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Berlin and Brandenburg



Berlin is something of a weather-vane of modern European history, yet its rise to national prominence was a long and slow process. Founded in the thirteenth century, it is little more than a third of the age of Cologne or Augsburg. It did not achieve the early growth and economic development of other medieval foundations, such as Hamburg, Lübeck, Frankfurt or Nürnberg; it was not even the capital of a substantial feudal duchy, as Munich and Stuttgart were. Instead, it belatedly became the capital of Brandenburg , a marshland territory at the very eastern extremity of the Holy Roman Empire. This province was founded as a Margravate, or frontier district, by Albert the Bear (Albrecht der Bär) in 1157 from land bequeathed to him by Pribislav-Heinrich, a Slav king who had converted to Christianity.

In 1411, Brandenburg was made a hereditary possession of the Hohenzollern family, and four years later the Margravate was raised to the status of an Electorate of the Holy Roman Empire. However, for all the dynasty's lofty ambitions, Berlin remained little more than a village until the seventeenth century, by which time it had still not played any significant part in German history. The first important step towards a grander role came in 1618, when Elector Johann Sigismund inherited the Baltic duchy of Prussia , and merged it with his family's heartlands to form the new state of Brandenburg-Prussia, which quickly established itself as an expansionist miltary force on the European stage. Named after the exterminated tribe that had inhabited it in the early Middle Ages, Prussia lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and thus was not subject to any of its rules. In 1701, Elector Friedrich III circumvented one of the most important of these - the ban on the assumption of royal status - by crowning himself King Friedrich I of Prussia. Thereafter, the Hohenzollern state, although still centred on Berlin, went under the misleading designation of Prussia. It became ever more predatory in its policy of territorial acquisition, eventually stretching all the way west to the French border.

When the Prussians finally forged a unified Germany for the first time ever in 1871, Berlin was the only possible choice for the new role of national capital . Hitler intended to take this a stage further by transforming it into a world capital named Germania. Instead, the city found itself partitioned among the victors after World War II, and quickly became a microcosm of the Cold War era. While the Soviet-occupied eastern sector - which included the historic city centre - duly became the capital of the rump state that was the GDR, the larger part of the city was left as the stranded enclave of West Berlin, a place with an ambiguous status (it was never formally merged into the Federal Republic) propped up by vast outside subsidies, with a declining population only kept in check by an influx of immigrants (principally from Turkey), draft-dodgers and seekers of alternative lifestyles. From 1961, the two parts of the city were physically separated by the Berlin Wall , the first frontier in history built to keep its own citizens in, rather than an invader out.

After the Wall fell in 1989, Berlin's status as capital of Germany (which it had never officially lost) was reconfirmed. However, it faced determined opposition from Bonn in its desire to re-establish itself as the national seat of government . Although Berlin eventually emerged triumphant from this argument, it was only able to gain the major share of the spoils, as it was decided to keep several key ministries and other public bodies in Bonn. This was a calculated measure designed to ensure that Berlin - with its deeply tainted historical record - does not become too powerful and dominant within Germany. Thus, the vast rebuilding and redevelopment that the city is currently undergoing is something of a delicate balance. There is a clear need to increase the population (which had fallen by more than a million from its prewar level), and to create a city that is a worthy capital of Europe's most powerful nation, yet at the same time to ensure that it does not become a direct German counterpart of London or Paris.

One unintended consequence of Berlin's postwar division is that it has belatedly become a city-state, with the rest of the old Margravate of Brandenburg now an entirely separate Land of the Federal Republic. Though there were hopes that the two Länder would eventually merge, that now seems a distant prospect at best, having been flatly rejected by the latter in a referendum. Potsdam , Brandenburg's present-day capital, forms a virtually seamless whole with Berlin. Once the great cultural showpiece of the Prussian kingdom, it has wonderful palaces and parks which easily outdo those of its larger neighbour. Elsewhere in the province are time-warped towns such as Neuruppin, Rheinsberg and Brandenburg itself. There is also a highly distinctive scenic area, the water-strewn Spreewald .

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