As far back as the Middle Ages, Berliners liked to imagine that their city’s name had its roots in the German word Bär, meaning bear. To this day the creature appears on the capital’s coat of arms, and graced the guild seal of Berlin at least as early as 1280. Yet, like so much else about the city, the bear is an act of reinvention.


In truth, Berlin’s name comes from an old Slavic word for swamp, Brl. During its earliest centuries the place was all but a heathen wilderness, a minor town bypassed by Europe’s main trade routes. In 1237 – by tradition, the date of Berlin’s foundation – it was an inconsequential settlement clinging to a marshy island in the River Spree, its residents surviving on fish, farming and limited trade.

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Berlin’s beginnings

From that beginning, Berlin continued to tell stories about itself – to invent its own myths. So it was in 1448, when Frederick II ‘Irontooth’, Kurfürst (prince-elector) of the Brandenburg margravate in which Berlin stands, ordered the building of a schloss (castle) to cement his rule.

The citizens didn't like the project and – according to legend – they defied him, opening the Spree's floodgates to swamp the castle’s foundations. (The present Berlin Palace stands on the same site, on what’s now known as Museumsinsel or Museum Island, though you won’t find remnants of the medieval castle.)

Irontooth responded with typical viciousness: 500 knights took to the streets and murdered the rebels. But, in time, Berliners refashioned the story into the myth about their defiance, the Berliner Unwille. Whereas, in truth, in more than 700 years, they've almost never staged a successful revolution.

Why conflict defines Berlin

As well as myths, it was conflict that defined Berlin. During the Thirty Years’ War, which began about 1618, Habsburg and Swedish armies murdered about half of the settlement's population. Thousands more were lost to typhoid, plague and robber barons. Many of the survivors then starved to death, not least because the Berlin’s marshy swampland was poor quality soil. By 1638, Berlin was reduced to only 845 houses.

The city was saved by an austere and ambitious despot – the “Soldier King” Friedrich Wilhelm I (ruled 1713–40). He was determined that Berlin – and the surrounding Brandenburg and Prussia, which he also ruled – would never again be devastated by marauding armies. He transformed the impoverished, devastated outpost, building massive new fortifications and extending the town, turning it – and his Prussia – into a great garrison.

Hence Berliners learnt that devotion to strong leaders could save them. And as their land was so poor, and they could hardly feed themselves, they also learnt to attack and steal from their neighbours.

Rebellion often grows out of convention, and these contrary forces became pronounced during the reign of the Soldier King’s son, Frederick the Great. Young Frederick had been brought up with strict discipline. When he was just eight or nine, he was given a regiment of giants to command, forced to go on parade – and he hated it. He escaped into music and art. He built a most beautiful palace – the rococo Sanssouci in Potsdam, about 15 miles south-west of central Berlin. He commissioned a great Palladian opera house that still stands on Unter den Linden.

Hence Frederick came to epitomise the dichotomy of Berlin: the conformist versus the independent thinker. Yet at the same time he escalated his father’s military activities. He seized Silesia, attacked other neighbours, expanded Prussia to east and west, all the while dreaming of being back in Sanssouci, writing letters to Voltaire or playing his flute.

After Frederick died childless in 1786, his nephew shared only part of his vision. Friedrich Wilhelm II also loved the arts and commissioned key monuments in Berlin, notably the Brandenburg Gate. But Prussia’s political status waned during his reign and afterwards, especially in 1806 when Napoleon captured Berlin, having destroyed the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstedt.

During reconstruction work following the two-year French occupation, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel created monuments including the Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt, and the Altes Museum.

Berlin from the Enlightment to WW1

Due to the reactionary Hohenzollern rulers, and the obedience of the citizens, the Enlightenment largely passed by Prussia. So when, in 1848, liberal revolution swept across Europe, it came to nothing in Berlin. The Prussian army surrounded the upstart National Assembly and ordered its delegates to disperse, which they did in orderly ranks. Their submission to authority can also be seen a quarter of a century later, when Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck masterminded the unification of German states, with Berlin as the new nation’s capital and Prussian King Wilhelm as the first Kaiser.

