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The recent past

Berlin had a rough entry into the 21st century. In 2001 the city finally plunged into the deep financial crisis that had been looming for years. Accused of mismanagement, excessive spending and corruption during his 15-year period in office, mayor Eberhard Diepgen of the centre-right CDU (Christian Democratic Union) was forced to resign. Klaus Wowereit, representing the centre-left SPD (Social Democrat Party), became his successor after the 2001 elections, and formed an unprecedented governing coalition with the postcommunist PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, recently renamed Linkspartei or Left Party).

Even after five years in office, however, the so-called 'Red-Red Coalition' has not yet been able to improve Berlin's balance sheet. Painful, across-the-board spending cuts, federal subsidies and other measures have so far done little or nothing to kick-start the city's economic engine or bring down the unemployment rate. Some economic branches are blooming, though, such as fashion, design and tourism. It helps, but just not enough.

Multiculturalism and the integration of immigrants have been other hot topics around dinner tables in recent years. In early 2005, a wave of 'honour killings' of young Muslim women wishing to live a western lifestyle, shocked not only Berliners but the world as well. Schools in Kreuzberg where every single student is of Turkish descent have raised the spectre of Parallelgesellschaften (parallel societies) and challenged Berliners' legendary tolerance.

But the news isn't all dire. Berlin continues to take shape, with the opening of the Holocaust Memorial, the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) and the Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station) being just three of the most high- profile recent additions. And in 2006, the entire city was awash with World Cup fever, with Berliners ready to welcome the global community in with open arms and hearts, to put aside their worries for a month and do what they do best…party!

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Medieval Berlin

Berlin is very much an accidental capital, whose birth was a mere blip on the map of history. Some time in the 13th century, itinerant merchants founded a pair of trading posts called Berlin and Cölln near today's Nikolaiviertel. It was a profitable spot along a major medieval trade route, about halfway between the fortified towns of Köpenick and Spandau. Supported by the local ruler, the Ascanian margrave of Brandenburg, the settlements flourished and, in 1307, decided to merge into a single town for political and security purposes.

Things looked good until 1319, when the death of the Ascanian ruler created a power vacuum. It left the fledgling town vulnerable to robber barons eager to fatten their coffers by attacking traders and cities. Despite such adversity, Berlin managed to expand its rights and independence, even becoming a player in the Hanseatic League in 1359.

Such confidence became a thorn in the side of Elector Friedrich of Hohenzollern, who was installed as Brandenburg's new ruler by Sigismund, one of the kings in the Holy Roman Empire, in 1417. Although he helped Berliners defeat the robber barons, he also eliminated many of their hard-won political and economic liberties. The Hohenzollern clan would remain in power, without interruption, until 1918.

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Reformation & thirty years war

The Reformation, kick-started in 1517 by the monk Martin Luther in nearby Wittenberg, was slow to arrive in Berlin. Eventually, though, the wave of reform reached Brandenburg, leaving Elector Joachim II (ruled 1535-71) no choice but to subscribe to Protestantism. On 1 November 1539, the court celebrated the first Lutheran-style service in the Nikolaikirche in Spandau. The event is still celebrated as an official holiday in Brandenburg, the German state that surrounds Berlin, although not in the city state of Berlin itself.

Berlin prospered for the ensuing decades until drawn into the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), a conflict between Catholics and Protestants that left Europe's soil drenched with the blood of millions. Elector Georg Wilhelm (ruled 1620-40) tried to maintain a policy of neutrality, only to see his territory repeatedly pillaged and plundered by both sides. By the time the war ended, Berlin lay largely in shambles - broke, ruined and decimated by starvation, murder and disease.

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Road to a kingdom

Stability finally returned during the long reign of Georg Wilhelm's son, Friedrich Wilhelm (ruled 1640-88). Also known as the Great Elector, he took several steps which helped chart Brandenburg's rise to the status of a European powerhouse. His first order of business was to increase Berlin's safety by turning it into a garrison town encircled by fortifications. He also levied a new sales tax, using the money to build three new neighbourhoods (Friedrichswerder, Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichstadt), a canal linking the Spree and the Oder rivers (thereby cementing Berlin's position as a trading hub), as well as the Lustgarten and Unter den Linden.

