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City profile

1. The ‘uniqueness’ of the city

Today, almost 50 years after being first divided - West-Berlin a former island surrounded by a socialist ‘sea’ and East-Berlin the once glorious showpiece of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), have now given way to united city, Berlin the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Yet this urban unification has not guaranteed civic integration, indeed is questionable to what extent Berliners view their city as a symbol of reconciliation.

Berlin struggles, unlike other fractured cities were not founded on ethno-national differences but rather on international dynamics of power. Division did not emerge from below, but was imposed from above. Ideological differences not only resulted in forced spatial segregation but encouraged the development of unique subcultures – which impacted language, spatial patterns, world-views and social perceptions. Ten years after reunification, there still are Berliners (East/West) whose spatial orientations are limited to their ‘former’ half of the city. This is not necessarily due to structural conditions but due to subjective patterns of interpretation which are much influenced by the early experiences after the fall of the Wall. Negative value judgements of the ‘other’ in the former East are often linked to the disappointment which followed the reunification.

Although the process of reunification in Berlin is not dissimilar to other divided cities, Berlin uniquely has become a national symbol, used to evoke German’s rehabilitation. It remains a significant case study, offering insight into the potential for such unifying policies in creating homogenous populations. While the case of Berlin demonstrates the dangers of unequal partners, Western dominance and Eastern disempowerment, it also reveals the complexities of integrating ‘severed’ societies.

2. Origins as a divided city in its imperialist/nationalist contexts

The roots of Berlin’s partition, does not derive from centuries of opposition between different ethno-national groups over contested space. Its division instead dates back to post WWII era. The blooming Berlin of the 1920s, the third most populous city at that time, was “reduced to rubble” by the Allied war campaign; its pre-war population of 4.3 million diminished by 2 million people. After the surrender of Nazi-Germany in 1945 the victorious powers, constituted by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union, divided Berlin according to the London Protocol into four sectors. Each sector was administered by an army commander appointed by his government. With the quartering of the city Berlin lost its pre-war cultural-political significance, but immediately gained new kudos as a Frontstadt, the site of the emerging cold war. The Yalta conference in the same year led to a similar dismemberment of the whole of Germany. However the Allies had differing and irreconcible visions for the new Germany, reflected in the US Marshall-Plan which was demonstratively rejected by the Soviet Union for their sector of Berlin, and greater East Germany. The unitary administration of the city therefore became more and more unlikely. Cooperation between the four supervisory powers was further problematised after West Germany carried out a currency reform, implementing the D-Mark to contribute towards the economic stabilisation of Germany, while the Soviet administration countered this with the creation of the Eastern Mark.Both countries also encouraged differing form of civic sentiment - the West-German model connected to the nation and state, the East-German experience linked to the international, socialist ideology. Berliners experienced the conflicting structuring of nationality and citizenship more immediately than other Germans, as their city became a border-site of their fractured nation.

3.  Internal structuring of the city itself.

The division lines between the different sectors of Berlin were not visible for a long time, until the administrations of the western and eastern sectors started to put up signs warning people not to cross over to the other side. The separation of the population was carried out gradually. The first major demonstration of the division of the city took place in 1948 when Stalin cut all contact with the Western occupied zones of Berlin for one year as a protest against the monetary reform and against West Berlin participating in the Marshall Plan. This left West Berlin, a hostage to Eastern Germany. During the Blockade West Berliners were urged not to use the Soviet administration-owned S-Bahn, not to work or shop in the East. East Berliners, at the same time, were being exhorted to become socialists and to avoid any contact with people from “the West”. Daily everyday life became politicised, which residents negotiating the tensions of demarcation and integration.

Soon after the Berlin blockade ended in 1949 the Western powers and the Western Länder agreed on a new Basic Law which marked the establishment of the FRG with Bonn as its new capital. A few months later the GDR was established, with eastern sector of Berlin as its capital. This move also ended the Soviet military administration in the newly established country. The establishment of the two countries was a direct consequence of the Berlin Blockade, which resulted in the division of the government and the parliament. The gradual spatial division of Berlin which had been initiated during the Blockade, continued to gather pace. West Berliners were denied access to Eastern shops, transport (street cars) or entertainment (theatres). Berliners travelling East to West, were fined on the border for having both currencies. In the early 50s the telephone cables were cut, making it impossible for West Berliners to call the East. Nevertheless, up until 1961 people could pass back and forth between the two halves of the city with relative ease.

