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PREHISTORIC AND MEDIEVAL TIMES
Some 20,000 years ago, after the millennia of the glacial period, the ice and snow released its grip on northern Europe and withdrew to the Arctic ice cap. The melt water of the receding glaciers carved out valleys in the landscape, and as the earth warmed, settlers began to return to the lands from which their predecessors had been driven 40,000 years before by the southward march of the ice. The tundra with its hordes of reindeer gave way to a climate and vegetation which supported elk, boar and red deer in and around the glacial valleys, and by the ninth millennium BC stone-age man was leaving his mark on the environment. One such valley is that through which the River Spree flows today, meandering its unhurried way northwestward through the centre of Berlin to its junction with the Havel, thence onwards to the Elbe as it surges towards Hamburg and the North Sea.
Fragments of bone and primitive tools, such as flint axes and arrows, continue to be found in the Spree--Havel area and contribute to the picture of a people of hunters and gatherers. The marshy nature of the terrain also suggests the early development of fishing, while a stag mask discovered in the Berlin region in 1953 implies that, beyond their economic value, animals were invested with supernatural qualities which found expression in religious rituals.
In the course of the third millennium BC nomadic tribes moved into northern central Europe from the southeast, bringing with them an economy characterised not by primitive hunting and fishing but by the radical new operations of land cultivation and animal husbandry. A stronger sense of community developed. Huts of wattle and daub were built, cows, sheep, goats and pigs were kept, cereals, peas, beans and other leguminous plants cultivated, wool and flax woven for clothes in place of the skins worn in earlier ages.
Poor in raw materials, the Spree--Havel area came late to the knowledge of how to fuse metals and produce bronze. Likewise the succeeding iron age, dated among the Celts of southern central Europe from about 1000 BC, did not penetrate to the Germanic tribes of the Spree--Havel area until around 600 BC. Bronze fibulae and other decorative objects unearthed in the region show strong Celtic influence -- indeed, they may not be the work of Germanic craftsmen at all but direct imports from the Celtic lands to the south. The dawn of the Christian era brings the earliest historical records of Germanic tribes living in the flat, sandy plains to the east and north of the Elbe -- Caesar's commentaries on the Gallic War and Tacitus' Germania. These tribes were driven westwards in the course of the mass migrations between the third and fifth centuries, and their lands taken over by Slavs. In the area now occupied by Berlin and its surrounding villages two Slav tribes established themselves, the Hevelli and the Sprewanes, so called after the two rivers by which they settled.
Little is known about the culture of these tribes. They practised a basic agriculture -- cattle rearing, cultivation of the land, together with poultry- and bee-keeping -- but had no sense of ethnic political unity, and sparseness of population in a geographical region of remote access and scant natural resources hampered economic and social progress. Nevertheless they retained possession of these middle-Elbian territories through 500 years of fluctuating fortunes until finally conquered and Christianised by the Saxons.
In 922 the Saxon King Henry the Fowler captured the Hevelli capital of Brennibor -- later Brandenburg. Bishoprics were founded there and in Havelberg, at the junction of the Havel and the Elbe, in 948, and in Meissen and Magdeburg in 968. Sporadic revolts persisted but by the beginning of the twelfth century all substantial resistance had been crushed. Albrecht von Ballenstedt, a count of the Ascanian dynasty nicknamed the Bear, was personally enfeoffed with the territory by the Holy Roman Emperor Lothar III, and the whole area, roughly corresponding to the later province of Brandenburg, core of the state of Prussia, became German territory once and for all (Ill. 1). Symbolic of the role and status of the Slavs in the eyes of their Germanic colonisers is the designation of them in early Latin documents not as slavi but as sclavi -- an associative etymological equivalence akin to the modern use of the name `vandal' or the phrase `young Turk'.
Not that the Slavs have vanished without trace. Apart from the flourishing ethnic enclave of the Sorbs in Lusatia, southeast of Berlin, they have left their mark on the modern German vocabulary in loan-words which the colonisers found it convenient to adopt -- words like Grenze, `frontier', Kurschner, `furrier', originally `fur coat', and Dolmetsch(er), `interpreter'. Even more striking is the mass of place-names and proper names ending in the Slav suffixes -itz (Chemnitz, Wandlitz, personal names like Leibniz), -in (Berlin, Stettin, Schwerin) and -ow (Treptow, Machnow, Bulow). Leipzig and Dresden are Slav names, so, in a piquant irony, is Potsdam, symbol of Germany at its most determinedly Prussian.
