Today marks the twenty-ninth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.
Berlin played a central role in the fall of communism and the triumph of liberalism. When the wall that had divided Berlin was abruptly and joyfully torn down in 1989, the city changed human history.
Today, Berlin is the most populous city in the whole European Union, with around 3.8 million residents. Famed for its history, art, music, and graffiti, Berlin attracts millions of tourists each year, as well as many business travelers. The city’s economy revolves around the high-tech and service industries, and the metropolis is a major transportation hub.
The site where Berlin now stands has been inhabited since at least the 9th millennium BCE, with many artifacts such as arrowheads surviving from ancient villages in the area. During the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the primary residents were members of the Lusatian culture, an agricultural people notable for cremating rather than burying their dead. Various tribes migrated through the region, and by the 7th century CE, Slavic people populated the area. Berlin’s name likely means “swamp” in Polabian, a now-extinct Slavic language.
The similarity between the city’s name and the modern word bear (bär in German), along with the bear on the city’s coat-of-arms, has led to a popular misconception that the city is named after the animal. The coat-of-arms was actually given to the city by a nobleman known as Albert the Bear, who took control of the area in the 12th century when he established the Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1157.
Officially founded in 1237 (although in fact established before that), Berlin endured a tumultuous couple of centuries. Despite a devastating fire in 1380, Berlin managed to reach a population of around four thousand residents by 1400. Berlin then suffered considerable damage during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) but again rebounded, seeing a burst of growth after becoming the capital of the new kingdom of Prussia in the 18th century. As the seat of Prussian power, the city was a center of administration and entrepreneurship. Workshops sprang up, and Berlin became known for its skilled craftsmen.
By the 19th century, limited access to power generated by water wheels forced the city to adopt steam power early. Harnessing steam energy allowed Berlin to industrialize rapidly and become a major producer of everything from clothing and chemicals to heavy machinery. The city’s central location made it Germany’s rail transportation hub, and Berlin was soon an economic powerhouse.
As the city grew prosperous, it became a sanctuary for the German Romanticism movement, hosting painters, musicians, poets, and writers. The Austrian-born Romantic composer Franz von Suppé (1819–1895) is alleged to have written lyrics that translate to “You are crazy my child, you must go to Berlin / where the crazy ones are / there you belong.” While those lyrics (made famous by citation in a 1958 film) are likely a later addition to a melody that Suppé composed, they nonetheless capture the creative spirit that took hold of the city. Berlin soon gained a reputation as a home for artistic “misfits” from across the continent.
In the 20th century, Berlin maintained that reputation as German Expressionist painters and filmmakers experimented with new styles in the city. Despite growing economic and political instability throughout the Weimar Republic, Berlin was a renowned nightlife and creative center during the Roaring Twenties. The city’s thinkers also made notable contributions to science, and its universities gained increasing prominence. The physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 while working at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
The intellectual freedom that pervaded the city was suddenly and dramatically extinguished with the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) and the establishment of the totalitarian Third Reich (1933–1945). Many of the artists and scientists who had put the city on the map, including Einstein, fled Berlin to escape Adolf Hitler’s (1889–1945) genocidal rule. After Hitler’s defeat at the end of World War II, the Allies divided Germany into four different occupation zones. The Soviet Union gained control of the eastern part of Berlin and declared the city the capital of the new Soviet satellite state in East Germany.
East Germany’s official name was the German Democratic Republic. Its government was modeled after the Soviet Union’s, complete with central planning, state ownership of the means of production, limits on private property, de facto single-party rule, censorship, a vast spy and repression network, and an ostensible commitment to class equality.
West Berlin and West Germany quickly recovered from WWII and grew wealthy, but the tight government controls on East Germany’s economy prevented a similar recovery. While perhaps history’s best natural experiment testing capitalism against communism, the partition was devastating for the people of East Germany. Between 2.5 and 3 million East Germans escaped to the West. By 1961, it is thought that around a thousand East Germans fled daily, many through Berlin. Those with advanced education or professional skills were particularly likely to make a run for freedom. As the young socialist state hemorrhaged many of its brightest citizens, its leaders grew desperate. Walter Ulbricht, the chief decision-maker in East Germany, received the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to stop the outflow with a physical barrier.
