By David Clay Large

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In the political history of the past century, no city has played a more prominent-though often disastrous-role than Berlin. At the same time, Berlin has also been a dynamic center of artistic and intellectual innovation. If Paris was the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” Berlin was to become the signature city for the next hundred years. Once a symbol of modernity, in the Thirties it became associated with injustice and the abuse of power. After 1945, it became the iconic City of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has again come to represent humanity’s aspirations for a new beginning, tempered by caution deriving from the traumas of the recent past. David Clay Large’s definitive history of Berlin is framed by the two German unifications of 1871 and 1990. Between these two events several themes run like a thread through the city’s history: a persistent inferiority complex; a distrust among many ordinary Germans, and the national leadership of the “unloved city’s” electric atmosphere, fast tempo, and tradition of unruliness; its status as a magnet for immigrants, artists, intellectuals, and the young; the opening up of social, economic, and ethnic divisions as sharp as the one created by the Wall.



Also by David Clay Large

Between Two Fires:
Europe’s Path in the 1930s

Germans to the Front:
West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era

The Politics of Law and Order:
A History of the Bavarian Einwohnerwehr

Where Ghosts Walked:
Munich’s Road to the Third Reich


David Clay Large

A Member of the Perseus Books Group

For Karl


(AKG = Archiv Für Kunst und Geschichte; BPK = Bilderarchiv preussicher Kulturbesitz; LBS = Landesbiltstelle; Ullstein = Ullstein Bilderdienst)

Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) and Lustgarten, 1900 (LBS)

Kaiser Wilhelm I enters the Pariser Platz during the victory celebration in Berlin on June 16, 1871 (BPK)

Siegessäule, 1930 (LBS)

Reichstag, 1896 (LBS)

Bismarck with Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888 (BPK)

Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), circa 1930 (LBS)

Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDaWe), 1910 (LBS)

Siegesallee, circa 1903 (LBS)

The Iron Rolling Mill: Modern Cyclops by Adolf von Menzel (BPK)

Käthe Kollwitz, circa 1905 (AKG)

Preparations for the Berlin Secession exhibition in 1904 (Bundesarchiv)

Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape, 1913 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, circa 1900 (LBS)

Hotel Adlon, 1914 (LBS)

Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute for Sexual Research (LBS)

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, 1909 (Ullstein)

Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaims war from a balcony of the Royal Palace, August 1, 1914 (BPK)

Berliners admire a model trench in a local park, 1915 (BPK)

Hungry Berliners carve up a horse cadaver, 1918 (BPK)

Elephants from the Berlin Zoo pressed into service during World War I (Ullstein)

Claire Waldoff, Berlin’s favorite cabaret artist (LBS)

The “Iron Hindenburg” statue on the Königsplatz (LBS)

Soldiers returning from the front march through the Brandenburg Gate, December 1918 (BPK)

Revolutionaries man a machine gun atop the Brandenburg Gate, January 1919 (LBS)

An armored truck belonging to the Kapp forces, March 1920 (BPK)

Gustav Böss, governing mayor of Berlin, 1921–1930 (LBS)

Walther Rathenau in 1921, a year before his assassination (LBS)

Money being transported to a Berlin bank during the Great Inflation, 1923 (BPK)

German children demonstrating that it takes 100,000 marks to buy one U.S. dollar in early 1923 (Author collection)

Jews in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel, 1929 (LBS)

Romanisches Café, 1925 (LBS)

Bertolt Brecht, circa 1925 (LBS)

A scene from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene (BPK)

Fritz Lang, photographed in 1945 (AKG)

A scene from Lang’s Metropolis, 1925/26 (BPK)

The First International Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920 (BPK)

The Haller Review at Berlin’s Admiralspalast (BPK)

Kempinski Haus Vaterland on the Potsdamer Platz (AKG)

Erich Mendelsohn’s “Einstein Tower,” Potsdam, 1924 (LBS)

Elevated train at Gitschiner Strasse, 1930 (BPK)

Josephine Baker in her famous “banana skirt” (AKG)

Kurt Tucholsky (AKG)

George Grosz, Selbstporträt (Self-portrait), 1928 (AKG)

Alfred Döblin (LBS)

