Megacity Berlin in 1920. The view from city hall over the palace (left) and the cathedral (right). Between them runs Unter den Linden. With the Greater Berlin Act, the population of the German capital grew from 1.9m to 3.8m in one swoop.
Photo: imago images/imageBROKER/Siegfried Kuttig

Berlin - We'll never know what the occasion was for the late-night drinks. A birthday? The pleasure of a tipple. Just life itself? No matter the reason, it looks like it was a good time. Rows of empty beer bottles stand on the stone bench on Bösebrücke, enough to fill a crate. 

Theres always a reason to party in Berlin.

It’s 9:30 in the morning on a Friday in June 2020. Bösebrücke, which connects Prenzlauer Berg in the east to Gesundbrunnen in the west, has survived the morning rush-hour traffic. The occasional car crosses the four-lane bridge, named after the communist resistance fighter Wilhelm Böse. People call it Bornholmer Brücke, but that's incorrect. Pedestrians amble across the bridge sporadically. They're in no rush.

But how times flies! Not so long ago it was impossible to cross this bridge whenever you felt like it. And it's not so long ago that suddenly, one night, Berlin, indeed all of Germany, could do nothing but celebrate.

A memorial stone is placed in front of the bench. A plaque explains what happened here: “The Berlin Wall opened on the Bornholmer Straße bridge in the night of 9 November 1989 for the first time since August 1961.”

During the division of Germany, the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, the northernmost of seven between West Berlin and East Berlin, was located right on Bösebrücke. Northeast of it is the memorial site at Platz des 9. November 1989.

Issue 1 of B History: Berliner Verlag, Titelfoto: Horst von Harbou/Deutsche Kinemathek
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Rainer Klemke crossed the border “more than 300 times”, from west to east, to visit relatives, and back again. The 72-year-old historian, a tall, slim man with a white beard, strolls across Platz des 9. November. Only a few people know Berlin’s history as well as he does, particularly the history of Berlin the great metropolis which was born 100 years ago.

Grey gravel crunches under Klemke’s shoes. Steel bands in the ground and display panels at the narrow end of the funnel-shaped memorial site tell the story of how the Berlin Wall fell. The former interior wall stands to the right of Klemke and behind it is the allotment garden of an association that has existed since the 19th century. Green cherry trees line the square. They blossom twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, in November.

“There is scarcely any other city where creating memorial sites is so possible,” says Rainer Klemke. He helped to create a great deal of them as head of memorials and museums in Berlin’s cultural affairs department. In his 18 years in office, he opened 48 museums and memorials, co-developed the Long Night of Museums and was jointly responsible for the expansion of the documentation site Topography of Terror, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Berlin Wall Memorial.

When, as a retiree, he began working on the Rummelsburger Bucht memorial site, he had the idea of communicating Berlin’s history online. With the association berlinHistory, which he chairs, he has developed an eponymous app. The city can be explored while walking, with the aid of historical photos and maps, audio recordings and videos. “All of the city’s official commemorative sites can be found in the app,” he says. “We have 5,000 points of interest, including 3,200 memorial sites.

When, as a retiree, he began working on the Rummelsburger Bucht memorial site, he had the idea of communicating Berlin’s history online. With the association berlinHistory, which he chairs, he has developed an eponymous app. The city can be explored while walking, with the aid of historical photos and maps, audio recordings and videos. “All of the city’s official commemorative sites can be found in the app,” he says. “We have 5,000 points of interest, including 3,200 memorial sites.”

Klemke chose Platz des 9. November 1989 as the starting point for an historical walk. It leads across Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial to Nordbahnhof. “It’s my favourite route,” he says. “Berlin’s history is concentrated along this route.”

The Greater Berlin Act, which entered into force on 1 October 1920. Overnight, Berlin became one of the largest cities in the world. The city grew 13 times larger through the merger of eight cities, 59 rural communities and 27 villages, divided into 20 districts. The population doubled from 1.9 to 3.8 million.

