Berlin stands out, unequivocally, as Germany’s cultural mecca. Berlin has been long the hangout of artists, posers, dropouts, bohemians, third and first-world immigrants and anybody else that just came along for the ride and never got off. Berliners may know their city won’t win any European beauty contests, but they have immense pride of place nonetheless.
As Klaus Wowereit, the then Governing Mayor of Berlin once said, “Berlin is poor, but sexy.” Berliners are the first to admit that their city is a little on the shabby side. If you want skyscrapers, clean streets, and financiers, go to Frankfurt. If you want medieval buildings and beer-maidens, go to Munich. For a good time, come to Berlin. Yet Berlin is also the seat of the German government, which lends a certain gravitas to this otherwise freewheeling metropolis.
It is true that Berlin has higher poverty and unemployment rates than any other large city in Germany. However, since reunification, Berlin has seen consistently impressive economic growth as the new capital reconnects with the rest of Germany and Europe. Over the last decade especially, the city has become a desirable place for Germans and non-Germans alike to live and work and a byword for “cool.”
Berlin was founded in the 13th century, but remained a town of little consequence until it became capital of the upstart Kingdom of Prussia, which went on to become the most important state within the Holy Roman Empire by the 18th century. Following the defeat of Napoleon by the Prussians (and their allies), Berlin became preeminent in Central Europe and industrialized rapidly, while at the same time undergoing a demographic explosion. As the capital of the newly consolidated German Empire, Berlin’s population was now measured in millions and anchored the German economy, military, imperial administration, and scholarly output. Berlin at the turn of the century was an optimistic, fast-paced place, with the world (all too literally) in its sights.
World War I devastated Germany but Berlin was relatively unscathed, and after the war, enjoyed a minor cultural renaissance. Berlin flourished as a hotbed of innovation in film, literature, and education. By the mid 1920s the economy had rebounded and the city was growing.
Following the boom times of the 1920s, Berlin, like the rest of the world, crashed hard. It was in a climate of widespread discontent that the Nazis took power in 1933 and began to fashion the city of Berlin into an authoritarian utopia.
During WWII, the combined effects of allied bombing and Soviet siege destroyed over a third of Berlin’s buildings. In the aftermath of all this destruction the city found itself divided in half, with each side following a distinct socioeconomic trajectory. By the 1960s the divide literally became concrete with the construction of a permanent wall.
Since reunification, with many new buildings going up on the margins all the time it is often impossible to tell which side you are on without looking at a map. Additionally, the modern demographics of Berlin are highly fluid: chances are you will find huge numbers of “Wessis” (westerners) taking advantage of the lower rents in the East, which now contains some of the most sought-after districts in the city while formerly posh Western districts languish in obscurity. As always in Berlin, change is the one constant.