Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Key Dates of European History: 313

No question, the edict of Milan in 313 was an absolute milestone in European history. Formally, it legalised the practice of all religions and cults in the Roman Empire… technically, this was only relevant to one single persecuted religion- Christianity.

Almost overnight, Christianity turned from a major underground sect to the driving force in the Roman Empire. By 360, Christianity had become so powerful that the attempt to reinstate a pagan state cult by Julianus failed bitterly.

Some historians, as always, try to downplay the significance of this event, arguing that a legalisation of Christianity was bound to happen, and that Constantine had no particular affinity to Christianity, but merely tolerated it to stabilise his own power base.

Well, of course he did. And of course Christianity was already way too powerful a factor to be ignored. But that does not mean that its formal acceptance was not groundbreaking. From now on, Christians could freely spread their faith, and more importantly, were now able to ascend to a position of command- which they quickly did.

Let us look back a little now. Why exactly was Christianity so successful in the first place? If we look at it the way traditional history teachers, and of course Christian authorities themselves would like to have it, the Christians of late antiquity were a bunch of nice guys who never did any evil and stoically endured being tortured and killed by evil Roman emperors. They were all about being martyrs, and their dedication alone was enough to impress generation after generation of converts.

I am not saying that martyrdom did not play a significant role in the early days of Christianity. But there was more to the new faith than that. A bunch of nice guys never brought an empire to its knees; never have, never will. What was significant about Christianity was that it precisely tapped the pulse of its time.

We all know what the people of the ancient Mediterranean world believed in. Gods and great heroes. Zeus and Apollo, Hercules and Venus. The ancient religions were basically about powerful gods who stand by you if you gave them proper sacrifice. However, I personally believe that the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome had a few significant flaws. First of all, the gods were not almighty. They were more or less super-humans with the same flaws and ambitions as a mortal man; the only difference was that they were really, very, very powerful. But they did not possess ultimate power. Like any other being, they were subjects to fate, the true master of the universe. If fate dictated something, anybody, gods or men, had to obey.

Christianity on the other hand offered an idea that comforted many: The belief in a universal master plan. Even if nobody was granted deeper insight into it, there was at least the certainty that everything that happens has a purpose, and that this purpose is ultimately to each individual’s benefit, if they only believed.

What is perhaps even more important is that the Greek and Roman religions did not offer a proper idea of what awaited man after his death. There was no dogma that told you, and it took a good number of centuries until a vague concept of heaven and hell – Elysium and Tartanos – was established, but that never quite took off. Basically, the belief stuck that your soul lives on if you are remembered by those who live after you. A great idea for all the Caesars and Scipios; a terrible outlook for your average Publius Rusticus, servant of Cassius.

There were other faiths around that offered more elaborate eschatological theories. Egyptian faith, Judaism and Zoroastrianism spring to mind, although the latter one did not finalise its dogma until the 10th century.

The new faith, on the other hand, was all about eschatology. The idea was simple. As mentioned, there is a grand master plan. If you play along, you are rewarded in the end, if you don’t, you are punished. You don’t need to conquer foreign lands or build marvellous cities to be rewarded in the afterlife, all you need to do is play the role you are instructed to play, from the greatest emperor to the pettiest slave. If you do your job, you go to heaven.

This simple message was enough for many to convert. But the general concept of the religion was enhanced to please the more critical minds as well. When the Biblical canon was established, it contained four versions of the gospel, written by four different individuals. We all know that. What is so remarkable here is that the Christians of old did not expect you to believe just one person’s account. They had to convert people who were educated in classical Greek philosophy, no less, so they provided four accounts of the same story, each one ever so slightly different, but giving the potential convert a chance to critically check what he has been told. Of course, more gospels were excluded from Biblical canon than included- but the fact that we have four instead of one is already highly progressive for a religious movement of antiquity.

Finally, Gnosticism gave Christianity the possibility to offer a link with pre-Christian Greek philosophy, and hence a possibility to create a continuous flow with the pre-Christian past. This way, Christianity never became a breaking point, despite what many will try to tell you. It took its place in European civilisation without immediately abolishing all previous elements of culture, but gradually, in a time frame of 400 years, displacing them.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 286 AD

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Roman Empire did nothing but expand between 386 BC and 117 AD. The Romans incorporated vast territories by ruthless conquest, clever diplomacy, and sometimes, sheer intimidation. Scipio, Caesar and Augustus are the big names remembered even two thousand years later. After Augustus, Roman conquests lost quantity, but gained quality. Claudius, Domitian and Trajan conquered only few provinces, but they were vast and rich. As long as these conquests went on, Rome could breathe, because expansion was the very foundation of its society. If a region would get overpopulated, people could move away to Roman colonies founded in order to pacify and stabilise a new province. It was never an official policy to Romanise them, but it was a pleasant side-effect.

Much more important, each war Rome waged brought thousands of new slaves to the empire, a workforce that guaranteed the empire's economic prosperity. New provinces also needed to be equipped with various resources, so new trade routes were established throughout the empire, and everybody had a piece of the pie. Imperial growth was economic growth.

But then, Rome hit its limits. In the north, Celts and Germanic tribes halted Roman expansion. To the south lay the vast Sahara desert, and to the east, the Parthians were an opponent of almost equal military capability. Trajan was the last emperor to conquer new provinces, and his successor Hadrian even gave up three newly acquired ones. After that, the Romans were in constant defence, and had to ward off Germanic and Parthian attacks incessantly.

It went well for about seventy years. Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus and Caracalla led major campaigns that could not necessarily stabilise the borders, but at least continued the flow of prisoners of war and kept the empire going the way it had been. But the military pressure proved too big for the empire, and by the middle of the 3d century AD, Rome drowned in civil wars, led by people whom their own troops had declared Roman emperors. All political stability had been lost, and the empire was further strained by attacks from Germanic tribes and Persian armies. Only a miracle, it seemed, could save the empire from total collapse.

It was not exactly a miracle, but it was an extremely ruthless, but brilliant man who did. His name was Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, or Diocletian. He actually managed to become sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 285, but unlike some others who managed to defeat all their enemies temporarily, he kept a cool head. He realised that if Rome wanted to survive, it had to split. For several decades, two parts of the Roman Empire actually became autonomous, and formed the Gaulic and Palmyran empires. They would have fared rather well with it, hadn't they been forced to concentrate their powers to both warding off outward enemies, and other Roman troops. Diocletian saw the potential that lay within this idea, and initiated a more sophisticated, and more importantly, legal split.