Steadily extending their influence over a span of almost 200 years, the Ascanian Margraves of Brandenburg established a large and powerful principality. Its heartland was the Middle Mark, the region lying between the Elbe and the Oder, but it also reached out west of the Elbe into the Old Mark, with the towns of Stendal and Salzwedel, and eastwards into Polish territory beyond the Oder, almost as far as the Vistula (the New Mark).
That there was more to the Ascanians -- the name derives from Aschersleben, the family castle in the shadow of the Harz Mountains -- than a compulsive desire for territorial conquest can be seen in the person of Margrave Otto IV, who died in 1308. Given the sobriquet of `Otto with the Arrow', he figures among the distinguished Minnesinger whose work is preserved in the famous fourteenth-century collection of poems known as the Manesse manuscript. He may not be the greatest of medieval poets but the very fact that his poems were considered worthy of inclusion in this most prestigious of anthologies is its own testimony, and his contemporaries pay tribute to his virtues. An illuminated miniature in the manuscript depicts him playing chess with his lady.
There had been Slav towns -- fortified settlements dominated by the resident prince and his officials -- in the Mark Brandenburg before the German colonisers arrived. But now they were greatly enlarged beyond their primitive origins and each given the civic rights and privileges to enable it to develop manufacture, trade and other preconditions of economic prosperity. The surrounding soil was light and sandy, which later led the Mark Brandenburg to be scornfully dubbed `the sand pit of the Holy Roman Empire'. The only natural resource available in plenty was timber, used not only for houses but also for the boats that transported goods along the many natural waterways.
While economic progress in the medieval Mark Brandenburg was centred in the towns, the development of culture lay with the Christian monasteries. Despite the work of the Irish and English missionaries in the early eighth century, heathenism prevailed in the Frankish Empire until the time of Charles Martel (d. 741) and his grandson Charlemagne. After Charlemagne's final subjugation of the Saxons in 804 the whole of Germany became nominally Christian, with the power of the new Emperor and his new religion endorsed by the authority of the Papacy. This dualism of Church and state, expressed in the antithesis of spiritual power and temporal power, the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit, hung over political, religious and cultural life as it evolved through the Middle Ages.
The intellectual power-houses of the new religion and of the new culture that accompanied it were the monasteries. The greatest of these in the Mark Brandenburg was Lehnin, a Cistercian foundation some thirty miles west of Berlin, established in 1180, where no fewer than fourteen members of the Ascanian dynasty were buried (Ill. 2). Under the guidance of the brethren from their mother church in France, the Cistercians took over the new Gothic architecture of pointed arches and vaulting but built with bricks made from local clay and loam, rather than with the granite blocks scattered across the once glacial landscape. Known as Backsteingotik, `red-brick Gothic', this became the characteristic architectural style of medieval Brandenburg as far north as the Baltic coast.
Monasteries were also the educational establishments of the day, giving instruction in the Seven Liberal Arts and copying in their scriptoria not only Bible commentaries, sermons and other religious material but also the secular Latin texts used in the educational curricula. In the sphere of day-to-day living they introduced new techniques of drainage and irrigation which enabled fruit and vegetables to be cultivated where nothing had grown before, and also planted vines.
Unmistakable as the cultural achievements of the monasteries are, one cannot ignore the pragmatic community of interest that linked the men of God with the men who wielded the sword of subjugation and territorial aggrandisement. As Christianity confronted paganism, so Germans confronted Slavs. The more land accrued to the monasteries, the broader became the base for missionary activity. Pari passu the more extensive the Christian influence, the tighter the political grip of the colonisers.
The two worlds, the religious and the political, came together in that most characteristically medieval of organisations, the Order of Teutonic Knights, one of the several such militant bodies born of the Crusades. In 1226 the Knights, called to help in the forcible Christianisation of a Slav tribe called the Prussians, colonised not only the areas known up to 1945 as East and West Prussia but most of the territory now occupied by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Compared with the Ascanian, and subsequently Hohenzollern, occupation of Brandenburg, the extent of this territory was modest. But as the colonising forces coalesced and new alliances were forged, so the Knights bequeathed both to their German neighbours and to the subject Slavs a concept henceforth inseparable from public life in the successive German states that have inherited these lands -- the concept of a centralised political authority based on absolutist principles. The ideal of service was paramount, the corporate values of the authority exclusive. Moral duty was pursued with religious zeal. It was a combination of values enshrined at the heart of the public philosophy that was to sustain the composite state of Brandenburg-Prussia and its successors as they evolved over the coming years.
