The history of Berlin is one of the richest in all of Europe, and the city itself has played host to many of the most significant historical events that have taken place in the 20th century. The twists and turns that have occurred in German history over the past century are reflected in how Berlin has changed and continues to change today. In less than one hundred years, Berlin has served as the capital of not one, not two, but five separate countries. These countries include the German Empire, the Third Reich, and eventually, modern-day undivided Germany. Later on in the article, we will discuss how the troubled past of Germany is reflected in the nation’s capital.
The country of Germany in its modern form is a comparatively recent creation. It wasn’t until 1871, when Otto von Bismarck and Wilhelm I were in power, that it was actually established. Up until 1871, the region that spoke German was divided into several states, each of which was governed by a separate ruler. The German language was obviously spoken in every one of these states.
Before the unification of Germany, Berlin served as the capital of Prussia, which was the most powerful and industrialized state in Germany. It was Prussia that was principally responsible for the initiatives that led to Germany’s unification, and it was Prussia that was the driving force behind those efforts. Following the unification of Germany in 1871, Bismarck served as the country’s first chancellor, and Wilhelm I ruled as the country’s first emperor. Berlin served as the capital of the German Empire from 1871 until 1918, which ushered in a period of widespread transformation.
Berlin was the capital city of the German Empire
As the capital city of the German Empire, Berlin went through tremendous social, political, and economic changes during that time. This city endured and emerged victorious from another significant worldwide struggle, namely the First World War. The expansion in Berlin’s population was the first significant development that followed the city’s reunification. The second half of the 19th century was a prosperous time for Berlin’s industry, which resulted in a steady need for workers to fill available positions.
This resulted in a trend toward urbanization, which meant that large masses of people flocked to the city in pursuit of employment in Berlin’s flourishing industry. Because of this, in the thirty years that followed the establishment of the German Empire, the city’s population increased by more than two times what it was. In 1905, Berlin had a population of two million inhabitants, which placed it in third place among the most populated cities in Europe, after Paris and London.
When Wilhelm II took power in Germany, a significant cultural shift occurred that had an impact not only on Berlin but also on Germany as a whole. After becoming Emperor, Wilhelm II wasted no time getting rid of Otto von Bismarck. The primary reason for this was the two men’s wildly different political approaches. Instead of continuing Bismarck’s pragmatic political line, known as Realpolitik, Wilhelm II focused on the politics of the international community. The acquisition of additional territories outside of Germany and the promotion of his nation’s importance in comparison to the rest of Europe were high on the agenda of the newly crowned German Emperor. This approach to politics and the desire for dominance is frequently cited as one of the primary factors that contributed to the outbreak of the First World War.
Militarism was on the rise in Germany, and it gradually worked its way into everyday life. The frequency of military parades increased, and at the same time, wearing military uniforms became more popular than they had ever been. Even young children were frequently required to play the role of soldiers or marines and were made to dress in army uniforms. The need to demonstrate Germany’s power and dominance overtook German society, particularly in the nation’s capital.
Germany entered World War I in 1914 with such a strong military spirit, even though they had no idea how the war would end. In Berlin, the effects of the First World War were felt the most acutely as a result of the city’s severe lack of access to food. Rationing of food was first implemented in the German capital in 1915, and the severity of the famine reached its height during the winter of 1916. The vast majority of the produced food was shipped to the front lines, and all it took was one bad year for things to get out of hand. The aftermath of World War I left a significant mark on Berlin over the following decade.
Berlin was the capital city of the Weimar Republic
After Wilhelm II’s abdication at the end of 1918, 2 different parties in Germany proclaimed the country to be a republic: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party, which had just recently been established (KPD). From the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin, Social Democratic Party member Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the beginning of what would later be known as the Weimar Republic. Because he was concerned that the communists would attempt to seize power, he took action without first obtaining permission from his superiors. It ended up that he was correct in his evaluation. Two hours later, on the streets of Berlin, the Communists, led by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebkecht, proclaimed the “Free Socialist Republic of Germany.” The double declaration of the Republic in Berlin resulted in several months’ worth of political instability. By the beginning of 1919, the SPD had successfully assumed the leadership of the communists. Berlin was selected to serve as the capital of the recently established Weimar Republic, thereby laying the groundwork for the turbulent years that would soon follow.
