Teenage Angst: Berlin's Turn of the Century Growing Pains

By Eva-Maria Schnurr

Prior to 1870, visitors to Berlin found themselves confronted with little more than a swampy backwater. As the turn of the century approached, however, the city underwent vast and rapid change, becoming one of Europe's most modern metropolises by 1914. But along with industry and infrastructure, the changes also brought poverty and pestilence.

Photo Gallery: The Birth of Modern Berlin Photos
Library of Congress

Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of the German capital city. This is the second part of the series. The first can be read here.


The air smells of dust and the ground is riddled with construction pits. Here a house is being torn down, there the skeleton of a new one stands nearly twice as high as the old building rows. Nearby, workers are leveling the sand for a new street.

The city is so full of construction sites and such a vast array of new buildings are coming into being, that anyone returning to the city after an absence of a couple months, or visiting after having consulted an outdated guidebook, is bound to feel out of place.

"I feel lost in Berlin. It has no resemblance to the city I had supposed it was. There was once a Berlin which I would have known, from descriptions in books … a dingy city in a marsh, with rough streets, muddy and lantern-lighted, dividing straight rows of ugly houses all alike, compacted into blocks as square and plain and uniform and monotonous and serious as so many dry-goods boxes. But that Berlin has disappeared … It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen … The main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week," American author Mark Twain wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune after spending half a year in Berlin, starting in October 1891.

If a city can be seen as a living organism, then the years between 1870 and 1914 were Berlin's adolescence, a time when the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Prussia became a booming metropolis, a place both contradictory and disorderly, always shifting between extremes, sometimes sparkling and sometimes abject, sometimes ruled by military discipline and sometimes by bohemian excesses, but always willing to experiment, forging ahead impatiently toward the future.

The Chicago of Europe

Amazed by Berlin, Mark Twain called it "the Chicago of Europe," after the city considered at the time to be the most modern in the world.

Berlin is the most American city in Germany, many proud Berliners said in praise of their home. "A new Berlin emerged, with modern facilities, asphalt paving, an enormous network of tram lines and with all the comforts modern technology could produce," reflected author Edmund Edel, chronicler of Berlin's bohemian scene, looking back in 1908.

Berlin is the most American city in Europe, others complained with distaste, wrinkling their noses at this upstart culture, the big city materialism and "mishmash" of architecture and culture.

The city came to represent both promise and purgatory. The only thing everyone could agree on, it seemed, was a distinct lack of enthusiasm when Berlin became capital of the German Empire in 1871.

Even Chancellor Otto von Bismarck initially considered establishing the seat of his empire in the city of Kassel instead. He found the Berliners too liberal, too subversive and too prone to socialist intrigues, and the liberal press in particular bothered him.

Yet the inhabitants themselves were largely unconcerned by their city's new role. "It's nothing at all… the king has become an emperor," noted Marie von Olfers, who ran a literary salon in Berlin.

Breathtaking Pace

This elevation to imperial capital was only one final push along with many forces driving Berlin's transformation. In the years before and after the founding of the empire, many different processes of change combined to create "the greatest shake-up that this city, which was successively the capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire, went through at any point in its history," says historian Michael Erbe.

Berlin caught up to other European metropolises at a breathtaking pace. The railroad provided the first catalyst, transforming Berlin in the 1840s into one of central Europe's most important rail hubs. Goods and commodities could now be transported long distances, an important development for mechanical engineering and for the trade in metals and textiles, as well as for the electrical industry, which established itself here in the city on the Spree River drawing many job-seekers to Berlin.

Industry was the true founder of the city, sociologist Werner Sombart argued around 1900. By 1864, over half the city's inhabitants were not native Berliners. These new residents came primarily from Brandenburg -- the region surrounding Berlin -- and Silesia, in what is today the Czech Republic and Poland. The economic boom after 1871, sparked by the receipt of five billion francs in reparations from wartime enemy France, only increased Berlin's draw, providing fertile ground for the establishment of banks, insurance companies and trade and industrial enterprises -- 250 new businesses registered in the year 1872 alone.

The government kept pace, putting its stamp on the city with awe-inspiring halls of justice, schools and palatial post offices, while the newly minted kaisers publicly displayed their power and their tastes with museums, grand boulevards and equestrian statues.

A Constant Coming and Going

The first place in which the new Berlin began to unfold was in the area around the city palace on the boulevard Unter den Linden. Once people had lived in the upper stories of these buildings, while stores and workshops at street level produced and sold day-to-day items, but now a modern city developed here, a place where people worked, governed and went out, but hardly anyone lived.

During the day, nobles, townspeople and the simply curious strolled along Friedrichstrasse, where they stopped to admire the city's first electrical interior lighting at Café Bauer, installed in 1884, indulged in a cool pale ale at the Pschorr Brewery's beer palace or took in an operetta at the Apollo Theater.

