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History of Berlin


Since ancient times, the area of today's Berlin contained small fishing and farm villages. Around 1200, two towns were founded on the banks of the river Spree: Cölln and Berlin. It is not known when exactly they received city rights; the first mention of those rights for Berlin is 1251 and for Cölln 1261. In 1307 the two trading cities decided to unite on political and security matters. Around 1400 Berlin and Cölln had 8,000 inhabitants.

Mark Brandenburg

In 1417 Friedrich I of Brandenburg became Kurfürst of Brandenburg. Until 1918 members of the Hohenzollern family ruled Berlin, successively as Margraves of Brandenburg, Kings of Prussia, and Emperors of Germany. Berlin's people were not enthusiastic about this change. In 1447 they revolted unsuccessfully against the monarch, losing many of their political and economic liberties.

When Berlin became the residence of the Hohenzollerns, it had to give up its Hanseatic League free city status. Its main economical activity changed from trade to the production of luxurious goods for the court. Population figures rose fast (12,000 inhabitants around 1600), leading to poverty. Jews were the usual suspects: in 1510 100 Jews were accused of stealing and desecrating hosts. Thirty-eight of them were burned to death; others were banished, losing their possessions, only to be returned by later margraves.

In 1540 Joachim II introduced the Protestant Reformation in Brandenburg and confiscated church possessions; the secularization. He used the money to pay for his big projects, like the building of an avenue, the Kurfürstendamm, between his hunting castle Grunewald and his palace, Stadtschloss Berlin.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) brought harsh consequences for Berlin: a third of the houses were damaged, the population halved. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Brandenburg (1640-1688), the Great Elector, started a policy of immigration and religious tolerance. In 1671, 50 Jewish families from Austria were offered a home. With the Edict of Potsdam (1685), he invited the French Calvinist Huguenots to Brandenburg. About 15,000 French arrived, 6,000 of whom settled in Berlin. Around 1700, 20 percent of the inhabitants of Berlin were French and their cultural influence was important. Many people from Bohemia, Poland, and Salzburg also took refuge. Friedrich Wilhelm also built a standing army.

Kingdom of Prussia

In 1701 Friedrich III (1688-1701) crowned himself as Friedrich I (1701-1713), King in Prussia. (Not of Prussia, because he didn't possess all of Prussia.) He was mostly interested in decorum: he ordered the building of the castle Charlottenburg in the west of the city. His son, Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713-1740), in contrast, was a sparing man, who made Prussia an important military power. In 1709 Berlin counted 55,000 inhabitants, of whom 5,000 served in the army. In 1755 these figures had risen to 100,000 and 26,000. Furthermore, Friedrich Wilhelm built a wooden wall around the city with 14 gates, known as die Zollmauer.

In 1740 Friedrich II, known as Frederick the Great (1740-1786) came to power. Berlin became, under the rule of the philosopher on the throne, a center of the Enlightenment, the city of Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn. Stagnation followed under the rule of Friedrich Wilhelm II. He was an adversary of the Enlightenment and practiced censorship and repression. However, he rebuilt Freidrich Wilhelm's city wall in stone, commissioning an improved Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) at the end of the 18th century - this gate is now widely recognised as symbol of Berlin.

In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte marched into Berlin. The Prussians realised that they were beaten, not only by the French, but also by their own backwardness. One of the consequences was that Berlin was granted self-government. In 1809 the first elections for the Berlin parliament took place, in which only the well-to-do could vote. In 1810 the Berlin University (nowadays the Humboldt University) was founded. Its first rector was the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In 1812 Jews were allowed to practice all occupations.

The defeat of the French in 1814 meant an end to the reforms. But economically the city was in good shape. The population grew from 200,000 to 400,000 in the first half of the 19th century, making Berlin the fourth-largest city in Europe.

As in other European cities, 1848 was a revolutionary year in Berlin. Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1840-1861) managed to suppress the revolution. One of his reactions was to raise the income condition to partake in the elections, with the consequence was that only five percent of the citizens could vote. This system would stay in place until 1918.

