History of Berlin



German roots date back to the Holy Roman Empire and Julius Caesar. Caesar referred to the unconquered area east of the Rhine as Germania. Germanic tribes were well organized and defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in about AD 9. One of the largest Germanic tribes, the Franks, took over the other West Germanic tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire. They developed the Frankish Empire, with the ruler, Charlemagne. He was crowned in Rome by the pope, and ruled until 843 when the empire was divided among Charlemagne's heirs. The eastern kingdoms, Franconians, Saxons, Bavarians, and Swabians were ruled by the descendants until 911. At this time, they elected a Franconian, Conrad I. this can be seen as the beginning of unified German history.

In 962, Otto I became the first of the German kings crowned emperor in Rome. The Germans were the richest and most politically powerful in Europe. Expansion began, but resulted in expensive wars that weakened the German empire. From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years's War ravaged in the Holy Roman Empire. Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and competition between states created widespread discord. Germany was the main site for battles and was where the final conflict between France and the Habsburgs took place. The country was also still divided and in-fighting weakened the empire. Known as "particularism" (the existence of many states of various sizes and kinds) continued until 1871.

The Napoleonic wars sparked the process of true unification. A number of independent German kingdoms united under Prussian leadership and officially formed the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich). The empire reached to the eastern city modern day Klaipeda (Memel) in Lithuania, encompassing over 40 percent of contemporary Poland, to Alsace-Lorraine (France), eastern Belgium (Eupen-Malmedy), and up north to southern Denmark.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna further unified the several hundred states into thirty-eight states. The largest of these states, Austria and Prussia, competed for prime positions within emerging Germany. Otto von Bismarck was largely responsible for this unification and secured Prussian supremely in a united Germany in 1871. The new German Empire no longer included Austria.

Bismarck was dismissed in 1890 by the young emperor Wilhelm II. Prosperous Germany also competed fro greater prominence among the European states. An aggressive program of military expansion led to fear among its neighbors. In the summer of 1914, Germany's rulers went to war with Russia and France. They believed this was a vital strategic move as by 1916 Russian and French military reforms would be complete and they would be able to compete with Germany. A complicated system of alliances arose and regional conflicts turned into World War I.

The German's were defeated in November 1918. and the empire fell as Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate the throne. The Weimar Republic was established to institute parliamentary democracy in Germany. Many Germans resisted this organization and the severe financial reparations burdening Germany led to a depressed economy and people. The Great Depression arrived and parliamentary politics became impossible. The government tried to rule by decree, but the economic crisis allowed extremist politicians to be elected. Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers's (Nazi) Party became the strongest party in the 1932 elections. In January 1933, the republic's elected president, Paul von Hindenburg, named a government headed by Hitler.

With Hitler as the Fuehrer, democratic institutions were dismantled and a police state was installed. By 1935 his regime had transformed Germany into a totalitarian state. Successful economic and diplomatic moves during the first five years led to spreading support. When Hitler entered Vienna in 1938 he was greeted by cheers. Shortly after, 99 percent of Austrians voted in favor of the annexation of Austria to the German Reich.

"Undesirables" were determined to be Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, handicapped people, socialists, communists, unionists and many other groups. They were subjected to systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder. Now known as the Holocaust, approximately six million European Jews were systematically killed. The total number of deaths among all persecuted people is impossible to calculate exactly, but it believed to be between 11 million and 17 million people. It is one of the worst genocides in the history

Now called, World War II, the war involved many of the world's nations, including all of the great powers. Two two opposing military alliances were formed, the Allies and the Axis. It was a state of "total war," with the major participants placing their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities into the war effort. It included the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust, and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare. It was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.

Germany was eventually unable to withstand the attacks of the Allies from both sides. Hitler's Third Reich was defeated in 1945. Many Nazi leaders were identified and imprisoned, with many taking their own lives before coming into custody, including Adolf Hitler. The crimes committed during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities. Germany had been destroyed, as had much of Europe, and a majority of people felt Germany was to blame. Germany lost 25 percent of it's territory, it's respect, and had severely damaged the spirit of the people.

The Allies conducted the Potsdam conference and decided the future of Germany's borders. Germany was divided into four sectors: controlled by the French, British, US and Soviet forces. United Kingdom and the US decided to merge their sectors, followed by the French. Silesia, Pomerania and the southern part of East Prussia came under Polish administration according to the international agreement of the allies. The remaining central and western parts of the country were divided into an eastern part under Soviet control. The western allied section was transformed into the Federal Republic of Germany with Bonn as the capital. The Soviet-controlled zone became the communist/authoritarian government, Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) or German Democratic Republic (GDR) in English. Berlin was divided among the Soviets and the West. On August 13, 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected.

