Berlin - Washington, 1800-2000: Capital Cities, Cultural Representation, and National Identities

Berlin - Washington, 1800-2000: Capital Cities, Cultural Representation, and National Identities

by Andreas Daum

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This collection provides a comparative cultural history of the urban spaces of Berlin and Washington.  See more details below


This collection provides a comparative cultural history of the urban spaces of Berlin and Washington.

Editorial Reviews

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"...the fascinating essays in this volume approach from multiple perspectives the question of how these cities attain symbolic importance in the performance of national identity.... With its thoroughly researched, original, and well-written contributions, the book models the rich insights that comparative cultural history, competently executed, can yield. It can be read with profit and pleasure by specialists and generalists alike, some of whom might be inspired to take a comparative look at the very real challenges faced by these cities today."
—Patricia Herminghouse, University of Rochester, German Quarterly Book Reviews

"...a valuable contribution that complements the extensive literature on Berlin and Washington, rounding off existing debates." -H-German, Daniela Sandler

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Cambridge University Press
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Publications of the German Historical Institute Series
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Berlin - Washington, 1800-2000
Cambridge University Press
0521841178 - Berlin - Washington, 1800-2000 - Capital cities, cultural representation, and national identities - by Andreas W. Daum and Christof Mauch


Cities as Capitals on a Global Scale

Capitals in Modern History

Inventing Urban Spaces for the Nation


Our world is organized in nation-states, roughly 190 as of this writing. Almost every nation-state is represented through a capital, and most capitals are cities.1 These cities are embedded in diverse indigenous settings, display very different physical shapes, and have distinct domestic and international reputations. Nuku'alofa (population 22,000), capital of the South Pacific archipelago of Tonga, and Cairo (population 8.1 million) belong to this group of cities, as do Berlin and Washington, D.C., which represent, respectively, one of Europe's largest nation-states and the world's only remaining superpower.2

What makes a city a capital? All capitals share the fact that they are privileged vis-à-vis other cities within the same political system. They represent the larger political entities surrounding them; since the early modern epoch, these entities have become successively nations and nation-states. Capitals are expected to perform specific functions for their nation-states. These functions allow a capital to act as a "multiple hinge": a capital mediates between its urban space, the surrounding society, and the nation no less than between the nation-state and the international world.3 Often, capitals also have a distinct social life and display a particular cultural dynamic that goes beyond predefined functions.

The essays in this volume deal with both the hinge role of capitals and their distinct dynamics by focusing on the relation between capital cities and nation-states. Berlin and Washington provide the empirical focus: two capitals that have long been disputed and reveal paradigmatically the plurality of capital meanings from the late eighteenth century to the present. The contributors to this volume explore the cultural and political roles that Berlin and Washington have performed through their urban shape and architecture, their social life and metaphorical meaning, and through the ideas that city planners, politicians, and visitors from abroad have formulated to define the character of these cities. In particular, the chapters address the question whether and how these two capital cities have served to articulate a national identity. The volume thus aims to provide new insights into the relationship between urban spaces, nation-states, and political ideas in the modern era.

This volume takes a broad, multidisciplinary view of Berlin and Washington. Themes range from Thomas Jefferson's ideas about the new capital of the United States to the creation of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, from nineteenth-century visitors to small-town Washington to the 1968 student protests in West Berlin. This thematic plurality goes hand-in-hand with methodological diversity. The contributors to this volume draw on literary semiotics and urban sociology as well as postmodern architectural theory and social history. The plurality of approaches signals a new interest in the study of capital cities, a field of research that is still in an incubation phase.

In this chapter, I will revisit the relevant literature, bring together dispersed empirical data, and provide some typological reflections that may provide categories for a comparative and transnational study of capitals in the modern era. I will apply these categories to Berlin and Washington and thereby offer an introduction to the succeeding chapters. My chapter, however, looks beyond the United States and Europe. I want to demonstrate that capitals are an "invented" and transitional phenomenon in modern history worldwide. Capital cities are neither "natural" products of nation-building processes nor do they have a fixed status. And a comparative view reveals surprising analogies between capitals on different continents.