In 1861, Wilhelm I (1861-1888) became the new king. In the beginning of his reign there was hope for liberalization. He appointed liberal ministers and built the city hall, Das Rote Rathaus. The appointment of Otto von Bismarck ended these hopes.

German Empire

Prussia was the dominant factor in the unification of Germany. When the German Empire was established in 1871, Wilhelm I became emperor, Bismarck chancellor, and Berlin the capital.

In the meantime, Berlin had become an industrial city with 800,000 inhabitants. Improvements to the infrastructure were needed; in 1896 the construction of the subway (U-Bahn) and city train (S-Bahn) began. The neighborhoods around the city center (including Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Wedding) were filled with tenement blocks.

The economic boom caused by the new function of Berlin was followed by a crisis in the second half of the 1870s.

In 1884 the construction of the parliament building, the Reichstag, was commenced.

World War I led to hunger in Berlin. In the winter of 1916/1917 150,000 people were dependent on food aid, and strikes broke out. When the war ended, Wilhelm II (1888-1914) abdicated. The socialist Philipp Scheidemann and the communist Karl Liebknecht both proclaimed a republic. In the next months Berlin became a battleground between the two political systems.

Weimar Republic

In late December 1918, the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) was founded in Berlin. In January 1919, it tried to seize power (the Spartacist revolt). The coup failed and at the end of the month right-wing forces killed the communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In March 1920, Wolfgang Kapp, founder of the right wing German Fatherland Party (Deutsche Vaterlands-Partei), trying to bring down the government. The Berlin garrison chose his side, and the government buildings were occupied (the government had already left Berlin). Only a general strike could stop this putsch.

On October 1, 1920, "Greater Berlin" (Groß-Berlin) was created by incorporating several neighbouring towns and villages like Charlottenburg, Köpenick or Spandau into the city; Berlin's population doubled overnight from about 2 to nearly 4 million inhabitants.

In 1922 the foreign minister Walther Rathenau was murdered in Berlin. The city was in shock: half a million people attended his funeral.

The economic situation was bad. Germany had to pay large sums of reparation money after the Treaty of Versailles, and the government reacted by printing so much money that inflation was enormous. Especially workers and pensioners were the victim of this policy. From 1924 onwards the situation became better because of newly arranged agreements with the allied forces, American help, and a sounder fiscal policy. The heyday of Berlin began. It became the largest industrial city of the continent. People like the architect Walter Gropius, physicist Albert Einstein, painter George Grosz and writers Arnold Zweig, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky made Berlin the cultural center of Europe. Night life was blooming.

In 1922, the S-Bahn was electrified, and a year later Tempelhof airport was opened. Berlin was the second biggest inland harbour of the country. All this infrastructure was needed to transport and feed the over 4 million Berliners.

But not all was well. Even before the 1929 crash, 450,000 people were unemployed. In the same year Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party won its first seats in the city parliament. On July 20, 1932, the Prussian government under Otto Braun in Berlin was ousted by a military coup. The republic was nearing its breakdown, under the influence of extreme forces from the right and the left. On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor, after doing away with the Social Democrats.

Third Reich

Berlin had never been a center of the national socialist movement, which had its roots in Bavaria. As the capital of the Weimar Republic, it constituted what the Nazis were fighting. But now it became the capital of the Third Reich.

On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building was set on fire. The fire gave Hitler the opportunity to set aside the constitution (for details, refer to "Reichstag fire").

Around 1933, some 160,000 Jews were living in Berlin: one third of all German Jews, four percent of the city's population. A third of them were poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, who lived mainly in the Scheunenviertel near Alexanderplatz. The Jews were persecuted from the beginning of the Nazi regime. In March, all Jewish doctors had to leave the Charité hospital. In the first week of April, Nazi officials ordered the German population not to buy at Jewish shops.

In 1936 the Summer Olympic Games were held in Berlin and used as a showcase for Nazi Germany (though the Games had been given to Germany before 1933). In order to not alienate the foreign visitors, the 'forbidden for Jews' signs were temporarily removed.

