History of Berlin

Today Berlin is one of the most significant cultural centers in Europe, as well as a cosmopolitan metropoly with outstanding architecture and interesting landmarks. Here's a guide to the city's complicated and, at times, tragic history.

Ancient History

The territory of Germania, a region extending from the steppes of modern Russia to the west banks of the Rhine, was for the first time described by the Roman historian Tacitus in 98 AD. Today this Latin term refers to a territory of German language-speaking countries in central and northern Europe. In antiquity, the present-day territory of Berlin was well outside Roman borders. It was populated by Germanic tribes that fled this land during the period of the Great Migration. It is believed that they became part of the ruling class in the western part of the Roman Empire. 

From the 6th Century on, the vacated area between the Oder and Elbe rivers was settled by Slavic peoples that had arrived from the east. Around 720 AD two main tribes settled in the present-day region of Berlin – the Heveller (Havolane) and the Sprewanen (Sprevjane). The first settled in Brennabor, known as Brandenburg today. The ancient castle of Brandenburg had been a fortress, taken over by King Henry the Fowler in 929. There was a Slavic rebellion against German rule in 983, and the region was ruled by the Slavic princes of the Hevelles for almost two centuries thereafter. The last of this dynasty, Pribislav, died in 1150. Afterwards the lands passed to Albert I. The other tribe, the Sprewanen, settled near the banks of the Spree River around present-day Kopenick, a zone in Berlin.


From the 8th Century to Early Medieval Times

Toward the mid-8th Century the Havolane established Spandow, present-day Spandau, on the banks of the Havel. Historians believe this settlement was closest to the present-day area of Berlin. Around 825 fortifications were built around Spandau and Kopenick. These two remained the only large towns in the area until the early 1000s. At the beginning of the 9th Century local Slavic tribes founded Berolina, a name mentioned in Latin chronicles, known as Berlin today. According to some sources, this name meant: a dam on a river. The small town was located on a trade route connecting the Baltic Sea with southern Europe.

In the middle of the 10th Century emperor Otto I took control over the area and its inhabitants. As a result, the Slavs became German subjects. Otto I founded the towns of Brandenburg and Havelberg. Bishops of the latter usually lived in Wittstock or Plattenburg, both several miles north of Havelberg. During the great Slavic uprising in 983 the abbeys were destroyed and the clergy and German officials were killed. The Slavic tribes in the lands east of the Elbe remained pagan for another 150 years.

In the early 12th Century, the Germans conquered the lands of present-day Brandenburg. As already mentioned, they were inhabited by the Slavs at the time, who were either driven out, or came under the rule of the invaders. However, some of the population survived. For example, the Sorbs live in the region of Lusatia (Saxony and Brandenburg states) even to this day. At that time, the fortifications offered the town folk protection from incursions.

In 1134, the Roman Emperor Lothar II granted to Albert I the Northern March – the empire's territorial organisation on the lands taken from the Wends (Hevelles). Albert I was a duke of Saxony and a margrave of Brandenburg in the mid-12th Century. Until the 1400s, a part of the future Brandenburg territory was occupied by the Wends. Their descendants still make up a large part of the current population of this area. In 1150, Albert officially inherited Berlin from Pribislav, the last king of the Hevelles who passed away that year. Christianity began to influence these lands, and German and Slavic tribes intermarried.

From a Fishing Village to a Royal Residence

The sister town of early Medieval Berlin was Cölln, a settlement on Spree Island. Today this area is in the centre of Berlin near the Museum Island, which is the modern name of the former Spree or Fisher's Island. Originally, this part of the island was a residential complex dedicated to art and science, developed under Prussian King Frederick William IV.

The town of Cölln was recorded before Berlin. It received its first mention in 1237, whereas Berlin was first mentioned in 1244. The river Spree separated the two. Due to their proximity to the trade route connecting Magdeburg to the East they became prosperous very quickly. Especially if one bears in mind that previously Berlin had been a mere fishing village. In addition, Berlin and Cölln united in a common policy, which resulted in an alliance with other towns in order to protect their rights before the supreme ruler. This union was the first one of this kind.

In 1451, the elector Frederick II put an end to the autonomy of the twin towns and declared them a royal residence. However, it was only in 1709 that the towns merged into one, becoming a base of present-day Berlin. The merged city was named after the larger of the two towns. The smaller town's name has survived as New Cölln, a suburb of Berlin. Initially, it was an extension of Cölln to the south.

The first mention of city charters for Berlin and Cölln date back from 1251 and 1261 respectively. Both documents are displayed in the Brandenburg Cathedral's museum. They are actually a part of the very little that is left of these ancient communities. Other remnants can be seen in the Klosterkirche near the Alexanderplatz. Most written records were damaged by the fire in 1830.

