“Berlin is big,” marveled my colleague, “the drive into the city was never-ending. It took me quite a while to even get to the hotel.”
At 3.6 million people, Berlin is perhaps the only true metropolis in central Europe, the largest city by population within the European Union outside of London. It is also vital cog in the wheels of the European Union being home to the German Parliament and government, the largest economy in the European Union. And yet, Berlin does not quite conjure the romantic notion of a historic European city like London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Florence or Barcelona.
That’s because it isn’t.
In fact Berlin is beyond ‘romantic’ in the traditional sense, it is a drain on the German economy, and the country would be richer off without this city. Germans would actually be richer if they did not have to help support Berlin.
For comparison, Britons would be 11% poorer without London, French 15% poorer without Paris, Sweden 11.7% poorer without Stockholm and Denmark 13.3% poorer without Copenhagen. Heck, until recently no football club in former East Germany (including Berlin) was able to make it into the German Top flight (there are two now, Hertha Berlin and RB Leipzig, owned and bought by Red Bull). This also means that Berlin is therefore a relatively cheap city to visit. Although that brings to itself certain benefits.
It is precisely the ability to stretch a Euro that makes Berlin a massive draw for the young, urbane and chic, a city that has grown and grown. It’s in a way the poor but extremely sexy city. This comes with benefits though, Berlin has had a reputation for being a great and cheap location for tourism and all round living, an amazing nightlife that draws the hot and beautiful every weekend from all over Europe and an all round enjoyable place to have fun.
Berlin isn’t romantic, its sensual.
There’s a good reason for all this. Whereas capitals have been the engines of the economy, Berlin was in its recent history divided into half by the Cold War with the capitalist section walled in as an island of its own amid a sea of hostility. There was no real economy that could develop and no reason for individuals from the country (then Western Germany) to stay there or even work there, it retained its political position due to its historical significance as the capital of the former Prussian Empire.
The Germany that we know today is a relatively new country, as Western European nations go. There were many central European tribes and peoples, a hangover from the Holy Roman Empire. But the country of Germany emerged only in 1871, when the legendary statesman Otto von Bismarck led the Prussian kingdom and its neighbouring Germanic states to defeat the French and then declare the German Empire in the halls of Versailles under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia.
The capital city of Berlin has a slightly longer history, being the centre of the Prussia before the unification of Germany but not much of a history before that. Like Helsinki in Finland, Berlin’s history of importance is relatively recent as it did not hold with it natural geographic advantages.
Nikolaivertel in Berlin, the site of the start of Berlin, reconstructed by the Soviets
It was first mentioned as a small town in 1237 (compare this to Zurich for example) and only became the residence of regional lords of Brandenburg (the administrative centre was moved from Brandenburg to Berlin and the entrance to this city was through the Brandenburg Gate) in the 15th century and the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia in the 17th century in an attempt to place the capital of the kingdom in the centre of the territory.
This move to make Berlin the capital led to the expansion of the city. Industrialisation gave the city a reason to grow and the Industrial Revolution made Berlin transformed Berlin into the transport hub and economic centre of the country. Berlin’s flourishing brought with it an intellectual flourishing including the establishment of the University of Berlin (today the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin), that would go on to be the intellectual hub of the city, nation and ignite many global movements of the age, including a certain Communist movement (Marx, Engels and Lenin all studied in this university). Albert Einstein too, while he was trained in Zurich, made his name in Berlin.
The former Library of Humboldt University of Berlin
By the 1900s Berlin was a clear cog in the global economy and the centre of the growing German Empire, late to the game of colonialism but not less an empire. The growth of this new-comer in Germany within the European continent would soon see things come to a head. The big nations of France and the United Kingdom were wary of its expansion, as all established powers are when new powers emerge (not unlike the United States and China now), and at some point war would become inevitable. The rising tensions culminated in the World War I, which Germany was on the losing side off and were made to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which was viewed in Berlin as petty, punitive and humiliating. Despite the economic destruction that World War I wrought on the German economy, Berlin roared back to life in the 1920s.
The roaring 20s did not last throughout the world and soon a global economic recession emerged with the Great Depression. It was at this time, by presenting simple solutions to complex problems, that a certain Adolf Hitler came to power and consolidated his hold on the German Republic. Hitler created a persona of himself as the rightful heir of the the Chancellorship of Germany and the only person strong enough to make German great – harkening back to the days of the Holy Roman Empire. The Third Reich emerged and from this sprung the Second World War. Hitler’s decisions led to the deaths of millions of people, including 6 million Jewish people, exterminated for no other reason than the race they were born with.
The Jewish Memorial in the centre of Berlin
The conclusion of World War II in the European Theatre however brought with it no respite for Germany and Berlin as the Third Reich was replaced with the Soviet control and the splitting of the German nation into two, a wall that came down only in 1989, and a country reunited only in 1990.
Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
Berlin today is therefore a city that is still recovering from the scars of modern history slashed upon it till 1990. It’s today a funky town, with some amazing street food in some strange locations; graffiti and street art fill every part of Berlin; creatives of all sorts introduce new cuisines and re-imagine culinary styles; immigrants from southeast Asia and the Middle East add to the flavours and palate of this city, eccentric, eclectic and highly energetic city.
Despite a history deeply entertwined with the modern nation, Berlin is not German in the stereotypical sense. It does not function like clockwork, on the contrary inefficiency seemed to rule the day. All the stereotypes of law-abiding, plain, boring but predictable Germans do not belong here (they are apparently found in southern and western Germany). Wastefulness such as the Brandenburg airport debacle are in fact common stories that are told to even foreign visitors like myself. More on these in a later post.
Having said that, despite the bumbling around, this is cheap city is slowly becoming the expensive and expansive capital that it once was again.
Let’s go check it out!