The Twin Towns: Berlin and Colln
For centuries before the arrival of the German colonisers the West Slav tribes of the Hevelli and Sprewanes had been sparsely settled in the area between the rivers Havel and Spree. The terrain is generally low-lying and marshy but north and south of the Spree two elevated areas rise which the successors of Albrecht the Bear, foraging from their principal base in the town of Brandenburg, occupied around 1230. Flowing gently northwestwards, the Spree was readily fordable at this point.
Two factors favoured the development of a settlement here. One was the convenience for movement and trade of the waterway system itself: the Spree joined the Havel at Spandau a few miles ahead; the Havel flowed into the Elbe; and the Elbe, one of Germany's great rivers, flowed 200 miles across the north German plain, past trading centres like Wittenberge, Luneburg and Hamburg, before draining into the North Sea. At the same time here was a convenient ferry-point on the west-east trade route from Magdeburg, on the Elbe, via Brandenburg, Spandau and Kopenick to the Oder crossing at Frankfurt. Other lines of communication ran north to Stettin and Danzig, south to Leipzig. It would also be useful to have a place where goods in transit could be transferred from river to road and vice versa. So the twin towns of Berlin and Colln came into existence, the former on the east bank of the Spree, the latter on the west.
But precisely when, we do not know. Both are assumed to have been granted civic status in the 1230s. The earliest known documentary evidence of the existence of Colln is a reference to a cleric `Symeon de Colonia', 1237; the same priest is mentioned as Probst (provost) of Berlin in 1244, and in 1247 a Schulz (bailiff) called Marsilius is also recorded as holding office in Berlin. All this suggests that Berlin and Colln were both established towns by this time with a degree of formal administration, founded as part of the Margraves' policy of urban settlement in the Mark Brandenburg.
However, Berlin must have been older than this. Incorporated in the fabric of the present Nikolaikirche are remains of the stone walls of a Romanesque basilica dating back to about 1220. Even more: this basilica was built over a former Christian cemetery from which remains of over seventy graves were uncovered during excavation work in the 1950s. Since these burials were spread over a number of years, and a building would hardly have been erected above a series of graves until a decent period had elapsed, the existence of a settlement here could be posited for as long ago as the late twelfth century. The specific appellation `town', however, does not occur until 1251, when, together with Spandau and Brandenburg, Berlin was granted freedom from tolls on its trade within the Mark Brandenburg as one of various urban privileges allowed by the feudal overlords.
Both Berlin and Colln are Slav names in Germanicised forms. Berlin is derived from an old Slav word meaning `sluice gate'. Collen (Kollen), `an island in a marshy area', would denote what people on the other side of the water saw. The eighteenth-century writer Friedrich Nicolai recorded that in his day the inhabitants used the definite article, das Berlin, when referring to their city. It would be nice to believe that the bear on the city's coat of arms gave his name to the place but that is unfortunately only a whimsical piece of folk etymology.
Much of the rising prosperity of the two marshy settlements derived from the right granted to them by the Margrave to raise tolls on goods transferred here from road to waterway. Iron goods, salt and wine came in from Thuringia and fish from the Baltic, while grain was sent to the north, with timber from the forests of the Mark. Buying up Flemish cloth tax-free for their own use, merchants developed a textile industry and exported their finished products. Unblessed by nature, Berlin built its economy on trade and commerce, on an instinct for how to capitalise on an imposed set of material circumstances. Not for nothing was the first church built in Berlin dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of traders and mariners.
On the east bank of the Spree, close to the crossing-point, grew up the `Olde Markt', later -- and still -- called the Molkenmarkt, with its associations of trade in cheese (Molken = `whey'). When the original ferry gave way to a bridge, a dam was built and water mills installed, adding another source of income to the rapidly developing town. The crossing thus came to be called the Muhlendamm, the name it has borne ever since. Growing independence and self-confidence also expressed themselves in the construction of a semicircular wall to enclose the town. Colln, on the other side of the Spree, later followed suit with its own surrounding defences. Remains of the Berlin town wall can still be seen, close to those of the former Franciscan monastery and to the site of the Hohes Haus, the residence built by the Margraves of Brandenburg for their use when they stayed in the town.
