The European City in History

 Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-century Berlin

Since 1870, when Berlin had changed from the rather small, sober, and by no means rich capital of the Kingdom of Prussia into the seat of the German Emperor, the homely town on the Spree had taken a mighty upswing. . . .  The large concerns and the wealthy families moved to Berlin, and new wealth, paired with a strong sense of daring, opened to the theater and to architecture greater opportunities than in any other large German city. . . .  [It was a] period of its transition from mere capital to world city. . . . [Stefan Zweig on early 20th century Berlin]
Kaiser Wilhelm II on the contrast between Paris and Berlin in 1892 and on the possibility of holding the World's Fair of 1900 in Berlin:
The glory of the Parisians robs the Berliners of their sleep.  Paris is the great whorehouse of the world; therein lies its attraction independent of any exhibition.  There is nothing in Berlin that can captivate the foreigner, except a few museums, castles, and soldiers.  After six days, the red [guide-] book in hand, he has seen everything, and he departs relieved, feeling that he has done his duty.  The Berliner does not see things clearly, and he would be very upset of he were told about them.  However, this is the real obstacle to an exhibition.  [Masur, Imperial Berlin, 125-126.

The history of Berlin goes back to the mid-15th century; an early Hohenzollern then chose it as the capital of the Mark of Brandenburg; it then consisted of two trading settlements on the banks of the Spree, Berlin and Kölln, and a castle that provided protection against rebel barons and an outpost against the Slavs; seriously damaged during the Thirty Years War, and its population droped to about 7,500; revival came during the reign of the Great Elector, Frederick William I (1640-1688).

The Great Elector made Berlin the fortified garrison center of the growing state of Prussia.  Prussia had a large standing army; an efficient bureaucracy; adequate revenue; a docile peasantry; and a thriving industrial base, the latter the work of French Calvinist refugees and Dutch immigrants.  Manufacturing emphasized gold and silver, porcelain, iron and steel, foundries and gunpowder.  After the Prussian monarchy was established in 1701 when Frederick III was crowned, Berlin served both as a center for the royal court and as a capital.  It grew further under King Frederick William I (1713-1740) and Frederick the Great (1740-1786).  In 1700, the population was 29,000 and in 1800, it was 172,000.  As a city, it lagged far behind Paris or London.

Both King Frederick William I (1713-1740) and Frederick the Great (1740-1786) left their imprint on the topography of Berlin.  The Great Elector's wife laid out Unter den Linden, which ran from the palace where the Hohenzollerns resided from 1470 to 1918 to the Tiergarten.  Frederick I added a baroque façade designed by Andreas Schlüter (17??-17??) to this palace, which was destroyed after World War II.  And Frederick the Great created a great eighteenth-century square, the Forum Fredericianum.  On one side was the classical façade of his brother's palace, which became the University of Berlin.  Facing it was the new opera house, the domed Catholic cathedral, and the façade of the royal library.  And in 1788-1791, the Brandenburg Gate was erected at the western end of Unter den Linden.

This gate represents the classical revival was to dominate Berlin architecture throughout the nineteenth century.  Its architects envisioned a city as a synthesis of classical Athens and Imperial Rome, one that would symbolize the spirit (Geist) of the former and the power (Macht) of the latter.  The neo-classical Brandenburger Tor, the only remaining town gate of Berlin, at the western end of the avenue Unter den Linden. It was built by Carl G. Langhans after the model of the Propylaea in Athens.  As Berlin’s arch of triumph, it was surmounted by the famous “Quadriga of Victory,” a statue of a chariot drawn by four horses.  [The entire structure was heavily damaged during World War II.  In 1957-58 the gate was restored and the statue recast from the original molds.  From 1961 to 1989 the Berlin Wall shut off access to the gate to both eastern and western Germans. The gate was reopened on Dec. 22, 1989, in the course of the reunification of East and West Berlin.]  Other notable buildings were erected by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (b. March 13, 1781, near Brandenburg, Brandenburg--d. Oct. 9, 1841, Berlin), who was appointed state architect of Prussia in 1815.  Schinkel executed many commissions for King Frederick William III and other members of the royal family.  His designs were based on the revival of various historical styles of architecture; e.g., Greek Revival buildings such as the Königschauspelhaus, Berlin (1818), and the Altes Museum, Berlin (1822-30).  His designs for a mausoleum for Louise (1810) and the brick and terra-cotta Werdersche Kirche, Berlin (1821-30), are among the earliest Gothic Revival designs in Europe.  Schinkel's Neue Wache [guardhouse] had a Parthenon-like portico which opened into a square Roman fortress.  Schinkel's Old Museum was a long basilica with a façade of Ionic columns.  Also developed was the Museum Island, conceived of as “a sanctuary of Art and Learning”.