Through the latter half of the 19th and into the 20th century, the city was the industrial centre of the continent, its population swelling to almost two million souls. When Germany went to war in 1914, its declared aim was to defend the Fatherland. But its true objective was to expand its territory and market, seizing raw materials by annexing most of Belgium and eastern France.

The failure of that attempt devastated Berlin. After the terrible four-year war, Germany had gained nothing – and, under the Treaty of Versailles, it was stripped of almost all its wealth and any remnants of national pride.

In 1919, Lenin sent 300 skilled agitators to Berlin from Moscow to foment revolution. They energised the Spartacist uprising, in which workers seized government buildings and brought Germany to the brink of a Bolshevik coup. But once again, reactionary forces spoke and the uprising was brutally crushed by the Freikorps, from which Adolf Hitler would later draw his SA Storm Troopers.

Berlin under Nazism

Yet in the mid 1920s – and here again is the city’s central paradox – “Red Berlin” (meaning left-leaning Berlin) had become one of the most socialist yet decadently capitalist cities in the world. Headlamps glittered off the asphalt, neon flashed on cinema facades, while in the back tenements the poor starved. The city was consumed in a kind of artistic and hedonistic orgy – if you were young and rich. Because of the impact of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Christopher Isherwood’s Cabaret, that’s how we perceive the city’s ‘Golden Twenties’. ” – but for the majority of the city’s population, life was hard: there was little work, and many were living in squalor.

The 1929 financial crash exacerbated the divisions. Unemployment soared and nightmare inflation ate away the savings of millions of Germans. Now the Freikorps – those arrogant soldiers who had ‘liberated’ Berlin in 1919 – marched under the swastika. Soon, Berlin again became defined by a ruthless leader.

By the end of the Second World War, 60 million Europeans were dead. Some 80 per cent of Berlin city centre was in ruins, its streets choked with 75 million cubic metres of rubble.

The victorious Red Army stripped it of books, artworks and gold. Survivors were put to work dismantling the Reich, reducing the city to even more of a wasteland. And then it was divided, with the Soviets controlling East Berlin and, from 1961, encircling democratic West Berlin with a physical barrier – the infamous Berlin Wall.

A tale of two Berlins

The Cold War all but killed West Berlin. The isolated city was slowly dying, until West Germans were encouraged to move to the walled island: residents’ taxes were slashed, and young males exempted from military conscription. Tens of thousands of young people flocked to West Berlin – and promptly rebelled against its authorities. These so-called ’68ers freed themselves from centuries of historical fear, transforming Germany.

In the 1970s, in part because it was so cheap, West Berlin became a party town. Lou Reed moved in, walking on the wild side. David Bowie came to reinvent himself, and recorded ‘Heroes’. Iggy Pop joined him. Nick Cave followed a few years later. And then the Berlin Wall fell; today, little more than one kilometre remains along Bernauer Strasse.

In 1989, a third of buildings in the east lay vacant, and techno activists stormed across the divide, improvising music and dance clubs in abandoned basements, warehouses and power stations. Their music, Berlin techno, was a key cultural element in the reunification of the city. Clubbers, Ossies and Wessies – young Easterners and young Westerners – came together beneath the death strip that had once separated them.

Recounting Berlin’s history

Finally, Germans, and especially Berliners, also found the courage to discard many of their myths, and to confront their dark 20th-century history.

Today this painful process is evident in the Holocaust Memorial, in the Jewish Museum, in the husk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church destroyed by Allied bombers, in former Stasi prisons and, particularly, in the Stolpersteine.

Some 75,000 of these individual brass "stumble stones" have been planted amongst the cobbles on the pavements of around a thousand towns and cities. On each is engraved the name of an individual who was killed during the Nazi years – most often a Jewish resident or family, but also homosexuals and other persecuted minorities.

All over Berlin, these brass caps catch the sunlight and we all, visitors or residents alike, lean forward to read their names, bowing our heads and paying respect to the individuals who were murdered in this city.

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Rory MacLean was speaking to Paul Bloomfield


Rory Maclean
Rory MacLeanHistorian and travel writer

Rory MacLean is an award-winning historian and travel writer who for over 40 years has divided his time between Berlin and the UK. He is the author of Berlin: Imagine a City (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014)