I won't go into detail about this - Starting in 286 AD, he basically split the empire in four, legally united but factually autonomous. The system, known as the Tetrarchy didn't last long. He resigned in 305 to ensure stability in transition, but the whole thing fell apart while Diocletian himself was even still alive. In 312, Constantine defeated all his opponents, and in 325, he took over control all by himself and the Roman Empire was once more one political body under one emperor. All back to normal?


Diocletian may have failed with the Tetrarchy, but he did create one thing that was to last. He turned Rome into an absolute, hereditary monarchy, a system that would legally and morally dominate Europe until 1789, until the French Revolution.

Wait a second. Am I seriously arguing that prior to Diocletian, Rome was not a monarchy? What about Augustus?

Of course, the Roman Empire was a monarchy, and in contrary to what some people will have you believe it was even a hereditary monarchy. But at least formally, most emperors followed Augustus' idea. They considered themselves a primus inter pares, a first among equals- the equals here being the Senate. The emperor only relieved the Senate of the dirty work, and the troops were still commanded by senators. In order to be morally acceptable, you had to pledge allegiance to the Republic. The Republican order remained the highest moralic authority.

Diocletian changed that. He simply took away all power from Republican institutions. No longer did senators command the troops, and no longer did they govern the provinces. The senate was reduced to what it had originally been, the city council of Rome. A new, imperial aristocracy emerged that now took over control. You no longer had to confess your loyalty to the Senate and people of Rome. You now did it to the emperor himself. He now possessed a divine component, much like the Great Kings of whatever political entity existed in Iran, and disobedience was blasphemy. Hence, Diocletian is also remembered for his unprecedentedly cruel pogroms against Christians.

Still, the Christians later adopted that idea. A monarch who was essentially chosen by God seemed like a good idea, and it did work for a long, long time. Without Diocletians creation, it may be argued whether the idea of divine right, which dominated politics and theology throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, would ever have become accepted in Europe. Unwittingly, Diocletian, perhaps the most bloodthirsty enemy the Christians ever faced, paved the way for Christian Europe. Only one year after his death, in Milan, this course was confirmed. But that is another story.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 330 BC

I admit this one is a bit of a placeholder date. 330 BC marks the year in which Alexander the Great assumed the throne of the Persian Empire, arguably founding a joint Greek-Iranian monarchy. I could have included any given date that is in relation to Alexanders campaign: 334 (start of the campaign), 331 (Battle of Gaugamela), 323 (death of Alexander)... there would be many possibilities. What matters is the deeper meaning of Alexander's campaigns per se. The political entity Alexander created is of little importance, because it fell apart right after his death. But Alexanders lasting creation is what is called the Age of Hellenism.

The term "Hellenism" was coined by the Prussian historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) and describes the era in Greek and Middle Eastern history between the campaigns of Alexander (started 334 BC) and total Roman domination in the Greek world (30 BC). It is meant to denote the vast political, cultural, social and economical changes that occured in the wake of Alexander's conquests.

Until this point, Greece had been dominated by small city states such as Sparta, Athens or Thebes, which struggled to gain hegemony over the Greek world. The cultural significance of Classical Greece has been pointed out in a previous post. But what exactly did Alexander change?

First off, he expanded the geographical scope of the Greek world. No longer was "Greece" restricted to the Aegean world, southern Italy and various other bits of the Mediterranean and Black Sea; suddenly, huge new Greek kingdoms appeared in Egypt, in Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia. This extension of the Greek world had a good number of consequences. Had the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds previously been more or less clearly separated - Independent Greek cities here, Persian Empire there - they were now one. Anatolia, Syria and Egypt were now part of the Greek world, and the identity of these countries now merged. While the Greek culture more or dominated these areas in the centuries to come, Middle Eastern elements were now also adopted in Greek, and by extension, Roman and European culture. Christianity is the prime example of this: an oriental religion, enriched with Greek philosophy and Roman spirituality.

I will come to the individual 'oriental' elements of Christianity in a later post, but I will say as much as that it was basically the perfection of an already happening symbiosis of original Jewish and Iranian - more precisely, Zoroastrian - thought, and it would not have been accepted as readily as it was had the people of the Mediterranean world not accepted the Levant as part of their own.

New ideas emerged within the West, if you want to use this term, as well, and the ideas of what art and literature were supposed to represent changed profoundly. Artists now sought to better capture reality, and not always, though sometimes, idealise it. More liberty was granted in intellectual discourse, and opposing ideas were allowed to spread more freely than before. People could travel more freely and write more about their impressions of lands previously out of reach. Books about regions ranging from Britain to India were written, and the wisdom of these countries was received. Knowledge was considered something that was to be preserved- a great Hellenistic capital such as Pergamon or Alexandria was not complete without a great, famous library.

What is sometimes forgotten is how far Greek culture traveled. Today, Greek ruins can be seen in Tajikistan and Pakistan. Greek colonies were founded throughout the territories conquered by Alexander, and lasted for centuries. Even the first kings of Sasanian Persia considered the Greek language to be of such importance in Iran that inscriptions were written in Greek in the early 3rd century AD. The Buddhist Gandhara culture, which lasted until the 6th century AD was deeply and visibly influenced by the Greeks- the most famous testament of this were the Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

Of course, Hellenism was also an age of War. Antigonid Macedonia sought to dominate Aegean Greece, Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaeic Egypt struggled fiercly and bitterly for the Levant. Attalid Pergamon appeared as a predator in Asia Minor. In the east, the Parthians steadily expanded at the cost of the Seleucid and Graeco-Bactrian empires. The great Hellenist kingdoms weakened themselves so greatly that soon the Romans could pick provinces in the east like ripe fruits.

All in all, Hellenism was an era in which West and East, for one priceless moment, grew together. The possibilities that lay in this symbiosis were endless, and both benefited greatly from it. Sadly, it was not to last, and this fragile building gradually fell apart due to ignorance and bigotry from both sides.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 386 BC

If the Greek culture that could freely blossom after the events of 479 BC was the intellectual birth of Europe, then what happened in 386 BC could be considered as its political birth.

In the early 4th century BC, a Gaulic tribe known as the Senones invaded northern Italy. Led by a warlord called Brennus, the Senones wrought havoc to much of rural Italy before encountering a small confederation of city states known as the Latin League. The Latin League was weak, unorganised and disloyal. So when the Senones appeared at the river Allia, the Romans stood there alone. And were defeated. Soon afterward, the Senones appeared at the outskirts of Rome.

