Berlinby David Clay Large
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In the political history of the past century, no city has played a more prominent-though often disastrous-role than Berlin. At the same time, Berlin has also been a dynamic center of artistic and intellectual innovation. If Paris was the "Capital of the Nineteenth Century," Berlin was to become the signature city for the next hundred years. Once a symbol of modernity, in the Thirties it became associated with injustice and the abuse of power. After 1945, it became the iconic City of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has again come to represent humanity's aspirations for a new beginning, tempered by caution deriving from the traumas of the recent past. David Clay Large's definitive history of Berlin is framed by the two German unifications of 1871 and 1990. Between these two events several themes run like a thread through the city's history: a persistent inferiority complex; a distrust among many ordinary Germans, and the national leadership of the "unloved city's" electric atmosphere, fast tempo, and tradition of unruliness; its status as a magnet for immigrants, artists, intellectuals, and the young; the opening up of social, economic, and ethnic divisions as sharp as the one created by the Wall.
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The city wall of Berlin is falling victim
to the metropolitan spirit.
Berlin Wird Weltstadt (1868)
When Germany became unified in 1871 following the defeat of France by a Prussian-led coalition of German states, Berlin was transformed from a provincial royal seat into the capital of one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Like the new German nation itself, however, the capital at that point was a work in progress, a far cry from the vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis it would eventually become. As Lord Frederick Hamilton, a young diplomat in Britain's Berlin Embassy, snootily observed: "The Berlin of the 'seventies' was still in a state of transition. The well-built, prim, dull, and somewhat provincial Residenz was endeavoring with feverish energy to transform itself into a world city, a Weltstadt." Even some Berliners were doubtful that their rough-edged city had leaped into the ranks of the great European capitals. "Oh Berlin, how far you are from being a true capital," opined the novelist Theodor Fontane. "You have become a capital overnight through political fortuitousness, not through your own devices."
In the course of trying to reinvent itself for its new role, Berlin changed so rapidly that it became difficult to define the essence of the place. Within twenty years, old timers were complaining that they couldn't recognize their town. Yet it was during the great flux following German unification that the leitmotivs that would dominate Berlin'shistory for the next hundred and thirty years were firmly laid down. Berlin's frantic attempt to catch up with its older and more polished European rivals; its provocation of resentment and envy on the part of Germans from other parts of the country, especially the south and west; its tension-filled relationship with the rulers who governed Prussia and the Reich; its complicated mixture of novelty-worship and nostalgia for a lost, quieter eraall these trends were evident in the nineteen-year period during which Count Otto yon Bismarck ran the newly unified German Reich from Europe's newest capital.
Berlin en Fête
Germany celebrated its emergence as a unified nation with the largest military parade ever seen in Berlin, a city which over the years had witnessed more than its share of martial displays. On June 16, 1871, a brilliantly clear Sunday, 40,000 soldiers paraded from the Tempelhof Field via the Halle and Brandenburg Gates to the Royal Palace on Unter den Linden. All wore iron crosses on their tunics and many had victory wreaths slung over their shoulders. A contingent of noncommissioned officers bore eighty-one captured French battle flags, some of them in tatters. "The troops looked superb," enthused Baroness von Spitzemberg, the wife of Württemberg's representative in Berlin, "so manly, suntanned, bearded, their traditional Prussian stiffness loosened by the atmosphere of the parade; they were a lovely sight for a patriotic heart."
At the head of the long column rode eighty-seven-year-old Field Marshal Friedrich von Wrangel, a hero of past Prussian victories who had been resurrected from retirement to lead the parade. He was followed by General Albrecht von Roon and Helmuth von Moltke, the latter carrying the field marshal's baton he had just been awarded for his recent victories over France. According to one witness, the grim-faced field marshal looked as though he were planning a new campaign rather than accepting tribute for a war just won. Next to Moltke rode the true genius behind the wars of German unification, Bismarck, who in reward for his services had been made a prince, a title he claimed to disdain. Behind Bismarck and the generals came Germany's new kaiser, William I, his erect posture belying his seventy-four years. "The wonderful old man must have larger-than-life strength to endure the external rigors and inner turmoil so calmly," exulted an awed observer.
