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

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It wasn't until 1871, with the establishment of the German Reich, that Berlin finally took its place among other European capitals. Its wild race to catch up was cut short by World War II and then hindered by division. Now, more than a century later, Berlin is still trying to find itself.

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

One might be tempted to draw comparisons, but it can also become an obsession. Still, that's exactly what Berliners tend to do, at least when it comes to their city.

Whenever it happens, Berlin suddenly isn't good enough for them, and they constantly feel compelled to draw comparisons -- not with just any old cities, but with the crème de la crème. "Berlin, the German metropolis, can once again measure up to the likes of London, Paris and New York," the city's then-mayor said shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The die-hard residents of the German capital don't like to aim any lower than that. They see Berlin as the sassy little sister of London, Paris and New York, a city that successfully contended for a spot in the exclusive family of cosmopolitan cities in the 1920s.

Berlin went into decline during the Nazi era and after it was divided into a free west and communist east. But Berliners like to think that, since Germany's reunification in 1990, the city has been on a path to rejoining the club of the world's great cities.

The obsession with comparisons was already widespread in Berlin in the 1860s. In a satirical play called "Haussegen oder Berlin wird Weltstadt" ("Domestic Bliss, or Berlin Becomes a Cosmopolitan City"), a servant says with a sneer: "Yet another building has collapsed, three people have disappeared without a trace and the bodies of six newborn babies have been found on the Waisenbrücke (Orphans' Bridge). London and Paris can no longer compete with us."

Picture of Misery

But the notion that Berlin's development and rise to prominence could be compared with the histories of London and Paris is just plain wrong. Indeed, all one has to do is look back in time -- to 1648, for example, when the Protestants and the Catholics finally made peace after 30 years of war.

At the time, Old Berlin and its then sister town, Cölln, were pictures of misery. Its outer edges lay in ashes, the citizens of the small twin cities on the Spree River were dirt-poor after being pillaged time and again, and about a third of the structures stood empty. The plague had struck Berlin six times. By the end of the Thirty Years' War, the population of the twin cities, later combined into Berlin, was only about 6,000 people.

London had at least 60 times as many people at the time, and Paris was even bigger, with a population of some 450,000. King Louis XIV had boulevards built and street lanterns installed.

Since around 1200, young men thirsty for knowledge had been flocking to Paris to study at its university. By the mid-17th century, Berlin only had a prestigious secondary school called the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster, and its first university didn't open its doors until 1810.

Indeed, Berlin was a late bloomer, lagging far behind its European counterparts. As then-Bavarian Minister of Culture Alois Hundhammer said in 1948: "Bavaria was already an organized country with written laws when wild boars were still rubbing their backsides against pine trees in the place where Berlin was eventually built."

From Industrial Powerhouse to Divided Wasteland

Berlin was late to appear on the stage of history, but as a result its debut was all the more forceful. As if its long-pent-up energy suddenly had to be released, the city developed its trademark "Berliner Tempo." At the same time, this discharging of energy always went hand in hand with a strong and destructive element.

German historian Bernd Sösemann writes that the "rise of the little late-comer" began in 1871 with the establishment of the German Reich, or German Empire, which had made Berlin its capital. Then the city really exploded, becoming Europe's largest industrial center. Within roughly a quarter-century, its population doubled to more than 1.6 million people.

Nevertheless, 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 led the Germans into World War I. Although they deposed the Kaiser once they'd lost the war, Berlin and Germany were internationally isolated, and the city's growth slowed to a crawl in the years of the Weimar Republic.

Berlin still managed to become a mecca of cultural modernity -- at least until Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement took over. But the city paid a high price for the violence that emanated from it during the Nazi years, bringing death to 60 million people in the war and during the Holocaust. In the spring of 1945, Berlin was in ruins. And before it had a chance to rise up from the ashes, it was split into two.

Seen in the light of the horrific end of the war in 1945, Berlin's late birth seems more like a curse than a blessing. Rather than continuous growth, the city's history has been characterized by periods of sharp decline and numerous metamorphoses.

From Pagan Backwater to Dynamic Metropolis

The ancient Romans were responsible for Berlin's status as a latecomer. At the time when the eternal city of the Tiber was the center of the world, Teutons lived in the swampy forests in the large Havelland area west of Berlin, where they offered up human sacrifices in a sacred grove. The Romans wanted nothing to do with these barbarians.

Starting at the end of the 7th century, after many of the Teutons had migrated to the southwest, they were replaced by Slavs from what are now the Czech Republic and Poland. People began to settle in what would become Old Berlin and Cölln when, in the mid-12th century, Albert the Bear subjugated the pagan West Slavs known as Wends on behalf of the Christian Germans.

Berlin's slow rise and arduous, orchestrated settlement with colonists are associated with the Hohenzollern dynasty. When Frederick the Great, its most famous member, was born in the Berlin City Palace in 1712, the city had a population of some 60,000. When he died in 1786, it had already increased to about 150,000. Berlin had gradually reached the critical mass that made it an attraction.

Nevertheless, in 1847, a few years after studying at Berlin's university, the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev would write: "What is there to say about a city in which people get up at 6 in the morning, eat dinner at 2 in the afternoon and go to bed long before the chickens?"

Of course, that description was a gross exaggeration. Granted, Prussia was significantly behind "on the long road to the West," as German historian Heinrich August Winkler has called the Germans' reluctant integration into democratic Europe. But science and the economy became an engine of industrialization that unleashed a lasting dynamism in Berlin.

In 1837, August Borsig built an iron foundry near the Oranienburg Gate, in Berlin's Mitte district, and soon he had produced his first locomotive. Ten years later, Werner Siemens and Johann Georg Halske founded their Telegraphen-Bauanstalt (Telegraph Construction Company). In 1871, Ernst Schering established a chemical company that would grow into a pharmaceutical giant.

Enamored of the New

Since there was little in the way of tradition in the relatively young city of Berlin, its residents greeted everything new with open arms: French fabrics, Viennese hats and American shoes. Indeed, for Berliners, the key criterion was that it had to be new.

Young Germans were especially enthusiastic about Berlin. "This nervous, constantly jittery Berlin air," the protagonist in an 1889 novel raved, "that affects people like alcohol, morphine or cocaine, exciting, invigorating, relaxing and deadly: the atmosphere of a Weltstadt."

The term Weltstadt, which literally means "world city" and has been so popular in Berlin, is actually a German creation. The French and the British would use the term "metropolis," instead.

It was only in 1871 that Berlin became what Paris and London had already been for centuries: the capital of a nation-state. It took so long for Berlin to attain this status because it took that long for Germans to come together into a single country. While the French, the English and the Spaniards were already establishing cohesive nation-states by the 13th century, German rulers were devoted to the idea of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, after which they split into a collection of small states.

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BTraven 11/22/2012
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.
2. Correction to historical errors/exaggerations
stevej8 11/24/2012
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.
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