The Late Bloomer The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital



Part 2: Berlin Wasn't Foregone Conclusion for Location of Capital

When it came time to choose the city that would be the capital of the German Reich, Berlin wasn't a foregone conclusion. Aachen and Frankfurt am Main in the west, and Erfurt in the east, were also in the running. In the end Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, by far the largest state in the new empire, was chosen.

For Berlin, its designation as the new capital marked the beginning of a short, 50-year phase of innovation and dynamism that would last until 1933. "The well-built, prim, dull and somewhat provincial Residenz (seat of royalty) was endeavoring with feverish energy to transform itself into a world city, a Weltstadt," British diplomat Lord Frederick Hamilton would observe in his memoirs.

From 1871 until the turn of the century, Berliners built a city of more than a million people, razing many of the existing structures in the process. Walter Benjamin wholeheartedly supported the unhesitating removal of old buildings. "The destructive character knows only one motto: Create space," the Berlin philosopher wrote. "Destruction revitalizes because it eliminates the traces of our own age."

The architectural results of this destructive fever and construction boom were agonizing for those who appreciated older styles. Now everything was neo: neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque. The more plaster, the better. Masons would allegedly say to their foremen: "The shell is finished. So what sort of style are we putting on top?"

A City Loved and Hated

In reference to Berlin, the German publisher and writer Wolf Jobst Siedler once wrote: "Lack of tradition is the true tradition of the city." For Siedler, the only constant was change. Berlin was undoubtedly an upstart, a parvenu. The city was not loved, not even by all of its residents.

In the rest of the Reich, while some admired the polarizing capital, others hated it. When the Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg first arrived in the city in May 1898, she complained: "Berlin makes the most repugnant impression on me. It is cold, crude and massive -- a real barracks."

A young soldier from the Austrian countryside had a different impression of Berlin: "The city is magnificent, a real Weltstadt," he wrote on a postcard in 1917. "Yours truly, A. Hitler."

Between 1871 and 1913, the population grew from some 825,000 to almost over 2 million. Almost three-quarters of the immigrants came from the East, from Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia. "I believe most Berliners are from Posen (today's Polish city of Poznan) and the rest from Breslau (Wroclaw)," wrote the industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau.

The city's restlessness, its inner urge to make up for lost time and its obsession with the new, later fascinated Bertolt Brecht, who preferred Berlin to other cities "because it is constantly changing." In 1928, Brecht, a poet who had moved to Berlin from the Bavarian city of Augsburg, wrote: "My friends and I hope that this great, lively city retains its intelligence, its fortitude and its bad memory, in other words, its revolutionary characteristics."

After visiting the city in 1892, American author Mark Twain called Berlin "The Chicago of Europe." "The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period," he wrote. "The site it stands on has traditions and a history, but the city itself has no traditions and no history. 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."

'Tempo, Tempo'

There was one thing that distinguished Berlin's history after 1871 from the histories of other German cities. The history of the German capital was inexorably linked to the history of the German nation. Indeed, the city led a dual existence: On the one hand, it was a physical, social and cultural organism; on the other, it was a symbol of and showcase for all of Germany.

However, even with its explosion at the end of the 19th century, Berlin did not nearly reach the dominant position in Germany that Paris held for France or London for Great Britain. This, again, was a result of its delayed development.

Unlike its competitors, Berlin was dealt a serious setback by World War I. After the war was over, the German capital found itself internationally ostracized and isolated. In 1925, fewer than 700 Frenchmen were registered in the city, about 1,000 Americans and fewer than 1,500 Britons. The proportion of foreigners was less than 2 percent, lower than in Dresden and Munich.

"Tempo, Tempo." That was the slogan Berliners used in the 1920s to celebrate their placid traffic, as if they were still trying to catch up to other cities. Residents jeered at newspaper delivery boys sprinting through the city on racing bikes, warning that they would fall flat on their face because of their hurry.

In 1920, Berlin shot its way up to the top of the list of metropolises with a trick, namely the formation of Greater Berlin, incorporating seven cities, 59 rural communities and 27 rural districts. The population grew from 1.9 to 3.8 million overnight, making Berlin the world's third-largest city, next to London and New York. In terms of area, it was second only to Los Angeles worldwide. Today, according to United Nations figures, Berlin ranks 102nd in population among the world's metropolitan areas.

