Berlin, capital of united Germany 1871-1945 and again since 1990 as well as partial capital of East Germany and - depending on whom you asknote - partial de jure capital of West Germany and a major world city. According to P. J. O'Rourke, "the city that Iggy Pop moved to because New York wasn't decadent enough." Though P.J. followed it up by saying, "Forget it. We bombed the place flat in WWII, and they rebuilt it as a pretty good imitation of Minneapolis."
Divided in twain for the duration of the Cold War.
The Berlin U- and S-Bahn also has an article here.
How to tell which former half of the city you are in
- If you're standing next to a great big TV tower with a rotating ball near the top, you're in the eastern part, specifically Alexanderplatz.
- If you're standing next to Communist architecture, you're in the eastern half.
- There used to be a great big bronze-windowed building, the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, home of the East German "parliament" and also a cultural centre. Discovered to be filled with asbestos, it is now entirely demolished and an old palace will be somewhat rebuilt where it was (it had been knocked down by the GDR, who saw it as a symbol of Prussian militarism, bar one facade where a guy named Karl Liebknecht had declared a German Socialist Republic in 1918, also it was moderately bomb damaged, a parallel of the asbestos).
- If the little men on the traffic lights (known as Ampelmännchen) are wearing hats, you are very likely to be in the eastern half. However, this method is somewhat hit and miss, since the Eastern version was seen as cooler and has even been adapted in many German cities, so you find the one or other in the western half.
- If you're in the Zoologischer Garten, you're in the western half.
- If you're in the Tiergarten (a park that started out as a place where the rulers of Brandenburg went hunting), you're in the western half. However, if you're in the Tierpark (the city's other zoo), your in the eastern half.
- If you're in a tram (a Straßenbahn), you're almost certainly in the eastern half.
- If you're at the side of Brandenburger Tor opposite the Reichstag (that is, on Unter den Linden), you're in the eastern half. If you're on the side of Tiergarten, you're in the western half, although not if you're standing right next to it.
- The Kreuzberg neighborhood (now part of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district) might be a little run-down, but it's on the western half. Friedrichshain was in the eastern half.
- If you're standing next to the East Side Gallery, you're in the eastern half (see Berlin Wall).
- Soviet soldier statue guide: if the column's grey, you are in the western half (this was in the British sector, but was guarded by Soviet soldiers throughout the Cold War). If it isn't and the guy is holding a sword and a kid, you are in the eastern half.
- If you're in the SonyCenter, you're in Potsdamer Platz, smack dab in the middle.
- If you're at an airport, you're as good as being in the Eastern half... but only since The New '20s. East Berlin's airport was built at Schönefeld, outside the city limits; since reunification, it has been expanded into the modern Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, which opened in late 2020, nine years behind schedule. Berlin's previous primary airport, Tegel, was built in the French sector at the time of the Berlin Airlift and decommissioned in 2021 once everything moved to Schönefeld; it is currently being redeveloped into high-tech office space. Tempelhof, Berlin's original airport, was closed in 2008. The small military airfield at Gatow, which lies near the city's western limits, was a Royal Air Force base for nearly five decades after World War II; the Bundeswehr took it over in 1994, but have since then mostly operated it as a museum.
History of Berlin
The name "Berlin" has nothing to do with bears (although their crest has one in a spot of heraldic punnery - the city is pronounced "Bear-lin" in German), but rather stems from the Slavic word for "meadow", not a miracle if you recall its location in a glacial valley.
In 1157, a count called Albert the Bear founded the Margraviate of Brandenburg and became its first Margrave and really kicked off German East Colonization. Settlements arose along the glacial valley of the lower Spree River and at the narrowest point of said valley, the settlement of Cölln (not to be confused with Köln (Cologne) at the Rhine River) was founded on the nearby river isle and the nucleus of the actual town of (Old) Berlin was found on the river's right bank. In 1309, these two towns got a common city hall. The year 1237 as the accepted foundation date of Berlin is actually the year of the first documental mention of Cölln, the actual Old Berlin first mentioned in 1244.
