What Makes Berlin So Unique?

·11 min read
Leonardo Patrizi/Getty
Leonardo Patrizi/Getty

Berliners started knocking down the Berlin Wall, block by block, on Nov. 9, 1989. That monstrous barrier of concrete and barbed wire, with its watchtowers, death strips, machine guns and officious border guards, which had divided both Berlin and Europe for twenty-eight years, was demolished over the following weeks so that nothing remained apart from small sections preserved as a reminder of what had once been and the suffering it had caused.

Reunification of East Germany—the German Democratic Republic, or GDR —and West Germany—the Federal Republic of Germany, the FRG—followed just under a year later. Surely, many assumed, the reunited country would logically decide to restore Berlin as its capital? Berlin was the natural Hauptstadt, the capital of Prussia and of Germany in that brief period between 1870 and 1945 when Germany was a united nation. The kaisers had ruled from the Berliner Schloss, the Reichstag was in Berlin and so much of the history of what made Germany was surely in Berlin’s streets, its institutions, its museums and in its people? But many disagreed.

A lot of Germans thought Berlin was associated with first Prussian and then Nazi militarism. These were people who saw the border between the GDR and FRG as more than just a communist-designed plot to divide Europe. For them it was the border between two Germanies, between the flat, sandy plains of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg and the western-looking areas along the Rhine, areas the more historically minded argued had been colonized by the Romans and looked towards Europe while Berlin looked out east towards Russia and the steppes. Berlin did not represent what the FRG had strived so hard to achieve since 1945, and it was certainly not symbolic of what they hoped the reunited Germany would now become.

The national debate, which lasted for a year and a half, was difficult and emotional. Eventually the vote was taken in the Bundestag, the German parliament sitting in the small and rather undistinguished Rhineland city of Bonn, which summarized so nicely the values that had allowed the FRG to rebuild itself. The result was close. By a narrow majority of eighteen, on June 20, 1991, German politicians decided that the national capital would be in Berlin, although even then several important government offices were to remain in Bonn.

What made this intense debate seem rather strange to Berliners was that they saw themselves as anything but representatives of the old Prussia. Not only, they argued, was Berlin not the true capital of Prussia (which was instead Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, a small Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, and 500 miles away to the east), but the character, history and people of Berlin had, almost since its foundation, been the very antithesis of the Prussian military cult that so alarmed the Rhineland deputies. Berlin may have been the administrative capital of Prussia for nearly five hundred years but it has always retained its own distinctive, rebellious, irreverent character; it was never a ‘Prussian’ city.

Berlin is in Brandenburg, hundreds of miles west of what was originally Prussia. It would eventually become the capital of Brandenburg in 1486, but only of Prussia in 1701. It was not until 1871 that Berlin became capital of Germany, which did not exist as a state until Bismarck created it. Berlin is, coincidentally, exactly the same distance east of the River Rhine and Germany’s western border as it is west of Kaliningrad. Today it is very close, barely 30 miles, to modern Germany’s eastern border with Poland on the River Oder. It has therefore always been as much an eastern European city as it has a western one, shaped and subject to the winds and moods of the great plains reaching towards the steppes, as it has to the very different but no less damaging pressures from the west. It has always been a city on the edge.

The story of the city is also the story of the Hohenzollerns—electors of Brandenburg, dukes, then kings in, and later of, Prussia and finally German kaisers. For much of their joint history the fate of Berlin and its dynasty are intertwined. This book is not a history of Prussia but it is the joint story of electors and kings and their capital, which variously supported and opposed them, gradually came to resent them and finally exiled them.

There is a particular frisson about Berlin, a combination of excitement, anticipation, nervousness and the unexpected. Through all its life it has been a city of tensions. Its position—on the frontier of Europe, on the ‘Mark’, where Christianity met paganism, where the Huns met the Slavs, where Europe met Russia and where fertile land met the sands, swamps and forests of Pomerania and Prussia—gives it a geographical tension. It was also long a city of religious tension, between a largely Lutheran people and a Calvinist government, and later becoming pretty irreligious altogether. In the nineteenth century political tension became acute between a city that was increasingly democratic, home to Marx and Hegel, and one of the most autocratic regimes in Europe. In 1918 that tension resulted in revolution, the Dolchstoß, the stab in the back, which allowed the German army to claim that it had never been defeated and which, with the economic chaos in the 1920s, paved the way for the Nazis. Between 1945 and 1989, the political tension between the GDR and West Berlin, the western city trapped in a communist state, took that tension to the extreme.

From the mid-eighteenth century there was artistic tension as free thinking and liberal movements, championed by monarchs like Frederick the Great, started to find themselves in direct contention with the formal—some would say stultifying—official culture while in the 1920s, and in the last few decades, Berlin has challenged the rest of Europe with the diversity of its free thinking. Underlying all this was the ethnic tension between multi-racial Berliners and the Prussians. Berlin has long been a city of immigrants. Many European capitals have historically had large immigrant populations but few have been as diverse as Berlin, possibly because few European cities have suffered such catastrophic destruction twice as Berlin has; nor have many been as successful at incorporating new identities into their own distinctive character.

