Berlin's history: The Semnones, a Germanic tribe who settled the Havel region during the Migration Period, were important for the development of the region surrounding Berlin. In 531, they came under the rule of the Frankish kings. In the mid sixth century, the Havel region fell into the hands of wandering Slavic tribes, the Hevelli tribe gaining prominence. In 929, the East Frankish army, led by King Henry the Fowler, brought the Hevelli under German dominion in the course of German eastward expansion. This went hand in hand with an attempt to Christianise the Slavs. They established the dioceses Havelberg and Brandenburg, which were under the Archdiocese of Magdeburg.
The forced Christianisation of the Slavic population caused major tensions, leading to the Slavic uprising of 983. For around a hundred years they were able to once again shake off German rule. From a German perspective, lasting success started in the 12th century. Ambitious princes, such as Henry the Lion, who achieved a decisive victory in the Wendish Crusade of 1147, were responsible for this wave of expansion. Finally, Albert the Bear secured dominion over the Margraviate. He was a member of the Swabian-Frankish Ascanian dynasty and held the title Margrave of Brandenburg starting in 1150. His successors promoted the foundation of cities such as Berlin.
Berlin was presumably founded by merchants in the late 12th century. But the city developed alongside a second town named Cölln. Both lay along a ford on the river Spree: Cölln on an island, and to its east, Berlin on the mainland with its centre located around Nikolai church. Over the course of time the two communities grew into a prospering twin town. Legend has it that Berlin's name derives from the city's heraldic animal – the Berlin bear. Yet historians consider Slavic words as origin for the name, meaning “a dry place in a swampy area” and describing the geological characteristics at the river banks.
The city was originally protected against invasion by wooden palisades and trenches filled with water from the river Spree. The change to a stone wall with hill forts and towers followed in 1270. The oldest Berlin city map, the Memhardt Plan of 1650, traces the development of the city's fortifications. The Berlin and Cölln wall was 2.5 kilometres long and had five city gates. There were only a few houses along the enclosure where, for example, the bailiff or the executioner lived. Today, you can find remnants of the city wall on Waisenstraße.
By the mid 13th century, the young city was flourishing. Berlin could acquire important civic freedom and regalia from the local Ascanian lords which provided a basis for economic development. Berlin's status as a “civitas” (city) was officially documented starting in 1251. In 1307, Berlin and Cölln agreed to act as a union with a mutual council in the future. The city hall was symbolically built on the long bridge which connected both cities across the river Spree. Ascanian rule over the Margraviate of Brandenburg ended when the line died out in 1319.
At the end of a nearly 100 year period in which no new ruler could truly establish himself in the Margraviate, Brandenburg was in dire condition. Local aristocrats, who mercilessly bled farmers and cities dry, had particularly become a nuisance. This first changed in 1415 when Friedrich I from the House of Hohenzollern took over rule. Relying on military innovations, he broke the opposition of the robber barons in no time with the help of the “faule Grete”, a medieval supergun. From then on his dynasty ruled over 500 years.
Around the middle of the 15th century the successors of Friedrich I. had declared Berlin/Cölln their capital. This had been a historical turning point for the twin town, because from now on its development was connected to the rise of the power-hungry Hohenzollern family. At first being electors of Brandenburg and from 1701 onwards kings in Prussia, they created a state dominated by the military in the 18th century and after a couple of wars had achieved a central position in Europe. Their large building activities left decisive marks in the townscape up to today and were often enough meant to display their political status or ambitions.
During his reign from 1640 to 1688, Friedrich Wilhelm earned himself the title of “Great Elector”. He successfully revived Berlin after the Thirty Years' War which, with the plagues and famine it left in its wake, had been an extreme setback for the city. The population had been reduced by half: from 12,000 to 6,000. Of the around 1,200 houses in the city, 450 were uninhabited. The old city wall, which had proven to be inadequate protection during the war, disappeared in 1657. The master builder Johann Gregor Memhardt now surrounded the city with a star-shaped bastion ring modelled after the Dutch style.
In 1701, Prince-Elector Friedrich III., who succeeded his father in 1688, crowned himself King in Prussia. Because the standards at the time called for an elaborate court life, he had already begun with an ambitious and very expensive city expansion before his rise in rank. Thus, among other things, a new city quarter known as Friedrichstadt was built, the City Palace was renovated and considerably extended, and a pompous new Arsenal was erected that also served as a treasure house for war trophies. Under its first king, Berlin was elevated to the capital and royal residence and became the undisputed political and cultural centre of Prussia.
