‘Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!’— Jack Lang
If you are interested in the history of Germany, Berlin is a good place to start with. In this easily digestible article, we provide you with a concise summary of the most important chapters of Berlin’s history. After reading this historical synopsis, you will have a well-organised “framework” of the city’s past.
The article is broken down into chronological chapters, i.e. periods. Each period represents a century and presents a manageable chunk of information. It contains a few key dates and concise description of events.
Germany became a country only in the second half of the 19th century. But German culture is much older. Likewise, Berlin is much older than Germany and… perhaps it is fair to say that it is even older than the German culture. Let us discover how the history of this place unfolded throughout the centuries...
There are two big rivers on the territory of Berlin - Havel and its main tributary Spree. Both rivers are navigable. The area around is flat and plain but covered with dense forests. Water and woods combined create a brilliant environment for people to settle. The first known inhabitants of the region were Germanic people. The Semnones, followed by the more famous Burgundians, and numerous other Germanic tribes lived here from at least 500 BC until the middle of the 1st millennium AD. Then in about the 7-8th century West Slavic tribes (specifically Polabian Slavs) came here. They settled in the region and remained here for many centuries. Until at least the 10th century, nearly all of what is now north-eastern Germany was dominated by Slavic people. Besides, Slavs became the first people whose traces have been preserved until today, especially in multiple geographic names (like all those with “-ow” ending). Actually, the name of the city itself - Berlin - most likely came from old Slavic root ‘brlo’ or ‘berl(o)’ which meant “swamp” or “wetland”. Although the folk etymology says that it came from old Germanic ‘bero’ which meant “bear”. (That is why the city’s coat of arms is a bear.) In the 12th century, Germanic tribes came back and took over the region. Since then, the territory has been under control of the German-speaking population.
In the 13th century, there were two independent but well-connected settlements in what is the centre of Berlin today. These settlements were known as Cölln and Berlin and were located in modern Museum Island and Nikolaiviertel. Over time, both became commercial towns. By the way, it is probably not a coincidence that there is a very famous city in Western Germany whose name sounds identically - Köln (Cologne in English). Most likely, the eastern Cologne (Cölln) was settled by German people from the West.
Berlin became a city as a result of the merge of these two towns. It became known as Doppelstadt, literally “double city”, or simply “twin town”. Technically, it was a city union and the unification officially happened only in… 1709! Besides, in the 14th century, Berlin joined a powerful commercial confederation known as Hanseatic league* (which it left in the 16th century).
* The Hanseatic league, or simply Hanse, was a commercial and military alliance in Northern Europe (mostly German-speaking port cities and towns). It dominated trade along the coasts of the Baltic and North Seas (spanning from London to Novgorod) from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
Historically*, there were dozens and even hundreds of German-speaking territories in Central Europe. They were ruled by kings, dukes, counts, bishops and other rulers (all of them were known as “princes”). All these territories constituted a massive confederation known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. Some border regions of the empire were known as Mark (“march” in English - meaning “frontier” from Old German). Mark Brandenburg in the very east was the largest and the most important of all regions at a frontier. In the 15th century, the city of Berlin became like the capital of the Brandenburg march. Why? Because the local Markgraf (“margrave” - i.e. the ruling prince) chose Berlin to be his residence. The subsequent princes followed his example. And since some of these rulers had a higher status of Kurfürst** (prince-electors), Berlin was becoming more and more important, richer, and much more developed.
* The Holy Roman empire existed from the 9-10th until the beginning of the 19th century, officially 800/962 - 1806
** Kurfürst means "prince-elector", a ruler who had the right to elect an Emperor of the Holy Roman empire.
The whole 16th century in Germany and most of Europe was marked with the religious revolution. The so-called Reformation was a turning point of European history that led to social, political, and religious changes on the continent. Most of Berlin’s population became Lutheran. Interestingly, unlike many other places in Europe, the city was not that much affected by the destructive consequences of the movement. The only exception was some tensions with the Calvinists.