During the Weimar Republic, the city went through one of the most turbulent times in its entire history. Inflation skyrocketed in Germany following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which imposed significant financial and military penalties on Germany. The German mark suffered a steady decline in value, rendering its continued circulation impossible. The German banks were required to issue new banknotes every week, with an increasing value with each new issue. In 1923, banks issued notes worth two million marks, and one dollar was equivalent to 4.2 billion marks at the time. Children entertained themselves by stacking banknotes, and families started burning the newly printed money as fuel in their stoves. The year 1923 marked the zenith of this predicament, after which the United States offered financial assistance to Germany, and a new currency was introduced.
When the hyperinflation was finally brought under control, Berlin experienced its version of the Roaring twenties. The nation’s capital has evolved into a highly dynamic cultural center that is now home to a number of the country’s most renowned artists. Bertolt Brecht, a playwright, known for his social criticism and communist views, and Fritz Lang, a prominent name in Expressionist cinema, are two examples of those who fall into this category. In addition to this, the city was well-known for its bustling nightlife, famous cabarets, openness, and diversity.
The Berlin Roaring Twenties have a strong reputation for being associated with a decline in morality. Many women were driven to become prostitutes due to poverty, which also contributed to an increase in drug addiction and the proliferation of illegal activities. Additionally, the city was renowned for its acceptance of queer culture, an aspect of society that was frequently stigmatized in other places.
Berlin capital of the Third Reich
The brief period in which the Weimar Republic existed was marked by extreme turmoil. Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany after the country was devastated by the Great Depression. Repercussions of Hitler’s infamous Machtergreifung could be felt almost immediately in Berlin. On the evening of February 27, a fire broke out at the Reichstag, which is the seat of government for Germany and is located in Berlin. The fire destroyed the German parliament just six days before the elections for the new parliament was scheduled to take place. At the time, Adolf already held the office of chancellor, and he took advantage of the fire to arrest his most prominent political opponents, who were communists. The dictator won the elections in 1933 with relative ease due to the absence of opposition from the KPD, the German Communist Party.
A campaign to discourage patronage of Jewish-owned businesses was launched on April 1 of that same year. Shortly after that, it became illegal for Jews to hold jobs in government agencies, and it was forbidden for Jewish lawyers to handle cases involving the law. Therefore, this initial body of anti-Semitic legislation aimed to bar Jews from participating in public life and organizations. In the years that followed, additional anti-Semitic ordinances were passed. The Nuremberg Laws were enacted two years later, making it illegal for Jews and non-Jews to marry or have romantic relationships. The number of Jewish businesses in Germany shrank by two-thirds as a result of the “Aryanization” process that took place in the society there.
The situation for Jews in Germany became more precarious after Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938. During that infamous night, thousands of Jewish-owned businesses and hundreds of synagogues were torched across the country. This terrible event signaled the beginning of the deportation of Jews from Germany to concentration camps for no reason other than their country of origin.
For the Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936, the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Third Reich was purposefully muted. Adolf and Josef Hitler used this event for propaganda, highlighting Germany’s sporting competitiveness and hospitality toward other countries.
As you are aware, Jesse Owens won four gold medals, partially contradicting Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric regarding the superiority of the Aryan race. However, Germany took home the most medals. The majority of the reporters from the other countries that took part in the competition praised the country’s organization and hospitality during the competition.
The great dictator’s propaganda objectives at the Olympic Games were successfully accomplished, and the image of Germany was partially and temporarily restored in the eyes of the rest of the world. Leni Riefenstahl, a director, working for the Nazi regime, was present to record and film this event.
The invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler in September of 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. At this point in time, Germany already had occupations in both the formerly formerly Czechoslovakia and Austria. Blitzkrieg was a strategy that Germany utilized to achieve rapid advancement throughout the first two years of the war, until 1941. This strategy involves launching a swift and intense assault on the opposing forces to destroy them through sheer numbers. There was not a single bombing raid on Berlin during the first year of the war.