After the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806 and Germany was reorganized, Berlin became, along with Vienna, one of the most important cities in the German Confederation.  During the early 19th century, Berlin also began to develop as an industrial and transportation center; it was linked by a system of paved roads, by rivers (the Elbe and the Oder) and canals, and by railways to other parts of Germany and Europe.  Hence a railway industry grew up in Berlin, along with a machinery industry, a munitions industry, and a chemical industry.  Also significant was the textile industry, associated with the manufacture of uniforms, but it was located away from the city center.  Between 1850 and 1871, when the Industrial Revolution truly reached eastern Germany, there also developed the electrical industry associated with the Siemens companies.  Financial institutions like banks erected in Berlin, including the Deutsche Bank, the Diskonto Gesellschaft, the Dresdener Bank, and the Darmstädter Bank.

These developments not withstanding, Berlin did not greatly develop before Germany was unified under Prussian leadership in 1870 and 1871.  Indeed, as late as 1848, its population was only 400,000.  But the new Germany needed a capital.  As the nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke proclaimed: “No great nation can endure for long without a center where its political, intellectual, and material life in concentrated, and its people can feel united.”  And, once Berlin became the political capital, it also became the financial and commercial center.  Berlin's development as an intellectual and cultural leader was less dramatic.  Humboldt University dates from the early 19th century, and the Technical University was founded only in 1879.  Other cultural institutions developed, like the theater, museums, the periodical press, and etc.  But older cultural centers remained undiminished.  Hence, in the cultural and intellectual sphere, Germany retained the traditional German multi-polarity.

The growth of Berlin following German unification is easy to document.  The 1816 population was 197,000; in 1849, it was 424,000; in 1871, it was 826,000;  in 1900, it was 1,889,000; and in 1910, it was 2,071,000.  If the population of Greater Berlin is considered (Berlin and its suburbs), the growth is from 932,000 in 1871 to 2,712,000 in 1900 to 3,734 in 1910.  Most of the population growth, like that of London and Paris, was the result of in-migration.

Early efforts to develop Berlin were made in the 1860s.  A city wall was demolished, enabling Berlin to swallow a number of outlying villages.  Existing boulevards were used as axes of future development, including the Kurfürstendamm and the Charlottenburgerstrasse.  Also important was a complex of canals and railroads.  Berlin's railwaystations were originally unconnected; after 1871, they were linked by a belt railway.  There was also a Stadtbahn, an omnibus system after 1846, and a system of horse-drawn trams.  Nevertheless, as late as 1890, and Berlin lacked a genuine mass-transit system.  By 1900, it did.  Fares are urban transport were standardized, the trams were electrified, the busses were motorized, and the first section of the underground was opened in 1902.  But coordination was still limited, for much of the urban transport system was in private hands.