The following century, however, brought huge changes to Berlin: enormous destruction and redevelopment. The reason for this was the largest religious conflict in the European history - the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) - which had a huge demographic impact on many countries. The whole German territory became the main battleground of the conflict. As a result, nearly half of Berlin's population was killed in the war or died because of its consequences. More than ⅓ of all buildings in the city were destroyed.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Kurfürst of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm initiated and encouraged an immigration policy. Many Jewish families of traders from Vienna were invited to Berlin in the 1670s. Then there was a massive wave of migration of French refugees: dozens of thousands of Huguenots* ran to Germany in the 1680s. (As a result, French people constituted about 25% of the city’s population at the beginning of the 18th century.) Besides, many Slavic people from the East (Poland and Bohemia) moved to the developing region. All that shaped Berlin - it became a multinational and rather tolerant melting pot of Europe.
In 1701, the Prussian king Friedrich I (Frederick the First) made Berlin the capital of his kingdom. During the 18th century, Berlin developed architecturally (palaces, streets and squares) and demographically. The city became much bigger and its population doubled. Besides, some other satellite towns emerged around the capital; many of them will later be incorporated into Berlin. The most famous town was Potsdam. It flourished thanks to the efforts of another Prussian king Friedrich II (the Great). Potsdam has become famous for its representative palaces, parks, and housing projects (like Dutch quarter).
The 19th century was the beginning of the new era in human history. It brought an unprecedented development and changes of the European order. The reason for that was the process known as Industrialisation. For the German-speaking world, this period was the birth of something new: not only in economic terms, but also in both mental and political.
Economically, Berlin started to develop rapidly in the first half of the century: multiple factories and plants were built in and outside the city, world famous businesses were set up etc.
The impetus for mental (or more specifically national and identical) and political changes was… France. Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions took him to Germany and then further to the East. The French invasion brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire*. Importantly, the French occupation of German territories contributed heavily to the shape of a German national identity. It sparked the desire of Germans to become one country. But it took more than half a century for German people to unite into one state: the German Unification (Deutsche Einigung) took place in 1871. The Kingdom of Prussia was the main driving force of this process; and Berlin, the main Prussian city, became the capital of a new historical project - Deutschland (Land of the Germans).
The new country quickly became an industrial monster, successfully challenging the traditional world powers - the UK and France - in Europe and even in Africa. By the end of the 19th century, Berlin was known as one of the industrial capitals of the world. It was one of the biggest metropolitan areas in Europe in terms of population (reaching over 1 million people). Besides, the rapid development of transport systems (network of roads and railways) made Berlin the main hub of Central Europe.
* The empire was dissolved in 1806 and replaced with a new confederation which was a collection of French puppet states. This new German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) must have served as a buffer zone between France and Eastern Europe.
As for the 20th century, it was undoubtedly the most complex and volatile period of the entire German history. Loaded with historical and historic events, this century was a lesson to humanity!
By the beginning of the century, Berlin’s population mushroomed from 1 to nearly 2 million people. And then it doubled again in less than 20 years. It was due to the enormous expansion of the city borders: the project Great Berlin (Groß-Berlin) incorporated dozens of settlements, villages, and even independent towns around Berlin into a new city. As a result, the German capital became the third largest city in the world (after New York City and London) with a population of over 4 to 4.5 million people living here in the 1930s and 40s.
In the first half of the century, Berlin was a place with a large social gap: a huge contrast between the wealthy bankers and entrepreneurs who lived in affluent neighbourhoods (like that of Wannsee) and the poor industrial workers who were packed in Mietskaserne (tenement blocks built mostly in the Gründerzeit).