The Greater Berlin Act goes into effect on 1 October 1920., making the German capital the second largest city in the world in terms of area (after LA) and the third biggest in terms of population (behind London and New York).
Grafic: André Wyst

Bitter debates preceded the Greater Berlin Act. Social Democrats (the SPD party) and socialists (the USPD) supported the law. National conservatives (the DNVP), national liberals (the DVP) and representatives from the centre party opposed it, while the leftwing liberals (the DDP) were split. The poorer cities and communities hoped to profit from the merger and the more affluent feared having to finance it.

Berliners and their neighbours had squabbled about borders and responsibilities for quite some time. There were 15 electricity providers, 40 gas companies, 17 water utilities and 60 sewer system operators in the greater area. These parallel structures had bizarre consequences: in Niederschöneweide, the lines of three different gasworks lay side-by-side in the ground. Berlin used the lake Tegeler See as the source of its drinking water while Tegel and Reinickendorf dumped their wastewater into it.

The “act for the formation of a new municipality of Berlin” was intended to create a uniformly governed, uniformly supplied and uniformly managed metropolis. The vote was held on 27 April 1920 in the Prussian State Assembly on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße (today the Berlin Parliament on Niederkirchnerstraße). Not all of the parties were represented at their full strength; 84 of 402 representatives were absent, 67 of them unexcused. The votes were counted in ten minutes: 165 yes votes to 148 no votes with five abstentions. The leftwingers cheered. The rightwingers booed.

Berlin is made up of self-sufficient villages.

Rainer Klemke, historian

“This act is the greatest administrative act that was ever accomplished in Berlin,” raves Rainer Klemke. “Berlin was already Europe’s largest industrial city before 1920, but a city makes better progress as a larger community. The more compartmentalised it is, the harder it is to solve problems. It is better to manage it uniformly.”

Norwegerstraße is located below Bösebrücke on the former patrol road that the East German border troops used for their patrols. Klemke continues his walk there. He heads south in the direction of the Behmstraße bridge. The TV Tower rises in the distance. Built by Deutsche Post der DDR (the East German post office) from 1965 to 1969, the tower, at 368 metres, is the highest building in Germany.

Norwegerstraße is part of the Berlin Wall Trail. The walking and cycling trail, created from 2002 to 2006, marks the course of the former border to West Berlin. It runs for about 160 kilometres around the former island city. Display panels provide orientation and information about the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall.

From the Behmstraße bridge, Klemke continues along the Schwedter Steg, a long, elevated walkway. An S-Bahn train, coming from Gesundbrunnen, rattles along the long curve that leads to Bornholmer Straße station. The tracks are part of the Ringbahn, a 37-kilometre-long rail route that runs around central Berlin. The first section began operation in July 1871.

Wild grasses, bushes and trees grow below the bridge. Klemke peers across the area: “The biggest 1848 demonstration in the German Reich took place here: 20,000 of Berlin’s 400,000 inhabitants at the time took part.” He is referring to the German Revolution of 1848/49, the failed revolution. Klemke reaches the Mauergarten, or “wall garden”, via Schwedter Straße. Children play on playgrounds, two boys hone their skateboard skills, a girl splashes around in a puddle. Birch trees, bushes and grasses proliferate. A rustic idyll. “Essentially,” says Klemke, “Berlin is made up of self-sufficient villages.”

There have never been people who’ve seen themselves as “Greater Berliners.” The people of Spandau, for example, a city five years older than Berlin, saw themselves as Spandauers before the Greater Berlin Act entered into force. And they tried to leave Greater Berlin in 1923. Local patriotism remains widespread. Most Berliners, whether they were born here or moved here, see their neighbourhood as the centre of the world. Rainer Klemke confirms the notion: “Everyone moves about in their neighbourhood.” He grew up in Wilmersdorf, which was already a large city before the Greater Berlin Act, but he has always “wholeheartedly felt like a Berliner.” This is also because as a boy he used to explore the entire city on his bike. 