Legend has it that the Senones attacked the city at night, while the people were sleeping. When they attempted to storm the Capitol, however, the sacred geese of Iuno woke up and alarmed the entire town. The population fled to the Capitol and withstood the Senones for seven months until buying their freedom with a humiliating tribute that led Brennus to say, “vae victis” – “woe to the vanquished”.

So far, so good. During all of antiquity, cities of varying size and importance were besieged, conquered and plundered. Some survived, some didn’t. Why was this different?

The Romans, humiliated and scared, vowed to never let something like this happen again. The ‘Gaulic Scare’ became a vision of horror that accompanied them for centuries to come, and they saw only two methods to stop the ruthless barbarians from attacking their home again: First, build a wall. Second, expand their resources.

In the following decades, the Romans managed to turn the Latin League into a tool of their domination. It didn’t go without fighting and wars, but in the end, the League was not much more than an embryonic Roman Empire, soon to become the province of Latium. At the same time, the Romans pushed back whatever it perceived a threat from the Apennine Mountains. It went fast. By 270 BC, the Romans were undisputed lords over all of Italy, including the powerful Greek city states of the south. Rome was strong enough to challenge Carthage, the greatest power of the western Mediterranean- and win. Perhaps their victory over Hannibal was luck, the Romans considered it fate. In 203 BC, the terrible Gauls of northern Italy were defeated, and by the mid-2nd century BC, Rome had gained the upper hand against the powerful Hellenistic kingdoms of the east. Province after province fell to the Romans, and it was only with the death of emperor Augustus in 14 AD – a full 400 years after Brennus’ invasion – that the breathtaking expansion of the Roman empire slowed down. Within the next 100 years, few, however major, provinces fell to the Romans, and only the death of emperor Trajan in 117 halted Roman expansion. By 166, the Romans were no longer expanding, but defending their empire against foreign threats. In 455, Rome itself was conquered by the Vandals- the first time since 386 BC that the city was under foreign occupation.

386 BC was the starting point of the Roman Empire. For five centuries, the Romans did nothing but expand, bringing the greater part of Europe under their control and shaping it their way. Undoubtedly, the Romans were the most influential civilisation in European history, and their traces can be found deep in territories that have never been under their direct control, and entire libraries could be devoted to the influence the Romans had. In their expansion, the Romans also spread Greek wisdom spoken of in the previous post, and for the first time tied Europe together politically and spiritually.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Key Dates of European History

Many people reduce history to a mass of dates and facts. This is the way history is usually taught in schools and often presented in various media. Usually, a timeline consists of a number of dates and brief facts next to them. I personally believe that it is essential to know a number of dates to have a reasonably accurate chronological view of history, but I also think that it is necessary to know what these dates mean exactly, and why we have to remember precisely these dates.

As a European, I identify myself with European culture and history. While I won't attempt to trace the political, cultural and social reality that the European Union is - or will hopefully become - to a more or less imagined historical foundation as has been done before (Charlemagne, anyone?), I do believe that there is a certain, vague cultural identity that has tied Europe together throughout its history. I will try to trace this cultural identity in a series of posts here, in timeline fashion, because that is perhaps the easiest way to both present and understand... however, I also believe that the events themselves are of little importance. If you want to know more about them, read Wikipedia. What I find much more relevant is the meaning of these events. Each timeline entry is a new post, in which I explain why I believe these dates are of unique significance to European history. Sometimes they may seem like a cliché, but sometimes, they might be a straight-out surprise.

479 - The battle of Plataeae

When the Persian King Xerxes I (rg. 486-645 BC) launched his infamous Greek campaign in 480 BC, nobody believed that this tiny, poor and unorganised collection of warring city states would ever be able to put anything against him. Sure, the Greeks had previously beaten the Persians, ten years before at Marathon; but at that time, the Persians did not seriously intend to conquer mainland Greece. King Darius I only sent out to recapture lost territories and punish what he considered a treacherous ally.

It was different in 480. Whatever his motivations may have been, King Xerxes, son of Darius, wanted to conquer Greece and incorporate it to the Persian Empire. I have discussed the actual size of his army before; but in any case, what Xerxes came up with seemed like an idiot-proof plan: The seemingly unlimited resources of the largest empire the world had seen to that point against a handful of mountain tribes. It was a sure thing. So sure that even the Carthaginians allied with Xerxes, just to be on the winner’s side and not become a Persian province themselves some time in the future.

Two things made Xerxes’ plan fail: A sudden sense of unity in Greece, and Greek geography. Despite being arch-enemies, the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta allied and vowed to stand together, along with a number of other city states. Only few Greek territories chose to stay neutral and even less sided with the Persians.

At the same time, the Persians underestimated the viciousness of Greek terrain. Be it the bottleneck of the Thermopyles or the unrest of the Aegean Sea, Xerxes’ army was held up long enough for the Greeks to evacuate their territories, mostly Athens and Attica, and come up with a strategy to beat the Persians. Truth be told, in the small-scaled Greek countryside, the size of the Persian army was a major disadvantage. Try to imagine a narrow corridor with concrete walls and a huge Stalin-eque tank running through it and you’ve got a picture of what the Persian situation was like. Add to that the fact that the Greeks knew how to deal with their country, and the Persians didn’t- the Greeks had the superior army. Quality won over quantity. After decisive victories at Salamis (480), Plataeae and Mycale (both 479), the Greeks expelled the Persians from their country for good. No Persian army would ever set foot on mainland Europe again.

I am a bit wary when people cite this as a victory of freedom over slavery and all that sort of stuff. Being a part of the Persian Empire wasn’t all that bad. Persian rule usually reduced itself to two things: A governor appointed by the Great King, but with a few notable exceptions usually part of the local aristocracy, and the fact that the province had to pay taxes to Persia. In times of war, the provinces also had to send soldiers to the imperial army, but this only happened a few times in the 200-year long history of the empire. The comparison of the Greeks serving nobody, and the Persians being slaves to their king is also poor: Both the Greeks and the Persians alike served their gods. The only basic difference is that the Persians believed their king was appointed by the Gods, hence disloyalty to the king was blasphemy. From a theological perspective, there is no difference. In fact, Zoroastrian theology explicitly states that it is a peoples right to rid themselves of an unjust ruler.

These thoughts aside, it remains undisputed that the Greek victories at Salamis and Plataeae were defining moments in European history. Whatever would have happened after a Persian victory, good or bad, it would have been profoundly different. To clarify this importance, we only need to ask ourselves a few questions. Without the Athenian expansion and hegemony in the 5th century BC, would the Athenian agora have become a place of intellectual and cultural discourse that brought together Socrates, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Phidias and Hippocrates? Would Plato have founded his academy? Would Thucydides have developed the scientific method if Persian overlords prevented the terrible wars between Athens and Sparta? Would Aristotle have developed his ideas of science and logic if the Macedonian kings would not have gathered the greatest thinkers of their time to compete with the southern Greek states?