The time from 1713 on was shaped by Friedrich Wilhelm I. His father's opulent court life had ruined the state financially, so one of his main tasks was the consolidation of the budget. Concepts such as thrift, piety, devotion to duty and obedience became core values of the Prussian state. The military was his passion which earned him the nickname the Soldier King. Under his rule, Berlin's Friedrichstadt was expanded and a Quarré was put in at the end of Unter den Linden. This once baroque style decorative square later became world famous as Pariser Platz, home to Brandenburg Gate.
Friedrich II. is the most famous Prussian king and ruled for nearly half a century, from 1740 onwards. As crown prince he had dreamt of dedicating his rule to the arts and science, but after his coronation he immediately took up with the adventure of warfare. Due to military conquest, political ability and a lot of luck he expanded his territory to the disadvantage of the Austrians and the Polish, so that Prussia rose to be one of the leading European great powers. This earned him the title of honour “Frederick the Great” during his lifetime. Although he preferred to live in Potsdam and was rarely seen in Berlin, he embellished the city with splendid buildings such as the State opera at Unter den Linden or the domed towers at Gendarmenmarkt.
In 1806, after Prussian troops were utterly defeated by the French in the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt, Berlin fell into turbulent times. Napoleon marched triumphantly through Brandenburg Gate into the city. King Friedrich Wilhelm III was forced to reform the state and military, in order to shake off the French occupation. This was achieved in 1814 after the victory over France. For Berlin's architectural history, the time after the Napoleonic wars was an important era characterised by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. He built, for example, the Altes Museum, Friedrichwerdersche Church and the Neue Wache (New Guard House), and thus beautified the city centre decisively.
In 1848, the oppressive policy in the age of Restoration also led to a March Revolution in Berlin which was brutally suppressed by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. However, the pressure from the street compelled him to make concessions: He promised to call a National Assembly to discuss and advise on a new constitution and formation of a German National State. After his rule was once again secured, Berlin's self-government was greatly reduced and the promised reforms only hesitantly put into action. Although Schinkel had died in 1841, the architecture of the city remained connected to him. His oeuvre also inspired following generations of Prussian architects, among whom Friedrich August Stüler stood out as being involved in major projects such as Museum Island.
Under King Wilhelm I, Berlin was transformed into a metropolis. The city had experienced a boom since the industrial revolution and was now so full it was bursting at the seams. In 1862, the city was therefore extended 60 km² by incorporating different areas and, thus, nearly doubled in size. Among the newly created settlements were Wedding and Moabit, which developed into the centres of Berlin's industry. The tremendous growth to over a million inhabitants by 1877 led to major changes in the urban landscape – Berlin became a city of tenement houses and back courtyard misery. In order to curtail uncontrolled growth, the Hobrecht-Plan was adopted in 1862, which was designed to better regulate city development. A modern water supply and an innovative sewer system were put in place for improving the disastrous hygienic conditions.
In 1871, the German Empire was founded in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles and the Prussian King Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor: Berlin became the imperial capital. The windfall from France's reparation payments created a construction boom. New ministries, diplomatic missions and numerous church buildings were the result. The government district at the time went along Wilhelmstraße and Leipziger Straße. Infrastructure was also developed on a large scale, especially the railway network. Because Berlin remained a centre of German industrial development, this boom continued until the eve of World War I. The city's economic significance was represented by renowned Berlin companies such as Siemens, AEG and Borsig.
In 1918, the German Empire notoriously ended when Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II deserted and fled to exile abroad. Berlin became the capital city of the Weimar Republic, which had very turbulent first years. Revolutionary sailors, who the Social Democrats later had shot out of the city centre by soldiers loyal to the government, marched through Brandenburg Gate. The suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in 1919 marked the end of the November revolution. Democracy was also called into question by the right, as demonstrated by the Lüttwitz Kapp Putsch of 1920. Because the Reichswehr had failed to protect them, the government had no choice but to flee Berlin. The rebels were forced to surrender only after a general strike involving workers and clerks took place.