Berlin has already been so many things! “Mother city” (“metropolis” in ancient Greek) of the modern era, ground zero for megalomania and fanatical racist ideology, frontline in the Cold War, and the testing ground for German reunification.

In 1921, the writer Heinrich Mann spoke of “Berlin, the human workshop.” Berlin has “plainly become the epitome of that which is urban,” wrote the folklorist Gottfried Korff, “and that with all of the contradictions and paradoxes of the boulevard and the allotment garden, the Romanisches Café (a popular artist’s café in what is today Breitscheidplatz) and neighbourhood insularity, a sea of buildings and the sounds of the forest, cosmopolitanism and intolerance.”

Potsdamer Platz 1938: one of the city's busiest intersections and site of Germany's first traffic light was emblematic of the buzz of Berlin, the metropolis.
Photo: imago images 

It was a fast-paced time. “Cash up! Come on! The big city screams: No time! No time! No time!” wrote the author and satirist Walter Mehring, characterising the pace of life in Berlin back in 1919. Eight years later, Walter Ruttmann visualised this hustle and bustle in his documentary film, Berlin – Symphony of a Great City.

“The metropolis as the epitome of the era of mass society, the metropolis as a machine, as a system of movement for masses of people, streams of products, money and traffic. The new human, the Berliner in the time after 1918, found fulfilment in being swept along by the rapid progress and, if possible, by accelerating it,” wrote the historian Bodo-Michael Baumunk on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th birthday in 1987. The genre of film proved to be “a great communicator of the myth of the metropolis”. Metropolis from 1927, for example, in which Fritz Lang depicted “the imaginings of his time of a Babylon-New York-style skyscraper city of the future.”

In those years, Berlin was the centre of the German economy. Every fourth German company listed on the stock market was headquartered in Berlin, including the Reichsbank and the stock exchange itself. With its electronics, technology and metal industries, not to mention a textile sector with many large and small companies, it was the largest industrial city in Europe.

Berlin attracted attention worldwide for its research and development. Albert Einstein led the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Otto Hahn conducted research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Otto Heinrich Warburg decrypted the metabolism of tumours at Charité Hospital - and all three received a Nobel Prize for their work.

The crises that shook the city and state received no less attention: within 14 years, the government changed 21 times and trust in democracy faded. As a result of the hyperinflation of 1923 and the 1929 stock market crash, the trigger for the Great Depression, social inequalities and political radicalism deepened.

The Weimar Republic died on 30 January 1933 with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich. One thing followed the next: raids, boycotts, employment bans, imprisonment and executions, the disciplining of society, the start of the Second World War and planning of the Holocaust (the Wannsee Conference), resulting in the deaths of millions.

Berlin was never a Nazi stronghold. But an inactive majority allowed the unimaginable to happen and an active minority could not stop it. In the 12 years of Hitler’s dictatorship, the city lost everything that had distinguished it, especially its freedom of spirit.

Amidst the ruins of Berlin in 1945, the French philosopher and sociologist Raymond Aron told the American historian Fritz Stern: “Oh, when you think that this century should have been German. Germany destroyed everything itself. And Berlin was just about to show up the older, more glamourous cities of Europe.”

The end of the war in 1945. Alexanderplatz in ruins. This photo is date 1 May. Berlin surrendered a day later. The building in the centre of the photo is the former Hermann Tietz ( which was re-named Hertie after "aryanisation" in 1933).
Photo: imago images/ITAR TASS

The lasting effects of the world war can be felt especially in the Mauergarten, or wall garden, that Rainer Klemke enters as he continues walking south. A building comes into sight, Max-Schmeling-Halle, named after the heavyweight-boxing champion from 1930 to 1932, and which opened in 1996. The hall was where the opening game of the 2007 Men’s Handball World Championship was played. Germany beat Brazil - and later won the title.

From the Mauergarten, we continue to Mauerpark, situated between Wedding in the west and Prenzlauer Berg in the east. This patch of land has been many things over the course of history: parade grounds, terminus and freight depot for the Nordbahn, death strip. Today, it’s an inviting park, a place to stroll, to picnic, to sunbathe, to hang out and, every Sunday, visit a flea market.

