Built on a swamp – a brief history of Berlin, briefly

Berlin's history is certainly part of its appeal. Some of that history is wonderful and some is quite the opposite. Its story had an inauspicious beginning but it led to great heights: residence of the kings of Prussia, capital of the German Empire, metropolis feted throughout the world in the 1920s, capital of the Third Reich, ruined city, front line in the Cold War, city of the famous Berlin Wall – and, now, once more capital of a united Germany and seat of government. The historian Alexandra Richie said, that »no other city on earth has had such a turbulent history; no other capital has repeatedly become so powerful and then fallen so low. … This city's identity has always been based not on stability but on change.«

The name »Berlin« is believed to be Slavic in origin, from »Brl« (marsh or swamp). And this is an intimation of the beginning of the city. Stendhal once asked: »What would have possessed people to found a city in the middle of all this sand?« Berlin is located at Germany’s north-eastern corner, only 80 kilometers from the Polish border. The area has no natural riches or fortifications. It lies in a plain of swamps, marshes and pine forests. About 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, the Warsaw-Berliner-Urstromtal was formed, a huge river bed that is home to the rivers Spree and Dahme.

Berlin's story began in the 1200s, ironically as a divided city already. Cölln (which name survives in the district of Neukölln) was a village on the river Spree inhabited by fishermen. Berlin's Mitte district grew around old markets. The Nikolai Church and St. Mary's Church can still be seen there. No-one knows exactly when Berlin and Cölln were founded. In 1237, Cölln was mentioned in a document. In 1244, Berlin first appeared in a document.

In 13th century, the region’s Slavic population had already been supplanted by Germans, mainly merchants. In 1307, Berlin and Cölln formed a trading center. It led the defense against the robber barons who terrorized local merchants and peasants. The city prospered and joined the Hanseatic League. It traded in rye, wool and oak timber and provided an entrepôt for Eastern European skins and furs.

In 1415/17, a member of the Hohenzollern family was appointed margrave of Brandenburg. He had defeated the medieval criminal Walter Kiavlehn. So began five hundred years of Hohenzollern rule in the region. In 1871, the Unification of Germany was achieved under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck with the formation of the German Empire. He made Berlin the Prussian capital to advance his political and military aims. Friedrich Engels wrote euphorically in a letter that »Berlin, this nest of misfortunes, finally succeeds in becoming a cosmopolitan city.«

The 1870s (the so called »Gründerjahre«) were a time of economic boom thanks to huge sums France had to pay after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The city became the German powerhouse and a European metropolis. But economic progress outran political and social progress. Conditions for the majority were as backward as anywhere in Europe. Common people were living in misery in the Mietskasernen (tenements) while the rich in their palaces lived in luxury.

In the 1890s, Berlin described itself as, »the richest city in Europe« and the »metropolis of science and knowledge.« In 1899, a survey showed that Berlin residents believed the unification of Germany (and the creation of Berlin as its new capital) was the most important thing in the world history of the past hundred years. People expected that Berlin would become the most important place on earth. The First World War shattered that dream. The rulers in Berlin were largely responsible for that bloodbath. 350,000 young Berliners died in the trenches. When the war was over, Berlin was only a shadow of its former self. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, and the Hohenzollerns fell.

The Dawes Plan put Berlin back on track. Within months it was once again among Europe’s foremost industrial cities. Industry’s debts had been cleared by inflation. Production reached soon prewar levels. German exports doubled within five years. At the end of that period, exports per capita were 12% higher than they had been in 1914. The 1920s were a turbulent time for Berlin and it became famous worldwide. In 1920, Greater Berlin area with its twenty districts was founded, doubling Berlin’s population to four million. Social and artistic experiments – unimaginable in Vienna, London and Paris – were happening there. Heinrich Mann called Berlin »a city of excitement and hope« and said that Berlin was anticipating the future. In 1923, Ernest Hemingway wrote, »Berlin is a vulgar, ugly, sullenly dissipated city. After the war, it plunged into an orgy that the Germans called the death dance.« In the eighteenth century, Venice had been a magnet for sex tourists. In the nineteenth century, that role had passed to Paris. And now, it was Berlin’s turn.

