Berlin’s history is among the richest in Europe, and the city has been the stage for many of the most important historical events in the 20th century. The way Berlin has changed and continues to change nowadays reflects the twists and turns of German history over the last century. From the German Empire to the Third Reich, and finally arriving at today’s reunified Germany, Berlin was the capital of 5 different countries in less than 100 years. See how the tumultuous history of Germany reflects itself in its capital city.
Before Germany: Berlin as the Capital of Prussia
Germany, as we know it today, is a relatively recent country. It was only formed in 1871 under the rule of Otto von Bismarck and Emperor Wilhelm I. Until 1871, the German-speaking territory was fragmented and made up of several states with different rulers. What all these states had in common was, of course, the German language.
Before the German unification, Berlin was the capital city of Prussia, Germany’s strongest and most industrialized state at the time. It was Prussia that was primarily responsible for the efforts that would lead to a unified Germany. After unification in 1871, Bismarck became Germany’s first chancellor, and Wilhelm I became its first emperor. Between 1871 and 1918, Berlin was the capital city of the German Empire.
1. The Capital of the German Empire (1871-1918)
As the capital city of the German Empire, Berlin experienced significant social, political, and economic change. This city also went through a major global conflict: World War I.
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The first major change in Berlin after unification was population growth. Berlin’s industry proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, continuously demanding workers for its industries. This resulted in a tendency towards urbanization, meaning that large masses of people moved to the city searching for work in Berlin’s booming industry. For this reason, the population of Berlin more than doubled in the thirty years following the formation of the German Empire. By 1905, Berlin had 2 million inhabitants, making it the third-most populated city in Europe, following Paris and London.
A major cultural shift that not only affected Berlin, but Germany as a whole, came when Wilhelm II rose to power. After becoming emperor, Wilhelm II quickly disposed of Otto von Bismarck, mainly because of their different political approaches. Instead of continuing Bismarck’s pragmatic political line (Realpolitik), Wilhelm II, focused on a Weltpolitik. The new German Emperor’s priority was to expand Germany’s overseas territories and affirm his country’s supremacy to the rest of Europe. This approach to politics and desire for dominance is often considered one of the leading causes for World War I.
Militarism was on the rise in Germany, and this became part of everyday life. Military parades became increasingly frequent, and military outfits were more fashionable than ever. Even children were often dressed in military-like fashion and made to play as soldiers or marines. German society, namely in its capital city, was overflowing with the desire to prove its strength and supremacy. In these high military spirits, Germany entered World War I in 1914, having no idea how it would play out.
In Berlin, World War I’s effects were felt most strongly through a sharp food shortage. Food rationing in Berlin began in 1915, and hunger reached its peak in the Winter of 1916. Most food produced was being sent to the war front, and a year of bad crops was enough to create a desperate situation. The consequences of World War I were extremely visible in Berlin over the following decade.
2. The Capital of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933)
After Wilhelm II abdicated in late 1918, two different parties proclaimed a republic: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the newly formed Communist Party (KPD). Philip Scheidemann of the SPD proclaimed what would become the Weimar Republic from the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin. He acted without authorization from his superiors due to fears that the communists would try to seize power.
Scheidemann proved to be right. The communists, led by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, proclaimed the “Free Socialist Republic of Germany” two hours later in the streets of Berlin. The double proclamation of the Republic in Berlin led to political instability for a few months. By January 1919, the SPD had gotten the communists under control. Berlin became the capital city of the newly formed Weimar Republic, and the stage was set for the tumultuous years that would follow.
Berlin went through one of its most tumultuous periods during the Weimar Republic. After the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, which imposed heavy war fines on Germany, inflation shot up. The Deutsche Mark lost its value continuously, making it impossible to live. German banks had to issue new banknotes every week, each time with a higher value. In 1923, banks issued bills worth 2 million Marks, and one dollar was worth 4,2 billion Marks. Families started using printed money as fuel for their stoves, and children played with stacks of banknotes. This situation peaked in 1923, after which the United States financially assisted Germany, and a new currency was put in place.
After hyperinflation was brought under control, Berlin lived its own “Roaring Twenties.” The capital city became an extremely dynamic cultural center, home to many of Germany’s most renowned artists. These include playwright Bertolt Brecht, famous for his social criticism and communist views, and Fritz Lang, the foremost name in expressionism cinema. Berlin was known for its wild nightlife and famous cabarets, as well as for its open-mindedness and diversity.
Berlin’s “Roaring Twenties” were also strongly associated with moral decadence. Poverty forced many women into prostitution, drug addiction was rising, and illegal activities were out of control. The city was also famous for its welcoming of queer culture, which was often frowned upon elsewhere.
3. The Capital of the Third Reich (1933-1945)
The years of the Weimar Republic were as tumultuous as they were short. After the Great Depression devastated Germany, Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power. Hitler’s infamous Machtergreifung produced visible consequences in Berlin right away.
On the evening of the 27th of February, the Reichstag, the German Parliament in Berlin, was set on fire. The fire turned the German Parliament to ruins just six days before legislative elections were to take place. At that time, Hitler was already chancellor, and used the fire as an opportunity to arrest his main political opponents: the communists. With the KPD, Germany’s communist party, out of the picture, Hitler easily won the 1933 election.