The air is sticky and sweat starts to drip. Klemke climbs a low hill. The path leads to a stadium, Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark, built in 1952. The last East German football cup final took place here in 1991. Rostock beat Eisenhüttenstadt. The remains of the former border installation still stands at the rear side of the stadium: a 300-metre-long stretch of the “interior wall”. It’s been freshly whitewashed to make space for new graffiti.

I feel bad for everyone who can’t live here!

Anneliese Bödecker, social worker

Eberswalder Straße and Bernauer Straße lay at the foot of the hill. A M10 tram rolls by. Rainer Klemke remarks: “The first city tram ran here, back in 1908.” Berlin’s tram network is the third largest in the world, following Melbourne and St. Petersburg.

History at every turn alone cannot be the reason that so many people find Berlin fascinating. The city can also be very frustrating. Anneliese Bödecker, social worker and recipient of the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin (1999), found Berlin to be “repulsive, loud, dirty and grey,” and the Berliners to be “unfriendly and inconsiderate, gruff and opinionated.” However: “I feel bad for everyone who can’t live here!”

So, what is it that makes this city so appealing? Rainer Klemke takes a while to answer. He ponders and finally says: “Openness.” After another pause to think, he adds: “Berlin is the only city in the world where you can feel like a native after four weeks. That’s one quality of the city. It’s astonishing how much this city absorbs people. I don’t know any other city in the world as international as Berlin.”

Berlin is the home or adopted home of more than 775,000 people from more than 190 countries. Forty per cent of the nearly 14 million tourists that visited the city in 2019 came from abroad.

Berlin was already popular in the 1920s. In keeping with the spirit of the motto (and song) Jeder einmal in Berlin (Everyone should visit Berlin once) that the Office for Expositions, Fairs and Tourism used to advertise the city, visitors streamed in from around the world. The transformation of Berlin into a megacity was particularly evident in culture. At some point, there were four opera houses, three large revue theatres, three vaudeville houses, as well as countless other theatres, cabarets and small stages.

This Berlin was liberal, lusty, shameless. The writer Stefan Zweig called the city the “Babel of the world.”

Party people in1922. This watercolour b Lutz Ehrenberger is titled "At 5 in the morning!" Then as now, there was always a reason to carouse.
Photo: dpa picture alliance / akg images

Today’s Berlin is not inferior to yesterday’s in any way. It’s the only city in the world to boast three opera houses. The city is home to 150 theatre stages (spoken word, musical, cabaret, vaudeville), 175 museums and 300 galleries as well as one of the most popular film festivals in Europe, the annual Berlinale.

The Berlin of today is also liberal.

The appeal of Berlin is now fed by the idea that here everyone can live however they want: have breakfast in a café until the late afternoon, admire Nefertiti in the Neues Museum, doze the day away on a field in a park, see Katharina Thalbach’s production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Deutsche Oper, chow down on a currywust or dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant, have a nightcap at a Späti (late-night convenience store): a beer or a schnapps or both.

After 1945 Berlin could not act independently for decades. The city became the headquarters of the Allied Command and the Allied Supervisory Council for all of Germany and, as a four-sector city, ground zero for the conflict between the western powers (USA, Britain and France) and the Soviet Union. The key events of this period were:

- The Berlin Blockade 1948/49. Because the victorious powers could not or did not want to agree on a currency reform, the Soviet Union blocked all supply lines to West Berlin. In response, the Western powers supplied the city via the Berlin Airlift (“raisin bombers”). The “first battle of the Cold War” (Egon Bahr, politician) led to the division of municipal authorities and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (May 1949) and the German Democratic Republic (October 1949).

