Berlin: Historical Sketch

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Berlin: Historical Sketch

Today, Berlin, like Germany, is divided. East Berlin is the capital of the "German Democratic Republic" (DDR), while West Berlin is an independent entity economically and psychologically connected to West Germany. For the visitor, Berlin provides a glimpse of the tensions between East and West that used to be called the "Cold War." The Cold War might have been forgotten in much of Western Europe, but the Berlin Wall brings it back to mind.

Characteristics  Physically, East and West Berlin together make up Europe's largest capital in land area if not in population. The city grew up slowly over the centuries, and by 1920, when "Greater Berlin" came into being, the capital incorporated 7 towns, 6 suburbs, 59 villages, and 27 private estates, with a population of 4 million. (Today: West Berlin, 2.2 million; East Berlin 1.1 million — a net decline.) This large land area has enabled the city to include large green spaces: parks and a whole forest (the Grunewald). A good-size lake, Havel, lies within the city's limits.

Weather is temperamental: it can literally be raining in one quarter, and sunny in another. The air is usually dry; the winters are chilly but bearable, the summers can often be hot. But on hot days, Berliners always have the lake and parks to go to. On a summer day, you see hundreds of people sunning on the beach of Lake Havel, the city's own "Riviera." In the Dahlem quarter, you can find a village church with its own cemetery (St. Anne's, 1220).

Humble Origins  Berlin has less tradition than most major German cities; it's the "upstart" city of German history. As late as the 13th century, when palaces were being built in Paris, Berlin was a village, or rather two villages: one called Berlin, the other called "Colln, on either side of the River Spree. At this time, when Gothic cathedrals were going up elsewhere in Germany, the Wendish tribesmen who lived in these villages were not yet fully converted from paganism to Christianity. Thus, the churches were built like fortresses to defend the villages from tribal plunder. The chief occupation of these early settlers was hunting and fishing: the lakes and woods outside the villages (and now inside the city) were abundant with fish and game. In the 13th century, the two villages were joined, but the town was not yet the "capital" of anything.

This lack of a long civic tradition is reflected in the character of the Berliner: he tends to be a bit scornful of tradition in general, open to the new, brash and irreverent, and full of biting humor. It is said that this will always keep Berlin from "growing old" like most cities — a truth which must meet its test soon, since the median age of the Berliner is the oldest of any city in the world.

The Electors of Brandenburg  Berlin first became a "capital" in 1470 when the Electors of Brandenburg built a castle in the town. The term "Elector" refers to the fact that these princes were one of a dozen or so who elected the Holy Roman Emperor, a title held by several royal families, most often by the Habsburgs of Austria. The position held little real power in itself, but was important for its prestige. So the princes of Brandenburg were among the rulers responsible for the election of the emperor.

The Electors of Brandenburg were from the Hohenzollern family, a noble household originating far away in southern Germany, in the region of Swabia. They were feudal overlords whose territories grew until they included the city of Nuremberg. The family's original name was Zollern, but with their success they added the honorific prefix "Hohen" (high) to it. In 1415, the Holy Roman Emperor gave the Hohenzollerns the title (and position) of Elector of Brandenburg. Brandenburg, the region around Berlin, was at this time a separate kingdom. By 1701, it had greatly enlarged its territory and become known as Prussia, ruled by the same family of Hohenzollern. When Germany was united in 1871 and became the German Empire, Berlin was its capital, and a Hohenzollern, Wilhelm I, became German Emperor. His son, Wilhelm II, was the famous "Kaiser" of World War I, and the last of the Hohenzollerns.

The Great Elector: Friedrich-Wilhelm (1640-88) was the greatest of the Electors. He built canals, laid out streets, and defended his territories from the invading Swedes. He also welcomed large numbers of French Huguenots into the city; these were Protestants who had been driven out of France by the policy of intolerance imposed by Louis XIV. They brought many skills with them: crafts, learning and a zeal for independence that became a permanent part of the city's psychology.

Frederick the Great  By the time of his reign (1740-86), Brandenburg had become the Kingdom of Prussia, and Frederick II, called the "Great" for his exploits on the battlefield, was its greatest ruler. He was a friend of the French philosopher Voltaire, wrote and spoke in French, built the palace of Sans Souci in Potsdam, and even composed a flute concerto. He was one of Europe's few kings to be also a "universal man." Under his reign, Berlin's streets were laid out in classical style, and the Brandenburg Gate was designed by the architect Langhans. Patronage to Langhans and other gifted architects like Knobelsdorff transformed Berlin into a classical city, patterned after the Greek and Roman buildings of antiquity. Unfortunately this classical appearance was smothered over by feverish building activity in the 19th century: today, one sees it only here and there, partly in West Berlin, partly in the East sector.