But the Great Elector's most lasting legacy was replenishing Berlin's population by encouraging the settlement of refugees. In 1671, 50 Jewish families arrived from Vienna, followed in 1685 by Huguenots from France, who had been expelled by Louis XIV's anti-Protestant regime. The Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) on Gendarmenmarkt serves as a tangible reminder of Huguenot influence. Between 1680 and 1710, Berlin saw its population nearly triple to 56, 000, making it one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire.

The Great Elector's son, Elector Friedrich III, was a man of great ambition and had a penchant for the arts and sciences. Together with his beloved wife, Sophie Charlotte, he presided over a lively and intellectual court, founding the Academy of Arts in 1696 and the Academy of Sciences in 1700. One year later, he advanced his career by promoting himself to King Friedrich I (elector 1688-1701, king 1701-13) of Prussia, making Berlin a royal residence and the capital of the new state of Brandenburg-Prussia.

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The age of Prussia

All cultural and intellectual life screeched to a halt under Friedrich's son, Friedrich Wilhelm I (ruled 1713-40). He was frugal, boorish and, frankly, a bit odd. His main obsession was building an army of 80,000, which earned him the nickname Soldatenkönig (Soldier King). His brutal conscription methods launched a mass exodus of thousands of able-bodied men and their families, seriously cramping Berlin's economic development until he rescinded the draft in 1730. Even the Lustgarten was turned into an exercise ground for the king's beloved soldiers, who never even saw action on the battlefield.

The army did, however, come in handy for his son and successor Friedrich II (ruled 1740-86), better known to English speakers as Frederick the Great and to his subjects as der alte Fritz (Old Freddy). He set his covetous eyes on Silesia, in today's Poland, and before long the new king was engaged in a series of wars with Russia and Austria before finally achieving his goal in 1763. When not busy on the battlefield, Freddy was actually quite a culturally sensitive fellow who sought greatness through building. His grand architectural masterplan for Unter den Linden, although never completed, gave Berlin the Staatsoper (State Opera House), Sankt-Hedwigs-Kathedrale, the Humboldt Universität (Humboldt University) and other major attractions.

Frederick also embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment, abolishing torture, guaranteeing religious freedom, and introducing legal reforms. Some of the brightest minds of the day flocked to town during his reign, including the philosopher Moses Mendelsohn, the poet Gotthold Emphraim Lessing, the all-around talent Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother Alexander, a naturalist and explorer. Intellectual salons, organised by women such as Henriette Herz and Rahel Levin, provided an open forum of discussion for anybody, regardless of social standing or religious background. Berlin flourished as a great cultural centre and even became known as Spree-Athen (Athens on the Spree).

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Napoleon & reforms

After the death of Frederick the Great, Prussia went into a downward spiral, culminating in its defeat by Napoleon's forces at Jena, around 400km southwest of Berlin, in 1806. On 27 October in 1806 Napoleon marched through the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), signalling the beginning of a three-year occupation of Berlin. The humiliation was compounded by the financial burden of astronomical war reparations and from citizens having to billet thousands of French troops in their homes. But Napoleon also provided the opportunity for Berliners to have their first taste of self-government, instituting a city administration with elected leaders.

When the French eventually left, it seemed there was no going back to the old system. Public servants, academics and merchants now questioned the right of the nobility to rule. Friedrich Wilhelm III (ruled 1797-1840) reacted with a string of token reforms - such as lifting restrictive guild regulations, abolishing bonded labour and granting Jews civic equality - but meaningful constitutional reform was not forthcoming, and power continued to be centred in the Prussian state.

The ensuing period of political stagnation was oddly paired with an intellectual flourishing in the cafés and salons. The newly founded Universität zu Berlin (Humboldt Universität) quickly grew in status, attracting such luminaries as Hegel and Ranke to its faculty. This was also the age of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose many projects - from the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) to the Altes Museum (Old Museum) - still beautify Berlin.

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The ascent of Friedrich Wilhelm IV (ruled 1840-61) to the throne in 1840 revived hopes for reform, but in the end he proved just as reactionary as his father. In 1848 Berlin got caught up in the region-wide bourgeois revolutions, calling for a national German state and demanding basic, democratic rights. Faced with demonstrations in his own backyard, the king made some concessions, including the right to assemble, and freedom of the press. However, the following day, soldiers opened fire on 10, 000 people who had gathered in celebration and all hell broke loose. Sheltered merely by barricades, people fought with pitchforks, axes, stones and other improvised weapons. After a night of hostilities that left over 200 dead, the king ordered his troops back and ostensibly proclaimed support for liberalism and nationalism. An elected Prussian national assembly met on 1 May but disagreements between the different factions kept it weak and ineffective, and it dissolved in December. The revolution was dead.

