Berlin is the capital and the largest city of Germany as well as one of its constituent 16 states. With a population of approximately 3.5 million people, Berlin is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union. Located in northeastern Germany on the banks of rivers Spree and Havel, it is the center of the Berlin-Brandenburg Metropolitan Region, which has about 6 million residents from more than 180 nations. Due to its location in the European Plain, Berlin is influenced by a temperate seasonal climate. Around one-third of the city’s area is composed of forests, parks, gardens, rivers and lakes.
First documented in the 13th century and situated at the crossing of two important historic trade routes, Berlin became the capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg (1417–1701), the Kingdom of Prussia (1701–1918), the German Empire (1871–1918), the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and the Third Reich (1933–1945). Berlin in the 1920s was the third largest municipality in the world. After World War II and its consequent occupation by the victorious countries, the city was divided; East Berlin became the capital of East Germany while West Berlin became a de facto West German exclave, surrounded by the Berlin Wall (1961–1989) and East German territory. Following German reunification in 1990, Berlin once again became the capital of a unified Germany.
Berlin is a world city of culture, politics, media, and science. Its economy is based on high-tech firms and the service sector, encompassing a diverse range of creative industries, research facilities, media corporations, and convention venues. Berlin serves as a continental hub for air and rail traffic and has a highly complex public transportation network. The metropolis is a popular tourist destination. Significant industries also include IT, pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering, clean tech, biotechnology, construction, and electronics.
Modern Berlin is home to world-renowned universities, orchestras, museums, entertainment venues and is host to many sporting events. Its urban setting has made it a sought-after location for international film productions. The city is well known for its festivals, diverse architecture, nightlife, contemporary arts and high quality of living. Since 2000 Berlin has seen the emergence of a cosmopolitan entrepreneurial scene.
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The name Berlin has its roots in the language of West Slavic inhabitants of the area of today’s Berlin and may be related to the Old Polabian stem berl-/birl- (“swamp”). All German place names ending on -ow, -itz and -in, of which there are many east of the River Elbe, are of Slavic origin (Germania Slavica). There are many boroughs of Slavic origin in the city: Berlin-Karow, Berlin-Malchow, Berlin-Pankow, Berlin-Spandau (earlier: Spandow), Berlin-Gatow, Berlin-Kladow, Berlin-Steglitz, Berlin-Lankwitz, Berlin-Britz, Berlin-Buckow, Berlin-Rudow, Berlin-Alt-Treptow, Berlin-Schmöckwitz, Berlin-Marzahn, and Berlin-Köpenick. Since the Ber- at the beginning sounds like the German word Bär (bear), there appears a bear in the coat of arms of the city. It is, therefore, a canting arm.
12th to 16th Centuries
The earliest evidence of settlements in the area of today’s Berlin are a wooden rod dated from approximately 1192 and leftovers of wooden house parts dated to 1174 found in a 2012 excavation in Berlin Mitte. The first written records of towns in the area of present-day Berlin date from the late 12th century. Spandau is first mentioned in 1197 and Köpenick in 1209, although these areas did not join Berlin until 1920. The central part of Berlin can be traced back to two towns. Cölln on the Fischerinsel is first mentioned in a 1237 document, and Berlin, across the Spree in what is now called the Nikolaiviertel, is referenced in a document from 1244. 1237 is considered the founding date of the city. The two towns over time formed close economic and social ties and profited from the staple right on the two important trade routes Via Imperii and from Bruges to Novgorod. In 1307, they formed an alliance with a common external policy, their internal administrations still being separated.
In 1415, Frederick I became the elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, which he ruled until 1440. During the 15th century, his successors established Berlin-Cölln as capital of the margraviate, and subsequent members of the Hohenzollern family ruled in Berlin until 1918, first as electors of Brandenburg, then as kings of Prussia, and eventually as German emperors. In 1443, Frederick II ‘Irontooth’ started the construction of a new royal palace in the twin city Berlin-Cölln. The protests of the town citizens against the building culminated in 1448, in the “Berlin Indignation” (“Berliner Unwille”). This protest was not successful and the citizenry lost many of its political and economic privileges. After the royal palace was finished in 1451, it gradually came into use. From 1470, with the new elector Albrecht III Achilles, Berlin-Cölln became the new royal residence. Officially, the Berlin-Cölln palace became permanent residence of the Brandenburg electors of the Hohenzollerns from 1486, when John Cicero came to power. Berlin-Cölln, however, had to give up its status as a free Hanseatic city. In 1539, the electors and the city officially became Lutheran.