The enormous problems with the supply of goods, the enforced collectivisations, dissatisfaction with the GDR leadership and the violent crackdown against the workers uprising (1953) were some of the reasons why 2.4 million people fled from the GDR to the West between 1949 and 1961. While this kind of exodus deprived the GDR of the workforce it desperately need to sustain the socialist experiment, the significant flow of people also created problems for Western leaders having to deal with resettlement and job creation.

The number of people escaping from the East to the West increased in the summer of 1961 after rumours emerged about a permanent barrier between East and West. On 13th of August 1961 the GDR authorities closed all access to West Berlin as an execution of a decision taken three days earlier to seal off East Berlin. This marked the beginning of the building of the Wall, which eventually expanded to the length of 46km separating East and West Berlin. All of West Berlin was surrounded by fences and walls totalling 160km. The inner city wall became part of the urban fabric, with Berliners on each side of the city, defining themselves by it. The GDR Communist Party officials justified the construction, labelling it the ‘anti-fascist wall of protection’ – offering defence against harmful Western influences.

Both halves of the city were incorporated into the legal, economic and financial systems of their respective countries, building up a social market economy in the West, and a socialist centrally planned economy in the East under the strict guidance of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). West Berlin adopted the Abgrenzungspolitik, politics of demarcation, which in the majority of cases, such as education policy and policies concerning family and work life, was constructed in direct confrontation with the GDR. 

Despite the segregation, the reality of the wall became normalised in the daily lives and experiences of Berliners.The majority of West Berliners adjusted to living in their territorial anomaly. East Berliners, however, adopted the official policy of taking away all urban functions from the areas near the border. The Wall was not part of their personal system of using their city.

4.  Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the division.

The division of Berlin and Germany came to a sudden and dramatic end in 1989. The administrative aspects of the unification, which included the overthrowing of the SED-government, the election of a democratic East-German government, the drafting of a plan for German-German confederation, the abdication of the rights of Allies over Berlin, and the application of the Western legal system to the East, were carried out within 13 months of the fall of the Wall in November 1989. The hastiness of the reunification, while critiqued by some, was felt by others to be a unique “window of opportunity”. East Germany was incorporated into a ‘ready-made-state’, which meant the transferring of institutions, elites and resources from West to East. In practical terms this meant that the ‘Ostmark’ was replaced by the Deutsche Mark, The GDR legislative system was replaced by the Western model, Eastern schools system adopted the Western curriculum, the economy was privatised, and Eastern state property was transferred into private property. In Berlin museums, galleries and orchestras were merged, Eastern research institutions were eliminated, and the central administration of West Berlin was applied to the eastern. Road and train connections between east and west of the city were re-established and most of the Eastern infrastructure was modernised. Telephone lines were reconnected and by 1995 East Berlin had over 4 million new lines installed. Despite such a rapid urban transformation, administrative, political and social mentalities were not so quickly undone. Berlin was voted to be the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany in June 1991 with a slim majority of 338 to 320 votes. With this decision Berlin became the ‘workshop of German unity’, and the issues of reinterpreting and reimagining Berlin’s and all of Germany’s history and identity rose to the forefront of the unification process. The new national identity and that of the city was to be expressed in the building of a major new ‘federal quarter’, including the Chancellery and the Reichstag building. The high hopes of Berlin becoming an equal competitor with the other world capitals was expressed in the construction of the grand Potsdamer Platz - its Chicago-type architecture symbolising “a united, forward-looking city”. The general architectural principle of “critical reconstruction” has guided the city’s rehabilitation, assuming the centrality of public participation at neighbourhood level. In reality, criticism has been levelled at the municipality’s over-reliance on Western architects, and conflicting investment aims and local/federal/political interests has contributed to a cityscape of unfinished building sites, empty office blocks, and revamped physical legacies from the GDR period. As for the hopes for Berlin’s global economic competitiveness: after losing most of its industrial production sites during or after the reunification, the level of unemployment has risen to 17.6% in 2000 (13.6% in 2008), making it difficult for Berlin to compete with the major urban centres of Germany, never-mind other European capitals.