The political revolution may have failed, but the 'industrial revolution' certainly didn't. With manufacturing trades already well established by the 18th century, Berlin developed into a centre of technology and industry right from the dawn of the Industrial Age. The building of the German railway system (the first Berlin to Potsdam track opened in 1838) led to the founding of more than 1000 factories, including electrical giants AEG and Siemens. In 1841, August Borsig built the world's fastest locomotive, besting even the British in a race.

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Birth of an empire

When Friedrich Wilhelm IV suffered a stroke in 1857, his brother Wilhelm became first regent and then, in 1861, King Wilhelm I (ruled 1861-88). Unlike his brother, Wilhelm had his finger on the pulse of the times and was less averse to progress. One of his key moves was to appoint Otto von Bismarck as Prussian prime minister in 1862.

Bismarck's big dream was to create a Prussian-led unified Germany. An old-guard militarist, he waged war against Denmark (with Austria as his ally) over Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, then beat Austria itself in 1866, forming the North German Confederation the following year. He isolated France, manoeuvred it into declaring war on Prussia in 1870, then surprised Napoleon III by securing the support of most southern German states. By 1871, Berlin stood as the proud capital of a unified Germany. On 18 January, the king was crowned Kaiser at Versailles, with Bismarck as his 'Iron Chancellor'. The German Empire ('Deutsches Reich'- Germany's official name until 1945) was born.

The early years of the German Empire - a period called Gründerzeit (Foundation Years) - were marked by major economic growth, fuelled in part by a steady flow of French reparation payments. The population boomed as hundreds of thousands of people poured into Berlin to find work in the factories. Housing shortages were solved by building countless Mietskasernen (literally 'rental barracks'), labyrinthine tenements built around successive courtyards, where entire families subsisted in tiny and poorly ventilated flats without indoor plumbing.

New political parties formed to give a voice to the proletariat, most prominently the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party of Germany). Founded in 1875, it captured 40% of the Berlin vote only two years later. Bismarck, who was no fan of democratic ideals, quickly passed a law making the party illegal, but this did nothing to diminish its popularity. In the end, the Iron Chancellor's deep-rooted aversion to real reform prompted his downfall. Soon after Wilhelm II (ruled 1888-1918) came to power, a rift arose between the Kaiser, who wanted to extend the social security system, and Bismarck, who wanted to enact ever-stricter antisocialist laws. Finally, in March 1890, the Kaiser excised his renegade chancellor from the political scene.

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WWI & revolution (again)

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, on 28 June 1914, triggered a series of diplomatic decisions which led to the bloodiest European conflict since the Thirty Years' War. In Berlin and elsewhere, initial euphoria and faith in a quick victory soon gave way to despair as casualties piled up in the battlefield trenches and stomachs grumbled on the home front. When peace came with defeat in 1918, it also ended domestic stability, ushering in a period of turmoil and violence.

On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, bringing an inglorious end to the monarchy and 500 years of Hohenzollern rule. Power was transferred to the SPD, the largest party in the Reichstag, and its leader, Friedrich Ebert. This would not go unchallenged. Shortly after the Kaiser's exit, prominent SPD member Philipp Scheidemann stepped to a window of the Reichstag to announce the birth of the German Republic. Two hours later, Karl Liebknecht of the Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) proclaimed a socialist republic from a balcony of the royal palace on Unter den Linden. The struggle for power was on.

Founded by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the Spartacist League sought to establish a left-wing Marxist-style government; by year's end it had merged with other radical groups into the Communist Party of Germany. The SPD's goal, meanwhile, was to establish a parliamentary democracy.

Supporters of the SPD and Spartacist League took their rivalry to the streets, culminating in the Spartacist Revolt in early January. On the orders of Ebert, government forces quickly quashed the uprising. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and murdered en route to prison; their bodies were dumped in the Landwehrkanal.