"The palaces receive their officers and civil servants; there is a constant coming and going: The crowd swarms out. The stock exchange employees drive to work with their own wagons or by cab; errand boys with "express" written on their red caps positions themselves on the most advantageous corners. Students stroll through the university grounds, savoring the atmosphere of the academic quarter before going in. A hearse on its low wheels heads home … and now the knitting old lady takes up position in front of the opera, calling out the program and the lyrics of the opera that will play tonight … Finally, the guards draw up. The Kaiser approaches the window to greet them. Berliners gaping and foreigners stretching their necks from their cabs all raise their hats," wrote young Frenchman Jules Laforgue, who served as a French reader for the empress, describing a morning in front of the Kaiser's palace in 1887.

In 1870, it was still possible to cross the city from one end to another in an hour by foot. Beyond the city's borders, woods and fields testified to the agrarian nature of the region. In 1892, German writer Theodor Fontane described the area around a lake called Halensee, now in urban western Berlin, as a "desert panorama, crisscrossed with asparagus beds and railroad embankments."

Not long after, though, the newly constructed avenue Kurfürstendamm transformed the area into the downtown center of the western part of the city. Stately apartments with 15 or more rooms lined this grand boulevard, where Wilhelm II had the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church erected in 1895 in memory of his grandfather Wilhelm I. Writers, artists and cabaret performers met here at the Café des Westens, which drew everyone from composer Richard Strauss to poets Christian Morgenstern and Else Lasker-Schüler.

"A circle of young men sits up front…Bleary-eyed, they have city dwellers' faces. Extremely elegant. Something restless, tough, strained in their gaze. They talk of Nietzsche, of the most recent horse races, of the theater premieres," Berlin author and cultural researcher Hans Ostwald described one coffeehouse scene.

Major industrial companies such as Siemens & Halske, AEG and Borsig moved from the city's center toward its outskirts, seeking space for their enormous factories. The city encroached onto the surrounding countryside, its boundaries with neighboring cities such as Charlottenburg, Spandau, Schöneberg and Lichtenberg becoming indistinct, although those communities remained officially separate until 1920.

From Pestilent to Pristine

Population growth was similarly dramatic in the city itself, which until 1920 had its boundary to the north at the edges of Wedding and present-day Prenzlauer Berg, to the south in what is today Kreuzberg, to the west in what is now Tiergarten to the east in present-day Friedrichshain. Berlin's population in 1849 was only around 412,000, but by 1880 it had passed the 1 million mark. By 1914, 1.84 million people lived in the city, which had become Europe's most densely populated.

Berlin's old baroque buildings were massively overcrowded even in the 1860s, and sanitary conditions were catastrophic. With few toilets, people relieved themselves in public if necessary and disposed of wastewater and excrement in the street gutters, where thick, stinking filth made crossing any road an adventure.

British health expert Edwin Chadwick called Berlin the "most foul-smelling, dirtiest and most pestilent" capital in the civilized world in 1872, declaring that its citizens could be "recognized by the smell of their clothes."

Relief came in the form of an underground sewage system, a "radial system" that used pressure pipes and pumping stations to direct wastewater to sewage irrigation fields at the city's outskirts. The before and after effect was astonishing: By 1900, Berlin was considered the cleanest large city in Europe.

This was one of the few successes achieved by Berlin's city planners. Administrative responsibilities here were fragmented. Although Berlin had its own magistrate and thus a certain degree of administrative autonomy, important aspects such as public health, police and the supervision of construction still fell to Prussian authorities, with the result that spats arose frequently over these different groups' responsibilities, and for the most part the metropolis was allowed to expand haphazardly, driven by speculators' greed.

Ruler-straight streets sprang up, always at 90-degree angles, and along them kilometers of tenement houses with no front yards. The owners of these square-shaped lots squeezed in as many apartments as they could behind grand, stucco-decorated facades, nesting as many as seven buildings behind one another and leaving inner courtyards of just precisely the mandatory 28 square meters (300 square feet) necessary to use a fire extinguisher.

The Downsides of Progress

The wealthy lived in the front buildings that faced onto the streets, while the rest of the population squeezed together in the rear buildings, as well as the buildings' damp cellars and drafty attics. To help make the rent, many families took in boarders as well. Photos from the early years of the 20th century show tiny rooms chock full of beds, often with six people or even more living in a single room, with laundry drying on lines and clothes stacked in the corners. One missionary in the city reported in 1871 of a building in which 250 families lived, with 36 families along a single corridor.

Berliners differentiated clearly between the upscale parts of the city -- those who could afford to do so built villas in Grunewald or Lichterfelde, or took up quarters in spacious apartments in Tiergarten or Charlottenburg -- and working class neighborhoods such as Luisenstadt (now Kreuzberg) and Wedding were home to laborers, whose wives also worked from home, sewing clothing for the textile industry. In 1905, while middle-class Tiergarten had an infant mortality rate of 5.2 percent, 42 percent of newborns died in proletarian Wedding.

These miserable living conditions, the talk of the entire town, were the downside of Berlin's evolution into a big city, and stood in stark contrast to the progress achieved by constant technological advancements. The rapid pace of development meant that the well-off and newly rich quickly left the proletarian portion of the population far behind.

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