Berlin and Washington are both relative newcomers in a history of urban development that stretches back to the third millennium B.C.4 Babylon, capital of the Assyrian Empire, has enjoyed an enduring presence in the memory of later cultures. Urban historians tend, however, to confine their view to Europe and North America; they often disregard Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These regions also knew capitals as ceremonial centers and sacral points of large territorial entities, even if these capitals were not built as cities or, in some instances, were not equipped with permanent dwellings.5 The legitimacy of these places was based on their role in representing a sacred meaning and, in some cases, on specific cosmological models.

Some European capitals, too, have encapsulated what has been called "high-level meanings"6 and have served as religious centers from antiquity on. Especially during the Renaissance, there were attempts, often religiously motivated, to design ideal cities that embodied utopian visions. Every urban detail, from the layout of parks to the facades of houses, derived from and was integrated in a grand scheme dominated by an all-encompassing ideology.7 Secularization did not prevent religious ideas from influencing the spatial organization of capital cities. The design of Washington, drafted in the 1790s, can be partly explained by the prevalence of ideas that defined the capital as a mirror of American civil religion and that reflected the national myth of the "city on a hill."8 Still, the main function of capital cities across the world since the fifteenth century has been to serve territorial states. From that point in time, we can identify five periods in which the number of new capitals increased substantially.9

The first period is the Renaissance: Copenhagen, Prague, Rome, Madrid, Moscow, Buda, and Warsaw became capitals in this era. While the seventeenth century saw the establishment of several new capital cities,10 a decisively new second period of capital-founding began in the late eighteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth century. A wave of nationalism resulted in the creation of nation-states in Europe and North America. The ideologies of nationalism were regionally different but they shared the belief that nations were political entities that were predestined in history and could be traced in endemic cultural traditions. The need to bring together political functions within a new territory merged with the search for a capital that expressed the seemingly distinct features of a nation and could therefore serve as a metaphor of the nation-state.11

If we include the capitals of semi-independent regions and states, the number of cities designated as capitals increased dramatically in the nineteenth century.12 Yet even in the age of nationalism the declaration of a capital did not always coincide with the founding of a nation-state. It took years for Berne, Rome, and Washington to officially become the capitals of Switzerland, Italy, and the United States. Capitals - like nation-states themselves - were the products of political machinations, ideological contestations, and personal ambitions: they were - and are - "invented."13 The "vision of an all-encompassing national capital" is a retrospective projection rather than a generic phenomenon.14 The development of national capitals in Europe was complemented by a wave of state- and capital-founding in Central and South America as European colonialism eroded.15 During the same period, the expansion of European colonial powers into Africa and Asia led to the establishment of new colonial capitals that replaced indigenous capital cities, as, for example, in Burma and Sri Lanka.

A third period began in the wake of World War Ⅰ. The Versailles Treaty and the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires triggered a territorial and political recomposition of Europe; new nation-states came into being, each of which designated a capital. Some of these cities were newly designated capitals; others had already performed central functions in their territories for decades or centuries.16 World War Ⅱ and the Cold War initiated a fourth period of capital foundations in Europe and, with decolonization and the proliferation of indigenous independence movements, in Africa and Asia as well. In 1945, Belgrade became the capital of Yugoslavia; in 1949, Bonn became the seat of the West German government. New Delhi, planned as a new administrative center in 1911, officially became the capital of independent India in 1947. Taipei assumed capital status in 1949 due to the split between the Taiwan-based Republic of China and the People's Republic of China on the mainland. The ideological-political rift of the Cold War led to the establishment of two capitals on the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam during the 1950s. From 1960 on, many newly created African states followed suit with the founding of their own capitals.17

The fifth period has produced the map of the world as we know it today. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the breakup of Yugoslavia, the political and geographic landscapes of Europe and Central Asia were remade by centrifugal forces. Capitals were established in the emerging nation-states; many of these cities had already served as political centers in earlier times.18 The one exception to the proliferation of capitals after 1991 was Germany. The united city of Berlin took over the capital functions that Bonn and East Berlin had performed for the "old" Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).19