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The Weimar republic

In July 1919, the federalist constitution of the fledgling republic - Germany's first serious experiment with democracy - was adopted in the town of Weimar, where the constituent assembly had sought refuge from the chaos of Berlin. It gave women the vote and established basic human rights, but it also gave the chancellor the right to rule by decree - a concession that would later prove critical in Hitler's rise to power.

The so-called Weimar Republic (1920-33) was governed by a coalition of left and centre parties, headed by President Friedrich Ebert and later Paul von Hindenburg - both of the SPD, which remained Germany's largest party until 1932. The republic, however, pleased neither communists nor monarchists. Trouble erupted as early as March 1920 when right-wing militants led by Wolfgang Kapp forcibly occupied the government quarter in Berlin. The government fled to Dresden, but in Berlin a general strike soon brought the 'Kapp Putsch' to collapse.

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The 'golden' twenties

The giant metropolis of Berlin as we know it today came into existence 1920 when the government amalgamated the region's towns and villages (Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, Spandau, etc) under a single administration. Overnight Berlin became one of the world's largest cities, with around 3.8 million inhabitants.

Otherwise, the 1920s began as anything but golden, marked by the humiliation of a lost war, social and political instability, hyperinflation, hunger and disease. Around 235, 000 Berliners were unemployed, and strikes, demonstrations and riots became nearly everyday occurrences. Economic stability gradually returned after the introduction of a new currency, the Rentenmark, in 1923, and the passage of the Dawes Plan in 1924, which limited the crippling reparation payments imposed on Germany after WWI.

For the next few years Berlin experienced a cultural and artistic heyday that rivalled, perhaps even exceeded, events in Paris. It became a cauldron of experimentation, a hub of hedonism, a centre of tolerance and, yes, decadence. Bursting with creative energy, it was a laboratory for anything new and modern, drawing giants of architecture (including Bruno Taut, Martin Wagner, Hans Scharoun and Walter Gropius), fine arts (George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Lovis Corinth) and literature (Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky, WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood). In 1923, Germany's first radio broadcast hit the airwaves over Berlin, and in 1931 TV had its world premiere here.

The fun came to an instant end when the US stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the entire world into economic depression. Within weeks, half a million Berliners were jobless, and riots and demonstrations again ruled the streets. The volatile, increasingly polarised political climate led to frequent confrontations between communists and members of a party that had only just begun to gain momentum - the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party, NSDAP, or Nazi Party), led by a failed Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler.

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Hitler's rise to power

Hitler's NSDAP gained 18% of the national vote in the 1930 elections. Buoyed by his success, Hitler challenged President Paul von Hindenburg of the SPD in 1932, winning 37% of the second-round vote. A year later, on 30 January 1933, faced with failed economic reforms and persuasive right-wing advisors, Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reichskanzler (Reich chancellor). That evening, Nazi supporters celebrated their rise to power with a torch-lit procession through the Brandenburg Gate.

The following month, Hitler blamed the 27 February fire that had mysteriously broken out at the Reichstag on communists, and persuaded Hindenburg to grant him emergency powers so he could 'protect the people and the state'. On 24 March, parliament met at Berlin's Kroll Opera House (destroyed in WWII) to pass the 'Enabling Law' - essentially assigning Hitler dictatorial powers and making itself redundant. The Nazi dictatorship had officially begun.

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Berlin under the Nazis

The totalitarian Nazi ethos had immediate, far-reaching consequences for the entire population. Left-leaning parties, including the SPD and communist groups, were banned, along with trade unions. Freedom of the press ceased to exist. Terror was the rule of the day.

Hitler's brown-shirted thugs of the Sturmabteilung (storm troopers; SA) went after opponents with a vengeance, arresting, torturing and murdering countless people. Improvised concentration camps sprang up almost immediately, such as the one at the Wasserturm in Prenzlauer Berg. North of Berlin, construction began on a large formal concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. The brutality of Hitler's henchmen knew no bounds: during the so-called Köpenick Blood Week alone, in June 1933, almost 100 people were murdered. On 10 May, right-wing students burned 'un-German' books on Bebelplatz, prompting countless intellectuals and artists to rush into exile.

