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A Brief History of Berlin

Napoleon in Berlin (1810) by Charles Meynier
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A Brief History of Berlin

  • The Early Years: Brandenburg and Berlin
    • First, before Berlin, there was Brandenburg, the seat of government of this region, which became part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation during the 10th century. Then came Cölln, a settlement built around the present day Nikolaiviertel, which was first mentioned in 1237. And finally there was Berlin, established on the opposite bank of the river, and mentioned seven years later, in 1244.

  • Union of Brandenburg and Berlin
    • By 1389, however, the towns of Brandenburg and Berlin had formed a union, joined the Hanseatic League, and achieved some prosperity as a trading and fishing town.

  • The First Hohenzollerns
    • In 1411, the emperor awarded Brandenburg to Count Friedrich von Hohenzollern, who decided to continue residing in the much more civilized Nuremberg. However, his son Friedrich II, established his court in Berlin. The Berliners were less than amused, and fearing that this would end some of the city’s liberties, they violently opposed the building of a castle in the town. It took two years and the assistance of 600 soldiers before the building could actually make progress. The building became the Stadtschloss or town castle, which remained the primary residence of the Hohenzollerns until the forced abdication of Wilhelm II in 1918. Soon after, Berlin was expelled from the Hanseatic League and the city council lost most of its powers to the absolute rule of the margrave.

  • The Decline of Berlin
    • Brandenburg adopted the Reformation early on and the margrave took the opportunity to enrich himself from the properties of the church. Brandenburg suffered tremendously during the Thirty Years’ War, with many battles fought on its territory and huge areas scorched repeatedly. By the end of the war, Berlin was an insignificant town of around 6,000 inhabitants.

  • The Rise of Berlin
    • Berlin’s fortunes changed during the rule of Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector (1640-1688). He expanded Berlin’s population dramatically by welcoming religious refugees, including French Huguenots, Dutch Protestants, and rich Viennese Jewish families.

  • Age of the Hohenzollerns
    • The Hohenzollern family somehow managed to create several sons and fathers who thought and acted in direct opposition to each other. The Great Elector’s son, Friedrich III, was less able and more known for his love of the good life. Although he somewhat emptied the treasury, he also created a cultured Berlin. In 1701, he united the territories of Brandenburg and Prussia and had himself crowned Friedrich I, King of Prussia. His son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, shunned all glamour and culture. He was a true miser and lived a barren life, but spent lavishly on the army. He became known as the Soldier King, as under his rule conscription was introduced. He increased the standing army and established the firm Prussian military tradition that, to the dismay of Germans from other regions, would be considered by many foreigners as typical German. Ironically, the Soldier King avoided war.

  • The First Berlin Wall
    • In the early 18th century, King Friedrich Wilhelm I had a wall built around the city of Berlin. This may seem odd, as by this time the use of cannon made city walls a useless defense measure. However, the purpose of this Berlin wall was to prevent young male Berliners from fleeing the city to avoid military conscription. Ironically, the more famous Berlin wall of 1961 was also built to prevent Berliners fleeing to a softer and better life in the West. To the king’s disgust, his own art-loving son tried to flee for that very purpose. The king was planning to execute him but was persuaded otherwise by his court. The prince, later referred to as Frederick the Great, was sent to jail while his accompanist faced the firing squad.

  • Frederick the Great
    • In contrast to his father, Frederick the Great was a cultured, educated man who made Berlin a center of enlightened thought. His father would have been surprised and proud of his record – he did not shy away from battle and brought Prussia some glorious victories on and off the battlefield. During his rule, Prussia became the fifth power in Europe – the only German state that could rival Austria.

  • The Prussian Era
    • During the Napoleonic wars, Prussia was initially defeated and suffered the ignominy of occupation. Limits were set on the size of the standing army and major art treasures were transported to Paris. However, Prussia played a major role in the defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig in 1813. Prussian Field Marshall Blucher pursued Napoleon across the Rhine and contributed again at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to his final defeat. The Congress of Vienna, which arranged the peace settlement following the wars, made Prussia the clear winner. It greatly expanded in size, gaining the rich and strategic Rhineland among others. Attempts to annex the Kingdom of Saxony were blocked by Austria, which attempted to keep the northern competition weak. It took a half-century of diplomatic rivalry before that argument would be settled through war in Prussia’s favor. The glory of Prussia was portrayed in the growing importance of Berlin. Around 1800, Berlin, with 200,000 inhabitants, became the third-largest city in Europe (after London and Paris).

  • The German Empire
    • In 1871, Berlin became the capital of a united German Empire, and in contrast to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, this was a true empire with Berlin the undisputed capital. Berlin expanded rapidly and became the world’s largest tenement city. Growth continued until interrupted by the First World War (1914-18). In 1918, at the end of the war, the Emperor was forced to abdicate and a republic was proclaimed.

