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Berlin History

Berlin history starts in the Middle Ages—around the 12th century—when Germanic tribes, particularly Saxons, pushed east, violently conquering and Christianizing the resident slaves and claiming the land. This area became known as Brandenburg and was run by Saxon feudal barons. Here, Berlin slowly rose as a trade route stop until by the middle of the 16th century it was the region’s most significant city. Then, the next century, Berlin received the blows of devastation, plundering and depopulation caused by the Thirty Years War. Afterward, as part of a much larger Prussian territory, its rebirth was slow but gathered momentum in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of a policy of tolerance toward persecuted groups such as Huguenots and Jews, who came to the city in numbers to start new lives and contribute to Prussia’s rapid industrialization. New gains in economic power led to military might and ambitious plans to unite Germany’s many principalities—a process completed in 1871 when the Prussian king became the German Kaiser (emperor). All this rapidly propelled Berlin from provincial town to German capital in every sense. So even after Germany’s First World War defeat and the Kaiser’s abdication temporarily moved the seat of government to Weimar, the city continued as Germany’s main cultural center and developed a civilization of cabarets and hedonistic nightlife. But against a new backdrop of depression, economic collapse and street fighting between communists and fascists, the Nazis rose to power and established Berlin as the headquarters for Hitler’s ruthless Third Reich. Soon Berlin’s Jewish community was on the run, then all but decimated during World War II until heavy bombing razed some 92 percent of Berlin and destroyed the Third Reich. At first, Berlin’s status as a key front in the Cold War helped its rebuilding, as Soviet and American monies poured in to help resuscitate their sides of the city. But the process would remain unfinished, as the world’s two most powerful military systems stood face to face, eventually divided by “the iron curtain” of Berlin Wall. When the Wall finally fell in 1989, east and west Berlin took to the turmoil of countless building projects in a reunification of hearts and minds that continues to be celebrated through the city.