Jews, of course, were a main target right from the start. In April 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Gauleiter (district leader) of Berlin and newly appointed Minister of Propaganda, announced a boycott of Jewish businesses. By autumn, hundreds of Jewish professors had lost their jobs and more than half of Berlin's 40 synagogues had closed. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 revoked German citizenship for Jews and outlawed marriage between Jews and people deemed as 'Aryans'.

Hitler demanded absolute loyalty and had no qualms about turning against anyone even remotely perceived as wanting to challenge his authority. The SA, for instance, had grown into a huge organisation and become an obstreperous bunch by 1934. With rumours of revolt circulating, on 30 June the elite SS troops (Schutzstaffel, Hitler's personal guard) rounded up and executed scores of high-ranking SA officers, including their leader, Ernst Röhm, in the SS barracks in Lichterfelde - an event that went down in history as the 'Night of the Long Knives'. Later that year, after Hindenburg's death, Hitler merged the position of president and chancellor and made himself supreme Führer (leader).

The international community, meanwhile, turned a blind eye to the situation in Germany, perhaps because many leaders were keen to see some order restored to the country after decades of political upheaval. Hitler's success at stabilising the shaky economy, especially the eradication of unemployment through public works programmes, also garnered him some admirers. The 1936 Olympic summer games in Berlin were a PR triumph, as Hitler launched a charm offensive to distract the world from the everyday terror of his regime. On 1 August athletes from 49 nations marched into the imposing Olympiastadion in western Charlottenburg. Germany took home the lion's share of medals (42), beating the Americans by seven.

Terror and persecution resumed as soon as the closing ceremony's last fireworks had evaporated into the night sky. For Jews, the horror escalated on 9 November 1938, with the Reichspogromnacht (often called Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass). Nazi thugs shattered the windows of Jewish businesses and shops throughout Berlin and all of Germany, looting and torching many of them. In the aftermath, all Jewish businesses were transferred to non-Jews through forced sale at below-market prices. Jews had begun to emigrate after 1933, but this event set off a stampede. Very few of those who remained in Berlin - about 60, 000 - were still alive in 1945.

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On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, kicking off the 20th century's second pan- European conflict. This time the war was not greeted with pleasure in Berlin, whose people still remembered the hunger years of WWI and the early 1920s. Again the hostilities brought food shortages and increasing political oppression.

Belgium, the Netherlands and France fell quickly to Germany and, in June 1941, Hitler attacked the USSR, opening up a new front. Though successful at first, 'Operation Barbarossa' soon ran into problems, forcing Hitler's troops to retreat. With the defeat of the German 6th army at Stalingrad (today Volgograd) the following winter, morale flagged at home and on the fronts.

The fate of Jews deteriorated after the outbreak of war. At Hitler's request, a conference in January 1942 on Berlin's Wannsee came up with the Endlösung (Final Solution) : the decision to systematically annihilate all European Jews in what came to be known as the Holocaust. Gays, Roma and Sinti (commonly referred to as Gypsies), priests, dissidents and other regime opponents were targeted as well. In the end more than six million people perished in dozens of concentration camps, most of them in Eastern Europe. About 500, 000 survived to be freed by Soviet and Allied soldiers in 1945. In Berlin, the new Holocaust Memorial is one of many commemorating this grim period in history.

Resistance to Hitler was rare. The most famous act was the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt led by Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg. A high-ranking officer in the military, Stauffenberg had access to the Wolfschanze (one of Hitler's military headquarters in Gierloz, near Ketryzyn in Poland), and personally placed a briefcase packed with explosives below the conference table near Hitler's seat. The bomb detonated but Hitler escaped with minor injuries thanks to the solid oak table which shielded him from the blast. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were shot that night at the army headquarters in the Bendlerblock in Berlin. Hundreds of others, many of them completely unaffiliated with the coup, were later executed at Plötzensee prison. Both locations are now memorial sites.

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The battle of Berlin

With the Normandy invasion of June 1944, Allied troops arrived in formidable force on the European mainland, supported by unrelenting air raids on Berlin and most other German cities. In the last days of the war Hitler, broken and paranoid, ordered the destruction of all remaining German industry and infrastructure, a decree that was largely ignored.

The final Battle of Berlin began in mid-April 1945. More than 1.5 million Soviet soldiers barrelled towards the capital from the east, reaching Berlin on 21 April and encircling it on 25 April. Two days later they were in the city centre, fighting running street battles with the remaining troops, many of them boys and elderly men. On 30 April the fighting reached the government quarter where Hitler was ensconced in his bunker behind the Chancellery, with his long-time mistress Eva Braun - whom he'd married just a day earlier. That afternoon, Hitler shot Braun and then himself.

