Two medieval merchant settlements on the banks of the Spree, in the area of today’s district center – here the German capital has its origin. One of them, named Cölln, was first mentioned in documents in 1237; This year is considered the founding year of the city. The other settlement gave the city its long-term name: Berlin. First documented entry was recorded in 1244. The name Berlin is probably of Slavic origin and means “swamp city”; the settlement lay on the dry land in the middle of a wetland.
The settlement of Berlin merged with Cölln in 1307 to secure and extend their rights to the sovereign. Twelve council men from Berlin and six from Cölln sat in the town hall, a common city wall was built. As a result, the cities formed a unity with the outside world, but each retained their own administrations and households. Brandenburg was dominated at that time by the Saxon Ascanians. When the last Ascanian died in 1319, there was a long struggle for dominion between the Luxembourgers and the Wittelsbachs, which affected the population of the twin city.
The citizens of Cölln-Berlin turned because of their predicament in 1411 to the Margrave Sigismund, who used Friedrich von Hohenzollern as patron for the double city. Only four years later Frederick I was appointed Elector of Brandenburg – the prelude to the 500-year rule of the Hohenzollern. By now Cölln-Berlin had about 8500 inhabitants and consisted of about 1100 houses. In 1432, the two parts were finally united, the now ruling Frederick II made Berlin the capital of Brandenburg. He also had the first Berlin Palace – the future city palace – built.
In the 16th century, the city continued to grow through Dutch and Italian immigration initially. But various plague epidemics drastically decimated the population. Even then, things went badly for the city: The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was devastating for Berlin as well as for much of Europe. When it ended, the Elector had moved his court to Konigsberg, and the city had only 6,000 inhabitants. Under the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1640-1688), however, Berlin flourished again. At the end of his reign, 20,000 people lived in a city that had received a contemporary fortification, a pleasure garden and a prestigious avenue (Unter den Linden) and had become the center of Brandenburg trade.
The successor of Frederick William raised in 1701 a part of the Duchy of Prussia to the kingdom and was crowned King Frederick I of Prussia. After the unification with three surrounding cities Berlin 1709 became the capital and residence city of Prussia. King Frederick I was an esthete: he established the Academy of Arts, and he built several baroque palaces. His son Friedrich Wilhelm I, however, was rather pragmatic: During his reign (1713 to 1740), a new wall was built around the extended city, whose population had grown to about 90,000. At the end of the 18th century, the city flourished, with a population of over 150,000.
When in 1806 the French emperor Napoleon invaded Berlin with his troops, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III fled to Königsberg. After two years of French occupation, he returned. From that point on, the industrialization of Prussia and Berlin progressed until, in 1844, a recession hit the whole of Europe. The consequences for Berlin: A quarter of the population was overthrown in poverty. In 1847 there were riots of the hungry, who were bloodily crushed.
With the founding of the empire on 18 January 1871, which made Berlin the German capital and Wilhelm I the German emperor, an industrial boom took place in the city, which was accompanied by a huge increase in the population. In 1905, more than two million people were living in Berlin. The First World War affected Berlin relatively late, when there were famines and strikes in 1916 and 1917. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated after the German defeat and the 1918 revolution.
In 1920 there was a city reform: Seven surrounding independent cities, 59 rural communities and 27 estate districts were incorporated into the city of Greater Berlin, so that Berlin grew to 3.8 million inhabitants. The citizens suffered in the following years under the growing unemployment and an ever faster advancing inflation. Nevertheless, the city was able to establish itself as the German center of cultural life with theater greats such as Max Reinhardt and Bertolt Brecht. The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression created a breeding ground for extremist politicians. In 1933, the National Socialist Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. The Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 became a purely propaganda event of the National Socialists.
On Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, open terror against the Jewish population began: nine of the twelve Berlin synagogues went up in flames, Jewish shops were looted and around 1,200 Jewish citizens were arrested. When the Second World War finally began on September 1, 1939, the population of Berlin soon suffered from supply shortages. Until the end of the war in May 1945, the city was repeatedly bombed. 50,000 Berliners died, 600,000 homes were destroyed and 2.8 million of the previous 4.3 million inhabitants still lived in the city.