The city saw an explosion of freedom and creativity in the 1920s. Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity in Berlin. In art and literature, Expressionism came and went. The film studios in Babelsberg were Europe's most modern and successful. The New Objectivity movement emerged in architecture. Emanating from Berlin, the Weimar years also brought a more liberal relationship to physical love. It was a "new wave of sex," historian Walter Laqueur wrote, "that included naked performances and luscious pornography."

In its liberalism and creativity, Berlin was now ahead of its time, surpassing its rival metropolises.

'World Capital Germania '

But at the end of 1926, Joseph Goebbels, a man from the Rhineland, set out to rid the capital of its creative spirits, as well as to cleanse it of Jews, leftists and democrats, and to conquer Berlin for his movement. Goebbels used provocation and mayhem to attract attention to the Nazi Party, but the majority of Berliners rejected the Nazis, known as brownshirts, until 1933.

In the last free elections to the parliament, the Reichstag, in November 1933, the Communists captured 31 percent of the vote in Berlin and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) received 23 percent. The Nazi Party emerged as the second-most powerful force, with 26 percent of the vote.

Most of the top Nazis didn't like Berlin. But because it was the capital, it became the command center for Nazi terror. The SS and the Gestapo had at least 50 important offices scattered around the city, where men like Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis organized mass murders.

Adolf Hitler had giant axes and monumental buildings planned for what he called the "World Capital Germania," and he fantasized about a "Third Reich" comparable only to the British Empire. But on the night of Aug. 25, 1940, 81 British aircraft flew the first air raid over Berlin, in retaliation for the German "Blitz" on London.

Because of the increasingly intensive bombardment by the Royal Air Force and later the US Air Force, Hitler was barely able to begin to make his lunatic construction plans a reality. The population, which had reached its highest point in 1942, at almost 4.5 million, declined again as a result of evacuations made necessary by the air war.

At the zero hour, in May 1945, the hubris of the Nazis finally led to a horrible end for Berlin. The center of the city had been turned into a smoking wasteland.

More than half of all buildings in the Mitte district were irretrievably destroyed. Entire blocks had been reduced to rubble. There was no drinking water, no electricity and no gas. The streets were littered with bombed-out tanks, burned-out streetcars and bodies. Bertolt Brecht described Berlin as a "pile of rubble near Potsdam."

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BTraven 11/22/2012
1. *
Being a normal city is the worst what could happen to Berlin. It's never been an ordinary town. Given the size of governments nowadays (don't forget the lobbyists) is it imaginable that the former revolutionary city could become a residence town like Dresden or Karlsruhe.
stevej8 11/24/2012
2. Correction to historical errors/exaggerations
Not a bad article, but it contains a few historical errors. Germany was not led into WW1 by 'the feeling of having arrived too late on the scene, of having missed out on a place in the sun and of being underestimated by neighboring nations', but by the rather more prosaic matters of Austria Hungary's escalating dispute with Serbia and Russia, followed by Russian (and French) general mobilisation also. Or more broadly the general tense situation of European politics and alliances and Germany's difficult position in the centre of it all. The Romans also practiced human sacrifice, especially for sporting purposes (in the arena), and actually wanted quite a bit to do with the Germans (as subjects) until they suffered a major defeat at their hands in the Teutoburger Wald. And lastly the RAF raids on Berlin started before the London Blitz, which did not get underway until September. The first one was nominally in retaliation for an accidental bombing of London by a few planes against orders, but as the RAF had been bombing German cities since May 1940, it may in fact have simply been an extension of the same campaign with a fortuitous excuse. At any rate the sequence and dates are not in doubt and given by all historians of the subject. Deliberate bombing of the capital was commenced by Britain not Germany, other factors aside.
listohan 12/06/2014
3. Be thankful
Berliners should be thankful their city is not like other major "world cities". It has all the cultural advantages of being a capital while still blessed with parks, open spaces and footpaths one can walk upon without being pushed onto the roadway. Many people who live in the cities Berliners would like to compare their city to would very much appreciate those simple civilities. Even cities like far away Sydney are suffering from more growth than long term residents would prefer happened elsewhere.
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