Frederick I was an elector of Brandenburg from 1415 to 1440. It was just the beginning, as members of his dynasty, the Hohenzollerns, ruled in Berlin until 1918. First they were electors of Brandenburg, then Prussian kings, and finally German emperors. Their motto was: “nothing without God.” The family came from Swabia and took its name from a castle near the town of Hechingen, their ancestral home. Eventually, the Hohenzollerns split into two groups – the Protestant Franconians and the Catholic Swabians. The former were far more successful – the Franconians united to establish the Prussian kingdom in 1701. Berlin was granted the status of the Free Hanseatic City, but it had to give it up, when it became a royal residence under Frederick II. Initially, the main economic activity of the city had been trade, but it changed into production of luxury items.

Berlin City Palace was completed in 1451, almost a decade after the first stone was set. At this time the twin towns had a combined population of 8,000. There was a surge in population, which resulted in impoverishment. Jews were made scapegoats – in 1510 there were accusations of stealing made against 100 Jews. 38 of them were burned to death, others lost their possessions and were banished. Later, however, the margraves allowed them to return.

The Capital of Prussia

In 1539, the electors officially converted to Lutheranism. One year later the imperial elector Joachim II introduced the Protestant Reformation in Brandenburg. He imposed secularization and confiscated the church's possessions. With this money he implemented large-scale projects like the construction of Kurfurstendamm Avenue, which extended from Berlin City Palace to his hunting castle, Grunewald.

In 1576, Berlin was hit hard by the bubonic plague, which claimed around 4,000 lives. By the early 17th Century, Berlin-Cölln had a population of 12,000. However, the Thirty Years' War, had a disastrous effect on the city. Berlin lost half of its inhabitants, not to mention the numerous houses that were damaged or destroyed.

The Great Elector Frederick William was appointed regent of Brandenburg in 1640. He promoted religious tolerance and immigration. During the next few years the city's territory stretched into the new suburbs of Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichswerder. What's more, under Frederick William Berlin's population rose to 20,000, and for the first time the city gained recognition throughout the continent. Many immigrants came from France, Poland, Bohemia, and Salzburg. Another development in the 17th Century was the famous Unter den Linden Boulevard. In 1647, it was ready and in place between the Palace and the Tiergarten.

In 1701, Friedrich III acceded to the throne as Friedrich I, King in (not of) Prussia. He took this title because he did not control all of Prussia. He commissioned the Charlottenburg Castle in West Berlin, and made the city the Prussian capital. In addition, the cities of Friedrichstadt, Dorotheenstadt, Friedrichswerder, Cölln, and Berlin were united under the Royal Capital and Residence of Berlin in 1710. His successor, Friedrich Wilhelm I transformed Prussia into a major military power. In 1709, 5,000 of the city's 55,000 inhabitants served in the army.

Later on, in 1740 Frederick II came to power. This ruler is known to history as Frederick the Great, especially since it was he who brought the Enlightenment to the city. As a result, academic and cultural life flourished under his rule. Berlin became a meeting place of great thinkers such as the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, along with Frederick's successor, stagnation followed, as the next ruler (Frederick William II) was in favor of repressive measures and censorship. His main achievement was the reconstruction of the city wall. He also ordered the improvement of the Brandenburg Gate in the late 18th Century – a world-famous symbol of the city. Today this gate is featured on Euro coins.

In the middle of the 18th Century, during the Seven Years' War, the first war that involved all major world powers, Berlin was occupied by Russian forces. By the 19th Century Prussia's golden age was over. In 1806, Napoleon entered Berlin and occupied the city till 1808. The first elections for parliament were held one year later. At this time Berlin University was founded, and Jews were permitted to work in any field they desired.

With the defeat over the French in 1814, reforms came to an end. Economically Berlin was improving quite well. In the first half of the 19th Century, its population reached 400,000, making it the fourth-biggest city in Europe. Friedrich Wilhelm IV suppressed the revolution of 1848 and raised the income barrier for participating in elections. As a result, only 5 percent of the citizens had the right to vote (the system would not be abolished until 1918).

In 1861, Wilhelm I acceded to the throne. At the beginning of his reign, there was a chance for liberalization, but the appointment of Otto von Bismarck as a minister-president dashed these hopes. Berlin was strongly influenced by the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century. Its economy burgeoned, and its population rose. It became the railway centre of Germany. New suburbs developed, extending the territory of the city. Eventually, Berlin became the capital of the newly established German Empire in 1871.