The Middle Ages
The `Olde Markt', heart of old Berlin, is dominated by the Nikolaikirche (Ill. 3), the oldest surviving building in the city. As it stands today, the church displays, largely in restored form, the various phases of its chequered history. The oldest part, going back to the stone basilica of the early thirteenth century, is the massive three-zone granite base at the west end on which the towers rest. This basilica gave way between 1260 and 1280 to a red-brick Gothic hall-church with a central nave and two aisles, for which in 1378 a new choir was begun; after many delays, caused inter alia by the great fire of 1380, which almost completely destroyed the town, the building was completed in 1470, with a single spire. It survived in this form until the late nineteenth century, when, as part of repair and restoration work, it was decided to raise a second spire to balance the first. This was the form in which the church was reconstructed in the 1980s after being bombed in 1944 and after the years of neglect that followed.
Today, its Gothic vaulting rebuilt and the interior redecorated in the bright colours that had adorned the building in medieval times, the Nikolaikirche is a museum devoted to the early history of Berlin and to the story of the church itself. Among its artistic treasures on display are fragments of fifteenth-century wall painting, funerary monuments going back to Reformation times and individual items of skilled craftsmanship associated with the church, such as fragments of old altar carvings and wrought-iron objects salvaged from the wartime destruction.
Perhaps a few decades older than the Nikolaikirche, also a piece of Backsteingotik, is the ruined Klosterkirche, the church of the brotherhood of Franciscan monks who established themselves here, close to the town wall, in 1249. The monastery buildings, which housed a famous grammar school from the time of the Reformation down to the Second World War, are no more. But the shell of the church, a mid-thirteenth-century basilica with a polygonal choir added a century later, survived the bombing of 1945. The nobility of the vaulting can now be appreciated only from pictures but the superb west arch and some window tracery are still in situ.
What the Nikolaikirche was to the `Olde Markt', the Marienkirche became for the `Nye (New) Markt', a second Centre of commercial activity which arose in the mid-thirteenth century half a mile or so further north. Begun around 1270 and completed early in the following century, the Marienkirche (Ill. 4) is among the most impressive surviving examples of red-brick Gothic. A building of striking dimensions, much of its fabric was destroyed in the town fire of 1380, then rebuilt on the foundation of the old hall-church, with various additions. The base of the west tower was built in the fifteenth century, and the elaborate neo-Gothic spire raised at the end of the eighteenth century by Carl Gotthard Langhans, architect of the Brandenburg Gate.
When the citizens of Berlin built their first church, they had invoked divine blessing by dedicating it to the patron saint of their activities as fishermen. Now they turned their eyes to the heart of the Christian religion and offered their second church to the Virgin Mary. In the same spirit they dedicated the nearby Heilig-Geist-Kapelle, a hospital chapel in red-brick Gothic still standing on the Spandauer Strasse, to the Holy Ghost.
The interior of the Marienkirche, cool and sober, dominated by its lofty fan and stellar vaulting, is rich in works of art -- paintings, carvings, funerary monuments. Among the oldest are an elaborate, beautifully executed gilt chalice in late-Romanesque style, set with precious stones, dating from around 1270 (Ill. 5), and a bronze font dated 1437 (Ill. 6). The well-to-do burghers of the town -- administrators, merchants, guildmasters -- served the churches well by commissioning such items, as well as votive memorials and altarpieces, from local artists and craftsmen. Members of the Blankenfelde family, for instance, an influential Berlin clan of financiers and civic dignitaries whose house stood in the shadow of the Marienkirche itself, are commemorated in a set of votive panels depicting the Crucifixion, with members of the family grouped round the foot of the cross (Ill. 7).
By far the most famous of the Marienkirche's treasures, however, are the frescoes of the Dance of Death. Covering a length of over twenty metres along two walls of the vestibule like a continuous frieze, the paintings depict a linked series of twenty-eight scenes. In each scene a member of a particular station in the society of the day, both clerical and secular, is being led by the figure of Death in a danse macabre; below each scene is a dialogue in rhymed couplets between Death and the figure in question -- not, as one might expect, in Latin but in Low German. On the pillar in the angle of the wall, dividing the clerical from the secular figures, is a fresco of the Crucifixion.