  • The Heady 1920s and 1930s
    • In the heady 1920s, after the disasters of the war, its violent aftermath, and the runaway inflation of 1923, Berlin became the life of Europe with nightlife and revues on a par with Paris. During the 1930s, the Nazis took power and instantly started to transform Berlin to portray its power. Despite the general intolerance of the Nazis, Berlin’s famous and at times seedy nightlife survived well into the Second World War.

  • World War II
    • Hitler launched his plans for German expansion from Berlin until it culminated in the attack on Poland, which started World War II in September 1939. For a few more years, Berlin would be the center of the world, the city to be in, until the first allied air raids started. By the end of the war, 75% of central Berlin was destroyed. It was called the eyeless city, as there seemed to be no windowpane intact by the time the Russians took Berlin in April 1945.

  • The Division of Berlin
    • For Berlin, the war did not stop in 1945. The three sectors of Berlin occupied by the American, British, and French forces became West Berlin, a capitalist island surrounded by the sea of Communist - dominated East Germany. Berlin would be at the heart of the Cold War. In 1948, the Russians tried to force the surrender of West Berlin by closing the land routes from the West – for a year the West, led by the United States, supplied Berlin through three air corridors. At the height of the crisis, an airplane would take off and land at West Berlin’s two airports every minute.

  • The Berlin Wall Goes Up
    • In 1961, the East Germans started to build a wall around West Berlin to finally close off the border through which countless East German citizens were seeping to find a better life in the West. In 1963, American President John F Kennedy assured the people of West Berlin that the world would not surrender the city to Communism in his famous proclamation: "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (The fact that a small grammatical error had him in fact saying “I am a jam donut” was never stressed by Berliners.) For the next quarter-century, Berlin would be at uneasy peace with its neighbor. The West poured massive subsidies into West Berlin to make it a beacon of capitalist prosperity in a sea of impoverished Communism. West Berlin became a popular place for young German men, as men resident here at age 15 were exempted from compulsory military service. At the same time, East Berlin would draw the best talent and excessive funds from the rest of the countryside in an attempt to compete with the West.

  • Reunification
    • On November 9, 1989, after weeks of pressure and warnings of impending crisis, the East German people finally had enough, bridged the border, scaled the wall, and entered the West. Chipping away on the wall with hammers and chisels became instantly popular, but the quality of construction was such that bulldozers were needed to really make an impact. On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were finally united again, almost half a century after the end of World War II. Soon after, the German Parliament decided with a narrow majority to move the capital from sleepy Bonn back to Berlin. In 1999, the German Parliament and several other departments of state finally started to operate from Berlin.

  • Post-Reunification
    • Berlin saw tremendous growth and decline after unification. Subsidies from the West declined in line with the normalization of the city’s status. This was to some extent countered by massive investment in new government buildings, such as the conversion of the Reichstag, the new chancellery and various new museums. Leading companies such as Daimler-Chrysler, Siemens, and Sony invested in Berlin. However, at the same time, many jobs, especially in the East, disappeared. By 2002, the city of Berlin was bankrupt. Fortunately for tourists, the fear of being branded philistines ensures that many of the excellent museums and cultural facilities are being maintained properly.

    A Timeline of Berlin

    1237 – First written reference to Berlin.

    1411 – The Hohenzollern family awarded the Margrave of Brandenburg. Soon after erected the Stadtschloss (City Castle) in Berlin as the principle residence of the family until the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

    1618-1648 – Thirty Years’ War. Berlin reduced to an insignificant town of 6,000 inhabitants.

    1701 – Brandenburg and Prussia united as the Kingdom of Prussia.

    1740-86 – Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große) established Prussia as the fifth European power. Fought the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. Built Sanssouci and Neues Palais in Potsdam.

    1800 – Berlin, with 200,000 inhabitants, became the third-largest city in Europe.

    1871 – Berlin became the capital of a united German Empire.

    1945 – The “eyeless city,” 75% of central Berlin destroyed during World War II. Berlin, an island in Soviet-occupied East Germany, divided into four sectors of occupation.

    1948-9 – Berlin Blockade: the Soviet Union blocked Western road access to Berlin. West Berlin supplied via air bridge.

    1949 – West Berlin became part of West Germany; East Berlin became capital of communist East Germany.

    1961 – East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent citizens fleeing to the richer West Berlin.

    1963 – President JF Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

    1989 – On November 9, the East-West border opened and East Germans streamed into West Berlin.

    1990 – On October 3, Germany reunited.

    1999 – Berlin resumed its role as German capital.

    Last updated September 2, 2012
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