Two days later Berlin surrendered to the Soviets. Red Army soldiers stormed the Reichstag and set it alight. On 7 May 1945, Germany capitulated. Peace was signed at the US military headquarters in Reims (France) and at the Soviet military headquarters in Berlin-Karlshorst, now a museum.

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The aftermath

WWII took an enormous toll on Berlin and its people, as the civilian population had borne the brunt of the bombings. Entire neighbourhoods lay in smouldering rubble, with more than half of all buildings and one-third of industry destroyed or damaged. At least 125, 000 Berliners had lost their lives. With around one million women and children evacuated, only 2.4 million people were left in the city in May 1945 (compared to 4.3 million in 1939), two-thirds of them women. It fell to them to do much of the initial clean-up, earning them the name Trümmerfrauen (rubble women). Over the following years, enormous amounts of debris were piled up into so-called Trümmerberge (rubble mountains), artificial hills such as the Teufelsberg in the Grunewald.

Some small triumphs came quickly after the shooting stopped: U-Bahn service resumed on 14 May 1945, newspaper printing presses began rolling again on 15 May, and the Berliner Philharmonie gave its first postwar concert on 26 May.

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Politics of provocation

In line with agreements reached at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. Berlin was sliced up into 20 administrative areas. The British sector encompassed Charlottenburg, Tiergarten and Spandau; the French got Wedding and Reinickendorf; and the Americans were in charge of Zehlendorf, Steglitz, Wilmersdorf, Tempelhof, Kreuzberg and Neukölln - all these areas later formed West Berlin. The Soviets, meanwhile, held on to eight districts in the east, including Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Treptow and Köpenick; the future East Berlin. The Soviets also occupied the zone surrounding Berlin, leaving West Berlin completely encircled by territories under Soviet control.

In July and August of that year, the victorious powers met in Schloss Cecilienhof in Potsdam to discuss the future of Germany. Friction between the Western Allies and the Soviets quickly emerged. For the Western Allies, a main priority was to help Germany get back on its feet by kick-starting the devastated economy. The Soviets, though, insisted on massive reparations and began brutalising and exploiting their own zone of occupation. Tens of thousands of able-bodied men and POWs ended up in labour camps deep in the Soviet Union. In the Allied zones, meanwhile, democracy was beginning to take root as Germany elected state parliaments in 1946-47.

An escalation of tensions led to a showdown in June 1948, when the Allies introduced the Deutschmark in their zones without having consulted the Soviets. Furious, the USSR issued its own currency, the Ostmark, and used the incident as a pretext for an economic blockade of West Berlin. The goal was to bring all of Berlin under its control but the Allies would have none of it. Led by Lucius D Clay, the US commander in Berlin, their response was quick and effective: Berlin would be supplied from the air. The Berlin Airlift miraculously saved the city from being absorbed into the Soviet empire.

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The two German states

In 1949 the division of Germany - and Berlin - was formalised. The western zones evolved into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD, Federal Republic of Germany or FRG) with Konrad Adenauer as its first chancellor and Bonn on the Rhine River as its capital. The Marshall Plan pumped millions of dollars into reconstruction in West Germany, and helped usher in an economic boom called the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that began in the 1950s and lasted through most of the 1960s. The policies of its architect, economics minister Ludwig Erhard, encouraged investment and capital formation, and beckoned guests workers from southern Europe (mainly Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Italy) to address a manual labour shortage. This created many of the ethnic communities that characterise Berlin and other German cities today.

The Soviet zone, meanwhile, grew into the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR, German Democratic Republic or GDR), making East Berlin its capital and Wilhelm Pieck its president. From the outset, though, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany) led by party boss Walter Ulbricht dominated economic, judicial and security policy. In order to oppress any dissent, the notorious Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, was established in 1950 and had its headquarters in Lichtenberg. Regime 'enemies' were incarcerated at the super-secret Stasi Prison nearby.