The conditions that day were indeed difficult: it was so hot and humid that several riders suffered heatstrokes and fell from their horses. But the heat apparently did not bother the kaiser's grandson, twelve-year-old Wilhelm, who, despite a withered left arm, stayed on his mount throughout the ordeal. Haughtily, he refused to acknowledge a well-wisher in the crowd who addressed him as "Wilhelmkin." "He will never forget this day," said Wilhelm I of the boy who would later rule Germany as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In accordance with the epochal significance of the occasion, Berlin was decked out as never before in its history. "The via triumphalis was about three miles long, through streets as wide and in some cases thrice as wide as Broadway," wrote the American minister George Bancroft. All along the route stood captured French cannon and flagstaffs festooned with oak leaves and evergreens. At important way stations rose enormous allegorical figures made of wood, linen, and straw. A twenty-meter-high statue of Berolina, patron goddess of Berlin, graced the Halle Gate, while two huge female figures, representing the newly acquired cities of Strasbourg and Metz, presided over the Potsdamer Platz. In the Lustgarten next to the Royal Palace loomed an even larger statue: Mutter Germania, flanked by her youngest daughters, Alsace and Lorraine. A velarium suspended over Unter den Linden depicted the great military victories that had finally brought Germany its unity.
Upon reaching their destination at the Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate, the kaiser and his retinue stood under a canopy while dignitaries from the city of Berlin paid their respects and a maiden in white recited an interminable poem. Princess Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria and the wife of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany, had deep reservations about this new Reich born of blood and iron, but even she could not contain her admiration for the victory parade, declaring it "the greatest fête Berlin, and I may say Germany, has ever seen."
Such pomp did not come cheaply. The celebration cost more than 450,000 talers, which had to be raised through a surcharge on all income taxes levied in Berlin. Few Berliners complained, however, for the festivities offered ample opportunity to recoup the tax. Restaurants and taverns added extra tables and dispensed a "Commemoration Beer," which, though the same as the regular beer, cost a few pennies more because of its historical significance. Street vendors hawked a "War and Victory Chronicle 1870-71," along with guides to Berlin's nightlife, tickets to tours of the city, coats of arms of famous generals, regimental flags, and fragrant laurel wreaths.
Vantage points from which to watch the proceedings in comfort were in great demand. Merchants with houses or shops along the route rented out viewing space for breathtaking sums. One enterprising store owner on Unter den Linden installed ten "comfortable chairs" in his window "with an unobstructed view of the Pariser Platz." Thousands brought camp-stools to the street or perched atop trees, lampposts, and monuments. "No roof was too high, no stool too low that was not occupied by people," wrote the Vossische Zeitung. "There was not even any empty space atop the dizzying heights of the Brandenburg Gate.... The men and women up there sought to outdo each other with daring poses, all of them showing a contempt for death that was truly astounding."
This moment, with all its bombast and swagger, can be seen as deeply symbolic of Bismarckian Germany and its raw new capital. Apart from its dominant military motif, the triumphal celebration resembled nothing so much as a housewarming party thrown by a newly rich sausage baron upon taking possession of his neo-Renaissance mansion. In subsequent decades the prevailing mood in Berlin would not remain uniformly celebratory, but the city's self-conscious determination to display its prowess and to show the world that it had arrived as a great capital remained constant.
The Unloved Capital
Tumultuous as the unification festivities were, they masked disappointment in some quarters that Berlin had become the capital of the new Reich. Given Prussia's crucial role in German unification, Berlin's elevation was no doubt inevitable, but it hardly came without opposition. Wilhelm I would have preferred nearby Potsdam, seat of the Royal Guards and favored residence of Prussia's greatest king, Frederick the Great. Wilhelm had fled Berlin in 1848 to escape the local radicals (see Introduction), and he continued to see the place as potentially unruly and rebellious. Wilhelm's son, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, known for his liberal inclinations, favored Frankfurt, site of the 1848 parliament that sought unsuccessfully to unify Germany from below. Bismarck quickly quashed objections within the ruling family to Berlin's becoming the German capital by promising that the city's elevation to that status would help ensure Prussian domination of national life.
Yet this Prussian angle was precisely why many Germans in other parts of the country were deeply unhappy with the selection. They resented Prussian power and saw Berlin as a bullying behemoth determined to overwhelm the rights and prerogatives retained by the individual states in the new imperial constitution. That document represented a tortuous compromise between Prussian-based centralism and the particularistic ambitions of semisovereign entities like Saxony and Bavaria. The fact that the national capital was simultaneously the Prussian capital threatened to tip the balance in favor of the centralizers. Many of the smaller states would have preferred Frankfurt, Leipzig, or even little Erfurt. Non-Prussian Germans also objected to Berlin's eastern orientation, decrying it as the "capital of East Elbia," a colonial frontier city on the edges of the Slavic wilderness. The residents of ancient western German cities like Cologne, Aachen, and Trier, which had known the fruits of Roman civilization, fretted about being under the thumb of a city that had been nothing but a bump on the Brandenburg Steppes when these older towns were building cathedrals and hosting lively medieval cultures. Anti-Berlin sentiment was equally strong in the south, especially in Bavaria, whose largely Catholic citizenry saw the Prussian metropolis as a dangerous repository of alien Protestantism.
