Abbreviated History of Berlin (and its Jews) in the 20th century

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Imperial Germany

Berlin is home for about 1.9 million people. This is the impact of the industrial revolution reaching Berlin. Just a generation ago, when Berlin became the capital of the German Reich, only about 800.000 people lived in Berlin. 100 years ago, in 1802, those were mere 172.000.

The first subway line in Berlin opens.

WW1 begins, and the Jewish population is eager to show its loyalty to the emperor, William II.

1918, November 9th
Germany surrenders, WW1 ends, the emperor flees. A civil war begins in Berlin between the communists, and, basically, everybody else.

The Weimar Republic

Berlin is pretty much under communist rule, and the national assembly flees to a town called Weimar, where Germany is given a new, democratic constitution. The "Weimar Republic" begins. Then, the communists are defeated, after their leaders (including the Jewish woman Rosa Luxemburg) are assassinated. The national assembly returns to Berlin.

Berlin is expanded, and the many cities around it become part of "Greater Berlin". Now 3.8 million people are residents of Berlin.

1922, November 9th
Einstein, in Berlin since 1914, is announced as the Nobel prize laureate for physics. His residence in Berlin's Bavarian Quarter, a. k. a. "Jewish Switzerland", attracts many scientists, authors, artists and intellectuals from all around the globe.

Inflation and despair. At the peak, you can buy for the same amount of money a house in the morning but just a loaf of bread in the evening.

The economic crisis strikes Germany, again. Communists and Nazis become stronger, democratic parties gradually lose their majority.

Without anybody knowing that, the last democratic elections take place in Germany. And yet this is also the zenith of Jewish life and culture in Germany, particularly in Berlin. In many aspects, Jews have never lived better and prospered more than now.

Jewish institutions in Berlin

The red dots on the map above (click to enlarge) mark Berlin's synagogues and other Jewish institutions at the peak, shortly before their destruction (not including private establishments such as shops, cafés and other businesses). Almost all of these institutions do not exist anymore. Many of them were located within the northern part of Berlin's historical center ("Mitte"), at the so-called Jewish quarter. The map below focuses on that specific area.

Jewish quarter of Berlin

The Third Reich

1933, January 30th
Hitler is appointed chancellor. About 170,000 Jews live in Berlin, making up approx. 4% of the city's general population and about a third of Germany's Jewish population.

1933, February 27th
The Reichstag, Germany's parliament, is burned. No historian can be sure who did it, but the Nazis use it as an excuse to open the first concentration camps in Germany.

1933, May 10th
The infamous book burnings take place, most importantly next to the main university library in Berlin, as a ceremony, or actually a "rite of passage", led by Joseph Goebbels.

The Nuremberg Laws are published. Jews are no longer citizens, but are still considered subjects of the German Reich.

1938, November 9th
The Nazis carry out their organized pogrom, a.k.a. Crystal Night. Some Berlin synagogues are attacked, looted and devastated. Others, particularly those surrounded by residential buildings, are left untouched.

1939, September 1st
WW2 begins. Most Berlin Jews have escaped by now. About 60,000 still remain in the city. Officially, Jews can still leave, if they manage to find a country that would accept them. Very few manage to do that.

Jews are not allowed to leave Germany at all. The deportations eastwards begin. The first to be deported are often those who can't be of use for manual labor in the German war industry.

1942, January 20th
The "Wannsee Conference" takes place, coordinating the planned murder of about 11 million Jews still alive at this point throughout the continent

Berlin reaches its population peak record (till today): about 4.5 millions. The city is a major industrial center and many of these people are actually forced laborers. This industrial infrastructure is about to be heavily destroyed by upcoming air raids, and Berlin will never obtain such an economic importance and such a population level ever again.

1943, February 27
About 10.000 Jews that showed up for another day of labor for the German war industry, are arrested on that single day, in what became known as the "Factories Operation". Berlin should now become "judenfrei", or in English: free of Jews. For many people, the only way to survive now is to become a "submarine", a Jew hiding underground. About 7000 try to do that.