When the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, as you are aware, the outcome of the war changed dramatically almost immediately. In the forty-third year of the war, Germany suffered a devastating defeat at Stalingrad, followed by the beginning of the troops’ retreat.
Between 1943 and 1945, Berlin was subjected to a relentless barrage of aerial attacks. During this period of approximately one and a half years, about seven hundred thousand people were rendered homeless in Berlin alone. Approximately thirty thousand people lost their lives due to the air raids. The city was in ruins at the time.
It wasn’t until the Red Army entered the city that the raids finally stopped, and the battle for Berlin got underway. This was one of the bloodiest and most destructive engagements during World War II. More than 300,000 people lost their lives due to the conflict, with the majority of those killed being civilians who were attempting to defend the city. During their occupation of the city, the Red Army engaged in numerous acts of brutality and committed several war crimes. Among these are the widespread sexual assaults committed against nearly two million German women, of which 100,000 were committed in Berlin alone. Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide together in the bunker they were hiding during the war. On April 30, 1945, he passed away, which was nine days before the German troops surrendered.
Berlin, the divided capital of Germany
After the conclusion of World War II, Germany was partitioned between the Soviet Union, the United States of America, France, and the United Kingdom. In 1949, the United States, Great Britain, and France countries handed over control of the territories they occupied to the Federal Republic of Germany. In the region that the Soviet Union controlled, the German Democratic Republic was founded. In addition, the allied forces partitioned Berlin, which resulted in the city being split into western and eastern halves. After the two Germanies were split up, Berlin was chosen to be the capital of the East German Republic, also known as the German Democratic Republic. Bonn served as the capital of the former German state of West Germany.
At first, a number of exiled German figures decided to relocate to the newly established communist Germany, which was known as the GDR. The most well-known of these individuals was Bertolt Brecht, who eventually settled down in East Berlin after returning from exile in the United States. On the other hand, a significant number of those who chose East Germany experienced rapid disillusionment. Not only did working and living conditions deteriorate, but there was also a severe crackdown on any expressions of discontent on the part of the workers. After a while, it turned out to be abundantly clear that the German Democratic Republic was, in fact, a dictatorship.
As a direct result of this, there was a mass exodus of between three and three and a half million people from the GDR to West Germany within a period of approximately fifteen years. In 1961, to end this movement, the Soviet Union and the GDR constructed the infamous Berlin Wall. Because of the Berlin Wall, escaping to West Germany was an extremely difficult and dangerous endeavor.
A symbol of Europe’s bifurcation into East and West, Berlin’s division came to represent the conflict known as the Cold War. It became impossible to cross the border because the secret police known as the Stasi (also known as the Ministry for State Security) would frequently reveal plans, then severely punish those responsibly. The people who lived in the GDR were frequently in a state of fear because expressing any form of dissatisfaction, affection for Western culture or even the manifestation of religious beliefs could result in incarceration. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it became public knowledge that the Stasi had maintained files on nearly six million residents of East Germany.
Beginning in the late 1980s, there was a gradual change in this circumstance. Under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union started opening up to the West, which eventually led to its end in 1991. In the fall of 1989, East Berlin saw the beginning of the Monday demonstrations around the Berlin Wall. The government of the GDR decided to make it easier for people to travel between East and West Germany to calm the population. At the press conference where the announcement was made, however, the press secretary, Günter Schabowski, made the mistake of stating that the changes would become effective straight away. As a direct consequence of this, thousands of people from the East Berlin side of the wall attempted to escape, but the guards were powerless to stop them. The Berlin Wall finally came down the following morning, on November 9, 1989.
Berlin is the capital city of a unified Germany
East Germany and West Germany were reunited under the current banner of the Federal Republic of Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Berlin once more took its place as the nation’s capital and beating heart after Germany reunified. There is still an obvious divide between the West, and the East serves as a constant reminder of the country’s past. However, there are also aspects of East Berlin that have been purposefully preserved, such as the well-known Ampelmann.
The ups and downs experienced by Germany over the course of the previous century are mirrored in the history of Berlin. In less than one hundred years, the city has been elevated to the position of capital in five different nations. It has been ruled by a wide variety of governments throughout its history, and it has been witness to some significant historical events that have, in one way or another, had an impact on the city’s history as a whole.