The Berlin Airlift of 1948/49. West Berliners watch a US Air Force "Raisin Bomber" land at Tempelhof Airport.
Photo: imago images/United Archives International/Henry Ries

- The Uprising of 1953. East German policies designed to “accelerate the expansion of socialism” and increased work norms triggered a wave of protest in East Berlin. When the Red Army quelled the demonstrations, at least 55 people were killed.

- The Berlin Ultimatum of 1958. The Soviet Union demands the conclusion of a peace treaty with Germany within six months and the withdrawal of the western powers from West Berlin, which it said should become a “free and demilitarised” city. The USA makes it clear that it will defend the city. The ultimatum deadline lapses without consequences.

- The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. East Germany sealed off the borders to West Berlin. Thus began the construction of the Berlin Wall (officially called the “anti-fascist protection rampart”). This allowed East Germany to end the politically and economically motivated mass exodus of its citizens. By 1989, at least 140 people had been killed at the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall goes up in August 1961. East Berlin workers pile brick upon brick down the middle of Bernauer Straße as West Berlin policemen and bystanders watch dumbfounded.
Photo: dpa picture alliance

Klemke continues the walk along the Berlin Wall trail via Schwedter Straße and Kremmener Straße. The trail runs parallel to Bernauer Straße, and crosses Wolliner Straße, Swinemünder Straße and Ruppiner Straße. Steel strips in the ground show the course of the interior wall, the signal fence and sentry path. Panels and audio posts tell the history of the Wall. There’s a row of postwar buildings, amidst them, construction sites. Some seem to have been abandoned for some time, judging by the weeds. Klemke says: “The developers are still speculating.”

At 47 Brunnenstraße, one finds the Conrad Schumann Memorial, a giant photo hanging from a facade. The photo shows the 19-yearold East German border guard jumping over a roll of barbed wire into the West while taking off the shoulder belt of his gun. The photo was shot on 15 August 1961, two days after East Germany sealed the border.

The consequences of the Berlin Wall are more present on Bernauer Straße than anywhere else. Here, the Berlin Wall Memorial opened in the late 1990s. The number of visitors coming here has grown forty fold: from 30,000 per year to 1.2 million.

Bernauer Straße. Since the creation of Greater Berlin, the southern side has been in Mitte. The northern side is in Wedding. After 1945, the sector border ran down the middle of the street. Steel poles mark the course of the Berlin Wall after 1961 on the southern side. They are as high as the wall was: 3.6 metres.

Steel strips are embedded in the ground here, too. They mark the old escape tunnels, such as the one that led under Bernauer Straße to Strelitzer Straße. In early October 1964, 57 people escaped to the west over the course of two days via a tunnel in the rear courtyard of number 55. During an exchange of bullets, a sergeant with the border troops, Egon Schultz, was accidently shot by a comrade. East Germany claimed he was shot by someone aiding the escapees.

Peace reigns where seeds can be sown.

Rainer Klemke

Rainer Klemke approaches an oval-shaped building with slow steps. This is the Kapelle der Versöhnung (Chapel of Reconciliation), built on the foundation of the Versöhnungskirche (Church of Reconciliation). Prayer services for the victims of the Berlin Wall are held here every Tuesday through Friday. A field of rye surrounds the chapel. “It was planted in 2005,” says Rainer Klemke. “Peace reigns where seeds can be sown.”

The main highlight of the Berlin Wall Memorial is a border installation, consisting of interior wall, signal fence, patrol road and L-shaped wall segment as well as a guard tower in original condition that was placed there later. The installation joins a freestanding wall made of rusted steel, the Window of Remembrance. Here one encounters the portraits of 130 people who were shot at the Berlin Wall or who died in fatal accidents. A nearby pole remembers the eight East German border guards who were killed.

At the beginning of the Cold War, divided Berlin embarked on a search for a new identity. West Berlin saw itself as an outpost, an island of freedom, and the showcase of the West. Year after year, a lot of money flowed from the West German capital Bonn to the city (the Berlin allowance). East Berlin reimagined itself as the capital of East Germany, as a model city of socialism. Like its western sister, it lived at the cost of the rest of the country. Products were available here that couldn’t be found in other East German cities. To clean the city up for its 750-year celebration in 1987, the construction industry across the country was mobilised.