In 1415, Elector Frederick I got the throne over the Margraviate of Brandenburg, ending Berlin's existence as a Hanseatic city and starting the century-long legacy of the Hohenzollern dynasty. After severe losses due to the Thirty Years' War, "Great Elector" Frederic William made a hell of a deal to (re-)populate his war-torn country and prevent future suffering from any games great powers might potentially play. The biggest deal was the edict of Potsdam from 1685, essentially an invitation to persecuted French Protestants, the Huguenots, to live in Brandenburg.note The lion's share of the 15,000 that came settled in Berlin, which has always been supported as a strongpoint in the area, though Potsdam, a small fishing village sixteen miles to the southwest, was also elevated to importance when the elector built a palace there. In essence, this should become the cornerstone of Berlin as the lone metropolis in the rural sea of Brandenburg as it's known to this day.
In 1701, Brandenburg-Prussia become the Kingdom of Prussia, retaining Berlin as its capital. With Prussia growing the following two centuries (e.g. Silesia, Rhineland, Hannover, and others), Berlin became the capital of an ever-growing country and therefore a magnet for more and more people, making it especially distinct from the surrounding Brandenburg which also affected its dialect. In essence, the growth of Berlin was the result of the sheer willpower of its rulers.
In 1860/61, Berlin grew its boundaries for the first time in newer times to compromise what in the latest 20th century would have been known as the precincts of Mitte ("Centre", meaning Old Berlin), Wedding, Tiergarten, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg and Gesundbrunnen. In 1871, the Prussian capital also became the capital of the newly founded German Reich. By that time, Berlin already had 800,000 inhabitants.
From then on, the history of Berlin coincides with the history of Germany in general. At the end of World War I, Germany was declared a republic in Berlin and the political street fights there got so nasty that the constitutional assembly for the German Reich was moved to Weimar, hence the Weimar Republic. In 1920, the almost bi-million city of Berlin was enlarged another and the last time, doubling its population to almost four million people. '20s Berlin despite its weak economy, political instability and the large cloud of inevitable doom that carries all retrospective perspectives of the time, is often regarded as the epitome of 20th Century Modernism. It was the age of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the cartoons of George Grosz, amazing advances in architecture, Arnold Schoenberg's atonal music, the development of Cabaret and other night-clubs celebrated in later fictions and of course German Expressionism in the films of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. It was a cosmopolitan city that was even renowned for being a gay capital. Like all good parties, it didn't last forever. The burning of the Reichstag building in February 1933 helped Those Wacky Nazis consolidate their power, and they were firmly in control by the time the city hosted the 1936 Olympics.
Berlin suffered more destruction than any other European city in World War II (barring Cologne, which was flattened to over 90%). Allied bombing raids and the invasion of the Red Army took a harsh toll on the city, making the population plummet to about three million, where it essentially remained since then. After Adolf Hitler took his own life in a bunker and Germany surrendered, the Allies divided the old Reich capital akin to the rest of what remained of Germany, with the French in the northwest, the British in the west, the Americans in the south, and the Soviets in the east. Berlin suffered greatly under being the playball of the superpowers in the upcoming Cold War, leading to its division. East Berlin was quickly integrated into the structures of East Germany, serving as its capital. West Berlin survived the Soviet blockade of 1948/49 via the Berlin Airlift, keeping its status as an island of the free world amid the red sea of communism. For many years, it was easy to flee from the East to the West via Berlin. To turn off this leak in the Iron Curtain, the GDR built the infamous death trap commonly called the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961.
Due to its special "four power state", West Berlin was not officially part of West Germany, though it was treated like another German state as far as possible. This also meant that West German conscription didn't apply to West Berlin, making it a haven for draft dodgers from "the provinces".