Ancient Greece laid the foundation of what we today know as the European civilisation and all that derived from it. The only danger to be faced when arguing that the Greek-Persian struggle originally kick-started the development of Hellenic civilisation is that the analogy is carried to the modern world. Despite this historic fact, there is no inherent struggle of East vs West by which either civilisation is defined. Moreover: Even though Europe’s spiritual genesis lies in ancient Greece, the influence of neighbouring – oriental – cultures is profound. Clio likes to deceive us into drawing easy conclusions by offering simple, superficial facts, but historic truth is always much more complex.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Hermann was not German

2009 is a very "German" year - it sees the 20th celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall (which I already addressed), the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the German Federal Republic (a point which I will address in a future post), the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War (a point which I will probably come to at some point as well) and the 2000th anniversary of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is something that has moved German historians and nationalists alike for nearly two hundred years now. Many have called it the "Big Bang" of German history, and named Arminius, the battle's protagonist, the "first German". When I read things like that, I personally wish these historians and journalists have their respective degrees and/or licenses revoked. But first things first: What was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest?

When Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he set up a border between the Roman Empire and what he defined as Germania (I will not come to the details and inaccuracies of this, it may be the subject of a later post as well), which was essentially the course of the Rhine river. Caesar himself had led two expeditions to the Germanic territories, which lay east of the Rhine, but not with the intention to conquer them, but to keep his back free for his Gaulic campaign; Germanic forces had repeatedly threatened the Romans at that time.

A few decades later, emperor Augustus wanted to end the latent threat Germania posed to the Roman Empire, and decided to conquer the territory. The initial campaign was successful, and a new province, Germania Magna was established, that ranged from the Alps and the Rhine to the Elba river. German archaeologists have uncovered numerous remains that suggest profound Roman colonisation deep in this territory, which is not mentioned anywhere in the written sources we know.

Like anywhere else, the Romans commanded the new province by the means of divide et impera, much rather allying themselves with local Germanic tribes than implementing direct military control, even though the number of Roman legions garrisoned within the province (mostly around the Ruhr area) was comparatively high. But had the conquest and subsequent pacification of Gaul been completed within a mere eight years, the new Germanic province proved to be much more troublesome. The string of military operations did not end, and new troublespots appeared almost constantly. Eventually, as in Gaul in 53 BC, a new character appeared that posed a serious threat to the Roman forces.

This man was Arminius, a nobleman of the Germanic tribe of the Cherusci. He had served the Roman army for a while, was a Roman citizen and considered an ally by the Romans. Arminius saw the possibility that lay in unifying various Germanic tribes under his command. This unification is seen as the first idea of a German nation by modern historians - a view that is not only anachronistic, but a gross distortion of the facts. Anyway, in 9 AD, this Germanic confederation lured three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus into the deep Germanic forest and practically annihilated them. Although this did not mark the end of the Roman occupation of Germania, it was a turning point, and the province was eventually given up by emperor Tiberius, and nobody ever spoke of it again.

Although archaeological surveys have uncovered several battlefields in the region of the Teutoburg Forest, none of them could ever be positively identified as the site of the Varus-Battle, as it is called in Germany. This did not prevent German nationalists of the 19th century to declare the town of Detmold to be the battlesite, and erect a huge monument dedicated to Arminius - or Hermann the Cheruscian as he was now called - here. Incidentally, this monument is known as Hermann the German in the English-speaking world.

Notwithstanding the fact that Arminius was murdered several years after the battle, and the Germanic coalition broke apart over the question whether it should turn into a big Germanic empire, and the fact that a German nation state was founded only 1862 years after the battle, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is, in the same vein as 19th century nationalism, now again considered the foundation of the German nation by many.

Let's dig a bit deeper here. It is not so obvious in English, given that Germany and Germania are technically the same word - or at least the one is derived from the other - but they describe two completely different things. It becomes much clearer when you consider the German word for Germany: Deutschland. Germania, for that matter, is referred to in Germany as Germanien. So what do these two words mean, and what is the difference between them? Let's start with the term German.

When they did not simply call them Barbarii, or named them by their individual tribal names, the Romans referred to the Germanic people as Germanii. That name was and is applied to Goths, Vandals, Franks, Langobards and whatnot, and is now even used to refer to the Norse people. For once, this is not a stupid idea the Romans came up with, but Caesar (who introduced the term to the Roman world) took that designation from the Celts. In truth, the Germani were one of the many tribes that were later lumped together under that term. They were simply the ones the Celts had the most to do with, and so they started using that name for all the people who lived east of their territories. Germania was then used by the Romans to name the territory of uncertain boundaries that was inhabited by these tribes. That's quite simply all there is to it.

And it is in fact not very different with the term Deutsch either. The word has been around in one form or the other since antiquity, and was used during the Middle Ages mostly as a name for the German language(s), and then as a rather obscure term for "people". The word derives from Teuton, the name of a Germanic tribe that settled in the far north of modern-day Germany and parts of Denmark. They had their fifteen minutes of fame when they (along with the Cimbri) migrated south around 100 BC and threatened the Roman Empire, but were decisively defeated by the Roman general Marius. This was the first contact the Romans had with any Germanic tribe, and so the label Teuton kind of stuck and never quite went away. By the Middle Ages, Teutonic had become the self-designation of the Germans, while Germanic or German was the word foreigners used for them.

Now the bulk of what the Romans knew as Germanii migrated from their homelands (which were by no means identical with modern-day Germany) in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD. They founded kingdoms in what is now France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Tunisia, some short-lived, others, like France, in essence still existing today. Some Germanic tribes however remained where they were, in the area between Rhine and Elba. Those were different tribes than those the Romans had met in classical antiquity. Gone were the Cheruscans and Marcomanns, who had been the prominent antagonists of the Romans back in the day. The tribes who now resided here were basically new ones: Saxons, Thuringians, Baiuwars and Allamanns. The political body they were now to live in was forged by the Franks, another Germanic tribe. So can we call this "Germany"?


The people of that time called it the Frankish Empire (Regnum Francorum). That is, until 800. Then people called it- the Roman Empire. Confused yet?

