One of the best things about being a Berliner is that no matter where I am in the city, I am never far from a spot which where something of historical significance occurred! That's not surprising, of course, considering that Berlin actually began in the early 1300s as twin settlements on opposite banks of the River Spree, at a place now known as the Nikolaiviertel (Old Town). The two settlements, called Berlin (on the eastern bank) and Cölln (first mentioned in a 1237 deed), became known as Berlin-Cölln in 1307 and commemorated the occasion by building a shared town hall, or Rathaus.
So I suggest you begin your education into Berlin's history by heading for the Mitte district, where the Nikolaiviertel survived until World War II. When East Germany decided to reconstruct the area in 1987 to celebrate Berlin's 750th anniversary, they created a faux medieval village right down to the cobblestone streets.
Fast forward to 1411, when with the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor, Berlin became a protectorate of Friedrich von Hohenzollern, who four years later was named the Elector of Brandenburg. He set about making Berlin a capital city worthy of the Hohenzollern family, who would rule for the next five centuries. Construction of the Elector's Palace, or Stadtschloss, began in 1470. The East Germans replaced it with their own Palace of the Republic, which has been demolished in favor of a Stadtschloss replica which will eventually function as a hotel and shopping area.
Friedrich III announced crowned himself the King of Prussia (Friedrich I) in 1701, elevating Berlin to the rank of Royal Capital and requiring it to be extensively redesigned. I recommend a visit to the German Historical Museum, or Zeughaus, built in 1706, and the Schloss Charlottenburg, to get a first-hand look at Friedrich I's taste in architecture.
At the end of the century, Freidrich Wilhelm II constructed of the Brandenburg Gate as a symbol of peace. Napoleon had the Gate removed to Paris in 1806. It was restored to Berlin in 1814, only to become a symbol of the divided city as a barricaded gateway along the Wall. Berlin welcomed the new millennium with a gigantic party at the Brandenburg Gate. If you can visit only one historical monument during your stay in Berlin, this is the one!
For the next century Berlin experienced an intellectual and economic “boom,” becoming the capital of the first German Reich in 1871. Its population grew to more than a million, but Germany's defeat in World War I and post-war riots led to the establishment, in 1918, of the Republic. Art, culture, and dazzling nightlife thrived in Berlin throughout the 1920s.
The Great Depression brought an end to the good times, the rise of the Nazi party, the persecution of Jews, homosexuals, and other “undesirables,” and, of course, World War II. Right next to the Brandenburg Gate is the Holocaust Denkmal, a stunning but controversial memorial to the Holocaust victims. I wonder how many other cities would build such a very public reminder of their darkest days.
Berlin, almost completely devastated during World War II, was split into four sectors afterwards with its eastern sector in the control of the Soviet Union. The culmination of this division was the Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961 and separating the two halves of the city for more than 28 years. I never pass by either the Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie or the Berlin Wall Documentation Center without feeling a chill!
Berlin's rebirth came with reunification in 1990, when the government moved to the re-designed Reichstag. Some of my favorite views of Berlin are the ones I get when climbing the spiral walkway of the dome's interior. They're so great that even the long lines of other people waiting to make the ascent don't bother me!
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