Michael Sontheimer: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital





Michael Sontheimer is a German historian and journalist.

One might be tempted to draw comparisons, but it can also become an obsession. Still, that's exactly what Berliners tend to do, at least when it comes to their city.

Whenever it happens, Berlin suddenly isn't good enough for them, and they constantly feel compelled to draw comparisons -- not with just any old cities, but with the crème de la crème. "Berlin, the German metropolis, can once again measure up to the likes of London, Paris and New York," the city's then-mayor said shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The die-hard residents of the German capital don't like to aim any lower than that. They see Berlin as the sassy little sister of London, Paris and New York, a city that successfully contended for a spot in the exclusive family of cosmopolitan cities in the 1920s.

Berlin went into decline during the Nazi era and after it was divided into a free west and communist east. But Berliners like to think that, since Germany's reunification in 1990, the city has been on a path to rejoining the club of the world's great cities.

The obsession with comparisons was already widespread in Berlin in the 1860s. In a satirical play called "Haussegen oder Berlin wird Weltstadt" ("Domestic Bliss, or Berlin Becomes a Cosmopolitan City"), a servant says with a sneer: "Yet another building has collapsed, three people have disappeared without a trace and the bodies of six newborn babies have been found on the Waisenbrücke (Orphans' Bridge). London and Paris can no longer compete with us."

Picture of Misery

But the notion that Berlin's development and rise to prominence could be compared with the histories of London and Paris is just plain wrong. Indeed, all one has to do is look back in time -- to 1648, for example, when the Protestants and the Catholics finally made peace after 30 years of war...




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