Alternative scenes developed in both halves of the city, communities of people who opposed the state. In the second half of the 1960s, West Berlin became the centre of the “extra-parliamentary opposition” (or APO, as it is known by its German initials). The student movement pushed for democratisation of the universities, opposed the emergency legislation of the West German government and fought against the suppression of the crimes of the Nazis, America’s war in Vietnam and against capitalism itself. Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, a civil rights movement arose in East Berlin in the church congregations, peace and environmental groups that all played a critical role in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Healing the wounds of divided Berlin, not only in terms of urban development, was a chief priority after the reunification of the two German states. The capital city became the workshop for reunification.

The Brandenburg Gate in September 1989. East German border guard the Wall, clueless that it is destined to fall two months later.
Photo: dpa picture alliance/Horst Sturm

Berlin became the German capital with the ratification of the Unification Treaty in September 1990. However, it was not until after the Bundestag in Bonn had approved the motion pertaining to the “completion of the reunification of Germany” in June of 1991 with a majority of 18 votes that the seat of government and parliament was moved to Berlin.

The Berlin Wall had already mostly disappeared by 1991. Numerous segments and countless pieces were auctioned off around the world. The rest was crushed and sold as road surface. The longest surviving segment can be found along the Spree river in Friedrichshain. The East Side Gallery, 1.3 kilometres long, was painted by artists from around the world. By 1994, the soldiers disappeared. The American, British and French troops were gone by June, the Russians left in August.

The reborn metropolis didn’t flourish as hoped. Financial incentives were cut, jobs were lost, people moved away. To reinvigorate itself, Berlin pursued a merger with the state of Brandenburg. The Berliners voted in favour of it in 1996 (53.4 per cent), but the Brandenburgers voted against (62.7 per cent).

The Brandenburg Gate in September 2010. Rebuilt Pariser Platz has become beloved with tourists taking a stroll.
Photo: dpa picture alliance/Jens Kalaene

Since the 1990s, Berlin has seen its fair share of both bright and dark times. Brighter moments included: Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag art action in 1995, which attracted five million visitors; the 2006 Men’s Football World Cup still remembered as the “summer fairy tale”. The Berlin banking scandal of 1994 falls into the category of “shady”; as does the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport construction scandal. The new BER airport opens this October after an nine-year delay.

The city has become a place of yearning for those who seek to define their lives for themselves.

Jens Bisky, writer

“Nearly all players in the development of the city have seemed overwhelmed in the last three decades,” writes Jens Bisky in his book Berlin. Biographie einer großen Stadt (Berlin. Biography of a Great City). With federal politicians frightened of Berlin, state politicians squandering money and district politicians concentrating only on their neighbourhoods, sloth-like architects and vapid journalists, naive bohemians and nagging average citizens. But, he adds, “All of them achieve something great in their overreach, in fighting against and working with each other. The city has become a place of yearning for those who seek to define their lives for themselves.”

And yet not everyone gets that chance. According to statistics, the city is one of the four German states where the danger of falling into poverty is the greatest (as of 2019).

The walk nears its end. Rainer Klemke strolls onto Gartenstraße and from there enters the below-ground Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station, originally opened in 1936 as Stettiner Bahnhof, part of the adjacent train station of the same name. The station became part of a restricted zone when the Berlin Wall was built. A permanent exhibition hangs on the station walls. Graphics and photographs show where trains ran in divided Berlin, or, better said, where they did not. As a border station, Nordbahnhof was a so-called ghost station.

“The history of this city is so unbelievably multi-faceted,” says Klemke, before bidding farewell. “You learn something new at least every week.”

How do the millions of visitors experience Berlin, though? At Platz des 9. November 1989, where Klemke began his walk, someone has written in big Cyrillic letters on the old inner wall: “Mama, ja w Berline” (“Mama, I’m in Berlin”). It reads like a cause for celebration.