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I am re-reading a book by Giles MacDonogh on Berlin, a portrait of its history. I read this book some years ago in 1997 the year it was published. This 20 year old book on Berlin is somewhat dated now given the incredible transformation the city has undergone since then.  My first visit to Berlin goes back to 1998 at a time when the City government, the Senate and Federal government of Germany where planning a massive re-construction of the Eastern sector now vacated from Communist rule.

I saw the first changes and re-construction of old building some of which had been completely obliterated during the war 1939-1945. We went back many times since to Berlin and it is truly a beautiful city, very people friendly.

Berlin today is a world city of culture, politics, media and science. Its economy is based on high-tech firms and the service sector, encompassing a diverse range of creative industries, research facilities, media corporations and convention venues. Berlin serves as a continental hub for air and rail traffic and has a highly complex public transportation network. The metropolis is a popular tourist destination. Significant industries also include pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering, clean tech, biotechnology, construction and electronics.

Modern Berlin is home to world renowned universities, orchestras, museums, entertainment venues and is host to many sporting events. Its urban setting has made it a sought-after location for international film productions. The city is well known for its festivals, diverse architecture, nightlife, contemporary arts and a high quality of life. Since the 2000s Berlin has seen the emergence of a cosmopolitan entrepreneurial scene.

The city is first mentioned in 1237 as Berl, not a German word but a name derived from the old Slavic Wend word meaning Marsh or Marsh land. Slavs inhabited the area of Brandenburg for many centuries. German speaking population also lived in the area of Spandau around 900 and used the german word Bärlein or little bear as a name for the congregations of small villages around islands on the Havel and Spree rivers which cross the modern Berlin today. So the association of the little black bear became the symbol of the City of Berlin.


Berlin is dotted with lakes and forest and back then they were mostly fishing villages. The region was never part of the Roman Empire and did not benefit from Roman city planning schemes seen elsewhere in Western and Southern Europe. In the middle-ages no cathedral or great building existed, it was a backwater. The only significant buildings from the 13th century that can be seen today are the Nikolaikirche 1230 and the Marienkirche 1270 by Alexander Platz. The arrival in Berlin in 1415 of the Hohenzollern family will see the first construction of a Castle in 1443 on the Spree river and this will be the seat of the family until their fall from power in 1918. Enlarging many times their family palace as their power grew.


The Hohenzollern were Counts from the Southern region of Swabia in Bavaria where the family still has two large palace-castles Hohenzollern and in Sigmaringen. At first they were rulers of Brandenburg, then elevated to the dignity of Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, then by 1701 Kings in Prussia and in 1871 Emperors of Germany. Not bad for a bunch of mercenaries who played their cards carefully ingratiating themselves with the Holy Roman Emperor in Nuremberg.

The book also speaks of the people of Berlin, the various ethnic groups and the economic and social development of the city. With the wars of religions raging across Europe with the Reformation movement, the rulers of Brandenburg invited all those feeling persecution to come and settle in Berlin, religious tolerance was the official policy of the State. First French Huguenots arrived by the hundreds from France but also from other parts of Western Europe where they were persecuted. Then Jews started to arrive from all over Europe and later by the 19th century from Russia fleeing the Tsarist Pogroms. Then the Turkish guest workers who form a large ethnic group in Germany today.

The goal of all this immigration was to make Berlin and the region of the Brandenburg and then the Prussian Kingdom an economic powerhouse, a centre of culture and the arts. The Hohenzollern followed a careful policy of mixing and integrating people.

MacDonogh weaves a very interesting picture of the city, rich in details on its politics, architecture, history and society.  He did a lot of research on the city with the help of his German friends who themselves have a close connection to the city. He ends the story of the city in 1989 with the fall of the wall. I wish he updated the book so many things have happened in the last 30 years.