With the political climate in the world changing, Berlin got directly affected. The Berlin Wall became obsolete when the GDR opened its borders to the West on November 9, 1989. Less than a year later, Berlin once again became the capital of a (re-)united Germany. But it had yet to take until 1999 until the all-German government and parliament finally moved back to Berlin (post-war and pre-unification, the seat of government of West Germany had been Bonn, in case you're wondering) and during much of The '90s, Berlin was dubbed as the biggest construction site of Europe.
As all of Berlin, its west and its east alike, was a major target for subsidies, it's no miracle that Berlin is often dubbed as "poor but sexy" or even as "the only world city that doesn't cost the world".
Berlin, having spent much of its history divided, stands relatively unique among European cities for its pretty hard divisions into neighborhoods. While initially more in line with other (continental) European cities, the Greater Berlin Act of Weimar Era Germany agglomerated many of the surrounding communities into the citynote . Each of these newly annexed communities had developed distinct cultures and socio-economic differences, many of which have persisted well into the modern day despite massive wars, being divided during the Cold War, and successive reforms to the city's political structure. These neighborhoods are affectionately known as Kiez to Berlinersnote . To this day, very noticeable divisions in economic status, culture, and ethnic background divide Berlin's many Kieze.
As of 2001, there are officially 12 districts, although many of them can be subdivided further into their respective Kieze. Note that there are dozens of Kieze, so we won't do the job of The Other Wiki and list them all:
- Mitte ("Center" in English): The aptly-named centermost district in Berlin. Contains the famous Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare which passes through the Brandenburg Gate and houses the major embassies, as well as Humboldt University's main campus, among many other famous places. Mitte is also the seat of the Bundesrepublik, with the Bundestag, the Bundeskanzleramt (the primary residence of the Chancellor), Bellevue Palace (the primary residence of the President), and many ministries and officesresiding here. Mitte is home to the famous Berlin Fernsehturm (the big TV tower that dominates the skyline), residing in Alexanderplatz, its main square. Museum Island houses -you guessed it- many of Berlin's oldest and most famous museumsnote and the Berliner Dom, the city's imposing cathedral. The Charité Medical University, among many other universities, is also located in Mitte. Mitte is a very diverse district, with peoples of an immigrant background comprising over 2/3rds of its population. Despite its central location, many of its sub-neighborhoods offer cheap and subsidized housing, meaning that many parts of it are surprisingly blue collar. Although Mitte gets hectic during major celebrations, it's generally a pretty laid back and safe district, although Alexanderplatz is one major stomping ground for pickpockets and touts. If you visit Berlin as a tourist, you are probably going to be staying -and spending most of your time outside of clubs- in Mitte. Mitte itself can be subdivided into several zones, based on the old neighborhoods that existed pre-2001:
- Mitte Proper is the only district that was contained within East Berlin. It contains almost all the present day governmental buildings of the Federal Republic, as well as most of the main tourist thoroughfares. Some residential buildings still linger, but most of the district is governmental or business.
- Tiergarten is a massive park and its surrounding environs. Home to many embassies, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Berlin Zoo.
- Moabit and Hansaviertel: Just north of Tiergarten and east of Mitte Proper. They are diverse residential areas with mixed-income housing, and lots of cheap and good restaurant options if you don't want to get too far outside of Mitte. The Berlin Hauptbahnof (the Central Rail Station) is located in Moabit, so it's likely to be your destination if you are traveling in from the new Berlin Airport. Both of these were carved out of Tiergarten during the administrative reforms.
- Wedding and Gesundbrunnen: Wedding is in the northwest of Mitte, and was originally the French sector. It's a very working-class neighborhood, which is a nice way of saying around a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. That said, like most of Mitte, it is still fairly tame and livable, and also quite cheap for being in the city center, hence why it is attracting many students, artists, and other young arrivals. Gesundbrunnen was carved out of Wedding as a new sub-division in 2001, and it is the most ethnically diverse sub-neighborhood in all of Berlin. Gesundbrunnen houses the only still-standing part of the Berlin Wall outside of a museum, and well as the famous Mauerpark, which hosts karaoke every summer.
- Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg: Best discussed in their constituent parts:
- Kreuzberg was within West Berlin, and was a working-class and largely immigrant neighborhood for most of its history. It is home to a sizeable Turkish population, as well as many young and poor Germans. It has a decisively left-wing political streak, and the arrival of students and artists looking for cheap rentals in a city with a notorious housing crisis has started to change the culture of the district quite heavily. Kreuzberg is still notorious for crime, poverty, and drug abuse, and is generally regarded as the city's "bad neighborhood." It's rough-and-tumble nature and working class composition make it the center of Berlin's punk scene.
- Friedrichshain was in East Berlin, and is today the center of Berlin's globally (in)famous club scene, containing Berghain. As that implies, it is probably the most gentrified Kiez in Berlin, having gone from working class in the GDR and outright poor in the early 90s, to rich and dotted with high-end retailers and a very active nightlife. Can still be rough in parts, especially owing to the many drunks and druggies spewing out from clubs and bars in the wee hours of the morning.
- Lichtenberg: Part of the former East Berlin, Lichtenberg is where many GDR government officials lived, and where the Stasi was located. It continues to be a fairly high-end area with lots of shopping districts and malls.
- Neukölln: Formerly part of the American sector and home to a very diverse population of immigrants, including many Turks and Arabs. It used to be rather poor, and often competed with Kreuzberg as the butt of jokes, but it experienced rapid gentrification in the 80s and 90s and is now more known for being a haven of counterculture (in a city that is already a haven for counterculture).
- Southern Neukölln is very suburban, with Rudow being mostly family-unit housing.
- Tempelhof-Schöneberg: A combination of many former districts. It is pretty diverse, blue collar, and residential overall, but it does contain some noteworthy Kieze:
- Friedenau and Schöneberg in the north were once middle/working class districts, but the building of major new shopping centers and the ongoing housing crisis has caused an increase in rents, and thus gentrification. Schöneberg also houses the city's red-light district on Kurfürstenstraße, where many of the city's brothels are located.
- Tempelhof is still pretty blue collar, although many students have also moved into the area. It notably contains Tempelhofer Feld, the former main airport of the city until the end of World War II. It is now a gigantic park.
- Mariendorf is similar to Tempelhof, but things start getting suburban when you go south to Marienfelde and Lichtenrade.
- Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf is one of the wealthier districts in the city, and it hosts many cafes, parks, and shopping centers. The high rents mean the population is of above-average income. Wealthier students and immigrants (usually from other European countries, or increasingly from East Asia) often choose to move here.
- Ironically, Grunewald, the western most part of the modern district, is one of the poorest regions in the city, with a massive homeless population that lives in the forest. The Grunewald itself is a massive forest preserve, dotted only with small, suburban developments. It's quite a jarring transition from the dense and urban Charlottenburg proper.
- Pankow, in the northeast, is an agglomeration of dozens of old districts. Most of the district is middle or working class and unremarkable, but the southern Kiez of Prenzlauer Berg was a haven for East Berlin's counter-culture during the Cold War, and is now filled with expensive gentrified real estate.
- Weißensee is a middle class Kiez known primarily for the lake that it is named for. It's a popular destination in the summer for swimmers and beach goers who live in the eastern half of the city.
- Treptow-Köpenick comprises a vast expanse making up Berlin's southeast.
- Treptow proper is an urban district that gets a lot of spillover from the Friedrichshain scene, but it's a bit more upscale. Tends to be popular among trendy and rich youngsters who want to stay close to the clubs.
- The rest of the district is mostly suburban or low-density urban residential. It's mostly remarkable for being your first introduction to the city if you fly in, since the opening of the new Berlin Airport.
- Steglitz-Zehlendorf makes up the city's southwest. It's also a varied district, so it's best to break it down into parts:
- Steglitz is low-density urban and fairly middle class, but is undergoing gentrification along with neighboring Friedenau and Schöneberg.
