Berlin had its beginning in two Wendish villages, Berlin and Kölln, which were chartered in the 13th cent. and merged in 1307. It assumed importance as a Hanseatic League town in the 14th cent. and became the seat of the electors of Brandenburg (after 1701, kings of Prussia) in 1486. Berlin suffered severely from the Thirty Years War (1618–48), but Frederick William (reigned 1640–88), the Great Elector, restored and improved the city. Occupied in the Seven Years War by Austrian (1757) and Russian (1760) troops and in the Napoleonic Wars by the French (1806–8), Berlin emerged from the conflicts as a center of German national feeling and an increasingly serious rival of Vienna.
From the 18th and early 19th cent. date many of the distinguished monuments and buildings of the city (chiefly by Andreas Schlüter and Karl Friedrich Schinkel). Berlin was the center of the Revolution of 1848 against King Frederick William IV. The construction of railroads (1840–61) gave it additional importance as an industrial and commercial center. Berlin also became part of a canal system that linked it to the Oder, Elbe, and Rhine rivers and to the North Sea. In 1866 it became the seat of the North German Confederation and in 1871 it was made the capital of the German Empire. The city prospered and expanded rapidly, becoming one of the great urban centers of the world. Berlin's population had increased from 201,000 in 1819 to 914,000 in 1871; by 1900 it was 2,712,000.
The German military defeat of 1918 brought on a period of social and political unrest. After the establishment (Nov., 1918) of a Socialist government, Berlin was the scene of the abortive uprising of the Communist Spartacus party (Jan., 1919) and of the conservative putsch of 1920 (see Kapp, Wolfgang). As the capital of the Weimar Republic, Berlin suffered severe economic crises in the 1920s, but it was also a brilliant cultural center.
Throughout the Nazi regime (1933–45) Berlin remained the second largest city of Europe, a notable economic, political, and educational center, and a huge inland port with a flourishing world trade. It was also the major communications and transportation hub of Central Europe. During World War II, Berlin was repeatedly bombed from the air by the Allies, but the heaviest destruction was caused by a Soviet artillery barrage of unprecedented intensity that preceded the capture (May 2, 1945) of the city by Marshal Zhukov.
On May 8, 1945, Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies was signed in Berlin. The division of the city into sectors by the Potsdam Conference resulted in severe tension between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. The Soviets occupied the sector that subsequently became known as East Berlin. The zones assigned to the British, American, and French occupation forces constituted West Berlin. The French occupied the NW part of the city, and the Americans and the British occupied the S districts. The joint Allied military government ( Kommandatura ) was not successful and virtually ceased to function when the USSR informally withdrew in 1948.
The status of Berlin became a major cold war issue, and attempts at international agreement ended in deadlock (see Foreign Ministers, Council of) as the USSR sought to remove all Western (including West German) control from West Berlin and the Western powers maintained that settlement of the Berlin problem depended on reunification of Germany. In 1948, Soviet authorities established a blockade on all land and water communications between West Berlin and West Germany. The Western powers, foremost among them the United States, successfully undertook to supply West Berlin by a large-scale airlift through three air "corridors" left open to them (see Berlin airlift). The blockade was withdrawn in May, 1949, and the airlift ended in Sept., 1949. In that year East Berlin was proclaimed the capital of the new German Democratic Republic, and in 1950 West Berlin was established as one of the states of the Federal Republic of Germany (of which Berlin was the de jure capital and Bonn the de facto capital). Workers rioted in East Berlin in June, 1953, and were suppressed by Soviet tanks.
In the following years there were several Berlin crises, as the USSR in unilateral declarations, often accompanied by harassing actions, contested the legal basis for the Western powers' presence in and access to West Berlin. Meanwhile better living conditions in the western zone had led to a massive exodus of refugees from East to West, which was both a great embarrassment for the Communists and a serious drain on the East German labor supply. To stop the flow, East Germany gave the division of the city a grimly physical form in Aug., 1961, by erecting the 29-mi (47-km) fortified Berlin Wall along the partition line, leaving only a few closely guarded crossing points.
The Western powers protested vigorously but ineffectively, and East German border guards killed dozens of persons attempting to break through the barrier. War seemed near as Soviet and American tanks faced each other at the border crossings, but after 1962 the crisis eased. In Dec., 1963, the first of several agreements was reached permitting West Berliners to visit relatives in the eastern zone. Visits across the wall and access to West Berlin from West Germany were finally regularized in the Berlin accords reached among the four powers and the two Germanys in 1972.
The tense stalemate in inter-German relations that persisted throughout most of the 1980s was dramatically broken as a result of the political upheavals that took place in East Germany in late 1989 and early 1990. Massive demonstrations in East Berlin and other East German cities led to the collapse of the Honecker regime and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in Nov., 1989. In Oct., 1990, East and West Berlin were officially joined to form the state of Berlin, and the first city-wide elections in Berlin since 1946 were held in Dec., 1990. In June, 1991, the German Bundestag voted in favor of Berlin as the seat of the nation's legislature and government; Bonn, the capital of the former West Germany, served as the provisional seat of government until 1999, when most government functions were transferred to Berlin. In 1996 residents of Berlin voted to unite in a single state with surrounding Brandenburg, but the measure was rejected by Brandenburg voters.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.