The GDR struggled to provide equitable resources to the West and many people tried to defect. Appointed by Stalin, Walter Ulbricht was responsible for designing the postwar German system that would centralize all power in the Communist Party. Along with the erection of the wall, the government created a powerful secret police, the Stasi, turned the people into informers, and had vast secret files on the citizenry. Erich Honecker came to power and changed the direction of national policy and tried to pay closer attention to the grievances of the proletariat. This was not entirely successful and in 1989, severe economic problems and continued emigration to the west helped lead to the demise of the GDR.

The summer of 1989 led to the peaceful revolution, or Die Wende. Honecker was forced to resign in October, and on November 9th, East German authorities unexpectedly allowed East German citizens to enter West Berlin and West Germany. The GDR had collapsed and the iron curtain that separated German families was no more. Hundreds of thousands gathered at the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of the borders. A spontaneous celebration is still warmly recalled by Germans today and the official date of reunification October 3rd, 1990 is a national holiday (Tag der Deutschen Einheit).

The last post-war limitations to Germany's sovereignty were removed and the US, UK, France and Soviet Union gave their approval. The German parliament, the Bundestag, decided on borders and modern day Germany was born. The reputation of Germany as an intellectual land of freedom and high culture (Land der Dichter und Denker) holds true once again.


Berlin was originally inhabited by Germanic Swabian and Burgundian tribes and Slavic Wends. Two towns, Berlin and Coelln, were developed in the 13th century along the river Spree. (This area is today's Nikolaiviertel.) The towns eventually merged and grew into a center for commerce and agriculture. In 1244, Berlin was first mentioned in documents and by 1251 city rights were documented. The name "Berlin" may come from the Old Polabian stem "berl" meaning "swamp".

The construction of a new royal palace by Elector Frederick II Irontooth was proposed in 1448. There were protests, but they were unsuccessful. Berlin became the royal residence of the Brandenburg electors, and Berlin had to give up its status as a free Hanseatic city. The Bubonic plague wiped out 4,000 people in 1576, but by 1600, there were 12,000 inhabitants.

In the 17th century, there were about 10,000 inhabitants. Half of these residents were killed during the 30 years and the city had to re-build again. Berlin had a welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere that drew religious, economic and other asylum seekers. In 1701, Berlin became the capital of Prussia and surrounding cities were merged. In 1871, Berlin became the capital of the German Reich. The city continued to expand and soon encompassed more than one million inhabitants.

In 1881, Berlin became a city district (Stadtkreis Berlin) separate from the Province of Brandenburg. The Reichstag, the parliament building, was commissioned in 1884. During World War I, the city suffered to wide-spread famine. Over 150,000 people were dependent on food aid.

The city survived the first World War and began to look like the city it looks like today. Wilhelm II (1888–1918) abdicated the throne, leaving a vacancy that Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag and the communist Karl Liebknecht at the Castle both proclaimed a republic. In the next months Berlin became a battleground between the two political systems. The dismal economic situation compacted by reparation payments led to the over-printing of money and inflation became enormous. At the worst point, one US dollar was worth about 4.2 trillion marks. Help from the foreign forces and improved economic policy helped right the situation and Berlin began to flourish. Physicist Albert Einstein, painter George Grosz and writers Arnold Zweig, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky made Berlin one of the major the cultural centers of Europe.

Despite these developments, 450,000 people remained unemployed. The 1929 economic crash brought the city back down. Uncertainty and fear prevailed and on January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building was set on fire and the Nazi party accused the communists. Hitler used the situation to claim a state of emergency and took over total power. That summer, the Prussian government under Otto Braun in Berlin was dismissed by presidential decree. The National Socialist (Nazi) movement had never been based in Berlin, but it was now the capitol of the Third Reich.

Around 1933, some 160,000 Jews were living in Berlin, making up one third of all German Jews. Persecution of the Jews began immediately after Hitler came to power. Jewish doctors were dismissed and Nazi officials ordered the German population not to buy from Jewish shops. The Jewish community began being moved into separate sections from the general populace and were deprived of necessities, turning them into ghettos. Kristallnacht in 1938 led to thousands of the city's Jews imprisonment and destruction of businesses. In 1939, there were still 75,000 Jews living in Berlin. This number was further decimated as the majority of German Jews in Berlin were taken to the Grunewald railway station in early 1943, and shipped in stock cars to death camps such as Auschwitz. Thirty kilometers (19 mi) northwest of Berlin, Sachsenhausen concentration camp still stands today. The site of many political opponents and Russian prisoners, it is a testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. Only about 1,200 Jews survived in Berlin by hiding.