1945, April 16th
The Red Army encircles Berlin, the Battle of Berlin begins

1945, April 30th
Hitler commits suicide in his bunker

1945, May 8th
Germany surrenders, the war ends. About 55,000 Berlin Jews have been deported by now, just about 1700 Jewish submarines managed to survive. Many of those who did not survive, were caught by Jewish informers collaborating with the Gestapo.

The divided city: West and East Berlin

1945, July 17th - August 2nd
The Potsdam Conference takes place. Berlin is divided between the US, the UK and the USSR. France is not yet a part of the game but will join later. West-Berlin becomes an enclave within the Soviet zone. At this point, the idea is to divide Germany only for administrative purpose, but still manage it together as one country.

1948, June 20th
After many disagreements on how to run Germany between the US and the USSR, the Western allies, led by the US, break the rules and introduce their own monetary system in their occupation zones. The Cold War reaches Berlin. Some say: The Cold War begins here.

1948, June 24th
The Soviets retaliate and try to make the Western allies leave their enclave by blocking all roads and railways that were used to bring food to West-Berlin. The "Berlin Blockade" begins, and with it the (mostly American) "Air Lift", to keep West-Berlin alive. During the rationing, the famous Berlin "Curry sausage" is born.

1949, May 12th
The Soviets give up the Berlin Blockade.

1949, May 23rd
West-Germany is created as a separate state by the Western allies, officially called the "Federal Republic of Germany". Its capital is Bonn and its parliament is now called the Bundestag, literally the "Federal Parliament". The enclave of West-Berlin is not a part of West-Germany.

1949, October 7th
East-Germany is created by the Soviet Union, officially called the "German Democratic Republic". Its capital is East-Berlin and its parliament is called the Volkskammer - literally the "People's Chamber". A long border is created between the two states, but not in Berlin. It is therefore possible to escape East-Germany by crossing a street to West-Berlin.

Over the last 12 years since 1949, about 2.8 million East-Germans, or about a sixth of the state, have left the country via West-Berlin, the last loophole in the communist system.

1961, August 13th
The Berlin wall is up, at first just as a barbed wire, then as a brick wall. During the 28 years of its existence, 136 will be shot for trying to cross the Berlin Wall, many others will die under other circumstances of the division.

1963, June 26th
John F. Kennedy speaks in Schöneberg, a central borough of West-Berlin, proclaiming his solidarity with its people: "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

Because people still escape, the Berlin wall has been turned by now into a very sophisticated border line with a concrete wall, a death strip before it, snipers' towers etc.

1987, June 12th
Ronald Reagan speaks across Brandenburg Gate, very close to the Berlin Wall, challenging the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"


1989, November 9th
After weeks of very intensive civil protests, the gates of the wall are opened - the Berlin Wall "comes down". The Germans are very happy about it, but will become a bit disturbed later, when they realize that coincidentally, this took place on exactly the same night as the Nazis' Crystal Night in 1938.

1990, March 18th
The first democratic election for the East-German "Volkskammer" takes place. Actually, this is the first truly democratic election in this territory since 1932. It should also become the last election for the "Volkskammer", because an absolute majority is given to the parties that seek integration into West-Germany (also known as "reunification" while dissolving the GDR as an independent state).

1990, October 3rd
To avoid celebrating on Nov. 9th, Germany is officially reunified on this date, which ever since serves as its national holiday. Berlin becomes one of the 16 federal states that now make the Federal Republic of Germany.

History of the Berlin Wall

This multimedia website, created by Berlin's public radio and television station, offers a great overview on the history of the Berlin Wall, starting with reunification in 1990 and going all the way back to the creation of the wall in 1961 (click on the picture)

1991, June 20th
The Bundestag, by now the parliament of the reunified nation but still in Bonn, decides that the capital of the reunified nation will be (again) Berlin.

The Bundestag and the Federal Government move to Berlin, where about 3.3 million people live.