Charlemagne, the king of the Frankish Empire, was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. By definition of the time, the Roman Empire had never fallen. And it would have been pretty terrible if it had, because the Biblical prophet Daniel had predicted the end of the world after the fall of what was interpreted to be the Roman Empire (Dan:2). So the people of the Middle Ages were pretty keen on keeping the Roman tradition alive, and believed in the end that Rome had changed from a political entity with a number of religions inside to a religious entity with a number of political ones (translatio imperii). Moreover, the Roman Empire had passed from the hands of the Romans themselves to the Greeks (Byzantines), to the Franks, who were Catholic, and hence more true to the faith.

But that is not all. When Charlemagne died, his empire got divided among his sons, according to Frankish tradition. Only one of them, however, could carry on the heritage of the Roman Empire. After what is essentially a huge mess, it turned out like this: The Frankish Empire was permanently divided into two separate ones, the West Frankish one, which would go on to become France, and the East Frankish one, which was now considered the Roman Empire, because it also contained large parts of Italy, including Rome itself. Control of the Roman Empire soon passed from the Frankish Carolingian dynasty to the Saxon Ottonic dynasty. Then the Frankish Salians took over, and eventually the Swabonian Staufers (who renamed the thing into Holy Roman Empire), and so on.

So can we finally call this Germany? I wouldn't. Some do, however. Fact is that throughout the Middle Ages, it was only called the (Holy) Roman Empire, and the word German or Deutsch was merely used to distinguish one part of the population from others, such as Italians or Slavs. In fact, one of the major principalities of the Holy Roman Empires was Bohemia, basically the modern-day Czech Republic. It was later acknowledged that the Holy Roman Empire was in possession of the Germans by extending its name to Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but that never quite caught on. By that time, the Empire itself was not of any importance anymore, and the individual principalities tended to go their own way without even thinking about whether they were German or not. In fact, in the years prior to Napoleon, Prussia was at the verge of developing for itself a combined German and Polish identity.

It was only during the French occupation of the Napoleonic Wars that the Germans started developing the idea of their own nation, and the desire to create one unified German nation state. So while there has been a distinguished German culture for many, many centuries, and you can speak of a German history ever since the days of Charlemagne or perhaps prior, you cannot speak of a history of Germany before the days of Napoleon. Any attempt to trace this idea to an earlier moment in time is, in my opinion, a gross falsification of history.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Thermopylae: Killing a Sacred Cow

The Battle of Thermopylae hardly needs any introduction. It is one of the most famous and inspiring battles in European history. The last stand of three hundred Spartans against an overwhelming force of Persians, facing certain death, yet willing to remain free to the last breath… alright, let’s cut that crap.

The battle wasn’t all that great. It has been romanticised on end, and I know everybody who is reading this will first think of the film 300 that was all the rage and led everybody who has never known the first thing about ancient Greece to scream “This is SPARTAAA!!!!111 LOLZORZ!!!” And along came the amateur historians, who have read parts of the historical background section in the Age of Empires Help file and have it all worked out now. You can read their comments on Youtube, and random internet forums that have a History section.

I liked the film, even though I had turned in a term paper named Sparta in the Persian Wars the same day I saw the movie, and am now doing Iranian Studies. I liked it, and I thought it was pretty cool, but that is because I can separate history from fantasy. The film took a historical subject that wasn’t really all that cool, but had already been distorted in collective memory anyway (it’s not like 300 popularised the battle, it merely brought its popularity to the 21st century), twisted it some more, added a queer Persian King and a giant with scissors for hands (I suppose Johnny Depp wasn’t available that day?) and cashed in on the success.

When it came to the story itself, the film, and I suppose the comic it was based on, is surprisingly close to what has been written about the battle. You can read the accounts of the battle in the Histories of Herodotus and the work of Diodorus Siculus. Even some of the one-liners are there, including “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” Believe it or not.

So, why wasn’t the battle all that great? I am not going to recount the entire story, which you can read up on thousands of pages on the net. But I am going to point out some of the things that are sometimes a bit disregarded. First of all, the Persian army did not consist of millions, as some of the more dramatic accounts like to say. Modern historians have well-reasoned estimations of perhaps 200,000 men under Xerxes’ command. Mind you, that is still an amazingly big number, even by today’s standards. Then, the Greek army that stood at Thermopylae wasn’t that small. Yes, there were 300 Spartans, and they were the ones in command. But for some reason, people always forget the several thousands of other Greek soldiers that were there. While it is true that many had left or died by the final day, and that the 300 Spartans all died, there were still up to 1,500 Greeks left then. I don’t even know why people keep forgetting them, even Herodotus mentions them.

So if we go by the numbers of 200,000 vs 5,000 to 11,000 according to various Greek accounts, it doesn’t look that spectacular anymore. The spectacle fails especially when you consider that it was not an open battlefield, but a narrow pass that was deemed impossible to surround. Battles like this happened every once in a while in history, because passes are so amazingly easy to defend. They held up Alexander the Great, Hannibal and the entire British Empire. Mountain passes have always been the ideal defence position, and numerical superiority loses much of its effect here. In fact, at Thermopylae, it became completely irrelevant, until the Persians managed to surround the pass.

More importantly, the motivation that the Greeks would stand there to their death and take as many Persians with them as possible is plain wrong. The strategy behind Thermopylae was very pragmatic, and in fact, by today’s standards would be considered pretty ruthless. The idea was that the Greeks hold up the Persians at Thermopylae for several days so the city of Athens could be evacuated. Then they would retreat to the Isthmus of Corinth, which was an even better defence position, especially when considering that the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula with enough back-up troops was at their back, so the Greeks could simply drive the Persians to the sea if they had enough. The destruction of Athens was, well, taken into account.

In romantic distortion, Thermopylae is a nice and inspiring story. In historical fact, it is still pretty impressive, but not all that great indeed.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (VI): Berlin Reunited

After the Wall was torn down, a long wasteland ran through the city. Many historic buildings had been demolished, and mending the two halves of the city back together was a difficult task. Many grand projects were initiated, the rebuilding of Potsdamer Platz being arguably the most spectacular. An entire new city centre mushroomed here within seven years, now frequented mostly by tourists. Much of the disconnected infrastructure needed to be redeveloped, and the entire eastern half of the city required considerable modernisation.

But like the rest of the country, the reconstruction of east Berlin took longer than expected and eventually stalled, causing much social misery in many of the eastern boroughs. Obviously, the west was also affected and started to descend into poverty. The high-profile Mitte borough has been mostly reconstructed now and has grown back together, once more being the seat of the German government. But in other places, the former partition is still apparent by empty land. Many predictions for the city’s future, such as a huge wave of migration that would boost its population turned out to be false, and some building projects that were initiated with these predictions in mind now seem needlessly large, and the attempt to develop a new city centre is eyed critically by many.