By 1890, Berlin had developed the basic characteristics of a metropolis.  It was the third largest city in Europe; it was the capital of the new German Empire; it was the most important industrial center in central and eastern Germany; it was a crossroads for the railway system and domestic navigation; it was a business and banking center; and its was an important cultural and intellectual capital.  Accordingly, the Berlin Executive Council (Magistrat) could boast:  "With a speed unprecedented in Europe, our community has burst its bound as a modest princely seat with an almost all-pervasive small-town character, and has suddenly become a world city which is an equal of the million-people cities which have traditionally been the focus of great events." [Matzerath, Berlin, 1890-1940]

New buildings were strikingly few.  They included the Reichstag (1894); the Victory Column and the Victory Avenue, with its thirty-two statues of famous Hohenzollerns; the cathedral; and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, now a ruin and a reminder of the destruction of Berlin during the Second World War.  Such buildings mirror William II's less than enlightened cultural views.  At the dedication of the Hohenzollern statues just mentioned, he said

To us, the German people, ideals have become permanent possessions, whereas among other peoples they have been more or less lost.  Only the German nation is left, and we are called to preserve, cultivate and continue these great ideals, and among those ideals is the duty to offer to the toiling classes the possibility of elevating themselves to the beautiful and of raising themselves above their ordinary thoughts.  If art, as so frequently happens now, does nothing more than paint misery more ugly than it is, it sins against the German people." [Masur, Imperial Berlin, 211]
Other changes to the topography of Berlin resulted from rapid commercial and economic expansion after 1871.  Vast working class slums developed, particularly north of the Spree in the Moabit District and then in the countryside to the north and the east.  Housing erected to deal with the influx of people were called Mietkasernen (rental barracks); these were four to five-story apartment houses arranged around a courtyard.  The aristocracy only came to Berlin for court functions.  The middle classes were divided between the Bildungsbürgertum (the university professors and civil servants) and the Besitzbürgertum, the propertied middle class.  The former lived near the Tiergarten, the latter in suburbs like Grunewald.  Businessmen lived a great apartment houses near the Kurfürstendamm.  Important were the development of suburbs.  Some became independent towns, like Schöneberg (1898), Roxdorf/Neukölln (1899), Wilmersdorf (1906), and Lichtenberg (1927).  Affluent suburbs were Charlottenberg and Grunewald.  Industry also moved out of the city center to the suburbs.  After World War I, the concept of the garden suburb was very influential

Berlin also enjoyed a remarkable cultural outburst, even though the Kaiser had pedestrian taste and opposed modern movements.  In music, Richard Wagner dominated, and he used Nordic mythology and German history in many of his operas, including the Ring cycle and Die Meistersingers (1870).  In drama, plays like Gerhardt Hauptman's The Weavers protested against the poor treatment of weavers in Silesia.  Expressionist painters and poets depicted the anguish many felt in confronting modern urban society.  Georg Heym's The War (1912) anticipated World War I.

  Resurrected is he from ancient sleep.
  Risen once more from the vaulted deep,
  Tall and unknown in the twilight he stands
  And he pulps the moon in his two black hands.

  For through the cities, evening noises wade
  The stranger's dark presence and his frosty shade-
  And all the whirling markets stiffen to ice.
  All’s quiet.  Each looks around and no man knows. . . .

  A city went under in that yellow smoke
  Jumped into the abyss and never spoke . . .
  But giant-like above the glowing ruins
  He stands who trice his bright torch turns

  Above the ragged clouds’ storm-scattered light
  Towards the icy wilderness of the night
  And sets the darkness blazing like a witch
  Above Gomorrah’s sea of burning pitch.

Other contributions to Berlin's intellectual and cultural life came from the University of Berlin.  In Physics, it had Max Planck and Albert Einstein; in Economics, it had Werner Sombart, a critic of capitalism; in philosophy, it had Wilhelm Dilthey; and in History, it had Leopold von Ranke, Heinrich von Treitschke.  Most celebrated culture and its relationship to the new German state.  During World War I, the legal historian Otto von Gierke wrote in The German Folk Spirit in the War: “If we achieve our war aims, the triumph of our arms will bring about the triumph of the truth.  For in world history, success utters the decisive word.  Even those formerly incapable of being taught will now realize that success in war is not an accident, but rather the outcome of eternal laws, in which God’s rule reveals itself.”