Movement between the two Berlins remained fairly open; West Berliners went east to visit friends or see a play, East Berliners came across to stock up on consumer goods or catch a movie. Starting in 1951, however, the GDR imposed restrictions on West Berliners wanting to travel outside the city. Suddenly, visiting family in Leipzig or Magdeburg required applying for a permit.

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The 1953 uprising

By 1953, the first signs of discontent had appeared in the GDR. Production bottlenecks stifled industrial output, heavy industry got priority over consumer goods, and increased demands on industrial workers bred bitterness. Furthermore, the death of Stalin that year had raised hopes of reform but brought no real changes. Poverty and economic tensions merely prompted the SED to raise production goals even higher.

Strikes and calls for reform turned to civil unrest in urban and industrial centres, culminating in violence on 17 June 1953. Construction workers on Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee got the ball rolling, but demonstrations quickly spread, eventually involving at least 10% of the workforce. It didn't do any good, of course. Soviet tanks quickly quashed the uprising, leaving scores dead (many of them executed) or condemned to lifelong prison terms.

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The wall goes up

As the GDR government became ever-more oppressive, the trickle of refugees to the West swelled into a stream. Eventually, the exodus of mostly young and well- educated people strained the GDR economy to such a degree that the SED built a wall to keep them in. Construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War's most potent symbol, began on the night of 13 August 1961. The inner-German border was fenced off, heavily guarded and mined.

This stealthy act left Berliners stunned. Formal protests from the Western Allies, as well as massive demonstrations in West Berlin, were ignored. Tension reached a boiling point on 25 October, as US and Soviet tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie. The Berlin Wall subsequently became the setting of countless escape attempts, of which the most spectacular are detailed in the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum. By the time the Wall collapsed on 9 November 1989, almost 200 people had been killed trying to get across it.

The building of the Wall marked a new low in East-West relations worldwide, and tense times were to follow. In 1963, US President John F Kennedy made a visit to West Berlin, praising locals for their pro-freedom stance in his famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech at the Rathaus Schöneberg, and putting the city firmly on the front line of the Cold War.

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The era of Erich Honecker (1912-94), who succeeded Walter Ulbricht as general secretary of the SED in 1971, opened the way for rapprochement with the West and international recognition of the GDR. A major breakthrough came in September 1971, with the signing of the Four Power Agreement in the Kammergericht in Schöneberg. It charged the governments of West Berlin and the GDR with finding ways to regulate access between the rest of West Germany and West Berlin, and to secure the right of West Berliners to visit East Berlin and the GDR. Negotiations resulted in the Transit Agreement of 1972, which regulated the right of GDR citizens to visit West Germany, but only in family emergencies. Anyone visiting East Berlin, meanwhile, was saddled with a compulsory exchange of Deutschmarks for the weak Ostmark based on a 1:1 exchange rate.

Still, the talks had gone so well that both sides agreed to take things a step further and create a comprehensive treaty between the two Germanys. In the Basic Treaty, signed in December 1972, the two countries recognised each other's independence and sovereignty, accepted each others' borders, and committed to normalising their official relations by, among other things, setting up 'permanent missions' in Bonn and East Berlin, respectively.

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Student unrest & terrorism

In West Germany the two major parties, the CDU and the SPD, formed a so-called 'grand coalition' in 1966. The absence of parliamentary opposition was among the factors fuelling an increasingly radical student movement with Berlin's Freie Universität (Free University; FU) at its centre. At sit-ins and protests, students demanded an end to the Vietnam War and a reform of Germany's dated university system and teaching programs. These demonstrations were a thorn in the side of the government and crack-downs sometimes turned violent.

On 2 June 1967 police shot and killed unarmed student Benno Ohnesorg near the Deutsche Oper in Charlottenburg, during a protest against the visit of the Shah of Iran. It was the first demonstration Ohnesorg had attended. His death was a key event in the history of the student movement and brought into the fold scores of people who had previously remained on the sidelines. Another pivotal moment came a year later, on 11 April 1968, when Rudi Dutschke - the movement's charismatic leader at the FU - was shot in the head by a young worker outside his organisation's office on Kurfürstendamm. He survived, but students blamed the right-wing publishing house of Axel Springer for inciting the event, having run such headlines as 'Stop Dutschke Now!'.

By 1970 the movement had fizzled, but not without having shaken up the country and bringing many changes, including university reforms, politicisation of the student body and, eventually, the formation of the Green Party (Dutschke was a founding member).