Besides rebuilding the centre of the new capital, another route which either enabled or forced Berlin to reinterpret its history was dealing with and setting up symbols, memorials and museums. The most obvious symbols of Nazism were removed and historically loaded buildings were found new purposes. As a response to that period of German history memorials, such as the Jewish Museum, “Topography of Terror” and the Holocaust memorial were established. The other challenge was to deal with the GDR past, which with the demolition of the Palast der Republik and rebuilding of the Stadtschloss, has been carried out mostly on Western terms, drawing “directly on the language and strategies of neoliberalism”. Yet until now one can observe the past in the cityscape of Berlin, mostly in street names, the urban architecture and infrastructure and the enduring markets.

The success of the physical reunification of the city does not reveal much about the ‘inner unification’. First, only 50% of Berlin’s current inhabitants today were born there: 27% of those are West Berliners and 16% East Berliners. The fall of the wall caused many East Berliners to experience a similar social fragmentation or disorientation. Many complained of a ‘loss of their own biography’.Berlin remains most divided on the outskirts of the city which remain furthest from the mixed, lively and culturally diverse centre. People in the West and East read different newspapers, watch different TV-programmes and buy different washing powders, although the ‘Eastern washing powders’ are produced by Western companies. Today Berlin is said to be divided into three: the former East, the former West and the centre of the city, where former division plays almost no role. However, one can also observe a different kind of division resulting from the economic polarisation: a large number of people in Berlin are employed in the service sector but since this is not accompanied by considerable employment in the industrial field, it will give rise to a deep polarisation. This is geographically most likely to be visible between the outskirts of  East and West of the city, since Eastern boroughs of Berlin are already now inhabited by Germans who have ‘lost’ in the unification process, and migrants mostly from former Soviet countries, whereas Western boroughs have mostly German middle-class population.

5.  Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

Today’s Berlin could be described as fragmented, physically and culturally. The physical fragmentation is caused by, or perhaps is the reason for the intermediate ‘empty’ spaces between the ‘patches’ of the city, which result in the absence of a coherent and cohesive city centre. Some authors expect trendy neighbourhoods around the original city centre, like Prenzlauer Berg or Spandauer Vorstadt, to be the sources of a new identity for Berlin. The cultural fragmentation is perhaps related not only to the former halves of the city but also to the newcomers, people who moved to Berlin after the reunification, whom the distinction of East and West Berlin plays hardly any role. It could be argued that the extent to which the city is united today and will continue the process of unification relies on new residents, unburdened by the heavy history or inhibited by former spatial restrictions.

Berlin is slowly moving out of the centre of world attention and global media. The rapid change of the 90’s, fuelled by Western finance and expectations, have given way to a new era of self-determination and reflection. It no longer remains the ‘construction site of a unified Europe’ but finally has the freedom to choose its own path towards ‘normality’.

6. References                       

Borneman, J. 1992. Belonging in the two Berlins: Kin, state, nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chin, D. 2000. ‘Berlin metropolis’ in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 22:2, Berlin 2000, 132-137.

Cochrane, A. 2006. ‘Making Up Meanings in a Capital City: Power, Memory and Monuments in Berlin’ in European Urban and Regional Studies 13:5, 5-24.

Häusermann, H., Schulz zur Wiesch, L. 2006. The Berlin Case. Report on the bilateral research project: Planning the contested City. Policy-Analysis and Implications of Reunification in Jerusalem and Berlin 2002-2006. GIF Final Report. Unpublished.
Gemeinnützige Hertie-Stiftung 2008. Hertie-Berlin-Studie 2009. Hamburg: Hoffman und Campe Verlag.

Ladd, B. 2000. ‘Center and Periphery in the New Berlin: Architecture, Public Art, and the Search for Identity’ in A Journal of Performance and Art, 22:2 (May 2000), 7-21.

Schlör, J. 2007. ‘Memory in Berlin: a short walk’ in Urban History, 34:427-430.