Also evident in Berlin was the military.  Henry Vizetelly [Berlin Under the New Empire (1879)] wrote:  "Berlin swarms with soldiers.  Perhaps no other capital in Europe presents such a military aspect.  Regiments sallying forth in spick and span brightness, or returning to barracks half-smothered in the dust or bespattered by the mud picked up during the morning's manoeuvres, orderlies mounted or on foot hurrying to and fro between the different ministries and public offices, squads in charge of waggons."  This presence of the military reflected the values of the Hohenzollerns.  William II: "The only nations which have progresses and become great have been warring nations.  Those which have not been ambitious and gone to war have been nothing."  Barracks were on the outskirts of the city, leading to the saying that in northern Germany there were barracks and arsenals in stead of cathedrals.  Also in Berlin was the Central Cadet School, which trained 1/3 of the officers in the Prussian Army, the United Artillery and Engineer School, and the War Academy.  Most important of the military buildings was the complex near the Königsplatz, the headquarters after 1871 of the General Staff, from which issued, for example, in 1905 the infamous Schlieffen Plan.

This Berlin of the Kaisers survived World War I intact, for there was virtually no fighting during this war on German soil.  And the city was but little damaged during the period of political instability that characterized the early years of the Weimar period (1919-1933).  Characteristic of Weimar Berlin was a culture of radical experimentation and political protest in all the arts.  But few innovations occurred.  Instead, the implications of trends evident before the war were experimented with.  Thus Alban Berg blended serial music and expressionist drama in the opera Wozzeck.  Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill used jazz music in The Threepenny Opera.  Walter Gropius experimented with architecture, developing the functionalist Bauhaus style. In film, an atmosphere of fear and horror was evoked by calculated distortion in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  And visual artists used the expressionist style to protest against German militarism, bourgeois society, and the alienation brought on by modern urban life.

Hitler and the Nazis initially had little impact on the topography of Berlin.  In February 1933, the Reichstag burned; an event which Hitler used to force passage of the Enabling Act.  The Enabling Act permitted Hitler to rule by decree, thus giving a veneer of legality of the Nazi Regime.  Hitler's plans for the rebuilding of Berlin were noting short of grandiose and typical of the totalitarian imagination.  He never liked Berlin, a city which did not vote for the Nazis and one he often characterized as un-German because of the preponderance of classical-style architecture; he championed instead Nürnburg's late medieval style, one reason the Nazi Party rallies were held there.  Hitler's schemes for Berlin were influenced by Baron Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris; he thought of triumphal arches larger than that in Paris; a grand avenue bigger than the Champs Elysées, and a statue larger than the statue of liberty.  In speaking of Berlin, Hitler actually echosed Kaiser Wilhelm, who was quoted earlier.  "Berlin, he said,

is a big city, but not a real metropolis.  Look at Paris, the most beautiful city in the world.  Or even Vienna.  Those are cities with a grand style.  Berlin is nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings.  We must surpass Paris and Vienna.
Hitler imagined a Berlin with a three-mile long avenue, framed at one with a great domed hall several times the size of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome and a 400-foot high triumphal arch at the other end.  Next to the dome would be Adolf Hitler Platz, around which were to be grouped the key government buildings of the Third Reich:  a new chancellery, the Army High Command, and the Reichstag.  These plans were never realized.  But Hitler played with models of a new Berlin in the underground bunker as allied bombers and Russian troops destroyed the Berlin of the Hohenzollerns.  It is only with some effort of imagination today that one can see Imperial Berlin in the few buildings that survived the war.


Mander, John. Berlin: The Eagle and the Bear, 1959.

Masur, Gerhard. Imperial Berlin. New York: Dorset Press; reprt of 1970 ed. published by Basic Books, 1989.

Matzerath, Horst. "Berlin, 1890-1940," Metropolis, 1890-1940. Ed. By Anthony Sutcliffe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984: 289-318.

Willis, F. Roy. "The Berlin of the Kaisers," Western Civilization. 4th ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1985: 317-369.

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown

Last Update: 2 May 2002