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History of Berlin

Berlin is a city with a short but intensive history. It's not an old city - it's only a little over 750 years old - and didn't become anything more than a minor regional capital until well past the middle Ages. Most of the historical events associated with the city took place during the turbulent years of the 20th century - dictatorship, war and division - and even many Berliners know little of what shaped the city before 1900. So join us on a short tour of Berlin's history from its origins to the present day.


Up until around a thousand years ago, the area around the present-day Berlin was occupied by various Slavic peoples living in small agricultural settlements with some hunting. Very little is known about this period, as buildings were mainly constructed of wood and no written documents have survived.

Map of Berlin around 1230 AD
Berlin and Kölln around 1230

Beginning in the 10th century AD Germanic kingdoms in the west of modern-day Germany began an expansion eastwards, extending Germanic settlements towards the Oder River (the current boundary between Germany and Poland, some 60km / 40 miles east of Berlin). At some point the first settlements were constructed on the site of modern day Berlin at a point on the River Spree where it branches into two points (the Spreeinsel), making for both an easy river crossing and a well-defendable settlement. The settlement on the Spreeinsel was known as Kölln (taking its name from Köln, or Cologne), and another settlement on the northeastern bank of the Spree was known as Berlin.

The Origins of Berlin

The first recorded mention of Koelln was in 1237 - this is the date generally used to mark the establishment of Berlin - and Berlin itself in 1244. By 1307 both settlements had merged to construct better defences and established a common town hall.

Map of Berlin and Cölln from 1652
Map of Berlin in 1652

By the 15th century Berlin (which had absorbed its long-time twin town Coelln) had grown to become one of the major towns in the German state of Brandenburg, and the rulers of Brandenburg - the Hohenzollern family - made Berlin their official residence during the late 15th century. The Thirty Years' War, (1618 - 1648) brought great suffering to the city, which was forced to pay for a standing army, and suffered destruction and epidemics. By the conclusion of the war, Berlin's population had fallen to 6,000, about half its former size.

Berlin's recovery came during the rule of the Great Elector, Frederick William of the Hohenzollern family. Frederick William ruled Brandenburg from 1640 to 1688 and encouraged industry and infrastructure projects. It was during his reign that the first great canal, the Oder-Spree-Kanal, was built, giving Berlin a direct link to the Baltic.

Prussian Berlin

Frederick William's son Frederick I became the first king of Prussia in 1701 and made Berlin his capital. In 1710, Berlin, Kolln, and three neighbouring communities merged as the city of Berlin. During the 18th century, Berlin grew from a small town to a thriving trading and manufacturing centre, aided by an influx of Hugenot refugees from France who brought new industries and cultural influences. The arts and sciences flourished, and industry expanded rapidly.

The early 19th century brought invasion by the armies of Emperor Napoleon I, who occupied Berlin from 1806 to 1808. Following their departure, the city recovered rapidly and prospered as the capital of Prussia, which had become a leading German power. The city gained its first railway lines during the 1840s to complement its excellent river and canal links, and quickly became a centre of industry and commerce.

Part 2: Berlin in the 20th Century