17th to 19th Centuries
The Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 devastated Berlin. One third of its houses were damaged or destroyed, and the city lost half of its population. Frederick William, known as the “Great Elector”, who had succeeded his father George William as ruler in 1640, initiated a policy of promoting immigration and religious tolerance. With the Edict of Potsdam in 1685, Frederick William offered asylum to the French Huguenots. By 1700, approximately 30 percent of Berlin’s residents were French, because of the Huguenot immigration. Many other immigrants came from Bohemia, Poland, and Salzburg.
Since 1618, the Margraviate of Brandenburg had been in personal union with the Duchy of Prussia. In 1701, the dual state formed the Kingdom of Prussia, as Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg crowned himself as king Frederick I in Prussia. Berlin became the capital of the new Kingdom, replacing Königsberg. This was a successful attempt to centralise the capital in the very far-flung state, and it was the first time the city began to grow. In 1709, Berlin merged with the four cities of Cölln, Friedrichswerder, Friedrichstadt and Dorotheenstadt under the name Berlin, “Haupt- und Residenzstadt Berlin”.
In 1740, Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great (1740–1786), came to power. Under the rule of Frederick II, Berlin became a center of the Enlightenment, but also, was briefly occupied during the Seven Years’ War by the Russian army. Following France’s victory in the War of the Fourth Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte marched into Berlin in 1806, but granted self-government to the city. In 1815, the city became part of the new Province of Brandenburg.
The Industrial Revolution transformed Berlin during the 19th century; the city’s economy and population expanded dramatically, and it became the main railway hub and economic centre of Germany. Additional suburbs soon developed and increased the area and population of Berlin. In 1861, neighbouring suburbs including Wedding, Moabit and several others were incorporated into Berlin. In 1871, Berlin became capital of the newly founded German Empire. In 1881, it became a city district separate from Brandenburg.
20th to 21st Centuries
In the early 20th century, Berlin had become a fertile ground for the German Expressionist movement. In fields such as architecture, painting and cinema new forms of artistic styles were invented. At the end of the First World War in 1918, a republic was proclaimed by Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag building. In 1920, the Greater Berlin Act incorporated dozens of suburban cities, villages and estates around Berlin into an expanded city. The act increased the area of Berlin from 66 to 883 km2 (25 to 341 sq mi). The population almost doubled and Berlin had a population of around four million. During the Weimar era, Berlin underwent political unrest due to economic uncertainties, but also became a renowned centre of the Roaring Twenties. The metropolis experienced its heyday as a major world capital and was known for its leadership roles in science, technology, arts, the humanities, city planning, film, higher education, government and industries. Albert Einstein rose to public prominence during his years in Berlin, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power. NSDAP rule diminished Berlin’s Jewish community from 160,000 (one-third of all Jews in the country) to about 80,000 as a result of emigration between 1933 and 1939. After Kristallnacht in 1938, thousands of the city’s Jews were imprisoned in the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Starting in early 1943, many were shipped to death camps, such as Auschwitz. During World War II, large parts of Berlin were destroyed in the 1943–45 air raids and during the Battle of Berlin. Around 125,000 civilians were killed. After the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Berlin received large numbers of refugees from the Eastern provinces. The victorious powers divided the city into four sectors, analogous to the occupation zones into which Germany was divided. The sectors of the Western Allies (the United States, the United Kingdom and France) formed West Berlin, while the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.
All four Allies shared administrative responsibilities for Berlin. However, in 1948, when the Western Allies extended the currency reform in the Western zones of Germany to the three western sectors of Berlin, the Soviet Union imposed a blockade on the access routes to and from West Berlin, which lay entirely inside Soviet-controlled territory. The Berlin airlift, conducted by the three western Allies, overcame this blockade by supplying food and other supplies to the city from June 1948 to May 1949. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in West Germany and eventually included all of the American, British and French zones, excluding those three countries’ zones in Berlin, while the Marxist-Leninist German Democratic Republic was proclaimed in East Germany. West Berlin officially remained an occupied city, but it politically was aligned with the Federal Republic of Germany despite West Berlin’s geographic isolation. Airline service to West Berlin was granted only to American, British and French airlines.