The German Empire

The first emperor of the German Empire was Wilhelm I. Berlin was made the capital city, and Otto von Bismarck was appointed chancellor. Prussia played a key role in the process of unification of Germany. At this time,known asthe Founding Era, Berlin had a population of around 800,000. It is claimed that in 1871, this number exceeded 1 million. Industrialisation was developing rapidly. Interestingly enough, construction of the Berlin underground commenced in 1896, and was completed in 1902. In addition, tenement blocks were built in the neighbourhoods just outside the downtown area, including Berg, Kreuzberg, and Wedding. This economic boom was followed, however, by a decline in the 1870s. Construction of the Reichstag, the building of Parliament, began in 1884.

World War I and the Consequences

World War I broke out in 1914. It led to hunger in Berlin, and as a result in late 1916 about 150,000 people were subsisting on food aid. Revolutionary riots spread throughout the city. When the war ended in 1918, the communist Karl Liebknecht and the socialist Philip Scheidemann proclaimed Germany a republic. Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated. In 1920, Great Berlin was created under a municipal act, which united many villages, suburbs, and estates surrounding the city into a metropolis. In the wake of this expansion, Berlin had around 4 million inhabitants. In the 1920s, called the Golden Twenties, Berlin was a very fun and exciting city as the centre of art and culture.

After Germany lost the war, it had to pay severe war reparations. This was stipulated under the Treaty of Versailles. The government began to print so much money that Germany entered into a state of hyperinflation. The situation ameliorated after Germany made new political and economic arrangements.

One of the most visible results of all this was that the city's economy and cultural scene flourished. Painter George Grosz, writers Kurt Tucholsky and Arnold Zweig, and Albert Einstein helped transform the city into a European capital of culture. What is more, the railway system was electrified and the Tempelhof Airport was opened in the early 1920s. Berlin became the second largest inland port of Germany.

The Nazi Party

In 1929, the Nazi Party won seats in the parliament of Berlin. Almost half a million people were unemployed in Germany at this time. That same year Otto Braun's Prussian government was ousted by a military coup, and the republic was approaching its collapse. Hitler became chancellor, after pushing out the Social Democratic Party in 1933. The Nazi movement originated in Bavaria, but Berlin eventually became the capital of the Third Reich. In 1933, the Parliament building was set on fire. This was a turning point in the establishment of Nazi Germany, because Hitler used this occurrence as an excuse to abolish the constitution.

In the summer of 1936, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games, which were used as a showcase for the new Nazi regime. Another one was the fact of persecuting German Jews from the very beginning. Their community was almost wiped out during the Third Reich. Thousands of Jews in Berlin were held captive after Crystal Night, a mass riot in 1938. Jewish shops and homes were ransacked throughout the country and in Vienna. Windows were broken and the streets were covered with so much shattered glass that it glowed brightly in the moonlight, a phenomenon that inspired the poetic term - Crystal Night. Over a thousand synagogues and many Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. There were still 75,000 Jews in Berlin in 1939, the year World War II broke out. Most were transported to death camps like Auschwitz. Around 1,200 Jews survived by hiding in Berlin.

Hitler welcomed the Allied air raids over Berlin, as they were a cheap way of demolishing the city that he considered to be the ugliest in the world. The Nazis developed elaborate plans for postwar Berlin. Together with his architect, Albert Speer, Hitler planned the Great Hall, the Avenue of Victory, a huge Arch of triumph and other projects of this magnitude. Speer planned to erect the Great Hall next to the Reichstag. It was to be seven times higher than the Basilica of St Peter in Rome, rising a full 250 metres, topped by a giant copper dome. It was originally planned to host 170,000 people. There would have been a new train station at the other end of the Avenue of Victory, adjacent to Tempelhof Airport. As for the arch, it would be built in honour of those who perished in World War I and World War II. The project was due to be completed in 1950. That year Hitler planned to rename Berlin 'Germania'.

As one can see, had Hitler won the war, the city would have looked totally different today. Several buildings remain as monuments to these ambitious plans, such as the National Ministry of Aviation, the Tempelhof, and the Olympic Stadium. Soviet occupation forces destroyed the Reich Chancellery, and the red marble from the building was used to restore the adjacent underground station. The residual rubble was used to build the Soviet War Memorial in the Treptower Park.

World War II and the Consequences

The war broke out in Europe in 1939. It had erupted in Asia two years earlier. Hitler invaded Poland, and the Soviet Union organised a counterattack. This officially started the war. The Allied Powers began bombing Berlin heavily in 1943. In 1945 the city was attacked by 1250 US 4-engine bombers. Between 1939 and 1945 Germany weakened progressively. The Soviets converged on Berlin on several fronts in 1945. The Germans fought till the end, refusing to surrender. On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. By that time most of the city was in Allied hands. Before the war ended, around a third of the buildings in Berlin had been destroyed by Allied air strikes and street brawls. The so-called Stunde Null ( Zero Hour) was a turning point in the history of the country. This term referred to the capitulation of the Nazi government on May 8, 1945.