Painted in the wake of the plague of 1484, the frescoes are a public reminder of the transience of life, a visual parallel to the literary Dances of Death, half dialogue, half drama, that were performed at that period. Death was everywhere at hand. Memento mori -- repent while there is yet time. Nor is Death any respecter of persons: neither wealth nor learning call give protection or guarantee redemption, and all ranks are depicted here. This Dance of Death carries a social as well as a personal message (Ill. 8).
Although Colln developed more hesitantly than Berlin, in constitution and social structure as in matters of individual civic rights and the administration of justice, it had common interests with its larger partner and a shared history. Above all the two towns had joint concerns in matters of defence. Of both practical and symbolic importance, therefore, and a herald of future amalgamation, was their conclusion in 1307 of a defence pact to protect their borders against the marauding bands of disaffected gentry and others in the Mark Brandenburg, which the Margraves found it difficult to control.
As Berlin had first grown around the old Molkenmarkt, so Colln had its core in the Fischmarkt, a few hundred yards west of the Spree crossing, on the road leading to Teltow. And as Berlin had dedicated its first church to its traders, so Colln showing its own priorities, invoked St Peter, patron saint of fishermen. But of the various Petrikirchen erected here, down to the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic church which was largely destroyed in the street-fighting of 1945 and finally removed in the 1960s, nothing remains. Only the old name Petriplatz recalls the days when Colln's parish church stood here.
Also buried beneath twentieth-century concrete, close to the site of the first royal palace of 1443, is the monastery founded by the Dominicans in 1297. After the Reformation the monastery was dissolved and the monastery chapel turned into the first Berlin cathedral church.
In 1319 the line of Ascanian Margraves died out. From 1324 to 1373 the Mark Brandenburg was in the hands of the Bavarian family of the Wittelsbachs, and from 1373 to 1411 of the Luxemburgers. But these dynastic changes mattered little to the twin towns as they grew steadily in self-confidence
Symbolic of that confidence was the institution in 1397 of an historical record of the joint town council's official financial and legal dealings over the previous hundred years. This Stadtbuch, as it is called, is a fascinating document, both linguistically and in terms of the social history it embodies. As well as the text, in a distinctive Low German dialect, it contains two intercalated religious miniatures painted shortly before 1400. The work of an accomplished hand, in which Bohemian influence has been surmised, these are the earliest paintings known to have been done in Berlin (Ill. 9).
Even the devastating fires that destroyed most of the wooden houses of Colln in 1376 and in Berlin In 1380 were only temporary setbacks to the towns' advance. In the course of the fourteenth century they acquired a number of outlying villages, now familiar Berlin suburbs, like Reinickendorf, Stralau and Pankow. By 1400 they had a combined population of between 6,000 and 8,000. This left Brandenburg, Spandau, Stendal and other rivals well behind. From 1369 they issued their own coinage.
By the dawn of the fifteenth century the signs were, despite internal frictions between the classes -- patricians, guilds, plebeians -- of a gradual consolidation of autonomy within the two towns and a consequent burgeoning of local pride, education and cultural life. A certain stability also seemed to be heralded by the installation in 1411, at the behest of the Emperor Sigismund, of Friedrich von Nurnberg, scion of the house of Hohenzollern, as ruling prince. A few years later, after beating off attacks on his authority by freebooters and rival factions, Friedrich was rewarded by the Emperor. He was invested with the Mark Brandenburg as his fief and granted the hereditary title of elector. Brandenburg-Prussia was to remain in Hohenzollern hands for 500 years, until its disappearance from the map of Europe in 1918. But it was a stability on the rulers' terms. Berlin and Colln concluded their formal union in 1432. They had yet to learn that their territorial master saw them, not as independent bodies within his lands, but as the future capital of his unified kingdom.
|I||Prehistoric and Medieval Times||1|
|II||The Age of the Reformation||14|
|III||The Consolidation of Prussia||29|
|IV||The Age of Enlightenment||55|
|VI||Realism and Revolution||114|
|VII||The Self-Assurance of Empire||153|
|VIII||The Years of the Weimar Republic||210|