Berlin has witnessed many eras, and there are countless reminders of its turbulent history scattered across the metropolis.
Berlin is big and thinks big as a consequence of many riveting, historical episodes since the 15th century.
Berlin’s history in a nutshell
During its many epochs, it maintained, finally lost, only to regain its capital status: starting with Mark Brandenburg (1417 to 1701), a territory belonging to the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, it became the the capital of Prussia in 1701, later capital of the German Empire from 1871 to 1918, then capital of the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, and Hitler’s Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. World War II left Germany divided into two territories, West and East. Bonn became the capital of West Germany, whereas East Germany – known as DDR to West Germans held on to Berlin, despite it not being recognized as such by the West. The city once again became the capital of a reunited Germany in 1989. After reunification, Germany elected to relocate its parliament, the “Bundestag”, and most key ministries from Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, to Berlin. By 1999 Berlin boasted one of the largest construction sites in Europe as the government moved in, revamping many areas with infrastructure projects (example: Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the new railway station), a slew of new buildings and offices, as well as apartments. At the time, Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz became an emblem for the building boom that changed the face of the city. Since then, an entrepreneurial scene emerged that still hosts some of the country’s hottest startups, attracting talent from across the world. Little wonder that Berlin features an immense breadth and depth in culture, art, and history, exemplified by its many historic buildings, fascinating museums, and unique art collections.
Marred and Divided
The Allied bombings of the Second World War left much of Berlin destroyed. The four victors – USA, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union – divided Germany into four occupational zones – see this map showing the divisions from 1945 to 1949. As time progressed, the differing world views, economic agendas, and political orders of the four victors essentially left Germany divided into an Eastern zone controlled by the Soviet Union, and a Western zone controlled by the USA, UK, and France.
Understanding the Berlin Wall
The Cold War and its resulting tensions exemplified the profound economic and political differences of the two superpowers USA and the Soviet Union. This provided for an unusual backdrop to Berlin’s future: the city eventually became an island which lay entirely inside Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany – see this map and look for the yellow speck which is Berlin. The city was partitioned into East Berlin and West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was constructed by East Germans in 1961, blocking free access in both directions. The wall separated the two sides of the city until November 1989. It became a 130 km long /3.6-meter high concrete barrier that ensnared West Berlin, lined with over 300 watch towers and wide-area “death strips” to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. Visiting Berlin at the time was a bizarre experience.
Approximately 100 people died in attempts to cross from East to West Berlin during its 28-year existence. After unification in 1989, Germany began tearing down the wall and only a few small segments now remain as memorials. Yet tracking its former course and re-imagining the scenes and events of the time remains an intriguing excursion for any tourist visiting Berlin today.