A decision made by the Prussian Parliament in 1920 brought about far-reaching changes in the cityscape. The Greater Berlin Act acquired territories such as the six independent towns Charlottenburg, Lichtenberg, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, Neukölln and Spandau, 59 rural communities and 27 estate districts. This led to an enormous increase in population from 1.9 to 3.8 million inhabitants. The gain in area, from 66 km² to 878 km², was also immense. Not everyone was happy with this decision. For example, in Charlottenburg, the richest city in Prussia, the people were not pleased to see their community become part of “Moloch” Berlin.
With the end of hyperinflation in 1923, the situation in Berlin calmed down. The city's government, dominated by the Social Democrats, created reforms in the housing sector. Numerous modern housing estates with socially responsible rent prices were developed. In these Golden Twenties, a Berlin Broadway was established around the Gedächtniskirche which offered an array of cinemas, theatres, cabarets, revues, bars and dance halls with international flair. Berlin had an uninhibited nightlife characterised by new dance styles like the Charleston, jazz music, excessive drug consumption and, for the time, very liberal sexual practices, all of which led to a great deal of controversy. With the abundance of entertainment they had to offer, Potsdamer Platz and Friedrichstraße were also the epitome of the lively metropolis Berlin.
The global economic crisis, which started in 1929 and whose impact could soon be felt in Germany, was one factor in the rise of the Nazi Party. Also Berlin suffered under the effects of mass unemployment, hunger and homelessness. The street battles between Communists and the National Socialist SA-troops became notorious – although Berlin had not been a stronghold of the Nazis before their accession to power on the 30th January 1933. At this very day the Brandenburg Gate served as backdrop of a torchlight procession organised by the SA to celebrate Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor. One month later the Reichstag's parliament hall was set on fire. The Nazi-government used this event immediately for their purposes: Based on a new emergency decree, basic rights were now repealed and a decisive step towards the establishment of the dictatorship was taken.
An example for the Nazi-regime's megalomania was Adolf Hitler's ambition to redevelop Berlin. Among other structures, his architect Albert Speer envisaged a 6 km long North-South-Axis that would have ripped through Berlin without regard for negative social and economic impacts. At its northern edge a grotesquely large assembly hall for up to 180.000 persons was projected on the site of the Alsenviertel. The latter was quickly torn down with exception of the Suisse embassy which looks slightly lost in today's government district. The redevelopment plans – which stayed a fragment – became later known as “Germania project”. Other huge state commissioned buildings, not belonging to this context, were the Olympic stadium and Tempelhof airport. By the way, our app includes a separate guide on architecture to selected Nazi-buildings in Berlin.
During World War II, the air raids of the Allied Forces and the Battle of Berlin, the final offensive of the Soviet Union leading to the surrender of Germany in May 1945, reduced many parts of Berlin to rubble. In the historic city centre the fighting between the Red Army and German soldiers was especially fierce, as the centre of power, Hitler's Reich Chancellery and his bunker, had been located there. Because many men had died or were captured as prisoners of war, the exhausting rubble clearance was done mostly by the Berlin “Trümmerfrauen”, as the women were called clearing away the debris after the war. In June 1945 the city was divided into four sectors by the victorious powers, the USSR, the USA, Great Britain and France, which had taken over control in Germany.In the following years Berlin became a hot spot of the East-West conflict.
The Soviet Union blocked access to West Berlin from June 24, 1948 to May 12 1949. The goal was to make it impossible to supply this part of the city and, therefore, force the West Allies to abandon their enclaves. 2.2 million inhabitants were held hostage in a global political showdown. The Americans, who wanted to avoid military confrontation, responded with a logistical masterpiece: The people were delivered supplies over an airlift whose success eventually caused the Soviets to end their blockade. At its height, the “Raisin Bombers” – as the planes had been nicknamed – delivered up to 12,849 tons of air cargo to Tempelhof Airport in a period of 24 hours.
Founded in 1949, the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany showed Berlin as being one of its states. However, the victorious powers only accepted this to a limited extent and East Germany did not accept it at all. The Berlin agreement of 1971 established that the Western sectors were not a constitutive part of FRG. In fact, the Berlin Senate operated as though it was the government of a Federal state and the Deutsche Mark was the official currency. Yet West Berlin had its own stamps (Deutsche Bundespost Berlin), its inhabitants held a temporary identity card without the federal eagle symbol and were exempt from compulsory military service. Furthermore West Berlin members of parliament only had consultative voting rights in the German Bundestag – all examples of the city's unclear status.