Concerns about Berlin's new status surfaced even in the imperial capital itself. Municipal officials, whose powers had long been limited by the Prussian governmentmayors, judges, and police chiefs all had to approved by the kingwould now be subject to yet another higher authority. Berlin's assumption of the capital function made it seem dangerously powerful to non-Berliners, but in reality the municipal government had little authority of its own. The powers of the city assembly, magistrate, and mayor's office were all closely circumscribed by the imperial administration and the authorities of the state of Brandenburg, headquartered in Potsdam. It would be years before local officials even gained control over their own streets and utilities. A determination on the part of Prussian and Reich officials to keep the city politically weak underlay repeated refusals throughout the imperial era to allow Berlin to merge the various suburbs around the historic core into one administrative entity.
Prussian patriots, meanwhile, were concerned that traditional values and customs would be swept aside as the new capital was invaded by alien elements from other parts of Germany and Europe. They worried that their town would become unrecognizable as a result of the demographic and economic changes accompanying Berlin's assumption of imperial-capital status. This view was poignantly illustrated in a popular novel of the day, Ludovica Hesekiel's Von Brandenburg zu Bismarck (1873), which lamented the passing of a humble and harmonious "Old Berlin" in the rush to imperial greatness. Having seen her neighborhood around the Wilhelmstrasse totally transformed by national unity, the protagonist, an aging Prussian grande dame, protests: "[My heart] is sick. Let me go home now; the new German sun that is rising into the sky would only blind this old Prussian lady." To Theodor Fontane, who loved Old Prussia, if not necessarily Old Berlin, the capital was becoming just another place in which to get ahead fast. "What does it mean to live in Berlin except to make a career?" he asked in 1884. "The large city has no time for thinking, and, what is worse, it has no time for happiness. What it creates a hundred times over is the 'Hunt for Happiness,' which actually is the same as unhappiness." Fontane's perspective reflected the widely held view in Germany that true creativity was incompatible with the hectic pace of life in a large city like Berlin, where everyone seemed too rushed to think seriously about deep matters of the soul. Contemplating the spread of vice and modernist values in the new capital, the conservative cultural critic Constantin Frantz insisted that Berlin had forfeited its claim "to be the metropolis of the German spirit."
The great Bismarck himself, though largely responsible for Berlin's becoming the German capital, shared some of these prejudices against the city on the Spree. Having grown up as a Junker (the aristocratic, East Elbian landowning class) on an estate in rural Prussia, Bismarck saw Berlin as an ugly concrete jungle full of pallid people and nasty urban smells. "I have always longed to get away from large cities and the stink of civilization," he declared. "I would much rather live in the country," he told the Reichstag members, "than among you, charming though you are." On another occasion he protested that Berlin had "grown too big for me industrially and politically"a reference to the city's growing manufacturing base and sizable industrial proletariat. He was hardly less wary of Berlin's high society, which he found frivolous and pretentious, and he grew positively contemptuous of its ambitious bourgeois liberals, whose influence he believed was corrupting the Reichstag, making it more difficult for him to control. Speaking before the parliament in 1881, he was quite frank regarding this issue:
The political disadvantage connected with having the Reichstag in Berlin does not end with the external [security] danger that this poses to the delegates and governmental officials; ... even more, this has an unfortunate influence on the composition of the Reichstag.... The delegates move here and become comfortable here.... We have too many Berliners in the Reichstag, which is only natural, since they don't have to travel to meetings.
In the latter part of his reign Bismarck stayed away from the capital as much as possible, preferring to run the nation from the sanctuary of his country estates, Varzin and Friedrichsruh, which had been awarded him for his successful wars of national unification.