Bismarck's Capital  Throughout the 19th century, Berlin was a center of German nationalism, a feeling carried over from the city's defiance of Napoleon in 1813. Prussia was by far the largest of the independent states in Germany, and by 1866 was strong enough to defeat the army of the Austrian Empire! In 1870, Prussia formed an alliance with the other German states to defeat the French Emperor Napoleon III. On January 18, 1871, the states of Germany were formally united to form the German Empire, which was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles (the Prussians occupying Paris).

Berlin was now a political and industrial capital. Heavy industry was centered in the city, especially locomotive manufacturing and electronics. Werner von Siemens founded an electronics empire that exists today, which is why you see "Siemens" on everything from pay phones to Berlin office buildings.

With its wealth, the city founded theaters, concert halls, and art museums — and this tradition of a lively theater has continued in spite of two world wars. There were 44 theaters before World War II; today, there are fewer theaters, but theatrical productions are probably the most cosmopolitan in the world.

Berlin Between the Wars  The 1920's was a time of economic depression, but Berlin became Europe's cultural capital in spite of it. Germany had become a republic, founded at the city of Weimar, so this period of Berlin history is called "Weimar culture." Theater was at its pinnacle, with playwrights like Berthold Brecht and Max Reinhardt putting on productions. Film making led the rest of Europe: Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings were the leading actors of their day. The era's ambiguity is exemplified by its cabaret culture: the "musical comedy" put on in cabarets was biting and satirical, full of sensuality and cynicism. Americans today remember this "golden age" best from the film Cabaret, which depicts the darker underside beneath the glittering exterior.

World War II Destruction  Berlin was the worst-bombed of any European city: one-sixth of all aerial destruction in Germany took place in Berlin. 75 million cubic yards of buildings were reduced to rubble. A major problem after the war was to dispose of this blanket of rubble. It was scooped into artificial hills, which were planted with grass and trees and turned into parks. The largest hill of all, the Insulaner, is the site of the Berlin Observatory. It took 3 billion dollars to complete the basic restoration, and new construction is going on all the time. (You'll see tall cranes everywhere you look, and often a glassy new building will be rising from a field of ruins.) Much of the money for restoration came from the U.S. and was part of the Marshall Plan to restore Europe. Even the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, as well as Eastern Germany, were offered aid, but they refused. If you look on some Berlin buildings, you'll see the sign, Mit Marshall Plan Erbaut (built under the Marshall Plan). American aid has been gratefully received by Berliners, who are probably the most pro-U.S. people anywhere in the world.

Cold War  Russians entered Berlin on May 2, 1945. Soon after, the city was divided into four occupation zones, to be administered by the Kommandatura, composed of U.S., French, British, and Soviet generals. The Americans, British, and French worked well enough together, but the Soviet general walked out of the council in June of 1948. The other Allies have never officially accepted this walkout, and so today you will see the Russian flag still flying in front of the Kommandatura building. (The city is actually administered from the Schoneberg City Hall by elected councillors.) The Cold War began.

Berlin Airlift  The city's moment of heroism came just after the walkout. Stalin attempted to "starve" the city by closing off all land access to West Germany. 110 miles separated Berliners from their West German suppliers. The lifeline was provided by DC-3 planes flown largely by U.S. pilots: first 10 planes a day, then 100, then 1,000 shuttled back and forth. Food, clothing, medicine were flown in round the clock, and in the haste of landing and taking off some pilots lost their lives. At Tempelhof Airport is a monument commemorating this sacrifice. The blockage lasted from June 26, 1948 to May 12, 1949. The Russians, seeing their plan fail, opened the Autobahns from West Germany, and have kept them open (with periodic harassments) ever since. Visitors often don't realize that the Autobahns and air traffic are only some of the means of transportation into and out of West Berlin. Most heavy goods are transported on canals, which crisscross much of Germany, and which are a cheaper means of moving coal, e.g. than truck transport.

With the Russian failure in the blockage, a separate Communist state was created in 1949. The Soviet zone of Germany became the DDR, with its capital in East Berlin and its administrative center in the Pankow district of the city. That's why the East German government is referred to as the "Pankow regime."

Berlin Wall  Too many East Berliners were resettling in the Western sector of the city, and too much of the economy of the city was being based on West German currency in August of 1961. So the Pankow regime started work on die Mauer, running it along the edge of the Russian sector. An international crisis erupted, as U.S. tanks rolled up to Checkpoint Charlie and President Kennedy ordered a military call-up. The tension relaxed as the Western Allies realized that the city was divided for good. Since then, many heroic escape attempts have been made, some by crashing through the wall in trucks, some by climbing over it at night, and some by tunneling underground. As many as 17,000 have made it, The wall runs for 28 miles through the heart of the city. The old "Mitte" (Central district) is now on the east side of the wall, but the traditional affluent residential districts are in the west. Surrounding West Berlin are 65 miles of barbed wire, heavily guarded. Only a few of those trying to leap the wall today make it, and attempts have fallen off.

