Berlin’s Birthday: A History

As Berlin warms up for its 775th birthday celebrations, Natalie Holmes takes a look at the city’s previous politicised anniversaries…

Nazi poster for Berlin

Despite reaching the ripe old age of 775, Berlin has had a mere three birthday celebrations, two of which occurred in the same year.

The city had to wait until the height of Nazi rule before celebrating its first birthday. In 1937, five years after Hitler violently took power of the city, Mayor Julius Lippert saw and seized an opportunity to rewrite the history books with a 700th birthday party for Berlin.

Since the founding charter of Berlin had not survived, 1237 was chosen as the auspicious date, given the first documentary evidence available of Cölln, Berlin’s medieval sister city across the Spree (later to be  consumed by its swelling sibling).

Despite the Nazis officially starting the tradition, the initial idea had been posited in the 1920s but rejected by the authorities due to the political instability of the city, which at the time was the capital of a somewhat shaky Weimar Republic.

Public celebrations of the kind associated with a civic birthday party were popular mechanisms for the Nazis as a way of frothing up national pride through public participation – “preparing the way for every comrade to join the national community”, as the Mayor put it at the time. Though modest in comparison to some other propaganda events, Berlin’s first birthday bash was a grand affair that harked back to the good old days, with folkloric fairs and people dressed in traditional clothing, along with the obligatory parade along Unter den Linden.

Though the event was arranged with no help from the national government, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels welcomed the occasion with a chilling dedication: “To Berlin, the Reich’s capital, I hope that it will remain the same as it is now in the future: hardworking, fanatical, generous and full of the joys of life. In a word: Nazi.”

In keeping with Lippert’s assertion that “National Socialism is opposed to a stagnant and purely educational representation of the past”, the event’s commemorative publication declared to citizens that “You should no longer believe that Berlin emerged from Wendish [West Slavic] fishing villages. Berlin was consciously founded as a German city from the outset.” According to the Nazis, the city’s glory days were the Middle Ages, and they positioned the founding of Berlin in the 13th century as proof of its destiny as Germany’s eventual centre.

Fast-forward fifty years and histories were being rewritten all over again, this time by East and West Berlin respectively. In 1987, the Wall had been up for over quarter of a century, and although the city’s 750th birthday presented a chance for both sides to promote their agendas, it was also a surprise opportunity for the temporary warming of diplomatic relations between the two infamously antagonistic factions.

Image from the East Berlin celebrations 1987 (c) Landesarchiv Berlin Günter Schneider

To West Berlin, the city’s heyday was most definitely the hedonistic and dynamic twenties. The occidental story tells of a post-industrial boom, rudely interrupted by the Third Reich and still reeling from the divisive consequences of war. Conversely, to East Berlin, the city’s fate had always been one of socialism, its past battles and revolutions all moving towards a classless society.

The ideological positions of the two sides of the Wall are perhaps most pertinently and fascinatingly represented in the city maps that each produced for the occasion.

While the West erred on the side of unity and presented Berlin as a whole, with only a slightly thicker line around its perimeter than other neighbourhood borders, the East enlarged its own portion and relegated the West to a disproportionately small white island; invisible and insignificant.

But in spite of these glaring and arguably predictable dichotomies, there were some moments of humour and of hope during Berlin’s 750th birthday year – as well as rumblings of public discontent on both sides of the fence.

West Berlin had always striven for unity and though the shared history of a divided city did have potential for diplomatic outreach, they held out little hope. So when Erich Honecker, the GDR’s Head of State, invited the Mayor of West Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, to take part in the East’s celebrations, shockwaves were sent through the political world.

This did, however, leave Diepgen in a difficult situation: in accepting the invitation, he would have to officially recognise East Berlin as the capital of the GDR – an unthinkable move, and possibly exactly the quandary Honecker hoped to provoke. Diepgen’s shrewd response was to return the favour and invite his counterpart to the West’s opening event. Unprecedented scenes of cooperation ensued, before higher powers on both sides saw fit to put the brakes on what could otherwise have been a momentous breakthrough.

Nonetheless, an organisational tit-for-tat continued, with both sides competing to come up with the most creative and affecting events. The result was two uncannily similar celebrations, both featuring historic markets, state ceremonies and even international cycling races (the Tour de France in the West and the Peace Race in the East). The occasion did lead to legacies that we can still appreciate today, such as the magnificent Deutsches Historisches Museum in the West, the reconstruction of destroyed 18th century Ephraim-Palais in the East, and the moving Topography of Terror – an outdoor museum on the site of the old Gestapo HQ – that went on to span both sides.

Behind the thin veil of jubilation, however, social tensions in 1987 were rising dangerously. It the year that saw the first May Day riots in Kreuzberg, and – just over a month later – a fateful music concert at the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin’s most iconic monument was, at that time, bricked up, forming part of the physical divide between East and West. It was at this strategic location that the now-famous show was staged, deliberately positioned by the West for those in the East to hear.

West Berlin also used the famous bears motif for their 1987 celebrations

As the tunes of David Bowie, Eurythmics and Genesis blasted across the cityscape, apprehended by neither bricks nor bullets, East German authorities struggled to keep control of the young people gathered to listen, and things turned violent to defiant chants of “The Wall must go.”

A few days later, on 12 June, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the very same monument and urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this Wall.” It would take another two years before the American president’s wish would be granted, but it was the year of Berlin’s 750th birthday that the wheels were set in motion.

And here we are, 25 years hence, in a Berlin that’s at once unrecognisable from that time, yet so deeply defined by its past. We – that is, our democratically elected authorities – have decided to celebrate the city’s birthday once again. Exhibitions and events have been running throughout the year, and a glance at the programme shows an unmistakable focus on profound reflection, as well as a celebration of inclusiveness and unity.

Indeed, ‘Party, Pomp and Propaganda’ takes a self-reflexive look at current festivities, acknowledging that the event “can only be understood with reference to Berlin’s three earlier birthday celebrations.” Previous exhibitions such as ‘A Future For Our Past’ sought lessons from archaeology in contemporary urban planning, while ‘Berlin Transit’ explored the city’s role as a historical transport hub between the world’s east and west. The current ‘Traces of the Middle Ages’ attempts to demarcate medieval Berlin within the contemporary city, and ‘City of Diversity’ lauds today’s multicultural metropolis with an imaginatively interactive outdoor map.

Interactive map for the current 775th anniversary celebrations in Berlin

The climax will be the upcoming official Birthday Celebration, currently being billed as “the most beautiful night of the year”, with a twilight installation by French fire poets, Carabosse, who will illuminate the area between Schlossplatz, the Nikolaiviertel district and the TV-tower.

In addition, the Nikolaiviertel, home to Berlin’s oldest church – the eponymous Nikolaikirche, will be staging colourful reenactments of medieval life. Award-winning street theatre group, Titanick, will recreate and perform Dante-esque scenes, fusing ancient traditions with modern forms of expression.

On the surface, this year’s celebrations seem less contrived and controversial than those of our predecessors, yet they can still tell us a lot about how Berlin sees itself and wants to be seen. Berlin at 775 is saying to its citizens, and to the world: “We’re learning from our past, but looking to the future. We are unified, welcoming and diverse”.

Of course, this represents as much an agenda as any of the past birthdays, and some would argue that the representation is grossly inaccurate. Reflect on the past, however, and it’s not difficult to see how far Berlin has come in the last century. It’s therefore tough to contradict the positivity, at least in part. After the horrors of war, political turmoil and years of disunity, Berlin is not only alive but thriving – and that is surely something worth celebrating.

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