In August 1961, soldiers erected a barbed-wire barricade to block access from East Berlin to West Berlin. The wire barrier was then replaced by an enormous wall. The Berlin Wall was made of solid concrete blocks, stood six feet tall, and ran for 96 miles. Officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) manned the wall’s guard towers, searchlights, and machine-gun posts at all times. The barrier separated families and friends.
A secret police force called the Stasi headquartered in East Berlin monitored the citizens’ private lives to detect and prevent escape plans or any activity that might challenge communist rule. The Stasi mass surveillance campaign included covertly reading all mail sent through the state-run postal system, setting up a vast network of informants, and installing wiretaps in the homes of numerous citizens.
The Stasi sought to psychologically destroy dissidents identified by its spies through a program known as Zersetzung (“decomposition”). Stasi operatives manipulated victims’ lives to disrupt their careers and all of their meaningful personal relationships (for example, by planting false evidence of adultery into a couple’s life). The goal was for the victim to wind up companionless, a social and professional failure, and utterly lacking in self-esteem. The program is thought to have involved up to ten thousand victims and irreversibly damaged at least five thousand minds. (Today, recognized Zersetzung survivors receive special pensions.)
Despite the risks, the frequent material shortages and relative poverty generated by the dysfunctional communist system motivated a continuous stream of East Germans to attempt escape. Between 1961 and 1988, well over 100,000 East Germans tried to cross the Berlin Wall, but almost all were apprehended. At least six hundred were gunned down or otherwise killed during the attempt to flee to the West. Only about five thousand crossed successfully in the twenty-seven-year period.
On June 26, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered what is considered one of history’s greatest speeches in West Berlin. His words resonated with Berliners:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin! There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin! … Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us … [T]he wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the communist system … All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’
While East Berliners dreamed of escape, West Berlin thrived and once again attracted groundbreaking artists and musicians. In the late 1970s, the English singer David Bowie called West Berlin “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” His 1977 song Heroes, written in Berlin and inspired by the sight of a couple embracing by the Berlin Wall, has since become an unofficial anthem of the city and of resistance to totalitarianism more broadly. (After the singer’s death in 2016, the German government even recognized the song’s impact and thanked Bowie for his role in “helping to bring down the Wall.”) Other musical successes of West Berlin during the period include the 1983 antiwar anthem 99 Luftballons.
Opposition to the Berlin Wall continued to mount. In 1987, while staying in West Berlin, the U.S. president Ronald Reagan famously called on the Soviet leader to remove the barrier, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On November 9, 1989, as socialism’s unviability became increasingly hard to deny and the Cold War thawed, East Berlin’s Communist Party spokesman unexpectedly announced that crossing the Berlin Wall would be legal at midnight. A tidal wave of East and West Berliners rushed to the wall, chanting “Tor auf!” (“Open the gate!”). At midnight, long-separated friends, family members, and neighbors flooded across the barrier to reunite and celebrate.
More than two million East Berliners are believed to have crossed into West Berlin that weekend, resulting in what one journalist described as “the greatest street party in the history of the world.” Revelers joyously graffitied and smashed apart the wall with hammers while bulldozers demolished other sections.
The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of widespread support for communism and a global turn toward policies of greater economic and political freedom. “For West Germans, nothing changed other than postcodes. For East Germans, everything changed,” as one German living in the former East told Reuters.
The city was reunited, but even today, the economic and psychological scars of the Cold War partition can be felt. East Berlin is still plagued by higher levels of dishonesty and lower levels of trust than West Berlin, although East Berliners have mostly caught up to their West Berlin counterparts when it comes to life satisfaction.
The story of Berlin reads like a parable about the importance of freedom. The breaching of the wall not only freed millions of Germans from poverty and despotism but proved to be a pivotal moment in history that helped millions of other people achieve greater economic and political freedom as well. For tearing down the wall, Berlin has won its place as our twenty-ninth Center of Progress.