Joseph Goebbels, Berlin’s Gauleiter, 1932 (BPK)

W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender, 1930 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, 1929 (BPK)

Franz von Papen at a governmental ceremony, August 1932 (BPK)

An unemployed man sifts through garbage in search of food, 1930 (BPK)

Reichstag president Hermann Göring and two Nazi parliamentary deputies, 1932 (BPK)

Nazi torchlight parade, January 30, 1933 (LBS)

The Reichstag on fire, February 27, 1933 (LBS)

Hitler with President Hindenburg at the “Day of Potsdam,” March 21, 1933 (AKG)

Nazi-orchestrated book-burning on Berlin’s Opernplatz, May 10, 1933 (AKG)

Leni Riefenstahl directing The Triumph of the Will (BPK)

Wilhelm Fürtwangler and Richard Strauss, 1936 (BPK)

SA man warning Berliners not to patronize a Jewish-owned shop during the Jewish boycott of April 1, 1933 (LBS)

Runner carrying the Olympic Torch through the Brandenburg Gate, 1936 (LBS)

The German State Library on Unter den Linden decked out for Berlin’s 700th anniversary celebration (BPK)

Model of Hitler’s planned north-south axis, including the Arch of Triumph and the domed Hall of the People (LBS)

The Reich Air Ministry Building (Göring’s headquarters), 1937 (BPK)

Burned-out interior of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in the wake of the Night of the Broken Glass (BPK)

The exterior of Hitler’s New Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer, 1939 (LBS)

Hitler’s study in the New Chancellery (LBS)

German troops parade through the Brandenburg Gate following the defeat of France, July 18, 1940 (AKG)

The flak tower in the Tiergarten, photographed in 1945 (LBS)

Camouflage netting on the East-West Axis (formerly Charlottenburger Chaussee, currently Strasse des 17. Juni), 1941 (AKG)

The Villa Wannsee, site of the Wannsee Conference, January 20, 1942 (LBS)

Inmates at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 1943 (BPK)

A ruined block of houses in Neue Winterfeldstrasse, 1944 (LBS)

Members of the Volksturm in a maneuver near Potsdam, 1944 (BPK)

Marshal Zhukov in Berlin, 1945 (BPK)

Red Army soldier posing with Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag, May 2, 1945 (BPK)

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedenburg at the German surrender, Karlshorst, May 9, 1945 (BPK)

An American soldier poses on a flak gun in front of the destroyed Reichstag, 1945 (BPK)

Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur in a scene from Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, 1948 (Ullstein)

A Russian soldier relieves a Berlin woman of her bicycle (BPK

Russian street signs in the ruins of Berlin, 1945 (LBS)

Central Berlin in ruins, 1945 (BPK)

Trümmerfrauen (rubble women) at work, 1946 (LBS)

Performance by the Soviet army’s Alexandrov Ensemble at the Gendamenmarkt, 1948 (BPK)

Walter Ulbricht with a young Erich Honecker, 1951 (BPK)

Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, August 1945 (BPK)

Cecilienhof, site of the Potsdam Conference, 1945 (BPK)

A Berlin woman returning to the city after a successful scavenging trip to the countryside (BPK)

Ernst Reuter (LBS)

General Lucius D. Clay (LBS)

Berlin children observe approach of an American transport plane during the airlift (BPK)

Berlin children play “airlift” (BPK)

“Hurrah, we’re still alive!” proclaims this sign on the first bus to resume the interzonal route between West Berlin and Hanover following the lifting of the Berlin Blockade, May 12, 1949 (AKG)

Monument to Rosa Luxemburg at the Landewehr Canal (Author photo)

Stone blocks with Stalin’s inscriptions at the Soviet War Memorial, Treptow (Author photo)

Stalinallee, shortly after its construction (LBS)

East Berliners pelt a Russian tank with stones during the uprising of June 17, 1953 (AKG)

Markus Wolf, photographed in 1991 (Ullstein)

The People’s Army soldier Conrad Schumann leaping to freedom, August 15, 1961 (Ullstein)

The Berlin Wall (map)

A woman climbs out of her apartment at Bernauer Strasse to freedom in West Berlin (Ullstein)

Erich Honecker with Willi Stoph, 1984 (LBS)

