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Berlin – History


The first written mention of towns in the area of present-day Berlin dates from the late 12th and early 13th century. The suburb of Spandau is first mentioned in 1197, and Köpenick in 1209, though these areas did not join Berlin until 1920. The central part of Berlin can be traced back to two towns: Cölln (on the Fisher Island) is first mentioned in a 1237 document, and Berlin (across the Spree in what is now called the Nikolaiviertel) in one from 1244. From the beginning, the two cities formed an economic and social unit. In 1307, the two cities were united politically. Over time, the twin cities came to be known simply as Berlin, the larger of the pair.

17-19th century
Napoleon conquering Berlin in 1806, marching through the Brandenburg Gate. The Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 had devastating consequences for Berlin. A third of the houses were damaged and the city lost half of its population. Frederick William, known as the “Great Elector”, who had succeeded his father George William as ruler in 1640, initiated a policy of promoting immigration and religious toleration. With the Edict of Potsdam in 1685, Frederick William invited the French Huguenots to Brandenburg. More than 15,000 Huguenots came, of whom 6,000 settled in Berlin. Around 1700, approximately twenty percent of Berlin’s residents were French, and their cultural influence was great. Many other immigrants came from Bohemia, Poland, and Salzburg.

With the coronation of Frederick I in 1701 as king, Berlin became the capital of the kingdom of Prussia. In 1740 Friedrich II, known as Frederick the Great (1740-1786) came to power. Berlin became, under the rule of the philosophically-oriented Frederick II, center of the Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution transformed Berlin during the 19th century; the city’s economy and population expanded dramatically, and it became the main rail hub and economic center of Germany. Additional suburbs soon developed and increased the area and population of Berlin. In 1861, outlying suburbs including Wedding, Moabit, and several others were incorporated into Berlin. In 1871, Berlin became capital of the newly founded German Empire.

20th century
At the end of World War I in 1918, the Weimar Republic was proclaimed in Berlin. In 1920, the Greater Berlin Act united dozens of suburban cities, villages, and estates around Berlin into a greatly expanded city and established Berlin as a separate administrative region. After this expansion, Berlin had a population of around 4 million. 1920s Berlin was an exciting city known for its liberal subcultures, including homosexuals and prostitution and well known for its fierce political street fights. This is portrayed in the 1972 film Cabaret, set in 1931.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and started World War II in 1939. Nazi rule destroyed Berlin’s Jewish community, which numbered 170,000 before the Nazis came to power. After the pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938, thousands of the city’s German Jews were imprisoned in the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp or, in early 1943, were shipped to death camps, such as Auschwitz. During the war, large parts of Berlin were destroyed in the 1943-45 air raids and during the Battle of Berlin. After the end of the war in Europe in 1945, Berlin received large numbers of refugees from the Eastern provinces. The victorious powers divided the city into four sectors, analogous to the occupation zones into which Germany was divided. The sectors of the Western Allies (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) formed West Berlin, while the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.

All four allies retained shared responsibility for Berlin. However, the growing political differences between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union led the latter, which controlled the territory surrounding Berlin, to impose the Berlin Blockade, an economic blockade of West Berlin. The allies successfully overcame the Blockade by airlifting food and other supplies into the city from 24 June 1948 to 11 May 1949. In 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in West Germany, while the Marxist-Leninist German Democratic Republic was proclaimed in East Germany.

The founding of the two German states increased Cold War tensions. West Berlin was surrounded by East German territory. East Germany, however, proclaimed East Berlin (which it described only as “Berlin”) as its capital, a move that was not recognized by the western powers. Although half the size and population of West Berlin, it included most of the historic center. The tensions between east and west culminated in the construction of Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin and other barriers around West Berlin by East Germany on 13 August 1961 and were exacerbated by a tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie on 27 October 1961. West Berlin was now de facto a part of West Germany with a unique legal status, while East Berlin was de facto a part of East Germany.

Berlin was completely separated. It was possible for Westerners to pass from one to the other only through strictly controlled checkpoints. For most Easterners, travel to West Berlin or West Germany was no longer possible. In 1971, a Four-Power agreement guaranteed access across East Germany to West Berlin and ended the potential for harassment or closure of the routes.

In 1989 pressure from the East German population brought a transition to a market-based economy in East Germany, and its citizens gained free access across the Berlin Wall, which was subsequently mostly demolished. Not much is left of it today; the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain near the Oberbaumbrücke over the Spree preserves a portion of the Wall. In 1990 the two parts of Germany were reunified as the Federal Republic of Germany, and Berlin became the German capital according to the unification treaty. In 1999 the German parliament and government began their work in Berlin.