Ambivalence about Berlin as imperial capital was further reflected in the hap-hazard and tentative manner in which the Reich government established its physical presence in the city. Bismarck's bête nolte, the Reichstag, did not get a new building of its own until 1894. Until then it had to conduct its business in an abandoned porcelain factory. The structure was so decrepit that its glass ceiling occasionally broke away and fell into the assembly room, slicing up the chairs. Had this ever happened when parliament was in session, observed one member, "a delegate could easily have lost his head, or some other part of his body." Such conditions led to the complaint that "the representatives of the nation are unhoused guests in the new Reich capital." But it was not only the Reichstag that got short shrift. Bismarck's government provided virtually no financial support to the city for logistical and infrastructure improvements. Most of the Reich ministries and administrative agencies initially rented space in private houses or moved into converted palaces on and around the Wilhelmstrasse, where the older Prussian offices were also located. A new building, modeled on the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, was constructed at Wilhelmstrasse Nr. 74 for the Imperial Chancellery. Bismarck, however, did not like the building's style, so he moved his personal residence and office into a neighboring palace at Wilhelmstrasse Nr. 76, and then, in 1878, into a new Chancellery in the former Radziwill Palais at Wilhelmstrasse 77. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry moved into the building originally designed for the Chancellery. The Foreign Office, increasingly cramped for space, worked out of several different buildings until a new home, modeled after another Florentine palazzo, was built for it on the Wilhelmplatz. Lacking time and preparation to grow gracefully into its new role, Berlin wore its capital vestments like an ill-fitting suit off the rack. For many years after unification, the governmental quarter had a temporary and improvised feel about it, as if the national government were not sure it wanted to be there at all.
The doubts that many Germans harbored about their new capital did nothing to dampen Berlin's physical and economic expansion, which assumed truly frenzied proportions in the period following unification. The city resembled a giant mining camp or gambling casino, luring ambitious newcomers with the promise of instant gains. As many locals feared, rapid growth exacted its price in terms of civic grace and urban aesthetics. Berlin not only felt like a gambling camp, it began to look like one. Moreover, since the steamroller of growth tended to crush any historical impediments to "progress," Berlin seemed increasingly bereft of any coherent identity or sense of continuity. It was settling into what one commentator famously labeled its "modern fate"that of "always becoming and never managing to be."
At the time of German unification, Berlin's population stood at 865,000. In 1877 it passed the 1 million mark and, after a mere twenty-eight more years, reached 2 million. Berlin's population growth came through large-scale immigration, not through a sudden burst of fecundity on the part of the natives. The newcomers hailed principally from Brandenburg, East Prussia, and Silesia. The Prussian capital had long been a city of immigrants, but now every other person seemed to have just climbed off the train and to radiate that mixture of disorientation and determination typical of recent arrivals. Their prevalence prompted the bon mot "every true Berliner is a Silesian." The rawness, but also the vitality, of Bismarckian Berlin owed much to the influence of its newest residents.
Significantly, a considerable number of the newcomers were Jews from the Prussian provinces or from eastern Europe. In 1860 Berlin had only 18,900 Jews, but by 1880 the figure had risen to 53,900. The so-called Ostjuden from eastern Europe were seeking a safe haven from racial persecution in their own countries; for them Berlin was a promised land of religious and economic freedom. The Jews from rural Prussia saw the new capital as a place where they could take maximum advantage of talents honed as a result of past discrimination in the provinces. Having been barred from owning land, practicing many of the traditional crafts, or serving in the bureaucracy and military, the Jews had become experts in commerce, finance, journalism, the arts, and the law, precisely the fields that were most in demand in the modern metropolis. Settling into their new home, the Jews quickly put their stamp on the city, melding their own distinctive style with native traditions of irreverence and caustic wit. Their rise became associated with Berlin's own rise as a major European metropolis. This integration generated much talk of a "Berlin-Jewish symbiosis." Although never merely an illusion, as some commentators would later insist, this partnership was fragile from the outset, and its very seductiveness would tragically prevent all too many Jews from recognizing that fatal moment, some six decades later, when it had broken down altogether. It should be recalled, moreover, that while Berlin's Jews were prominently identified with the city's emergence as a center of cultural and economic modernism, most of the city's modernists were not Jews and most of its Jews were not modernists.
* * *
The most pressing problem facing the new arrivals in Berlin was finding a place to live. For years Berlin had experienced housing shortages, but in the dawning imperial era the problem became acute. To accommodate the rising demand for housing, dozens of private Baugesellschaften (building societies) began throwing up new structures throughout the city. They covered over vacant lots, urban gardens, and children's playgrounds. To render a large wetland near the Spree buildable, a construction company brought in boatloads of sand and spread it over the bog. Here rose the Hansaviertel, named after the sea-trading league to which Berlin had once belonged. Residents of the district could still experience the sensation of being at sea whenever heavy rains caused the Spree to flood and engulf the surrounding territory.