The Stasi headquarters in East Berlin’s Normannenstrasse, photographed in 1990 (LBS)

President John F. Kennedy, West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt, and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer during Kennedy’s visit to West Berlin, June 26, 1963 (BPK)

The Gedächtniskirche ruin with its modern addition, photographed in 1998 (LBS)

The Neue Philharmonie, designed by Hans Scharoun, 1965 (AKG)

Herbert von Karajan directs the Berlin Philharmonic (AKG)

A scene from the Schiller Theater’s musical review based on Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder Stirbt Fãr Sich Allein, 1981 (Ullstein)

“Red” Rudi Dutschke, 1968 (LBS)

The La Belle discotheque after the terrorist bombing, April 5, 1986 (LBS)

A panel from the GDR mural at the House of Ministries (Author photo)

Marzahn housing estate in East Berlin (BPK)

Wolf Biermann, 1983 (AKG)

Die Puhdys, a GDR rock band, in performance in 1986 (BPK)

President Richard von Weizsäcker and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher protected by a police cordon during the president’s speech at Berlin’s Lustgarten, November 8, 1992 (Ullstein)

Gorbachev in East Berlin during the GDR’s fortieth anniversary celebration, October 6, 1989 (Ullstein)

“Wall-peckers” at work on the Berlin Wall, November 1989 (Hoover Institution)

Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall), the seat of government for Greater Berlin (LBS)

Oskar Lafontaine, Willy Brandt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Helmut Kohl, and Richard von Weizsäcker attending the German reunification ceremony at the Reichstag, October 3, 1990 (Reuters/Michael Urban/Archive Photos)

Ernst Thälmann monument, covered in graffiti, 1994 (LBS)

Pasternak Café in Prenzlauer Berg, 1999 (Author photo)

Tacheles Art Center in Oranienburger Strasse (Author photo)

The Guard’s House from Checkpoint Charlie at its new location in the Allied Museum (Author photo)

The restored Reichstag building with its new high-tech dome (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch/Archive Photos)

Marlene-Dietrich-Platz in Potsdamer Platz, 1999 (Author photo)

The International Business Center at Checkpoint Charlie, 1999 (Author photo)

Mock-up of the Royal Palace, with the Palast der Republik in the background, 1994 (LBS)

The Reichstag “wrapped” by Christo, 1995 (Hoover Institution)

The Reichstag undergoing renovation, 1997 (Author photo)

The Reichstag’s new high-tech dome, 1999 (Author photo)

Monument to the deportation of Berlin’s Jews at Grunewald Station (LBS)

Monument to the Rosenstrasse Women’s Protest, 1999 (Author photo)

Enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz’s pieta in the Neue Wache, 1999 (Author photo)

Garden of Exiles at the Jewish Museum, 1999 (Author photo)

Chancellor Gerhard Schræder at the Brandenburg Gate, 1999 (Press- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung)


THIS BOOK HAS BEEN LONG in the making, and before I take my leave of it and move on to something else, I would like to thank (whether or not they would wish to be so thanked) some of the people who assisted me in my labors.

My editor at Basic Books, Don Fehr, believed strongly enough in this project, first to commission it, and then to take it with him as he moved around the New York publishing world. John Kemmerer, also at Basic Books, provided invaluable technical assistance. My agent, Agnes Krup, helped not only with the usual contractual matters but also offered astute suggestions for improving the manuscript. My colleagues Gordon Craig, Peter Gay, Fritz Stern, and Peter Fritzsche shared with me their rich knowledge of Berlin’s and Germany’s tangled past. Niall Ferguson of Jesus College, Oxford, kindly sent me his insights on Berlin’s contemporary situation.

My greatest debt is owed to Karl Baumgart, who over the past twenty years has guided me around Berlin, introduced me to the best (and worst) Kneipen, given me a couch to sleep on, and kept me supplied with printed materials on the city when I could not be there to gather them myself. Without him this book could not have been written.