Berliners make great play of the idea of the ‘traditional Berliner’ but there is no such person. A typical Berliner is instead someone who comes to Berlin and adopts the casual, slightly grumpy, sharp yet warm, hedonistic and vibrant character that has come from waves of settlers. Burgundians, Huns, Wends, Dutch, Flemish, Poles, Jews, Huguenots, French, Austrians, Silesians, Russians, Turks, Africans, Vietnamese and many, many more are all as typical Berliners as the descendants of the now very few families who can trace their ancestry back to the city’s founding. ‘Perhaps the absolutely typical Berliner is the one who has just arrived,’ noted Christoph Stölzl, a Bavarian, who recalled:

‘On 1 October 1987 I took up my duties as the founding director of the German Historical Museum. On my desk was an invitation, from a Senate Office of the State of Berlin as I recall, to participate in a podium discussion “Problems of urban Planning Today.” I gave those who had invited me a call, and politely explained that I had only been in office for a day and that I had no wish to presume to have an opinion already on such intricate topics. But the voice on the other end of the telephone decreed in a sharp Berlin tone; “You are here now, so you have an opinion!” In Hamburg it takes two years to have an opinion; even in Munich it takes at least one but in Berlin you are a Berliner as soon as you arrive.’

Berlin’s character has also been defined, more tragically, by those who have left. It is as much a city of emigrants as it is of immigrants, although that is a characteristic most brutally evident in the twentieth century.

Evidence of Berliners’ independence and resistance to authority is that no Prussian or German ruler has ever really felt welcome there. From the earliest Hohenzollerns to post-1945 Germany, rulers have found ways of living outside the city from which they had to run their governments. Generations of Hohenzollerns built country retreats outside Berlin, which, comfortable and agreeable as they may have been, chiefly served to remove them from the city itself.

Berlin was never as supportive of the Kaiser in 1914 as the rest of Germany; it was the revolution in Berlin in 1918 that led to his abdication and Germany suing for peace. Hitler, greatly to Berlin’s credit, loathed the place. Goebbels, the Nazi gauleiter, described it as ‘a melting pot of everything that is evil—prostitution, drinking houses, cinemas, Marxism, Jews, Strippers, Negroes dancing, and all the vile offshoots of so-called modern art.’ The city was home to much of the opposition to the Nazis, although paradoxically it suffered more than any other German city from Hitler’s war. Konrad Adenauer, the great West German Chancellor from 1949 to 1963, called it ‘a Babylon amidst the Northern Steppes’ and wanted to trade it for parts of East Germany. Berliners never liked him much either.

Berlin is also so absorbing because its distinctive independence of character allows it to keep and cherish its memories, however painful they may be to confront. Whereas some cities, particularly those in eastern Europe that have suffered so much, practice a sort of ‘heroic denial’ by rebuilding themselves as they imagined they once were, Berlin refuses to hide its past. Its buildings, such as the Reichstag and the Berliner Schloss, must pull together the different strands of its story so that it remembers through its architecture. ‘Memories,’ said Neil MacGregor, ‘shape Berlin. It doesn’t use the past to escape; rather it confronts it and tries to live with it.’

Berlin’s attitude is best described as liberalism but with a certain degree of order. Like many Germans, Berliners are law-abiding; it is still unusual to see a pedestrian cross an entirely empty street until the iconic Ampelmann signal goes green. Yet Berlin has revolted five times and has long been one of the most socially and culturally innovative cities in Europe. The reason that so many people, especially young people, love it is that no one will ever judge you there. It is, though, a hard city, a city of live and let live. It can also, as this story will show, be a brutal city.

Berliners are famously direct, even rude, a characteristic that is more a tradition than a true reflection of their character and that does not mean the city is not an increasingly nice place to live. With so much space, so many parks, a huge variety of entertainment, endless restaurants and cafes, with its political life, its cultural life, its seemingly thousands of dogs, mad cyclists, its marches, its history, its waterways, its new housing and, airports excepted, its excellent transport, it is small wonder that people from across Germany are now making their home there as well as a steady stream of immigrants who, in the best Berlin tradition, keep coming. Reunification has taken longer than perhaps people thought it would; there is still a strong element of the divided city, of East versus West, but that is now beginning to disappear. The question is how will Berlin develop in this century? Will it retain its rough-around-the-edges feeling that alarmed Goethe, welcoming immigrants and home to every diverse culture? Or will the fact that it has become such an agreeable place to live change its character? Many see the gentrification of the city as a greater threat to its traditional character than continued immigration, something that is explored in the concluding chapter.

For me Berlin was a formative experience. It was a city I first knew in the 1970s, long before the Wall came down, and it has fascinated me ever since. I still get that same sense of excitement, dread even, when I arrive now as I did when I was traveling through the GDR and across the Wall forty years ago. The city has ghosts everywhere—medieval ghosts, Hohenzollern spirits, Nazi devils and communist shadows. When I started to write this book, many Berliners said to me, ‘Please, not another book about the Nazis and the Second World War. Our history did actually start before 1933.’ What is so frustrating for Germans in general, and Berliners in particular, is that they still feel defined by the Nazi era, by those twelve terrible years until 1945 and, to a lesser extent, by the Iron Curtain and the Wall. Yet, as they point out, those years were an aberration, an interruption, admittedly a terrible one, but an interruption nonetheless in a story that starts a very long time ago. Berlin’s story, its traits and habits, its character and spirit, did not begin when the Wall went up in 1961 nor when it came down in 1989; neither did they start with Hitler, nor with the foundation of the German Reich in 1871; they did not start in 1848 nor in 1815 with the expulsion of the French invader, nor in 1648 as the city recovered from its first crucifixion. They started, as this book does, with written history.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Barney White-Spunner</div>
Courtesy Barney White-Spunner

Excerpted from Berlin: The Story of a City by Barney White-Spunner with permission from Pegasus Books.

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