The founding of the two German states increased Cold War tensions. West Berlin was surrounded by East German territory, and East Germany proclaimed the Eastern part as its capital, a move that was not recognised by the western powers. East Berlin included most of the historic centre of the city. The West German government established itself in Bonn. In 1961, East Germany began the building of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin, and events escalated to a tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie. West Berlin was now de facto a part of West Germany with a unique legal status, while East Berlin was de facto a part of East Germany. John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” – speech in 1963 underlining the US support for the Western part of the city. Berlin was completely divided. Although it was possible for Westerners to pass from one to the other side through strictly controlled checkpoints, for most Easterners travel to West Berlin or West Germany was prohibited by the government of East Germany. In 1971, a Four-Power agreement guaranteed access to and from West Berlin by car or train through East Germany.
In 1989, with the end of the Cold War and pressure from the East German population, the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November and was subsequently mostly demolished. Today, the East Side Gallery preserves a large portion of the wall. On 3 October 1990, the two parts of Germany were reunified as the Federal Republic of Germany and Berlin again became the official German capital. In 1991, the German Parliament, the Bundestag, voted to move the seat of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, which was completed in 1999. On 18 June 1994, soldiers from the United States, France and Britain marched in a parade which was part of the ceremonies to mark the final withdrawal of foreign troops allowing a reunified Berlin. Berlin’s 2001 administrative reform merged several districts. The number of boroughs was reduced from 23 to 12.
Other Berlin Information
Berlin is the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. The President of Germany, whose functions are mainly ceremonial under the German constitution, has their official residence in Bellevue Palace. Berlin is the seat of the German executive, housed in the Chancellery, the Bundeskanzleramt. Facing the Chancellery is the Bundestag, the German Parliament, housed in the renovated Reichstag building since the government’s relocation to Berlin in 1998. The Bundesrat (“federal council”, performing the function of an upper house) is the representation of the Federal States (Bundesländer) of Germany and has its seat at the former Prussian House of Lords.
The relocation of the federal government and Bundestag to Berlin was mostly completed in 1999, however some ministries as well as some minor departments stayed in the federal city Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. Discussions about moving the remaining ministries and departments to Berlin continue. The ministries and departments of Defence, Justice and Consumer Protection, Finance, Interior, Foreign, Economic Affairs and Energy, Labour and Social Affairs , Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, Food and Agriculture, Economic Cooperation and Development, Health, Transport and Digital Infrastructure and Education and Research are based in the capital.
Berlin hosts in total 158 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of many think tanks, trade unions, non-profit organizations, lobbying groups, and professional associations. Due to the influence and international partnerships of the Federal Republic of Germany, the capital city has become a significant centre of German and European affairs. Frequent official visits, and diplomatic consultations among governmental representatives and national leaders are common in contemporary Berlin.
Since the reunification on 3 October 1990, Berlin has been one of the three city states in Germany among the present 16 states of Germany. The House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus) functions as the city and state parliament, which currently has 141 seats. Berlin’s executive body is the Senate of Berlin (Senat von Berlin). The Senate consists of the Governing Mayor (Regierender Bürgermeister) and up to eight senators holding ministerial positions, one of them holding the title of “Mayor” (Bürgermeister) as deputy to the Governing Mayor.
The Governing Mayor is simultaneously Lord Mayor of the City of Berlin (Oberbürgermeister der Stadt) and Minister President of the Federal State of Berlin (Ministerpräsident des Bundeslandes). The office of the Governing Mayor is located in the Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall).
Berlin is subdivided into 12 boroughs or districts (Bezirke). Each borough is made up by a number of subdistricts or neighborhoods (Ortsteile), which have historic roots in much older municipalities that predate the formation of Greater Berlin on 1 October 1920. These subdistricts became urbanized and incorporated into the city later on. Many residents strongly identify with their neighbourhoods, colloquially called Kiez . At present, Berlin consists of 96 subdistricts, which are commonly made up of several smaller residential areas or quarters.
Each borough is governed by a borough council (Bezirksamt) consisting of five councilors (Bezirksstadträte) including the borough’s mayor (Bezirksbürgermeister). The council is elected by the borough assembly (Bezirksverordnetenversammlung). However, the individual boroughs are not independent municipalities, but subordinate to the Senate of Berlin. The borough’s mayors make up the council of mayors (Rat der Bürgermeister), which is led by the city’s Governing Mayor and advises the Senate. The neighborhoods have no local government bodies.