In 1953, the government increased the achievement targets for East Germany's industry significantly whilst wages remained low. Discontent over these changes combined with a widespread annoyance of the people – caused by the antidemocratic policy which oppressed basic rights and included the persecution of political opponents – came to a head in Berlin. Protesting construction workers started a wave of strikes which escalated in the countrywide Uprising, on June 17. The government of the GDR was only able to once more seize control after violently suppressing the insurrection, supported by Soviet tanks, and thus stifle the desire for free elections. The uprising resulted in an estimated 100 deaths and thousands arrested.
In 1945, the victorious allies divided Berlin into four sectors, and somewhat later they also marked the sectors' border lines. However, it was still possible to move relatively freely across the border. This changed abruptly on August 13, 1961, the day when East Germany's government started to erect the Berlin Wall. Using propaganda and spin, the Socialist Party leaders tried to present the wall as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”; in reality, it was meant to stop the mass exodus of their own people from defecting to the West. To achieve this purpose, the rulers considered any means to be justified: The order to shoot, that had to be executed without mercy by the border soldiers, cost many people their lives during escape attempts. Stretches of the Berlin Wall can still be found on Niederkirchnerstraße or Bernauer Straße in Mitte as well as the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain.
The building of the Wall in 1961 was also a shock for West Berliners, one which greatly changed their daily lives. They suddenly lived on an island where they were no longer able to visit relatives and friends on the other side of the city. This changed in December 1963 when Mayor Willy Brandt negotiated a permit agreement with East Germany. The “islanders” could now reach West Germany by way of the interzones or transit traffic. The GDR also permitted them to use a handful of railway connections and roads for this purpose. However, if your name was on the black list your only choice was to purchase a plane ticket if you wished to travel to West Germany.
Because of the precarious situation in West Berlin, many companies and private individuals left the city after the end of the war. The city was hit especially hard when Siemens moved their company headquarters from Berlin to Munich and Erlangen in 1948. The result was a steady loss of population. In 1957, the population of West Berlin was still around 2.3 million; however, by 1984 that number had sunk to 1.85 million. The city could not stand on its own economically and therefore had to be heavily subsidised by the Federal Republic of Germany. The Berlinzulage (Berlin allowance), which provided every West Berliner with 8% on top of their gross salary, was one of many support systems. The cost was around 1.4 billion euros a year.
Young people seeking an alternative lifestyle often moved to West Berlin. It was relatively easy to be accepted to university, apartments were readily available and men could also escape compulsory military service. The city became the centre of the political youth movement of 1968. Some important events were the protest against the Shah's visit in 1967, which was brutally suppressed by the police, and the attack on Rudi Dutschke in 1968 – two of many incidents which polarised more than just the city. Stars like David Bowie, who lived in Schöneberg from 1976 to 1978, also came to Berlin where they became inspired by the city's special atmosphere and easy access to drugs.
East Germany's power structure was increasingly crumbling; Honecker's functionaries saw the changes which had been implemented in the USSR under Gorbachev's Glasnost policy since 1985 not as a chance, but a threat. When he came to East Berlin for the GDR's 40th anniversary in October of 1989, the Kremlin chief was given a rousing welcome. He said, “Dangers await only those who do not react to life.” On November 4th, 1989 it was shown just how right he had been when half a million people gathered on Alexanderplatz for a protest rally. This was followed a mere five days later with the peaceful revolution and fall of the Berlin Wall.
In December 1990, the election for the first Berlin City Parliament took place and E. Diepgen became mayor of the now re-unified city. The grand coalition between the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party faced enormous challenges. The re-unification caused a collapse of industry, the results being a downright de-industrialisation of the region. East and West Berlin had been funded by substantial subsidies over decades, and both showed signs of being a bloated bureaucracy. Rather than facing reality and reacting by setting up a strict austerity programme, the politicians in charge allowed Berlin to fall into massive debt.
In 1991, a razor-thin majority of 18 members of the German Bundestag voted in favour of reinstating Berlin as Germany’s future capital – a prelude to a new era. To make the government and parliament’s move from Bonn to Berlin possible, major construction projects were undertaken. These included creating a new parliament and government district, modernising the Reichstag building as well as constructing or renovating buildings for ministries and other authorities. Berlin’s character was also transformed from the divided, somewhat provincial city made up of a hotchpodge of very different worlds to a creative, international and popular metropolis.