-wing movements and the vast Jewish community. More than 60,000 Berlin Jews, nearly half of the community, didn't survive the Holocaust. Thousands more fled the country. Jewish cultural life is only now beginning to experience a revival (Scheuenviertel).

1945: Berlin lies in rubble, its population halved - the city is divided by the USA, Britain, France and the USSR. All too soon it becomes the focus and symbol of Cold War animosities (and the preferred location for spy movies). While the GDR proclaimed East Berlin its capital, the Western parts remained officially under Allied supervision until 1990. On both sides of The Wall --erected in 1961 to stop East Berliners from fleeing-- Berlin continued to spearhead reform movements, be it the alternative anti-nuclear and anti-war groups in the West or opposition to the one-party regime in the East. Thirty-five years later, during his visit to Berlin in 1998, US President Bill Clinton would make a point of echoing John F. Kennedy'ns words, spoken at the wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").

The fall of The Wall in 1989 wasn't entirely unexpected. With their "Ostpolitik", level-headed politicians on both sides had been working towards a cautious reconciliation since the 70's. But hardly anybody had expected the fundamental division to dissolve any time soon. An entire generation had grown up with the knowing Berlin as a divided city.

It was the "peaceful revolution" of the East German people that made reunification possible (see Alexanderplatz). Ten years later, unification is still a work in progress. Berlin is once again the capital of a democratic state, which now carries the title the "Berlin Republic" with hope for the future (Reichstag).