The Weimar democracy was threatened by both left and right. Nazis and communists sought to exploit social disruption caused by inflation and unemployment. Berlin became the center of political turmoil. Street battles between Nazis and communists became routine, as well as brutal murders. The most important assassination was that of foreign minister Walther Rathenau in 1922. The numerous examples of collaboration of the Nazis and the communists are less known. In, for example, the November 1932 Berlin Transport Strike, they stood side by side. One group was shouting »Red Front« followed by a »Heil Hitler!«. In Parliament, they often joined forces to turn parliamentary procedure into farce. In July 1930, they forced through a referendum that removed the legal Social Democratic government. Together they forced Chancellor Franz von Papen to dissolve the Reichstag; later elections led to Hitler's victory.

In the last 1932 election, more than 70% of the Berliners voted for either the Communists or the Nazis. 720,000 Berliners voted for Hitler. He took his chance and became Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Nazi reign of terror began. Hitler predicted, »In ten years nobody will recognize this city.« He was correct. On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire. Hitler used this as a pretext to get rid of all opposition. By the middle of the 1930s, Jews, Catholics, Social Democrats and homosexuals were living a nightmare.

In 1933, Berlin’s Jewish Community was the largest in Germany. The first document mentioning Jews in the region dates back to the 10th century. Under Nazi rule, the 160,000 Jews in Berlin were gradually excluded from normal life. In October 1941, the Nazis finally banned Jewish emigration. That summer, there were still 65,000 Jews in Berlin. The number was increased by 9,000 people who the Nazis considered Jewish even though they did not so regard themselves. After the Wannsee Konferenz, more than 55,000 Jews of Berlin were deported. Most of them were murdered in Auschwitz, Lódz, Riga, Minsk Warsaw, Piaski, Majdanek, Theresienstadt and in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp near Berlin. At the end of the war, only 1,900 of those who had been deported returned to Berlin. 1,400 to 1,500 Jews had survived in the city. They were known as »U-Boote« (submarines) because of their underground existence. To 4,700 Jews marriage to non-Jews had afforded some protection.

In autumn of 1943, British and American air forces began to bomb Berlin, killing ca. 50,000 Berliners and laying some 30 square kilometers of the city to ruins. After the surrender of German forces in 1945, Berlin was split into four sectors, one for each of the allies. Any hope of an early peace treaty was foiled by the divide in ideology between the Soviet Union and the other three allies.

On 17 June 1953, construction workers in the Soviet sector began a protest against their working conditions. The revolt spread quickly in the country, and the regime had to call for Russian troops. In August 1962, the East German regime built the Berlin Wall to prevent its citizens seeking freedom and opportunity in the West.

West Berlin vulnerable survived thanks to the three Western allies, the strong will of the West Berliners, and financial support from the West-German government. This included tax incentives for investments in industrial infrastructure, monthly extra payments to those who worked there, and others measures (such as not having to do military service to persuade young people either to stay there or to move there).

In 1989, the two halves of the country – and the city – were finally reunited. East Germans had been fleeing the country in large numbers for the West by way of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Hungary opened the Iron Curtain, sparking a chain reaction with mass demonstrations in East Germany. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the borders were opened. At midnight on 3 October the following year, the national flag was raised over the Reichstag. Ten years later, the Bundestag voted (by a small majority only) to move itself, the Bundesrat and the main ministries of the Federal Government from Bonn to Berlin.

 

This text is published in the book »Guide to living in Berlin«.

Major source for historical references: Richie, Alexandra (1999). »Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin«.

Picture: Berlin Townhall and the ruins of the so called »Palace of the Republic«, former seat of East Germany's puppet parliament, the »Volkskammer« (»people's chamber«), photographed by the author.