Berlin is the largest city and capital of Germany. The city grew up around the River Spree on the flatlands of the North German Plain. Today, Berlin is one of Europe’s most important political and cultural centres, with a population of 3,387,800.
GROWING INTO A CAPITAL
The original settlement was founded around 1230 on an island in the river. Today this is to the east of the city and is called Museum Island, since it is the site of five important museum buildings. By the 15th century the people of the growing town were known for making leather, textiles and paper.
In 1701 Frederick I changed the German state of Brandenburg, including Berlin, into the kingdom of Prussia. The new king made Berlin his royal capital and it soon gained many public buildings. Before the end of the 18th century, Berlin’s population had grown to 150,000.
In 1871 Berlin became the capital of the united German Empire and grew into a major industrial centre. Its factories specialized in machinery, electrical goods and textiles. Many thousands of workers were attracted to the capital to find employment, and by 1920 the city had more than 3.8 million inhabitants (more than it has now). This was a vast world city at that time.
THE BRANDENBURG GATE
One of Berlin’s most famous boulevards is called Unter den Linden (“under the limes”), because it was first planted with lime trees in the 17th century. It runs from Museum Island to the Brandenburg Gate, which was completed as a triumphal arch and city gate in 1791. It is seen as a symbol of Berlin and sometimes of Germany.
There are other famous buildings on or near Unter den Linden, which attract many visitors to the city today. They include the State Opera House (built in 1743), the State Library (1780) and the Humboldt University. This was founded in 1809 by the scholar and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was a distinguished Berliner (citizen of Berlin).
RUINED AND DIVIDED CITY
Large parts of Berlin were destroyed during World War II. Before the war, the population was about 4.4 million; afterwards, it was only 2.8 million. The capital of defeated Germany was divided into separate zones, and eventually it was split in half. East Berlin remained the capital of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), while West Berlin became part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), even though it was entirely surrounded by East Germany.
In 1961 the East Germans put up a high wall, so that their citizens could not move to the west. The Berlin Wall stayed up until 1989, when Communism collapsed and people started to knock it down. Berlin became a single, undivided city again, and Germany reunified in 1990.
Many destroyed buildings were rebuilt during the second half of the 20th century. Since the city reunited, this process has been speeded up. A new business district has sprung up around Potsdamerplatz. The former parliament building, called the Reichstag, has been restored and transformed into a meeting hall suitable for the modern government of Germany. Berlin is once again an exciting, growing city.