Much of the new construction took place in suburbs ringing the city, and competition for development sites quickly turned the environs of Berlin into a vast sandbox for real estate speculators. Anticipating the need for expansion, various building societies bought up some of the old Junker estates outside Berlin and subdivided them for private houses and apartment complexes. The former aristocratic holdings of Lichterfelde and Wilmersdoff were urbanized in this way. The potato farmers of Schöneberg became millionaires overnight by selling their fields to the speculators.
State and city officials made some effort to control the growth. There was a plan in place dating from the 1860s that called for grids of apartment blocks intersected by wide streets. The regulations, however, said little about how the units should be constructed, save for limits on height. This deficiency, combined with an entrepreneurial zeal to maximize profits on private plots, resulted in a proliferation of so-called Mietskasernen (rental barracks)sprawling apartment complexes that blighted the poorer suburbs to the north and east of the old city. The "barracks" nickname was apt, for the structures resembled military quarters in their monotonous utilitarianism and disregard for basic human comforts. Typically five stories high, they filled entire blocks in a dense honeycomb of apartments built around inner courtyards just large enough (5.3 meters square) for a fire engine to turn around in. The innermost dwellings, accessible by long passageways from the street, received virtually no sunlight. Flat renters competed for space in the courtyards with small factories and craft shops, ensuring that the pounding of hammers and buzz of saws mixed with the wails of children and chatter of housewives all day long. Everyone who lived and worked in these urban caverns shared communal kitchens and earthen privies. Needless to say, such places were perfect incubators of diseases like cholera, typhus, and smallpox, which periodically swept the city.
Unhealthy and unsightly though they undoubtedly were, the Mietskaserne were by no means mere repositories of gloom; they were centers of genuine social, cultural, and economic vitality. Many an invention was born in those cramped courtyards, which also served as informal stages for popular theater and musical performances. The painter Heinrich Zille would later capture both the misery and liveliness of this scene in his famous drawings of Berliner Hinterhöfe. As land values increased after 1871, the Mietskaserne spread from the proletarian districts of Wedding and Luisenstadt to the wealthier districts of Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, and Wilmersdorf. The average number of inhabitants per building lot in the city rose from forty-five in 1860 to sixty in 1880. By contrast, in the 1870s Paris had twenty people per lot, and roomy London only eight. Berlin was on the way to becoming Europe's Barrakenstadt par excellence.
Despite increasingly squalid conditions, housing costs in Berlin shot up dramatically in the wake of national unification (as they would again in the early 1990s). Between 1871 and 1873 Berliners were typically paying three times what they had paid two years earlier. Theodor Fontane experienced as a renter the darker side of Berlin's boom. His landlord at Hirschelstrasse 14, where he and his family had lived for nine years, sold the house to a banker in October 1872. The banker increased the rent threefold, though the building was a refuse-strewn wreck, its courtyard "looking like it could infect the entire neighborhood with typhus." Indignant, Fontane moved his family into cheaper quarters at Potsdamerstrasse 134c, but this was not much of an improvement. It was so dilapidated and dirty that cockroaches and other vermin occupied "every nook and cranny."
In shifting quarters to obtain a lower rent, Fontane was hardly alone: 38 percent of Berlin's renters moved at least once in 1871; in 1872 the figure rose to 43 percent. City streets were perpetually clogged with carts bearing the belongings of families in search of affordable housing. This constant coming and going took its psychological toll. A Berliner who counted himself among the "orderly people" reported his shame at having to move around "like a nomad" from one hovel to the next, each worse than the last. He concluded that the old adage that poor lodgings could "kill like an ax" was wrong; rather, they killed "like opium or some slow-acting poison that lames the mind and will."
With the steady increases in rents, more and more Berliners became homeless. Some of them found temporary places in public or private shelters, but by 1872 these institutions were turning people away because of overcrowding. Many cast-outs became Schlafburschentemporary lodgers who rented a patch of floor in someone's apartment for a night or two. But this makeshift arrangement was unworkable for larger families, who were obliged to camp out like Gypsy clans under bridges or on construction sites. Sensing a profit in such desperation, packing-carton manufacturers advertised "good and cheap boxes for habitation." Huge shanty towns sprang up around the Kottbus, Frankfurt, and Landsberg Gates. Occasionally the police moved in and burned out the squatters, pushing them on to other encampments. In summer 1872, when dozens of homeless families rioted against such treatment, mounted soldiers rode in and cut down the demonstrators with their sabers.
What People are Saying About This
(Niall Ferguson, Oxford University, author of The Pity of War)
Meet the Author
David Clay Large, Professor of History at Montana State University, is a specialist in modern German history. He is the author of Where Ghosts Walked, Germans to the Front, Between Two Fires, and Berlin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and San Francisco, California.
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