Today, Berlin is a thriving city that has been labelled by its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, to be “poor but sexy”. The visible scars of the division are being gradually removed, with only a few pieces of the Wall preserved as monuments, but many spaces within the city remain empty. There is some animosity between former West and East Berliners, who each feel misunderstood by the other, and like the rest of the country, Berlin is struggling hard to tear down the walls in the heads of people.

The Berlin Wall (V): The Fall of the Wall (Continued)

Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia had also opened its border to West Germany, and the pressure on the GDR government grew. Eventually, a new law was proposed by which it was generally allowed that people of East Germany could leave the country, but with strict visa regulations. The public did not accept this, and a revision of the draft was initiated. On the evening of the 9th November 1989, a spokesman of the government stepped to the press and proclaimed that freedom of travel was granted, and the border was to be considered open. In a matter of hours, people were dancing on the Berlin Wall.

The Wall, which had divided Berlin for 28 long years, lost all of its terror in one single night. Officials at the border checkpoints had no other choice than to let the great masses of people who desired to visit West Berlin through without any control. West Berliners rushed to the border checkpoints to greet the Easterners, and the night of the 9th to 10th November 1989 became one huge party. On the following day, West Berlin was crammed and crowded, and people chuckled at the fact that bananas – the unavailability of which in the East was a symbol for its poverty and need – were sold out in the entire city.

In hindsight, the following development – the disbanding of the German Democratic Republic and its admission to the Federal Republic of Germany – appear like natural, logical consequences. But it was not so obvious at the time. East German authorities did not deny the fact that a reunification was inevitable, but they supported a slow, careful process. Initially, it was proposed that the two German states would form a confederation which would help the GDR to build up its political and economic structures to West German standards before it would eventually join the Federal Republic.

But these careful approaches were unrealistic. The people of East Germany were not satisfied with free travel, they demanded reunification. The parole of the ongoing Monday Demonstrations changed from “We are the people” to “We are one people”. The West German government reacted by announcing that further negotiations would only be made if the East German government was democratically elected and represented the people. Elections took place on 18th March 1990, and the parties that favoured immediate reunification got the majority. After economic and social regulations were taken, the five new states that constitute the former German Democratic Republic, and East Berlin, joined the Federal Republic of Germany on 3rd October 1990.

International recognition of the Reunification was granted with the Two Plus Four Treaties of 1990, in which the Allied Powers - The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union - also granted full sovereignity to the Federal Republic of Germany, formally ending its status as an occupied country for good.

The Berlin Wall (V): The Fall of the Wall

In 1987, highly respected German historian Sebastian Haffner wrote in his book, “Von Bismarck zu Hitler”:

What could a reunification of both German states, the way they have developed in 40 years and are now, possibly look like? Strangely, imagination fails there. A reunification of the kind that one of the two German states would disappear and blend into the other one is barely imaginable. Obviously, this would require a war, and a reunification of such kind could under today’s circumstances only undergo in a mass grave. But a reunification, in which both German states, the way they are and have become, would be merged into one working state, is not imaginable, not even theoretically.

By this time, Germans on both side of the border had put up with the fact that there would be no reunification. The ease in West-Eastern relations had made life bearable for West Berliners, as they were allowed to visit East Germany and East Berlin for day trips, and deals were made that ensured West Berlin got supplies from the surrounding areas. Damocles’ Sword had disappeared, a total lock-up of the city as in 1948 was unlikely. Ronald Reagan’s visit in West Berlin on 12th June 1987, where he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said: “Come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was considered a nice gesture, but nobody believed it would happen.

The cracks in the Iron Curtain that appeared in 1989 shocked the whole world. It was known that East Germany suffered from severe economic problems, but the conservative West German Kohl administration had granted generous loans to the GDR in the course of the 1980s. But the East German government retained its cold, conservative bearing, which even ignored the impulses of Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost and Perestroika, while nearly every other country of the East Bloc had adopted political reforms. Consequently, in the summer of 1989, masses of refugees arrived in West Germany, at first via Hungary, which had opened its border to Austria (already an incredible development in itself), and hundreds of people fled to the West German embassies in Budapest, Warsaw, East Berlin and Prague.

Then, Eastern Germany experienced civil unrest. It emerged from the traditional weekly peace prayers in the Nicolai Church in Leipzig. In September 1989, they were extended to include demonstrations after the prayers. These Monday Demonstrations went through the country like a wildfire and by November, they took place in every big East German city. Over a million East German citizens marched through the streets shouting a simple parole: “We are the people”.

The East German government was caught by surprise. It believed that the protests would die down if they presented its leader, Erich Honecker, as the scapegoat and deposed him, which they did on 18th October 1989. The new leader, Egon Krenz however did not possess any kind of credibility among the people, and so the protests went on.

(Continued in next post)

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (IV): The Divided City (Continued)

West Berlin indeed became a showcase of the western world, including its very worst parts, and social problems were soon rampant. A particularly bad problem the city had to deal with was drug addiction. David Bowie, who lived in Schöneberg in the late seventies, called West Berlin the “world’s capital of heroin”, and the book, “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” by junkie Christiane F. amply illustrated the problem and made it known throughout West Germany. By 1980, West Berlin’s centre was crowded with junkies, hookers and tramps.

West Berlin, and particularly the Free University, was also a centre of the leftist scene. The West German ’68 revolt started when on 2nd June 1967, the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot at a riot that emerged from a protest against the Shah of Iran who was visiting the city. From that point on, Berlin became a test tube for alternative ways of life. Particularly the borough of Kreuzberg, which at some parts was enclosed by the Wall on three sides, became a self-styled autonomous territory, attracting leftist students and later, punks.

The Wall stood for 28 years, and created two distinct cities out of one. Prior to 1961, it had been unimaginable that Berlin was anything other than one city. By 1989, it had become unimaginable that it would ever be one city again.

The Berlin Wall (IV): The Divided City

The Wall consolidated the position of the two distinct centres of the city. The eastern centre was renewed, with historic building blocks being completely demolished to make room for the new, lavish Communist city-building concept. Even the historic city palace, residence of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors, was torn down. Broad streets were built and huge panel flats dominated the city’s image. A new landmark, the 368-metre high television tower was built in the demolished centre. Only few boroughs, such as Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg retained their old structure, and they are today among the most original areas of Berlin that can be found.

East Berlin profited from being a city that both had a historic core and room to expand. Although formally illegal, new boroughs were added at the eastern borders, Marzahn being the most important one. The city had a more or less intact infrastructure, and only a few underground stations were closed because they were served by trains that were coming from and going to the west. These “ghost stations” became an eerie reminder of the partition, with the trains passing them at walking speed but never stopping.

