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

Foto: AKG

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

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.

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.

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."

Berlin Is Too Late to the Game

Berlin was devastated and in ruins, and yet it continued to hold the world's attention, this time as a stage and bone of contention in the Cold War that quickly developed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Its demoralized residents were left to serve as marionettes and extras on both sides. "The desire for recognition is enormous," Swiss author Max Frisch noted in 1947. "Anyone who now asserts that Berlin is unbroken in its intellectual life is an important thinker."

That, of course, was nonsense. After its rapid -- too rapid -- rise from 1871 to 1933, and its self-destruction before 1945, the city had reached the end of its success story. Now a radical process of deceleration began. Occupied by the Allies and robbed of their dynamism, the Western sectors were turned into an artificial showcase of the free world, while the Eastern sector became the "Capital of the German Democratic Republic" and a "City of Peace."

The two halves of the city still had some things in common: They were kept afloat by their respective republics, and the petite bourgeoisie was able to hoist itself up to become the dominant and style-defining class, obsessed with becoming a cosmopolitan city once again.

The partition and the constant presence of the lost war meant that Berlin could not look to the future with as little hesitation as other German cities. There were still bombsites all over the city decades after the war had ended, and many gray facades were still riddled with bullet holes from the final battle for Berlin.

Against this morbid backdrop, it seemed only fitting that the suicide rate in West Berlin was twice as high as in the rest of West Germany, and even 20 percent higher than in East Berlin .

Destruction of the Traditional

During reconstruction, politicians on both sides of the city subscribed to Walter Benjamin's notion of "destructive character" and "making space." Wolf Jobst Siedler, who sharply criticized the anti-historic obsession with demolishing buildings in his book "The Murdered City," wrote "that Berlin has only remained true to itself in the destruction of the traditional."

It wasn't until the end of the 1970s that the heavy-handed use of the wrecking ball to overcome the past came to an end. At that point, it was no longer possible to say whether the war or postwar city planners had been responsible for more destruction.

Berlin was known as a divided city, but it also had no meaning. This was painful to Berliners, especially against the background of their illustrious past. Berliners and their politicians were still characterized by a combination of an inferiority complex and megalomania for years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At first, they fantasized over a new, gigantic burst of growth similar to what happened after 1871. But although construction resembling that of the Gründerzeit period soon began, industry did not return to the city, despite all efforts, nor did its famous "tempo."

No matter how hard it tries, Berlin cannot catch up to megacities of the 21st century, like Istanbul, Shanghai or São Paulo. Always a later bloomer, Berlin is now truly too late to the game.

Post-Industrial Party

Since the turn of the millennium, Berliners have slowly acquired a more realistic and relaxed view of their city. To put it simply, Berlin is poor from a financial standpoint, but rich in terms of culture and history, and it is relatively slow but relaxed.

Parts of Berlin have turned into a and culture park for more than 10 million visitors a year. Foreigners are attracted to its history, of course: the Kaiser, Hitler and the Wall. But Berliners are not as interested in the past, and they make up only about 10 percent of visitors to the memorials that can be found all over the city.

Berlin, as an urban individual, simply grew too quickly to smoothly develop its own identity. It experienced and survived five extremely different political systems in only 120 years, from 1871 to 1990. The city's prehistory and its present pale by comparison to the city's stormy growth bordering on self-destruction.

The city and its residents have received an overdose of history and endured a roller coaster of ideologies. Since the fall of the wall, older residents can finally recover from the dramas and catastrophes of the 20th century, which is something that younger Berliners, thanks to having been born later, don't need. And more than half of the current population came to the city after reunification.

The burdens of history have been removed from their shoulders. But this also has its drawbacks, because Berlin's uniqueness has been passé since 1990. Even the memories of its uniqueness are fading, as Berlin slowly becomes a normal city.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.