In the past few years, West Berliners have been able to visit relatives in the East section under Ostpolitik agreements negotiated by Willy Brandt. West Berliners can visit East Berlin and even East Germany for 30 days in any one year. Telephone contact has been restored (erratically) between the two halves of the city. Border harassments have been fewer. But the situation is never stable, since the East Germans can always use the weapon of hindered access to West Berlin, and this creates a permanent tension that is felt by every Berliner, and can be sensed by most visitors. It is expressed in the sarcasm of cabaret humor and many local jokes (often impossible to translate into English.

The Berlin Wall made world history in the summer of 1963, when President Kennedy visited it and declared Ich bin ein Berliner. Kennedy remains the city's American hero today, and the ties between Berlin and the U.S. are strong. In the Schoneberg City Hall is a replica of the American Liberty Bell, called the Freiheitsblocke, and samples of 17 million U.S. signatures in support of Berlin are kept in the base of the tower.

Major Attractions of Berlin  Kurfurstendamm, called Ku-Damm by Berliners, is the main shopping street and the location of the best restaurants and luxury hotels. The Europa-Center is the largest shopping center in Europe, said to be Berlin's answer to New York's Rockefeller Center. Finished in 1965, the complex towers 22 stories high, and in it are shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and cinemas. Nearby is the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, the city's most famous ruin; only the portal and part of the spire survived World War II bombing, but the ruin was left standing as a memorial. The church was built in 1895.

The Tiergarten is Berlin's famous park, one of the largest in Europe. Here, the Germans fought the Russians to the end in 1945, and what trees had been left standing were cut down to be used as fuel during the terrible winter of 1945-46. Some of the trees took 100 years to grow, and so the replanted gardens, though impressive, are not as thick as they used to be before the war. You'll see families strolling, napping, and eating picnic lunches out here on Sundays.

The Berlin Zoo is at one edge of the Tiergarten. It is the oldest, largest, and finest zoo in Germany, in spite of World War II destruction. (Only 95 animals were still alive in 1945.) Before the war, this was the largest zoo in Europe; many of the rare animals were known by name (e.g. Shanti the Elephant, Knautschke the Hippopotamus, Nina the Chimpanzee, Schorsch the Polar Bear, etc.). Since the war, the city has put much money into bringing the collection back to life; there are 12,000 animals and birds, some of them extinct outside the zoo. Natural habitat displays are a feature, so that you can walk over a bridge with crocodiles paddling underneath, or stroll among Flamingos.

Charlottenburg Palace is West Berlin's most famous remnant of the classical period, a Baroque-style palace started in the 17th century and named for Queen Sophie Charlotte. Across the street from it are the Charlottenburg Museums, specializing in Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquity. The other famous museum complex in West Berlin is the Dahlem Museum, emphasizing medieval and Renaissance paintings.

The city's Olympic Stadium was built in 1936 for the Olympic Games and used for Nazi party rallies after that. It seats 100,000 people and was the world's first athletic stadium to provide all the facilities for modern sports. If all the seats were laid out end to end, they would stretch 25 miles.

Berlin's Radio Tower was one of Europe's first — a reflection of the city's electronics industry. It was built in 1924-26 when only radio was used. TV transmitting facilities were added much later. On top is a restaurant with a good view of modern crisscrossing Autobahns.

The Wannsee (Lake Havel) is the city's large lake, with beaches for summer sunbathing. Several islands in the lake are choice real estate for summer homes, and on them such Nazi notables as Goebbels built their private villas. Boat tours are available.

The Soviet War Memorial lies just inside the Western sector, near the Brandenburg Gate. It is still guarded by Soviet soldiers, a fact which will surprise you when you see it. The memorial was built before the Berlin Wall went up, and it is one of the anomalies created by the wall. To avoid provoking the Soviets, the Allies have tactilely agreed to leave the memorial in place and to permit Russian soldiers through to guard it.

East Berlin  You enter East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie and are accompanied by an official East Berlin guide. Visitors are shown modern shopping centers, the famous shopping street from prewar days, called Unter den Linden (Under the Limes), the old (Protestant) St. Mary's Church, the Treptow Russian Cemetery (with huge marble slabs commemorating the thousands of Russians who fell in the battle of Berlin), and the Pergamon Museum (famous for its reconstructed street from ancient Babylon and its large Roman temple: the museum's exhibits tend to be massive). On visiting East Berlin you also have the experience of seeing the Brandenburg Gate from the other side, with Russian soldiers performing march steps, and acres of empty, bombed-out ruins separating the two cities.

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