West Berlin on the other hand was not a historic city. Most of it had only become a formal part of Berlin in 1920, and had been dependent of what became East Berlin. It had no official town hall, no central railway station, and much worse, little room to expand. Some of the first measures that were taken were the re-opening of Tempelhof airport as the city’s main commercial airport and the founding of a new university – the Free University – because the historic Humboldt University was in the east. The train station Zoologischer Garten became the city’s new central station, as it was located in the centre of the New West. Schöneberg Town Hall became West Berlin’s new town hall. The city was constantly rebuilt, and when housing space began to get scarce again, new settlements were founded in the few empty spaces within the walled-in city, such as Gropiusstadt south of Neukölln and Märkisches Viertel in the northern borough of Reinickendorf. These new quarters were soon occupied by the poorest elements of the population: the working-class, and later mostly Turkish and Arab immigrants. To this day, Berlin is home to the biggest Turkish community outside Turkey. The historic infrastructure of the city was completely revamped when a new motorway was built, leading critics to remark that West Berlin was turned into a huge interchange.

(Continued in next post)

Friday, 21 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (III): Berlin before the Wall

To understand just how brutal and unnatural the division of the city was, it is necessary to take a closer look at the city of Berlin itself. And to understand the city of 1961, it will become apparent why, we must dive a bit deeper into its history.

After becoming the capital of the newly-founded German Empire in 1871, Berlin witnessed an immensely rapid growth. Its population skyrocketed from 931,000 in 1871 to 3,734,000 in 1910 to 4,300,000 in 1939. Its new political role had made it an attractive location for new industries, businesses and culture. Poor working-class suburbs like Rixdorf (Renamed to Neukölln in 1912) or Wedding, and wealthy ones like Charlottenburg, Wilmerdorf or Steglitz emerged and gradually grew together with Berlin proper, which until then had its western city limit at the Brandenburg Gate, now located directly in the city centre.

Vibrant urban life concentrated itself among several urban centres; Alexanderplatz in the historic centre of Berlin, Potsdamer Platz to its southwest, and the New West at the intersection of the then-suburbs of Schöneber, Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf. Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz were mostly heavily frequented traffic junctions – in fact, Alexanderplatz was the busiest square in the world in its heyday – and boasted expensive stores, hotels and nightclubs. The New West only emerged in the early 1900s, when new high-profile cafés, theatres and warehouses (the Kaufhaus des Westens, Warehouse of the West remaining the largest warehouse in continental Europe) opened along the Kurfürstendamm or Ku’damm, a major street in proximity to the Berlin Zoo, west of Berlin proper. It became mostly a centre of cultural and artistic life of the urban bourgeoisie.

In 1920, the major suburbs were incorporated to the city of Berlin itself, making the population hit the 4 million mark, which to this day it has not reached again. The 1920s became Berlin’s golden years, with its cultural significance eclipsing even Paris and London. Germany’s biggest contemporary authors and artists lived and worked here, and the Babelsberg film studios produced legendary cinematographic classics such as Nosferatu, Metropolis and The Blue Angel.

Socially, Berlin remained in turmoil since the days of industrialisations. The working class suburbs and boroughs were strongholds of Social Democrats and Communists, mostly because of the pitiful living conditions many workers had to endure. In Wedding, some tenements had up to six courts, and for a while Rixdorf was the most densely populated town in the world. These conditions only slowly improved, in particular when the National Socialists came to power and intended to remove Communist breeding grounds.

Speaking of the Nazis, their plans for Berlin, particularly Albert Speer’s megalomania, are well-known. Only very few building projects were actually started, mostly in the government quarter. Today, a few Nazi buildings can still be seen in the city, including the Tempelhof airport (the third biggest building in the world by square metres), the Olympic Stadium and the former ministry of aeronautics, now ministry of finances. Hitler’s dream to create a city that could compete with ancient Athens or Rome was however fulfilled in a macabre way. Like ancient Rome, Berlin lay in ruins in 1945.

Berlin’s destruction was concentrated to the city’s centre, around the government quarter. The heaviest hit boroughs were Mitte, Charlottenburg, Tiergarten, Wedding, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain – these were affected by strategic bombing. Nevertheless, nearly every part of the city suffered heavy destruction at least from the house-to-house fighting in the final days of the War. When the fighting was finally over, the city was so devastated that an American soldier remarked it could not possibly ever be rebuilt. Especially the three aforementioned centres of Alexanderplatz, the New West and mostly Potsdamer Platz were levelled. The population of 4,3 million in 1939 had been reduced to 2,8 million.

Nevertheless, reconstruction began. First, the city was cleared of rubble by the so-called “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen). It was a lot of rubble, by contemporary estimations 60 million cubic metres, amounting to 15% of all of Germany’s post-war rubble. It was turned into a number of Schuttberge, or rubble mounds, with the 115 metre high Teufelsberg in Grunewald forest being the biggest. Incidentally, the NSA installed a listening station of major strategic importance on Teufelsberg during the Cold War.

Authorities managed to revitalise Berlin, obviously under the impression of division. While it was still one city, East German authorities rebuilt the area around Alexanderplatz into its representative centre (with many Stalinist buildings along the Karl-Marx-Allee), while western authorities turned the New West in to the “Western world’s showcase”, heavily funding new building projects here. Potsdamer Platz was not rebuilt, because it lay in the border area of western and eastern sectors, and it turned into a strange wasteland in the heart of the city. By 1961, living standards in both parts of Berlin had again improved, even if ruins and facades pierced with bullet-holes were still a common sight. The Wall did not halt this process of regeneration, but it did steer it into new, curious directions.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (II): Dividing a city

On 15th June 1961, Walter Ulbricht, head of state of the GDR, said at a press conference in East Berlin:

I understand your question in the sense that there are people in West Germany who wish that we mobilise the construction workers of the capital of the GDR to erect a wall, yes? I am not aware that such an intention exists, because the construction workers of our capital are fully engaged in residential construction, and its labour force is deployed for that. Nobody has the intention to erect a wall.

On 13th August 1961, Nobody erected a wall.

Let us recall for a moment that up to this point, people could move around freely in the entire city of Berlin. Formally, you were only allowed access to the other part of the city if you had relatives there, but practically, it was impossible to control. Underground and overhead trains, busses and trams operated across the border without any sort of control. Many people lived in one part of the city and worked in the other one. Even if two different currencies were used, and you could buy different goods in both parts, it was impossible to think of Berlin as anything other than one city.

