What’s Doing in Berlin

By Daniel Berg on 30 May 2014
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Berlin is a city of contrasts: a historic European capital and a contemporary cultural mecca; a political nexus for the European Union  and a center of reactionary movements; a dynamic city with an eye to the future and a worldly metropolis haunted by the grim specters of its tragic past. Berlin has seen great wonder and great suffering through the centuries, and has weathered the vicissitudes of history as few other cities in the world. Despite these trials and tribulations, Berlin has, in the past two decades, reemerged in the global spotlight as a cosmopolitan destination for businessmen and bohemians alike, after nearly half a century as a divided city,

Originally the provincial capital of a distant principality of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin was first brought to prominence by the Hohenzollern family of Prussian nobility, who shaped and guided the fledgling burg’s development for generations, from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment and beyond. Berlin eventually became the capital of a unified Germany in 1871, largely due to Prussian military prowess and the success of the blood and iron diplomacy favored by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Germany’s defeat in the First World War led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, marking the end of centuries of Hohenzollern rule. After a period of chaos and turmoil when communists and nationalists fought bloody battles in the streets, the Weimar Republic was founded in 1918, taking its name from the German city where the new constitution was signed. The Golden Twenties were a time of cultural flowering, artistic boom, and fall into decadence for Berlin, immortalized in the prose of Christopher Isherwood and plays of Bertolt Brecht, the paintings of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, the films of Fritz Lang and the music of Kurt Weill. The period ended on a dark note when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933.

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The Bode Museum and Fernsehturm as seen from Weidendammer Brücke

The Berlin of the mid-20th century is tragically linked with the Third Reich and the city would be a very different place today if Hitler had his way. Fortunately, despite the dictator’s best efforts, the brutalist monumentalism of an imagined Welthauptstadt Germania never came to be. Instead, the heavily damaged, ruined city was partitioned among the victorious Allies and, during the Cold War, the former capital became a covert battleground in the cloak and dagger intrigues of East versus West.

Berlin has healed many of its divisions since reunification in the early 90s. Made up of many vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own distinct feel and flavor, contemporary Berlin mingles the diversity and multicultural vibe of a world city with a laid-back attitude.

Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg to the north have become notable as a center for a growing number of German and international startups, especially in the area dubbed Silicon Allee near Rosenthaler Platz.  The southern districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln have drawn a steady flow of young creatives with the availability of affordable living and studio space in renovated Altbau buildings and former industrial structures

Friedrichshain to the east, known for its wild nightlife, has the feel of a college town, albeit one where one is as likely to hear English, French, and Spanish as German. To the west are Tiergarten and the residential neighborhood of Schöneberg, as well as Charlottenburg, an upscale neighborhood known for its green spaces, charming Hohenzollern palace, and upmarket restaurants and cocktails bars.

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