The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin (the decision to hold them there had been made pre-1933) and the Nazis hoped to showcase German superiority. The city was altered to hide the anti-sematic doctrine as foreign visitors flooded in. The statuesque Olympiastadion (Olympic Stadium) was erected for the games and is one of the few Nazi structures to remain in Berlin. The American, Jesse Owens, ruined Hitler's hopes for the Games by winning four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump, and as part of the 4x100 meter relay team. He was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Summer Olympics. He thoroughly disproved Hitler's theories about the Aryan race.

As the capitol and Nazi base, much of Berlin was destroyed in WWII. In 1940, an Allied air-raid on Berlin began for propaganda purposes. This was intensified in 1943 with many raids on German major cities. For example, on March 18, 1945 there were 1,250 American bombers that attacked the city. "The Race to Berlin" was on as Nazi demise became inevitable and the Allieds and Russians raced to enter the city first. In a controversial decision, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower halted Anglo-American troops on the Elbe River to save American lives. This was strategic decision as an earlier conference had already drawn up how the city was to be divided. Russia's Red Army entered the city, taking it as their final prize in the Battle of Berlin. The Germans refused to surrender unconditionally, despite being surrounded and fiercely outnumbered. On April 30, 1945 Hitler committed suicide in the Fuehrerbunker underneath the Reich Chancellery along with some of his followers. However, resistance did not end as many Germans hoped for the West to save them from the far worse retaliation of the Russians. On May 2, 1945 Berlin finally capitulated to the Soviet army. One fifth of all buildings (50 percent in the inner city) were destroyed.

The city was also divided into sectors by the Allied powers:
West Berlin - French, American and British sector
East Berlin - USSR

Berlin was chosen as the capitol of the GDR in 1949. Because of the growing tensions between West Germany and the GDR, the GDR built a wall between the countries and around West Berlin. This separated families, friends, and neighbors. Attempts to cross the wall were frequent, but most were unsuccessful. The West moved forward, as the East made due with less under communist rule.

After WWII and the building of the wall, there was a shortage of labor. This led to an influx of immigrants from Turkey to West Berlin and Vietnamese in the East. These communities have stayed in Berlin, and greatly affected the food, culture, and future of the city.

The East became frustrated with the Allied efforts to fuse the American, French, and British sectors, American refusal to grant the Soviets war reparations from industrial areas of western Germany, and to a currency reform undertaken by the western powers without Soviet approval. The Soviets blocked ground access to West Berlin on June 26th, 1948 to try to force the Allieds out of Berlin entirely. This is known as the "Berlin Blockade" and it sparked a massive Western Allies response, the "Berlin Airlift". Thousands of Allied planes landed in Tempelhof airport with supplies for starving West Berlin. The blockade lasted almost a year, and the Allied tenacity earned them a Soviet retreat on May 11th, 1949.

A quiet German revolution was taking place throughout GDR's rule. On June 16th, 1953 60 construction workers in East Berlin went on strike, urging other to do the same. On June 17th (a day still commemorated by the major Boulevard "Strasse des 17. Juni") a strike and protest marches turned into rioting and spread throughout East Germany. The East German police failed to quell the unrest and Soviet troops responded to unarmed crowds with live ammunition. At least 153 people were killed in the suppression of the uprising.

This brute force could not stop the unrest of the people. The East was having continual troubles stemming the requests to enter the West and justifying the Wall to the global community. Ronald Reagan, President of the United States addressed this directly in a speech at Brandenburg Gate in 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"! At the 40th anniversary celebration of East Germany on October 1989, guest of honor Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech indicating that he would not support hard-line positions by the East German regime. Suddenly, on November 9th 1989, border guards gave in and allowed crowds from East Berlin into West Germany. Families reunited and crowds gathered at the fall to celebrate. It appears that he guards believed that the authorities had decided to open the wall, but in reality no firm decision was taken. But once the wall was open, there was no going back. Erich Honecker resigned in October and the era of the GDR was over.

On October 3rd, 1990 East and West were reunited. In June, 1991 the German Parliament, the Bundestag, voted to move the move the German capital back to Berlin. Some of the government agencies and headquarters are still located in Bonn, but Berlin is undoubtedly the capital.

The city has become a cultural mecca. As more people come to the city, it becomes more gentrified and prices increase, but it remains the city of the youth and an innovative and exciting place.

"Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin."
Hiroshi Motomura, US Law professor, 2004.

Update 20/08/2013

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