Welcome to Berlin!

This is a city that has constantly been overrun by history. First it was Allied bombers and Russian tanks, then it was blockades, the Cold War, and the building of the Wall. With two universities, two airports, two zoos, the city’s division seemed irreversible. But the miracle happened on the night of 9 November 1989, when the Wall fell and the door to a unified future was unlocked. Berlin subsequently experienced something of a second Gründerzeit period, particularly when the decision was made in 1991 to move the seat of government from the Rhine to the Spree. These days, Berlin is ‘sexy’, incredibly creative, and boasts great cultural and culinary diversity. People from all over the world have put down roots here in the Brandenburg soil.

How a few words brought down the Berlin Wall.

Many Germans probably still vividly remember where they were on the night of 9 November 1989, for this date is most certainly one of those moments etched in the collective memory. For more than 28 years, the Berlin Wall has been a symbol of the Iron Curtain, dividing not only Berlin, but also Germany and the world. In 1961, East Germany was still calling it a ‘temporary measure’, but it would end up existing for 10,316 days.

Because on 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, then member of the politburo of the SED’s (Sociality Unity Party of Germany) central committee, announced at a press conference in East Berlin that GDR citizens would be able to travel to the West in future. When asked when this ruling would take effect, Schabowski started stuttering, rifling through his papers (which clearly were of no help to him) before uttering the now historic words: “According to my information… immediately, without delay.”

He hadn’t got the memo that the SED leaders were not planning to announce the new ruling until the next day. Nor that, on that very night, thousands of East Germans would ‘storm’ the border-crossing points. This triggered a process that could no longer be halted, and which could ultimately reunify Berlin and Germany.

What would Berlin be without Berliners?

The present-day image and character of the city’s residents has been largely shaped by Berliner Originale (individuals and groups who excelled in popular culture due to their typical Berliner confidence and quick urban wit) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

One of these is undoubtedly the cobbler Wilhelm Voigt, better known as the ‘Captain of Köpenick’. His coup had been prepared down to the last detail. Heading a Prussian Army guard squad, Wilhelm Voigt marched from the train station to the town hall in Köpenick on the afternoon of 16 October 1906, no one suspecting in the slightest that the supposed captain could lead them a merry dance. And the uniform and cap had indeed been procured through a second-hand dealer, for the trained shoemaker had never served – except for the long jail sentence that would follow. He seized Köpenick’s town hall and swiftly arrested numerous officials before absconding with the city treasury. Prussia’s army came under fire, while the brazen trickster became an overnight media star – both in Berlin and around the world.

Ferdinand Strumpf, known as Eckensteher Nante, was another Berliner Original. He was a serviceman with the police department, and wore a brass armband bearing his work permit-holder number 22. He would stand on the corner of Königstrasse/Neue Friedrichstrasse – not far from the Destillation Eulner, where he would stop for a bite to eat. Waiting on the street corner for odd jobs, he would comment on what was happening around him with a wit that made him a Berliner Original.

In addition to many famous personalities inextricably linked with Berlin and its residents, including ‘Pinselheinrich’ (Heinrich Zille), ‘Harfenjule’ (Luise Nordmann) and ‘Bimmel-Bolle’ (Carl Andreas Julius Bolle), the Berliner Originale primarily constituted small merchants, cobblers’ apprentices, lantern-lighters, night-watchmen, vagabonds, market-women, fishwives, coal merchants, lumberjacks and cabmen.

Berlin in the Golden Twenties: The pulsating, sinful city.

There have been two times in Berlin’s history when the city has been so cutting edge that the entire world looked to it and came to see it for themselves: Today and the 1920s. And if it’s possible, things were much wilder back then, for 1920s Berlin was the city that never slept. After the war, hundreds of pubs opened their doors, attracting locals and, increasingly, visitors from all over the globe. And all the bars, drinking holes, theatres, cabaret clubs, pubs, cafés and restaurants would almost always exude a very particular vibe – a sense of eroticism and amorous adventure was in the air. It was all about bare skin, plunging necklines, kohl and lipstick for both men and women, and long cigarette holders. The legendary luxury Adlon hotel would organise tea dances, and guests would flock in their droves. Posters from this era show scantily clad beauties draped inside oversized champagne glasses. The fervent joie de vivre attracted many visitors to nightspots, with film stars, business leaders and of course the underworld all gathering at the former ‘Kakadu’ bar on the Ku’damm.

But was Berlin really the world’s biggest hotbed of sin during the 1920s? A witness to the times, Klaus Mann wrote that ‘millions of malnourished, corrupt, desperately lustful, furiously pleasure-seeking men and women’ were using their excesses as an attempt to escape the everyday reality of a world turned upside down. And the city offered a number of options for them to do just that, from simple drinking joints to high-end chandeliered bars. And Berlin was generally the city of young, fun-loving people at the time, with a third of the population aged under 18.

The soy-chai-latte district...

Many people these days consider Prenzlauer Berg to be the bourgeois area of the new Berlin. Full of prissy mothers and fathers, luxury clothing shops, stylish pubs, and overpriced rents. It is often maligned for being the place where people sip on overly frothed lattes with too much cinnamon, sitting with their overindulged children, narcissistically staring at their Smartphones. People who, along with other similarly isolated residents in their expensive penthouses and lofts, are spearheading the gentrification of Berlin.

But it wasn’t all that long ago that the district of Prenzlauer Berg represented something completely different. From the 1970s onwards in particular, its charmingly ramshackle homes attracted artists, dissidents and punks, most of whom lived as squatters. They filled the void left by working families and war widows who had moved from the crumbling grey flats to centrally-heated pre-fab apartment blocks in Marzahn and Hellersdorf. Artists like Jurek Becker, Katharina Thalbach, Manfred Krug and the painter Cornelia Schleime all spent time in Prenzlauer Berg early on. Nina Hagen moved into a flat-cum-shop on Kastanienallee, while members of punk band Feeling B, who later became part of the group Rammstein, played at backyard parties. There were legendary meeting places like the old Hirschhof, a backyard park which neighbours fought hard to preserve and revegetate.

Since the fall of the Wall, Prenzlauer Berg’s population has undergone a major change, with four fifths of its old residents estimated to have left since 1989.

See you in Berlin!

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