Around 1939, there were still 75,000 Jews living in Berlin. 50,000 of them were deported to the concentration camps, where most were murdered. Over 1200 Jews survived in Berlin by hiding.

Thirty kilometers northwest of Berlin, near Oranienburg, was Sachsenhausen, where mainly political opponents and Russian prisoners of war were incarcerated. Tens of thousands would die there. Sachsenhausen had subcamps near industries, where the prisoners had to work. Many of these camps were in Berlin.

In 1943, Allied bombardment of Berlin started (on March 18, 1945 alone 1,250 American bombers attacked the city). On April 30, 1945 Hitler killed himself in the Führerbunker underneath the building of the Reich Chancellery. On May 2, the city capitulated to the Soviet army.

The destruction was nearly 100% in parts of the inner city business and residential sectors. The outlying sections suffered relatively little damage. This averages to one fifth of all buildings (50% in the inner city) for overall Berlin.

Divided city

After the Second World War, Germany, and Berlin, was divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the Allied powers, Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1948, the eastern sector, controlled by the Soviets, became the capital of the newly established German Democratic Republic, while West Berlin de jure remained under Allied rule, but for most practical purposes a part of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Blockade, Airlift

In June 1948, the Soviet government blocked all surface traffic into and out of West Berlin in the hope of gaining control of the entire city. The United States government responded with the Berlin Airlift, aptly named Luftbrücke ("air bridge") by the Berliners, flying food, medicine, and other necessary supplies into the city until September 1949, although the blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949. As part of this project, US Army engineers expanded Tempelhof Airport.

In 1953, unarmed East Berliners walked to the Brandenburg Gate, and took down the Soviet Union red flag. Over 200 were gunned down by Soviet tanks.

On August 13, 1961 the communist East German government started to build the Berlin Wall, consolidating the division. According to most Westerners, the reason for it was to prevent East Germans from immigrating to the West, although the East German government called it the anti fascist protection wall.

When the first stone blocks were laid down at the Potsdamer Platz in the early hours of August 13, US troops stood ready with ammunition issued and watched the wall being built, stone by stone. The US Military with Berlin police kept Berliners 300 meters away from the border. United States Congress did not want to interfere, but instead sent protest notes to Moscow. Massive demonstrations took place for a long time.

John F. Kennedy gave a speech about the Berlin Wall in which he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" -- "I am a Berliner" -- which meant much to a city that was a democratic island in communist territory. (However, cynics are fond of pointing out that the phrase "ein Berliner" can also refer to a type of doughnut.) Much of the Cold War was fought in Berlin, with espionage and counter-espionage. Soviet nuclear weapons were set to hit "the West". American nuclear weapons were set to hit "the East". Both sides had their weapons set for a range that could hit Germany.

In 1968 and the following years, Berlin became one of the centers of the student revolt; in particular, the Kreuzberg borough was the center of many riots. At the 40th anniversary celebration of the communist GDR in East Berlin Mikhail Gorbachev attended.


On November 9, 1989, after a press conference of Günter Schabowski the people of East Berlin crossed the frontier at the Boesebruecke. They believed that the government had decided to open the wall, actually, it was a misunderstanding. People of West Berlin stood on the wall at the Brandenburg Gate. This time there would be no Soviet tanks rolling through Berlin. The wall would never be closed again. On Christmas Day December 25, 1989, the American conductor Leonard Bernstein shared with Berliners and the world in the Ode to Joy (which he had reworded Ode to Freedom) his unforgettable Berlin Celebration Concert in order to celebrate the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

A performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall took place in Potsdamer Platz in 1990, lead by old Pink Floyd member, Roger Waters

After the breakdown of Communism in Europe the city, like the whole country, was united in 1990 and soon became capital of all of Germany once again.

Historical population

1800: 172,100 inhabitants
1830: 247,500
1850: 418,700
1880: 1,124,000
1900: 1,888,000
1925: 4,036,000 (after enlargement of the territory)

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