We often take the existence of capitals for granted because they are inscribed on our mental map as geographic reference points and symbolic markers.20 But this picture becomes more complicated as we realize the heterogeneity and historicity of capitals. If a capital is defined as the central and economically most potent city in a given territory, many capitals - such as Berne, Washington, and Ankara - fall through the grid. Moreover, capital functions and meanings may change over time. Several cities have been displaced as capitals: Florence and Turin by Rome in the nineteenth century, Saint Petersburg by Moscow after World War Ⅰ, Saigon by Hanoi after the Vietnam War, and Bonn by Berlin in 1991, to give only a few examples. Capitals are not static even if the territories they represent remain stable (which is often not the case). Capitals are transitional phenomena in the longue durée of nation-states. They are always limited in the power to either represent or influence decision-making processes and cultural identities in their respective states.

These complications may in part explain the striking lack of systemic and comparative studies on the history of capitals. No doubt, we know much about vibrant cultural life of historic metropolises, above all in Europe and North America.21 But the specific roles of capitals have not received much attention either in the flourishing historical research on state formation, nation-building, and independence movements or in the disciplines of geography and urban studies.22 German historiography is a noticeable exception. In this case, academic interests reflect historical peculiarities in an intriguing way. Germany was not a unified nation-state until 1871. For centuries before then, a number of cities had shared capital functions. Political authority moved with itinerant rulers in medieval Germany. The Holy Roman Empire, which survived until 1806, had been a conglomerate of territories in which several cities had performed key political functions. It was a multicentered political body, an empire "without capital."23

Most of the successor states to the Holy Roman Empire - Austria was the major exception - joined in the founding of Imperial Germany under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck. The Prussian capital of Berlin was designated as capital of this first German nation-state largely because Prussia had dominated the unification process militarily and politically. At key moments in modern German history - the Revolution of 1848, the division of Germany after World War Ⅱ, the end of the Cold War - Berlin's status as the country's capital was contested, however, and other cities were put forward as alternatives. Germany was on its way to becoming an urban nation from the mid-nineteenth century on; but national imagery never focused on one single urban space.24 It therefore comes as no surprise that German historians have taken the vicissitudes and contestations of capitals as a particular stimulus to explore the history of these cities. Works on the topic have long titles such as "Hauptstadtfrage," "Hauptstadtproblem," and "Hauptstadtssuche": the theme of what constituted a capital and which city should serve as a capital was seen as a "question," a "problem," and a "search."25 In 1983, Theodor Schieder and Gerhard Brunn elevated research to a new height by introducing comparative questions in a collected volume, which recent works by Brunn, Jürgen Reulecke, Peter Alter, and others have built upon.26


The existing literature on capitals is marked in general by a pronounced Eurocentrism. Scholars of Latin America, Africa, Australia, and Asia have hardly embarked on the history of capitals. The attempt to define "world capitals" as a distinct category has remained an episode. A global and transnational view on capitals is therefore much needed.27 Here, however, two closely related challenges arise. The first is the trend in current politics to shift political authority from the nation-state to a supranational level. This process is most prominent in the case of the European Union. It entails both a weakening of traditional centers and a new centralization of power in supranational institutions such as the European Central Bank.28 Second, the development of supranational institutions and processes of globalization seem to be undermining nation-states as economic and political actors.29 Political, symbolic, and spatial order is now defined not by nation-states but rather by public- and private-sector global players such as quasi-governmental organizations (e.g., the International Monetary Fund), multinational corporations, and media. Consequently, capitals as representations of nation-states appear as remnants of a past epoch even if their local reality is heavily influenced by globalization processes.30

Many observers believe the classic functions of capital cities are no longer relevant in a globalizing age that relies on transnational communication and in which economic production and consumption are not confined to territorial states. The demands of globalization favor cities that can act as "informational cities": urban agglomerates that are able to manage the virtual reality of the banking industry and the services sector in "spaces of flow" on the basis of the availability of high-tech expertise.31 These cities may simultaneously be capitals, such as London and Tokyo, but, as the examples of New York and Los Angeles suggest, it is a secondary issue whether informational cities are also centers of governmental and political power.

© Cambridge University Press

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