And then, the Wall was built. It was built along the border of the Soviet sector, wherever that happened to be. It was built through train stations, on the pavement, in the middle of the street, along the Spree river, literally through the middle of the city, with the most iconic part running in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, now unreachable from the West. Houses on the east side had their windows bricked. Later, these houses were demolished altogether, and a “death strip” that varied in width was installed behind the wall, with barbwire and land mines. The death strip was sealed off by a second wall running parallel to the first one, and a total of 302 watchtowers were built. Seven border checkpoints between the two parts of the city existed, the most important ones being “Checkpoint Charlie” at the crossing Friedrichstraße/Kochstraße, the train station at Friedrichstraße and those at Bernauer Straße and Sonnenallee.

With West Berlin sealed off, attempting to use the old escape route became perilous for East Germans. Some decided that they would rather risk their lives than living under tyranny anyway: Up to 206 people are assumed to have been shot trying to climb the Wall or swim across the Spree. Countless were arrested, yet some came through. In 1989, 1,000 refugees lived in shelters in West Berlin.

Throughout the western world, and particularly within West Germany and West Berlin, the Communists had lost their moral credibility. During the 1950s, there were many West Germans who were not sure that the western, capitalist system was the way to go. Even the Conservative CDU party had described their policy as “Christian Socialism” to go with the flow, and many felt uneasy about the banning of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1956. But now the “Real Existing Socialism” as the GDR called its system, had shown its ugly face, with concrete walls, barbwire and watchtowers.

Berlin now faced its darkest hour, and many West Berliners were uncertain about their future. But their spirit was reinforced when the most powerful man of the world himself made a visit to the city. On 26th June 1963, John F. Kennedy stood in front of the Schöneberg town hall – seat of West Berlin’s government – and held his historic speech:

Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner. (…) All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.”

To the Berliners, Kennedy coming to their town and saying, in German, that he was one of them was immensely uplifting and helped build their spirit for the hard decades to come.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Berlin Wall (I): Locking up a city

This year, Germany and much of the world will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a symbolic event that is today widely recognised as the turning point of the tumultuous final years of the East Bloc and the initiation of the downfall of Soviet Communism. Merely three years after the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was no more, and in the countries of central and eastern Europe, Communism had vanished.

For one last time, on the night of the 9th to 10th November 1989, all eyes turned to the city that had been the flashpoint of the epic struggle between east and west for four long decades: Berlin, the old and new capital of Germany.

In many ways, the historical development of Germany has nearly always been projected on this city, which is situated in the centre of the otherwise immensely rural province of Brandenburg. It witnessed rapid growth and industrialisation following the founding of the German Empire in 1871; it was the site of merciless street battles between Communists and Nazis in the opening and closing stages of the Weimar Republic; it saw the worst of the War when it was nearly levelled by Allied bombing and Soviet invasion; and like the rest of Germany, it was divided after the War.

Although occupied by the Soviets and situated in the heart of the Soviet zone of occupation – the later German Democratic Republic (GDR) – Berlin was divided in the same manner as the rest of Germany. The eastern boroughs – East Berlin – were now the Soviet sector of the city, the south-western ones the American sector, the centre-western ones the British sector and the north-western ones the French sector; the latter three constituted West Berlin. The city of Berlin in its entirety, meaning all four sectors, was considered an individual entity within Germany. This also meant that officially, the Soviet sector was not a part of the Soviet zone of Occupation of Germany, and hence also officially not part of the German Democratic Republic (although this fact was later disregarded when East Berlin became the capital of the GDR), even though it directly bordered, nay, lay inside it. This fact is quite significant because it meant two things: First, the citizens of Berlin could freely move within the city limits, and in fact many people lived in East Berlin and worked in West Berlin and vice versa. Second, because the Soviet sector directly bordered the city, East Germans could freely pass and leave the city. The result was devastating: Between 1949 and 1961, five million East Germans fled the GDR through West Berlin.

Moreover, Communist authorities, both Soviet and East German, were not pleased by the fact that the three western powers, and the United States mostly, had military presence in the middle of a Communist country. Let’s keep in mind that Berlin was a fully-occupied city: each of the four occupation powers had troops and military infrastructure inside, including barracks and airbases.

Things became dangerous when in 1948, the western powers introduced a new currency in their zones of occupation (i.e. Western Germany), including their sectors in Berlin, the Deutschmark. It became apparent that the western Allies intended to stay where they were and create a capitalist West Berlin. The Soviets felt that there was only one thing that should be done: Drive them out. And so they locked up the city. The idea was simple and near-brilliant. By blocking the roads to Western Germany, the citizens of West Berlin were forced to buy goods in East Berlin and the surrounding areas. But the Soviets underestimated two things: The resistance of the West Berliners, and the determination of the western Allies.

There was no sympathy for the Soviets among those who lived under western occupation. Never would they support their system, and most West Berliners chose to sit it out. On 9th September 1948, Berlin’s Social Democrat mayor, Ernst Reuter, stepped up in front of the burnt-out ruin of the Reichstag building, facing hundreds of thousands of Berliners, pleading: “People of the world, look upon this city”, and not forget Berlin.

They did not. The western Allies, mostly the United States and Great Britain, immediately initiated an airlift to carry supplies to the city. Most American planes landed at Tempelhof Airport, both Berlin’s commercial airport and the American air base in the city. British planes landed at their own airbase at Gatow; the French rush-expanded the Tegel airfield in a whopping 90 days, although they provided very little direct air support themselves. In addition, planes and pilots from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were involved.

Lasting nearly a year, the airlift was a massive success. At its high point, planes landed and lifted off every three minutes at Tempelhof. On 12th May 1949, Communist authorities gave up and re-opened all access routes to Berlin. That morning, many West Berliners were irritated from waking up to silence, and not the roaring motors of the legendary Douglas planes that were lovingly dubbed candy bombers.

But the Communists did not give up. Ten years later, in 1958, Khrushchev threatened to lock up West Berlin again, if it was not turned into a sovereign Free City without Allied occupation (with the obvious intention of reuniting it with East Berlin and turning it into a part of the GDR). Again, the western Allies stood up against it, and the plan failed.
By that time, millions of East Germans had fled the country through West Berlin, and the GDR was slowly but steadily drained of its life blood. Extreme situations, the East German government felt, required extreme measures.


Welcome to Perunology, a blog featuring the personal views of history by Perun. Here, I am posting essays on things in history that interest me, and that I feel like presenting to the world my way. I am going to inaugurate this blog by posting the first part of my article on the Berlin Wall.