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12 Historical Events That Shaped Berlin

Picture of Brienne Pierce
Updated: 30 September 2016
Today Berlin is one of the most celebrated and renowned cultural epicenters in Europe. Here’s the rich and tumultuous history that shaped it into the diverse and unique city it is today.

The Fall of The Berlin Wall

Probably one of the most readily anticipated answers on this list, after all the fall of The Berlin Wall is one of the most famous events in history, but other than reunite the two previously separated regions, how did it really affect Germany? For one thing, it was a springboard for the celebrated nightlife scene in Berlin as well as birthing the artistic culture this city is now known for.

The East was abandoned, littered with ownerless buildings and empty grocery stores. People commandeered these empty infrastructures and turned them into nightclubs and havens for artists, with youths from both East and West agreeing on techno as their soundtrack of choice. People used ruined buildings to start collectives, clubs and places to explore their interests.

Taking over Tacheles

Originally a Jewish department store, then a Nazi prison, Tacheles became the art centre it is today in 1990. Tacheles is a Yiddish word that means ‘straight talk’, inspired by people who wanted to simply come and discuss art and drink beer.

Tacheles was an art gallery, a workshop, a night-club, and whatever else it was needed to be. It embodied the spirit of Berlin, the metropolis of change and cultural progress. The building was a reminder that freedom of expression was alive, and everyone from Anarchists to Dadaists flocked to it. Sadly, it has recently been demolished, but for many years after the fall of The Wall it was a haven for artists and freethinkers alike.

World War II

There were immense political consequences after World War II that are immediately obvious, such as the erection of The Berlin Wall to divide combative political ideologies from the allies who had taken over. However, the damage of the war can be seen more subtly through the city’s architecture. So much of Berlin was destroyed that the city had to rebuild itself. In some ways it was considered a ‘rebirth’, a chance to implement new strategies in urban planning with focuses on aesthetic and modernization.

For those buildings that weren’t destroyed, the vestiges of war can be felt and seen in the bullet holes. In particular, many of the buildings in East Germany didn’t have the money to rebuild, which is why so many years after the war the wounds can still be seen. This devastation gave Berlin its beloved juxtaposition of history and modernity.

The Old Town of Cölln

The Altes Museum, the Neues Museum and the Bode Museum inhabit this isle of culture. Today, it is known as Museum Island, but it used to be the northern part of a town called Cölln. Thanks to the existence (and later dissolution) of this 13th-century town, Berlin has a hub of museums that in 1999 was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Museum Island is a distinctive and iconic part of Berlin’s attractive cultural ecosystem. The name Cölln still survives in a now very trendy neighborhood called Neukölln, meaning ‘new Cölln.’

The German Student Movement

West Berlin served as one of the main centers to a new and radical way of thinking. Students all around Germany were frustrated and fed up with the hypocrisy of their government. They wanted the university to consider their needs, rather than concerning itself churning out degrees. This marked a major shift in terms of youth thought, as many German students prior to the 1960s had been more conservative. This movement marked the birth of a more leftist way of thinking and an upheaval in student activism.

Ich Bin Eine Berliner

This infamous line pronounced ‘correctly’ by the late JFK at a speech given in West Berlin was a moment that honored freedom. It offered an uplifting sentiment to those in West Berlin in the 1960s who feared a potential East German occupation. This speech reinforced US policies in the aftermath of The Wall and offered a reminder that freedom is an incredible, celebratory gift. JFK’s words were so positively received by Western Berliners that they renamed the public square in front of Rathaus Schöneberg, John-F-Kennedy-Platz.

The Brandenburg Gate

It’s safe to assume any Instagrammer who has searched ‘Berlin’ has stumbled upon a picture of The Bradenburg Gate. The ubiquitous symbol of the city was commissioned by Frederick William II to represent peace. The gate was intended to mirror the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens, as demonstrated by its neoclassical architecture.

Many different political parties and agendas have utilized the gate: Napoleon used it for a triumphant march while the Nazis used it as a party symbol. The gate survived World War II and later became a message of freedom and unity after The Wall came down. This extraordinary piece of architecture has worn many hats, but most importantly it has shown fortitude and resistance to defeat.

The Love Parade

Months after The Wall was taken down in the warmth of July, a techno parade was born in West Germany. It was pioneered by Matthias Roeingh (Dr. Motte), a key player in the techno scene at the time, and his girlfriend. The first parade consisted of only 150 people who wanted to promote their ideas through music. The main ideas behind the event included peace, understanding, and fair food production/distribution. After years of oppressive rule, surveillance and separation, the German people wanted to come together and champion ideals they believed in, all through the vehicle of electronic dance music.

The Invention of Currywurst.

True Berliners know the gluttonous glory of this otherworldy delicacy; whether it’s five in the morning outside Suicide Circus or two in the afternoon in Mitte, it’s always a good time for Currywurst. The invention of Currywurst is credited to Herta Heuwer in Berlin in 1949. Apparently, Heuwer acquired some ketchup and curry powder from the British Soldiers who were in Germany at the time. Instead of stopping after the ketchup, Heuwer wisely added other spices before drowning a grilled pork sausage in it. Herta started selling the snack at a street stand in the Charlottenberg. It became a favorite of construction workers who were there rebuilding the city.

The First International Dada Fair

The golden twenties weren’t only exploding in Paris, Berlin has some bragging rights for that time period as well. The post-war world was one of relief. People could breathe again. Not only that, they had things to share after experiencing such devastation. Art took on a new form. It boasted raw and shocking tendencies. The Otto Bouchard Gallery held the first International Dada Fair in 1920 organized by Haussmann, Heartfield and Grosz. Photomontage signified the quintessential aspect of Berlin Dada and was often used by Haussmann. This fair gave an opportunity for subversive art to showcase itself in response to the often stuffy typical academic art salons. Berlin subsequently became the hotspot for international Dadaism.

The Fernsehturm

The erection of the TV tower took place in the mid 1960s and was commissioned by the GDR, as it was necessary for East Berlin to have its own television broadcast system at the time. Several architects later, it has become the tallest tower in Germany and one of the most prominent landmarks in Berlin. It can be seen from various locations throughout Berlin and it offers even better views of the city from the top. It is a must-see for many tourists and a symbol of home for many Berliners.

German Unity Day

Most people are familiar with the date November 9th 1989 – the day The Berlin Wall came down. It wasn’t until almost a year later, however, on October 3rd 1990, that the journey of unification was officially complete. This is the true symbol of integration and unity. Germany had been separated for so many years by combative ideological view points and differing political agendas that became physically manifest in the The Wall. Families were separated, friends weren’t able to see each other, and artists could be blacklisted if the party leaders found them to be too subversive.