Some of the most radical students, though, felt these accomplishments hadn't gone far enough and went underground. Berlin became the germ cell of the terrorist Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF, Red Army Faction), led by Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. Throughout the 1970s the RAF abducted and assassinated prominent business and political figures throughout Germany. By 1976, however, Meinhof and Baader had committed suicide (both in prison) and remaining members found themselves in jail, in hiding, or seeking refuge in the GDR. Eventually that country's demise would expose them to West German attempts to bring them to justice.

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The wall comes down

The Wende (turning point) began in September 1989, when East Germans starting defecting to the West after Hungary opened its border with Austria. The SED responded by tightening travel restrictions, but nothing could stop the flow of people seeking refuge in West German consulates and embassies in East Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.

Supported by church leaders, the Neues Forum (New Forum) of opposition groups emerged, leading calls for human rights and an end to the SED political monopoly. By this time East Germany was losing about 10, 000 citizens a day, and on 4 November 1989, about 500, 000 demonstrators gathered on Berlin's Alexanderplatz demanding political reform.

The replacement of Honecker by Egon Krenz did not stave off the day of reckoning. On 9 November 1989, SED spokesperson Günter Schabowski told GDR citizens in a televised press conference that all travel restrictions to the West had been lifted. Asked when exactly this move would take effect, Schabowsky stared at his notes, then stuttered, mistakenly, 'Right away'. The misunderstanding, however, was only with regard to the date, not the actual lifting of the restrictions.

Soon thereafter, tens of thousands rushed through border points in Berlin, watched by perplexed guards, who did nothing to intervene. West Berliners went into the streets to greet the visitors, and tears and champagne flowed. Amid scenes of wild partying, mile-long parades of Trabants (cars manufactured in the GDR) the two Berlins came together again, united to the sound of - would you believe it - David Hasselhoff crooning Looking for Freedom.

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Government representation and opposition groups soon met for round-table discussions to hash out a course for the future. In March 1990, free elections in the GDR brought to power an alliance headed by the CDU's Lothar de Maizière. The SPD, which took an equivocal view of reunification, found itself punished by voters. The old SED administrative regions were abolished and the original states (Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia) revived. The newly united city of Berlin became a separate city-state. Economic union took force in mid-1990, and in August 1990 the Unification Treaty was signed in the Kronprinzenpalais on Unter den Linden. A common currency and economic union became realities in July 1990. Also in July, Pink Floyd replayed the original set of their 1980's album The Wall to a crowd of 200, 000 (and TV audiences of millions worldwide) on Potsdamer Platz.

In September 1990 the BRD and the GDR, the USSR, France, United Kingdom and the United States met in Moscow to sign the Two-Plus-Four Treaty, ending postwar occupation zones and paving the way for formal German reunification. One month later the East German state was dissolved; in December Germany held its first unified post-WWII elections.

In 1991, a small majority (338 to 320) of members in the Bundestag (German parliament) voted in favour of moving the government to Berlin and of making Berlin the German capital once again. On 8 September 1994 the last Allied troops stationed in Berlin left the city after a festive ceremony.

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The Berlin Republic

In 1999 the German parliament moved from Bonn to Berlin, convening its first session in the restored Reichstag building on 19 April. The ministries quickly followed, as did diplomats, government agencies, industrial associations and lobbyists - an estimated total of 15, 000 people. A Regierungsviertel (government quarter) around the Reichstag sprang up, with new offices for parliamentarians, sleek embassies and, most notably, the striking Chancellery.

Elsewhere, too, the face of Berlin has greatly changed since reunification. An architectural frenzy has rejuvenated most of the central areas, restoring the Mitte district to its rightful place as the city's heart. The cultural vibrancy of the 1920s has returned with a vengeance, transforming Berlin from a political curiosity to a vital presence among European capitals. The city exudes a new sophistication and a greater internationalism than ever before, and signs of creative energy, construction and modernisation abound wherever you look.

But not everything is rosy in Berlin or the new Germany. Scandals surrounding the financial dealings of former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and his unification government rocked the political establishment in 2000, and shook many people's faith in politicians, and the Berlin Senate's overenthusiastic investment has effectively bankrupted the city. Whatever its domestic problems, however, Berlin seems to have put its worst days firmly behind it.

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