Consequently, Berlin and the greater area were divided into four sectors by the Allied Powers under the London Protocol, which was signed in 1944. Each sector was under the authority of a different power – the US, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union respectively. This division formed the basis of the decision to erect the Berlin Wall. After the division, the Americans, the French, and the British started making efforts to unite their sectors into a federal state. The Russians felt they didn't deserve such treatment, as the Soviet Union had suffered the highest number of war casualties. What's more, the western powers undertook a currency reform without Soviet approval, and the US refused to grant reparations from West German industrial zones to the Soviets. As a result, in 1948 the USSR blocked ground access to West Berlin, which is known today as the Berlin Blockade, with the hope to take control over Berlin's territory. The blockade lasted almost a year. Throughout this time the western powers made efforts to arrange supplies to west Berlin via the so-called Berlin Airlift.

The next turning point in the history of Berlin was the June 17 Uprising. As many as 60 construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16, 1953 demanding lower work quotas. As mentioned, a general strike took place the next day. It swiftly turned into a riot, which East Berlin police were unable to suppress. Soviet troops were called in. They faced resistance from angry crowds throughout East Germany, as the protests had spread like wildfire by that time. Over a hundred people were killed. The stretch of Unter den Linden Blvd. on the western side of Brandenburg Gate was renamed 17th June Strasse to commemorate this event. In West Germany June 17 was declared a national holiday.

From the Wall Years to the Present Day

In 1961, the communist government of East Germany began to construct the Berlin Wall, claiming that it was to act as a barrier against fascism. East Berlin and West Berlin were physically divided. West Berlin had a unique political status – it was an enclave of western ideals on Soviet satellite territory. East German citizens fled into West Berlin, as they tried to escape from a totalitarian society. It was possible to pass from one side of Berlin to the other only through certain checkpoints. Control was very strict, and very few people managed to escape. The sandy soil under the Wall was a blessing to some and a curse for others. It was easy to dig through, but it was also more likely to collapse.

Berlin was the site of a great deal of espionage and counter-espionage during the Cold War years. Tension mounted and reached its zenith in 1989, the year the Wall fell. It all started when, after a misleading media report, checkpoint staff started letting the masses through to West Berlin. People assumed the regime had collapsed and began to physically destroy the wall. On Christmas Eve 1989, the conductor Leonard Bernstein held the memorable Berlin Celebration Concert in honour of the fall of the Wall. Pink Floyd had a concert at the Potsdamer Platz in 1990. Berlin and Germany alike were reunited that same year. Another result was that the Bundestag was moved back to Berlin in 1991. Previously it had been in Bonn, the capital of East Germany. Berlin became the capital of a new united Germany. It wasn't until 1999 that the ministries and state offices were moved back to Berlin. Most ministry employees, however, still work in Bonn.

Today Berlin is visited by five million people a year. Although marred by economic and political disasters, the city has not only survived; it has improved. It has been rebuilt in a way that one could never guess that it was almost leveled to the ground once. The ultramodern glass, steel and concrete structures exemplify its international prominence. The city has a buoyant economy, a flourishing art and culture scene, and a lively nightlife. The streets are lined with masterpieces of architecture that represent every epoch.

Another characteristic feature of the city is that it is very decentralised. It comprises several major neighbourhoods. These are Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte, Friedrichshain, Schoneberg, Charlottenburg, Kreuzberg, and the Government Quarter. The first one, Prenzlauer Berg, was a working-class zone according to a historical plan, but in the early 1990s it was flooded by anarchist groups and rebels. However, today it is the trendiest neighbourhood in Berlin, with cult nightclubs and a lively art scene.

The Mitte is constantly attracting the majority of tourists because it has the most monuments and landmarks. It actually consists of two neighbourhoods. One is a primarily residential area north of the river, similar to Prenzlauer Berg in terms of layout and mentality. The other one, located south of the river, is the city's historical centre. This is where the Hohenzollerns ruled once, and where most of the ministries were located. Museum Island with the city's most famous museums is situated here, too. Theatres abound along Friedrichstrasse.

Another district, Schoneberg, is to be found between Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg, south of the Tiergarten. This pleasant residential district is the hub of Berlin's gay community. The area features many cafes, innovative shopping malls, and pleasant Italian, Indian and Thai eateries. It is home to the best and most diverse ethnic cuisines in the city. There is a popular weekend market on the Winterfeldtplatz.

Charlottenburg is located west of the Tiergarten. During the Wall Years this district was the centre of West Berlin. The main train station and the best shopping zones were located here. Even though the Wall has since fallen, Charlottenburg still offers the best shopping in the city, the Kurfurstendamm – a name that is synonymous with glitz and glamour. Another often visited place is the Government Quarter, featuring the Reichstag and other state buildings.