DURING A STAY IN WEST BERLIN in the fall of 1989 I decided, as I often did on visits to that city, to take a day’s excursion across the Wall to East Berlin. At that time both halves of the “Siamese city” were tense because thousands of East German citizens were demonstrating for greater freedoms, including the right to travel freely to the West; some of the protesters, hoping to settle permanently in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), had gone so far as to take refuge in the West German embassies in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, refusing to leave without the promise of safe passage to the Federal Republic. To complicate matters, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, was scheduled to arrive in the East German capital in a few days to help the German Democratic Republic (GDR) celebrate the fortieth anniversary of its foundation. On that cold early October morning when I took the S-Bahn over the Wall to the Friedrichstrasse station there were relatively few passengers on the train. As I handed my passport to a glowering border official I said cheerfully: “It looks like I’m the only one dumb enough to be traveling in this direction.” Of course I should have known better than to attempt a lame joke with an East German official—one never joked with these fellows—and I was immediately subjected to an extended tongue-lashing for insulting the majesty of the East German state. Then I was made to sit by myself for a while in a small room so that I could contemplate the enormity of my impudence. Only after an hour or so was I allowed to retrieve my passport, pay the fee for a day’s visa, and begin my short visit to the “Capital of the GDR.” It would have considerably buoyed my spirits that day had I known that the Wall I had just crossed would come down within a matter of weeks and that the state I had just “insulted” would itself collapse a year later.

Of course, I was hardly the only one who did not anticipate the incredible upheaval that was about to transform Berlin, Germany, and Europe. Virtually everyone, including the people who were supposed to know about such things, was caught off-guard by the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The world was just as astonished by what came next: the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Between these two events the parliament of united Germany made the momentous decision to shift the country’s seat of government from Bonn to Berlin, which had been the national capital from 1871 to 1945, and the capital of the GDR from 1949 to 1990.

The fall of the Berlin Wall has appropriately become a kind of shorthand for the entire reorientation of global politics since 1989, but in fact Berlin had stood at the center of European and world events for a much longer period. If Paris was the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (in Walter Benjamin’s phrase), Berlin became the signature-city of the next hundred years. No other place has so dramatically encapsulated the highs and lows of our modern human experience. “Until 1933,” writes the historian Reinhard Rürup, “Berlin had been famed as a symbol of modernity, of the capability and creative power of twentieth century man; from 1933 to 1945 it became a world-wide symbol of injustice and the abuse of power.” After 1945, of course, the city took on yet another symbolic role: that of capital of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Wall and the end of the Great Divide, Berlin has come to represent humanity’s aspirations for a new beginning, tempered by caution deriving from the traumas of the recent past.

This book is a narrative history of the city of Berlin framed by the two German unifications. These two historical moments harbor some intriguing similarities. Much of Europe watched in trepidation as the Germans marked the establishment of their new nation with a pompous ceremony at Versailles in 1871, and many Europeans shuddered anew when the two Germanys were reunited in 1990. Berlin’s elevation to the status of imperial capital under Bismarck and its selection as capital-to-be by the Bundestag in 1991 spawned economic booms, which turned the city into a playground for developers and speculators. Real estate prices shot up as Germans from other parts of the country, along with an influx of foreigners, clamored to gain a toehold on the sandy banks of the River Spree. Among the newcomers in both cases were Jews from Eastern Europe who saw the city as a haven from persecution and an arena of economic opportunity. The city’s physiognomy was instantly transformed as old buildings were renovated and new ones thrown up to accommodate the expanding population and new governmental agencies. Old-time residents complained that their town had turned into one huge construction site, overrun by outsiders. Yet while the building sprees seemed to go on interminably, the financial booms that fueled them suddenly lost momentum due to overspeculation, mismanagement, corruption, and economic crises elsewhere in Europe. In each instance, great expectations were quickly replaced by angry disillusionment and a search for scapegoats. Critical commentators, both domestic and foreign, began to assess the city more pessimistically, wondering aloud over its capacity to represent the new nation effectively. Throughout all the hand-wringing and fault-finding, however, Berliners and their backers remained convinced that the Spree city was the crucible of national destiny and the only serious choice for the center of national power.


On Sale
Nov 8, 2001
Page Count
736 pages
Basic Books

David Clay Large

About the Author

David Clay Large, Professor of History at Montana State University, is a specialist in modern German history. He is the author of Where Ghosts Walked, Germans to the Front, Between Two Fires, and Berlin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and San Francisco, California.

Learn more about this author