- Dahlem, Zehlendorf, and Lichterfelde house the massive Botanical Garden, the Freie Universität, and lots of high-end suburban housing. They are some of the wealthiest Kiez in Berlin, and a lot of ambassadors, doctors, and professors live out here.
- Wannsee is famous for, well, the Wannsee, a massive lake that is a favorite place for all aquatic activities in the summer. The Kiez itself is more like a townnote , and is more working class then Zehlendorf.
- Spandau was one of the 7 major towns that Berlin annexed in 1920. The district today is primarily mixed-income and suburban, with the Spandau Kiez containing some urban housing.
- Reinickendorf is similar to Spandau, and it has one of the two major airports that serviced Berlin prior to the new airports opening: Tegel. Both it and Spandau were in the British sector.
- Marzahn-Hellersdorf is very German and quite suburban. It's one of the few East Berlin districts to not really change much since GDR times, as it is still dotted with "commie-block" housing complexes and Prussian villages.
Berlin In Fiction
Throughout the Cold War, Berlin was "The City of Spies" (a title that has also been held by Viennanote , Lisbon, Tangiers, Beirut, Istanbul, and Casablanca at various points in their history), and the Glienicke Bridge, which links (West) Berlin and Potsdam, was the most well-known venue for the exchange of captured spies. Spy Fiction from that period will almost always mention Berlin.
The city is generally depicted in these contexts as grey and dreary, especially the eastern part (not quite true, as a third of the city is in the form of parks). It works best at night. Dead drops, double-crosses and defections are the order of the day. Expect someone to attempt to run the Berlin Wall.
If you're lucky, you might see some of West Berlin's (extremely vibrant) music scene and nightlife (being one of the early centers of so-called "Krautrock" and David Bowie (the albums Station to Station, Low, "Heroes", Lodger) and Iggy Pop (the albums The Idiot and Lust for Life) both having recorded there on the basis of its reputation).
Weimar Germany's Berlin is a very vibrant and colourful place, comparable with Paris. Truth in Television here. Portrayals focus on the development of Cabaret culture, sexual egalitarianism and great night-life. Some fictions even portray it as a City Noir setting. Interestingly a lot of the classic writers and directors of Film Noir — Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang — were Berliners during the '20s and many of them admitted in interviews that their films about the American underbelly were often inspired by their memories of '20s Berlin, which came very close to resembling the exaggerated City Noir landscape beloved in later fictions.
Fictions set in Berlin include:
- The only time Section 9 works with a foreign intelligence service in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, they help German military intelligence to track down an international terrorist in Berlin. Within the show, the city had been destroyed and rebuild a second time somewhere in the 2020s or 30s (apparently to look like a Bavarian village).
- Before the Storm, Theodor Fontane's first novel, and Der Stechlin, his last one, are set partly in Berlin, partly in the countryside of Brandenburg. And so are a number of Fontane's other works. The novellas L'Adultera, Schach von Wuthenow and Die Poggenpuhls for instance are predominantly set in Berlin.
- Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz and its radio play and movie adaptations.
- Emil and the Detectives and a few other books by Erich Kästner — e.g., Pünktchen und Anton and Fabian — are partially or entirely set in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of them were filmed more than once.
- The Good German (The Film of the Book as well). Set in Berlin and Potsdam just after World War II, before the division of Germany.
- Mephisto by Klaus Mann.
- Redfern Jon Barrett's Proud Pink Sky is set in an alternate Berlin that happens to also be the world's first gay state.
- Winter of the World.
- Aimée & Jaguar, the story of a lesbian romance between a Jew and a non-Jew during World War II.
- Atomic Blonde is an espionage/action thriller set in the city in 1989 during the last days of the Wall and the Cold War. With plenty of Europop hits on the soundtrack.
- The Bourne Supremacy.
- Fritz Lang's Doctor Mabuse trilogy — Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and its post-war sequel of sorts, Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse.
