In the political history of the past century, no city has played a more prominent-though often disastrous-role than Berlin. At the same time, Berlin has also been a dynamic center of artistic and intellectual innovation. If Paris was the "Capital of the Nineteenth Century," Berlin was to become the signature city for the next hundred years. Once a symbol of modernity, in the Thirties it became associated with injustice and the abuse of power. After 1945, it became the iconic City of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has again come to represent humanity's aspirations for a new beginning, tempered by caution deriving from the traumas of the recent past. David Clay Large's definitive history of Berlin is framed by the two German unifications of 1871 and 1990. Between these two events several themes run like a thread through the city's history: a persistent inferiority complex; a distrust among many ordinary Germans, and the national leadership of the "unloved city's" electric atmosphere, fast tempo, and tradition of unruliness; its status as a magnet for immigrants, artists, intellectuals, and the young; the opening up of social, economic, and ethnic divisions as sharp as the one created by the Wall.
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Founded in the 13th century as a trading post on a windswept Prussian plain, Berlin was something of an accidental capital. It was selected by Chancellor Bismarck after Germany's unification in 1871, in part because the choice of any other city--Munich, say, or Frankfurt--would have provoked terrible regional rivalries. As it was, the rest of Germany simply looked down on the hinterland Berliners as, in historian David Clay Large's words, "parvenus whose civilization was hardly more substantial than the Prussian sands on which their town was built."
The people who soon swarmed to Berlin from all over Germany--and elsewhere in Europe--put their scorn for the city aside, and they turned it, writes Large, "into a hothouse of modernity, a place that pursued change like a drug." That change becomes a dominant theme as Large charts the rapid growth of Berlin in the early 1900s from regional backwater to a leading European center of socialist politics and the arts. Berlin's avant-garde culture and freewheeling atmosphere made it a target of the Nazi leadership, which put in motion grandiose schemes of social and civil engineering intended to remake it into an imperial city the likes of which the world had never known. Devastated, instead, by World War II and divided by the victorious Allies for four decades afterward, Berlin was, until recently, gray and unattractive compared with many other German cities--and, writes Large, that suited many Germans who "harbored the conviction that Berlin, the former Nazi capital, had no business being pretty or glamorous."
In Berlin, David Large brings the city's recent past to life. Though lacking the literary flair that makes Alexandra Richie's wider-ranging history of Berlin, Faust's Metropolis, so readable, it stands as a substantial contribution to the historical literature. --Gregory McNameeAbout the Author:
David Clay Large, Professor of History at Montana State University, is a specialist in modern German history. He is the author of Where Ghosts Walked, Germans to the Front, Between Two Fires, and Berlin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and San Francisco, California.
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