Berlin, in northeastern Germany, lies just 70km west of the border with Poland. The country's largest city, it has been reinstated as its capital, having served as capital to the Kingdom of Prussia (1701–1918), the German Empire (1871–1918), the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and the Third Reich (1933–1945). The river Spree runs right through Berlin and it is surrounded by beautiful lakes which, alongside parks, forests and gardens, make up around a third of the city's territory.
The city was left in ruins after World War II, following the air raids of 1943–45 and the Battle of Berlin, a bloody attack by the Soviets resulting in over a million casualties.
The Western allies (USA, UK and France) and the Soviet Union divided Berlin much as it divided the whole of Germany. East Berlin became the capital of East Germany, while West Berlin found itself isolated behind the Iron Curtain. Rising tensions led the Soviets to impose the Berlin Blockade, which prevented the Western allies from supplying food and fuel to West Berlin by road or rail. This attempt to take control of West Berlin was thwarted by the success of the Berlin Airlift; the blockade was lifted in May 1949.
By this time, the formerly occupied sectors of West Germany had united to become the Federal Republic of Germany, while the German Democratic Republic was declared in the Soviet sector. The Cold War deepened, and construction of the Berlin Wall began on 13 August 1961. Produced for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this brilliant page from the New York Times includes interactive 'then-and-now' images.
After the abolition of the GDR in 1990, the city was reinstated as the capital of reunified Germany. Today it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Europe. A centre of culture, media and politics, it is renowned for its thriving art scene, festivals, architecture and nightlife.
The rich and complex history of Germany, and especially Berlin, has provided inspiration for writers and artists for hundreds of years. Here are five books, five films and five songs, old and new, to initiate further explorations...
Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police by John O. Koehler
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
The File: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash
Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989 by Mary Fullbrook
The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor
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Mitte (literally 'middle') lies at the centre of Berlin, and is home to many of the city's major landmarks, including the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial. The river Spree runs through Mitte, forming the Museuminsel (Museum Island) where the Cathedral sits alongside renowned institutions and museums such as the Pergamon Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Bode Museum.
A major transport hub and the traditional location of public protests, Alexanderplatz is also home to the Fernsehturm (Television Tower), the tallest building in Germany. This incredible photographic project provides a real insight: in Berlin Mitte: Explorations of an Urban Conversion, Ulrich Wüst explores changes to the urban environment of Mitte over a 10 year period, starting around 1996, the year Anna Funder begins her book.
Potsdamerplatz is a kilometre south of the Brandenburg Gate and just to the southeast of the Tiergarten. It has long been an important public square. Totally ruined in World War II, it was not until after the Cold War that rebuilding commenced. The expensive development, replete with international brand names, is in stark contrast to the communist ideals of the former GDR.
After the reunification in 1990, Prenzlauer Berg was a buzzing bohemia, home to alternative lifestyles, artists and young people. Today, it is rather more gentrified and fashionable, with an array of cafes, beer gardens, restaurants and nightlife: in Stasiland, Anna Funder mentions walking past students eating and laughing outside cafes on Kollwitzplatz. Germany's largest synagogue is in Prenzlauer Berg.
In many ways, Kreuzberg is a segregated area, divided between a large Turkish population and more middle class residents. Though diverse and exciting, the area suffers from high unemployment and low incomes. While May Day in Berlin is enjoyed as a day for demonstrations and free speech, protests have been known to descend into violence and rioting in Kreuzberg. Despite this, Kreuzberg hosts the annual, colourful Carnival of Cultures. It is associated with the punk and hiphop music scene, and attracts artists and alternative lifestyles thanks in part to its low rents.
To the east of central Berlin, Lichtenberg is a district laden with a dark past, as the site of the former Stasi Headquarters and the notorious prison at Hohenschönhausen, both of which are now open to the public as museums and memorials. In addition, it suffers ongoing neo-Nazi activity. Lichtenberg is explored in the Bookmark for page 143.
Volkspark Friedrichshain, in the area of Friedrichshain, is a huge inner city green space that borders Prenzlauer Berg. This area suffered the worst damage in World War II, but today it is thriving; many media and design companies have set up here, and its cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs are among the best in Berlin. While Friedrichshain still boasts the low rents and squatted houses that have made it what it is today, the area is undergoing rapid gentrification.
Leipzig is in the federal state of Saxony, and lies about 149km south-southwest of Berlin. After the destruction of its synagogue on Kristallnacht, the city also suffered severe bombing by Allied forces during World War II.
Leipzig is famous for the Monday Demonstrations of 1989-90: peaceful protests took place every Monday night, often by candlelight, against the authoritarian government of the GDR. It is also known as a city of music: Richard Wagner was born there in 1813, while Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler all lived and worked there. Leipzig is mentioned in the Bookmarks for pages 64 and 270.