- Downfall. Set in the city in ruins during the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
- A Foreign Affair, a 1948 Billy Wilder comedy starring Jean Arthur as a U.S. Senator visiting post-war Berlin and Marlene Dietrich as a cabaret torch singer.
- Four Against the Bank was filmed there, with some recognizable landmarks.
- Good Bye, Lenin!!- the fall of East Germany.
- Grand Hotel and the book it is based on.
- Hanna. Filmed at the abandoned East German Amusement Park Spreepark, most notably.
- The Wim Wenders films Der Himmel über Berlin (aka Wings of Desire and The Sky over Berlin) and In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Faraway, So Close!).
- The Lives of Others is set in East Berlin in 1984. It's a fitting year, given the plot.
- Lola Rennt (a.k.a. Run Lola Run).
- Fritz Lang's M.
- Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three.
- Torn Curtain.
- Unknown (2011) starts with the protagonist attending a Berlin science conference, before losing his memory and no one remembering who he is.
- We Are the Night.
- Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, an experimental (silent) documentary film from 1927.
- Olympia, the official film of the 1936 Olympic Games, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
- Babylon Berlin is set in late 1920s Weimar-era Berlin, with all the expected vibrant colours, jazzy parties, and political extremism.
- Berlin Station, a spy drama series launched in 2016.
- Hallo aus Berlin: A late-90s educational series focusing on six teenagers talking about their lives in Berlin.
- The Flash Forwards in the Lost episode "The Economist" involve spies, murder, and intrigue in cold, gray Berlin.
- David Bowie's Berlin trilogy are three albums recorded entirely or partly in Berlin (particularly the famous "Hansa-by-the-Wall" studio) and breathing a very specific city atmosphere: Low, "Heroes", and Lodger (with Station to Station, recorded in Los Angeles but inspired in part by Bowie's European travels, serving as an "introduction" and/or a bridge to his previous, soul/funk-influenced work, Young Americans). The title track of Heroes specifically mentions the Berlin Wall. In Berlin it's almost seen as an anthem and Bowie even recorded German version of it.
- Lou Reed's Berlin is a concept album set in the city.
- Frank Zappa's album Burnt Weeny Sandwich has two instrumental tracks named Holiday in Berlin, which were based on an incident during a 1968 concert in Berlin where Zappa and his band were sieged on stage because they didn't want to take up the crowd's offer to cause try to create a revolution in the streets.
- Seeed's "Dickes B" is a love letter to their hometown.
- The works of Marc-Uwe Kling, who lives and works in Berlin, are usually set very firmly there.
- Battlefield 1942 has an Urban Warfare map recreating the taking of the city by the Red Army in April-May 1945.
- In Commandos 3: Destination Berlin, the finale mission of the Stalingrad arc has some of protagonists (who have been betrayed and captured during the previous mission) breaking out of a German prison located in Berlin to murder the turncoat who betrayed them and flee the area. The map allows to enter the Reichstag.
- Hitman 3, the third mission in the game is set around a nightclub and nuclear reactor in Berlin where Agent 47 hunts down ICA agents that were sent to kill him and Olivia Hall after the Constant ambushes Lucas Grey.
- The final level of the Alternate History game Iron Storm (about World War I continuing for decades) is set at the Reichstag, which has been converted into a personal residence of The Emperor of the Russo-Mongolian Empire, the Baron Ugenberg, as well as a major HQ for his forces.
- Secret Files: Tunguska starts the game off with Nina Kalkenkov, an average Russian woman, visiting her father, Vladimir, at his office in a Berlin museum.
- The Dragonfall campaign of Shadowrun Returns is entirely set in and around a Cyberpunk Berlin turned into an anarchist utopia known as "the Flux State".
- The Phineas and Ferb episode "Summer Belongs to You" shows three Berlin landmarks in the "Bouncing Around the World" sequence: The glass dome of the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and Alexanderplatz with the world clock and the television tower.