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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of Berlin (+ 60 Cultural Attractions)


Introduction to the city of Berlin

Although significantly younger than many of its European neighbours, Berlin is a capital with a rich and varied history. It’s a complicated city with no physical centre – or, perhaps, many – and collision point of various cultures, languages, cuisines and political ideologies. Capturing its essence, therefore, proves particularly difficult. Prussian palaces, austere East German architecture, avant-garde art scene, world-renowned nightclubs, chic restaurants: all these compete to embody the city. In fact, David Bowie once described Berlin as ‘the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine’ and it’s not difficult to see why.

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A Short History of Berlin

Emergence of Berlin

Berlin emerged 800 years ago out of the union of twin towns founded on the River Spree, with Cölln on the left bank and Berlin (now known as Old Berlin) on the right. These small market towns were located within the borders of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. They were eclipsed by Brandenburg an der Havel, capital of the territory until 1417, when it was replaced by Berlin. Two years previously the Margraviate had passed into the hands of the Hohenzollern dynasty, a family which was to rule from Berlin for the next 500 years, becoming Electors of Brandenburg, Kings in Prussia – Brandenburg eventually embraced a union with Prussia, to its north – and German Kaisers (or Emperors) after 1871. Their rule only came to an end with the German defeat in the First World War and the revolution which followed.

The Age of Prussian Power

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Prussian power expanded as the result of military conquest, checked only by a devastating defeat to Napoleon’s forces in 1806, after which Berlin was subjected to French occupation for seven years. However, following its 1871 victory over France, Prussia became an imperial power, dominant in Europe and keen to assert itself around the globe; Berlin’s cityscape began to reflect these ambitions. It was in Berlin, in the mid-1880s, that a conference took place which initiated the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’, the rapid expansion and formalisation of European imperial control over the African continent in the following three decades.

The Weimar Republic

In November 1918, two republics – both occupying the same borders – were proclaimed in Berlin but only one, the Weimar Republic, survived. The other, the German Socialist Republic, was brutally suppressed. Defeat, revolution and the territorial changes imposed by the Treaty of Versailles brought with them hundreds of thousands of refugees from former German territories, exiles from modern-day Poland, Lithuania and even Russia. The city’s characteristic sprawl dates to this same period, as municipal reform in 1920 integrated formerly independent cities such as Spandau to the West and Köpenick to the East into ‘Greater Berlin’.

Berlin Under Nazi Germany

1920s Berlin was a progressive and cosmopolitan city. But an important part of that chapter was ended in May 1933 when Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked by Nazi paramilitaries. As the capital city of Nazi Germany, it was from Berlin that war was waged across Europe. The war remade the city completely, but not as Hitler had desired. He had fantasised of a city called ‘Germania’, where Berlin’s higgledy-piggledly architecture would be replaced by grandiose Neoclassical conformity; this would serve as the capital of his Thousand-year Reich. Instead, the city was devastated by bombing and, in the final days of the war, was captured by the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Berlin was divided into four Allied sectors and, from 1948, into an Eastern and a Western part. The Thousand-year Reich had crumbled, 988 years ahead of schedule.

The Post-War Period and Division of Berlin

The Wall went up around West Berlin in August 1961: from then on, attempts at crossing the frontier regularly proved fatal. While East Berlin was still a capital city, West Berlin was an enclave. As a result, that part of the city retained its avant-garde edge giving rise, from the mid-1970s, to a dynamic scene of left-wing squats and radical political movements. In the 1980s, the city played a central role in the development of the Afro-German movement and the West German peace movement. In 1989, Berlin again found itself at the symbolic heart of German unification when, following protests in the East, the Wall fell on the 9th of November. As the East German state disintegrated virtually overnight, impromptu cultural venues and clubs sprung up.

Berlin Today

Berlin today is one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals. It’s a strange testament to its extraordinary growth since reunification that the city is experiencing many of the same problems as London or Paris. It seems a lifetime ago now that Berlin’s mayor described the city as ‘poor but sexy’. In 1999, the German government finally moved from Bonn to Berlin and a number of massive construction projects transformed the city. Gradually the art centres, anarchist squats, and the low rents have faded away in favour of office blocks, shopping malls and infrastructure projects. The historic centre, built by the Prussian kings and German emperors to demonstrate their power and largely demolished by the East German government, is being reconstructed. At the same time, monuments commemorating the millions of victims of the Nazi regime have become a stark and striking feature of the cityscape. Berlin’s contested identity and character in the present reflects the on-going struggle over the meaning of the German past.

Berlin's Top Cultural Attractions in Pictures

If you're looking for a city rich with culture, Berlin should be at the top of your list. From world-renowned museums and galleries to historic landmarks and vibrant neighbourhoods, the German capital has something to offer every type of traveller. In this section, we've rounded up the top 60 cultural attractions in Berlin that you won't want to miss. So grab your map (or open up Urbs' Berlin guide!), put on some comfy shoes, and let's dive into the best of Berlin's cultural attractions.

15. Soviet War Memorial (Tiergarten)

41. Neue Kirche (Deutscher Dom)

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