One of the major changes after the beginning of the Third Reich was the establishment of the first devastating anti-Semitic laws. On the 1st of April 1933, the boycotting of Jewish businesses began. Shortly after, Jews were forbidden from working in state services, and Jewish lawyers were forbidden to work in legal matters. Thus, this first set of anti-Semitic laws aimed at excluding Jews from public life and organizations.
The following years brought even more anti-Semitic regulations. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws forbade the marriage or relation between Jews and non-Jews. The number of Jewish businesses was reduced by two-thirds in the process of the “Aryanization” of German society.
After the Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, on 9th November 1938, the Jewish situation in Germany took a turn for the worse. On this infamous night, hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed throughout the entire country. This tragic event marks the beginning of the deportation of German Jews to concentration camps without any reason other than their origins.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich was purposefully toned down for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This event was used by Hitler and Goebbels for propaganda purposes, highlighting Germany’s athletic competitiveness and hospitality to other nations.
Famously, Jesse Owen’s four gold medals partially contradicted Hitler’s rhetoric of Aryan supremacy. However, Germany won the most medals, and most reporters from the participating nations praised its hospitality and organization of the event. Overall, Hitler’s propaganda goals at the Olympics were fulfilled, and Germany’s image was partially and temporarily recovered in the eyes of the world. The event was recorded and made into a film by Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl.
Berlin’s History Changes Forever: World War II (1939-1945)
World War II broke out in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. By this time, Germany had already occupied former Czechoslovakia and Austria. During the first two years of the war, until late 1941, Germany was quickly advancing, using the Blitzkrieg tactic. This tactic implies a swift and intense attack on enemy forces, leaving them overwhelmed. During the first year of the war, Berlin didn’t suffer any bombardments at all.
Famously, the course of the war quickly changed after the United States joined, supporting the Allied forces. Germany suffered from a terrible defeat in Stalingrad in 1943, after which its troops began to be pushed back.
Berlin was intensely bombed from late 1943 to early 1945. During this year and a half, in Berlin only, around 700,000 people were left homeless, and close to 30,000 were killed by air raids. Berlin was in ruins.
The raids only stopped when the Red Army entered the city, and the Battle of Berlin began. This battle was one of World War II’s most violent and destructive. Total casualties were over 300,000, two-thirds of which were civilians trying to defend the city. The Red Army acted inhumanely while occupying the city, and committed numerous war crimes. These include the mass rape of close to 2 million German women, 100,000 of which took place in Berlin. Hitler committed suicide with his wife, Eva Braun, whom he had married while in the bunker. He died on the 30th of April 1945, 9 days before German forces surrendered.
4. The Capital of a Divided Germany: East & West Germany (1949-1989)
As World War II ended, Germany was divided between the four main allied powers: the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The areas occupied by the US, the UK, and France became, in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany. In its area, the Soviet Union established the German Democratic Republic. Berlin was also divided between the Allied forces, leading to a separate West and East Berlin. After the formation of two Germanies, Berlin became the capital city of East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic. The capital of West Germany was set in Bonn.
Originally, some exiled German personalities moved to the newly founded communist Germany, the GDR. The most famous among these was Bertolt Brecht, who returned from his exile in the US and settled in East Berlin. However, many of those who opted for East Germany quickly became disillusioned. Not only were the working and living conditions poorer, but there was also violent repression of workers’ displays of dissatisfaction. In a few years, it became clear that the German Democratic Republic was, in fact, a dictatorship.
The consequence was the mass migration of between 3 and 3,5 million GDR citizens to West Germany in around 15 years. To stop this movement, the Soviet Union and the GDR built the infamous Berlin Wall in 1961. The Berlin Wall made escaping to West Germany extremely difficult and dangerous.
Divided Berlin became the face of the Cold War, symbolizing the European division between East and West. Crossing the border became impossible, and the secret police, Stasi (Ministerium für Staatsicherheit), often uncovered plans to do so and punished the perpetrators heavily. Citizens of the GDR often lived in fear since any display of dissatisfaction, sympathy towards Western culture, or even displaying religious beliefs could mean imprisonment. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was revealed that the Stasi had files on over 5,6 million East Germans.
In the late 1980s, this situation began to change. The Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev, began opening to the West and ended up collapsing in 1991. In East Berlin, the Monday Demonstrations around the Berlin Wall began in the autumn of 1989.
To appease the population, the GDR government decided to make it easier to travel between East and West Germany. However, during the press conference in which this announcement was made, spokesperson Günter Schabowski wrongly stated that the changes would take immediate effect. As a result, thousands of East Berliners tried to cross the Berlin Wall, with guards unable to stop them. After this night, on the 9th of November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
5. Berlin Becomes the Capital of a Reunified Germany
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany were unified under the current Federal Republic of Germany. Berlin is, again, the capital of a unified Germany. Its recent history is still very much present in the city, as there is still a lingering difference between West and East. However, there are also details from East Berlin which have been purposefully kept, such as the famous Ampelmann.
Berlin history reflects the turns and twists of German history in the past century. In less than 100 years, Berlin was the capital city of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic, and, lastly, the Federal Republic of Germany. Berlin has seen many different governments and significant historical events take place and is inevitably characterized by them.