World War One was a massive blow to the German nation. Shortly afterwards, the German Empire ceased to exist. A new democratic country - the Weimarer Republik - was proclaimed in Berlin. For the German people the whole period was a collective trauma that triggered many social and political movements. Some of them became much more radical in Berlin, especially the left-wing (like the Communist party KPD led by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Libknecht). The economic crisis after WWI in the early 1920s, accompanied by a hyperinflation, ended a few years later. It was followed by an economic boost that allowed a rich and liberal cultural life in Berlin (the so-called Goldene Zwanziger, or the Golden Twenties).
But then a world crisis happened - the so-called Great Depression (1929 - 1933). The consequences were harsh economic conditions in many countries, geopolitical tensions, radicalisation of political views, and populism. The result was the Nazi regime in Germany and the World War Two. From the capital of Liberalism Berlin was turned into the major city of the world’s most evil political order in modern history. WWII brought destruction to Germany and Berlin on an unprecedented scale (perhaps only the Thirty Years War can be compared to it): 80-90% of the German capital ceased to exist.
The second half of the 20th century was marked by the Cold War, i.e. new tensions between the world superpowers. Berlin was the epicentre of this rivalry. The city was divided into 4 sectors: 3 controlled by the Western Allies (USA, UK, France) and 1 by the Communists (USSR). In 1961, the notorious Berlin Wall was built dividing Europe, the German nation and first of all, people in Berlin into 2 parts. The barrier will separate millions of families for decades. Western Berlin remained part of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRD, or BDR = Bundesrepublik Deutschland), although constitutionally it was a separate subject. It was a small island of democracy surrounded by the communist state called German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR = Deutsche Demokratische Republik). East Berlin became the capital of the latter state. Interestingly, both parts of Berlin were regarded as showcases and places of freedom and liberties. Many cultural and political movements as well as social phenomena emerged in both Berlins, among them were: student movement and protests (1968), counterculture, and squatting.
But then the Communist regime collapsed. Again, Berlin became the core of geopolitical changes and a focal point of world politics. The Reunification of Germany (Deutsche Wiedervereinigung) happened in 1990. Not long afterwards, Berlin restored its status of the German capital.
As for contemporary history of Berlin, it is not so different from the first half of the previous century, but with much more political stability and peace. However, the city is still the epicentre of numerous protests and rallies, some of which end violently. Despite criticism and scepticism of many, Berlin has been demonstrating steady economic growth. The unemployment rate may be slightly higher than in the rest of the country, but it is still very low.
As for life in the German capital, it is still about culture (music, art), volatility, and contrasts. Political conferences. Job fairs. Cultural venues. Music events. Art exhibitions. Galleries and museums. Parks, rivers, and nature. Shopping. Graffitied neighbourhoods. Street food. These and many other aspects make Berlin one of the very TOP cities in the world...
Summarizing the information above, here is our Walkative synopsis of Berlin’s history:
In the first millennium AD, Germanic tribes and Slavic people lived in the region. Eventually, the Germans dominated the territory.
Berlin emerged as a city in the 13-14th century as a result of the merge (technically, just a union) of two commercial twin towns - Cölln and Berlin.
In the 14-16th century, Berlin was a residence of important local rulers: margraves and prince-electors (Kurfürst).
The 17th century was a turning point in Berlin’s history: destroyed and then repopulated. It became a multinational and tolerant place.
In the 18th century, Berlin became a royal city. Different kings developed not only their capital but also a satellite town of Potsdam.
The 19th century was the time of enormous industrial development and the resulting population growth. It all became possible due to the German unification and its economic and military successes.
The 20th century was all about volatility: wars, instability, political and social movements of the right-left spectrum. All that combined made Berlin one of the most famous cities in the world.
The first half of the 21th century can be seen in some respects as a continuation of the previous century. At least, when it comes to changeability, flexibility, and movements. Hopefully, the following decades will finally bring permanent peace and development...
Generally, nothing describes Berlin and its history so well as the following quotes:
‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change.’ – Rory MacLean
‘Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.’ –Karl Scheffler
‘Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!’— Jack Lang (Culture Minister of France)