Civic Identity and Berlin as a Metropolis

Peter Jelavich’s work is relevant to analyse Berlin in terms of its historical position and the aspects of the civic identity and metropolis as he talks about individuals seeing themselves as citizens of a nation rather than as burghers of local community and about the maintenance of a sense of urban identity in the face of immigration, industrialization and national homogenization which require new forms of civic self- definition. In the 1900s the expression “the Berlin experience” was connected with the problematic notion of the civic identity as Berlin was turned into a metropolis (Weltstadt) with a primary nonnative population. Therefore questions such as what does it mean to be a Berliner? arose. Due to a rapid growth of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, a homogeneous citizenry was never achieved, says Jelavich.

By the end of the 19th century Berlin was expanding and gained a reputation as the epitome of a modern industrial metropolis. In Hedrun Suhr’s words, multifaceted West Berlin prided itself on its openness and multicultural atmosphere. Many current publications on Berlin stress that the city has always welcomed foreigners, political émigrés, and workers, seeking employment, students and others.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989, masses of GDR citizens and other newcomers were populating the streets of Berlin. This historical characteristic of the city of a constantly changing population, bringing with it a multiplicity of influences from the outside made Berlin different from any other European city. The ever- shifting composition of the city’s population has contributed to the sense that Berlin has no continuous history, according to Heidrun Suhr (c1990). He goes on to say that Berlin lacks an ‘organic’, gradually developing culture, citing Karl Scheffler declaring that it is the city’s fate “always to be in the process of becoming and never to be.” This social and ethnic diversity demanded new social psyche. A popular saying is that a typical Berliner was not born in Berlin (Suhr, H. c1990).

One of the largest multicultural districts in Berlin is Kreuzberg which partially owes its popularity to the turbulent history of the alternative movement and legendary squatter scene of the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the largest multicultural districts in Berlin is Kreuzberg which partially owes its popularity to the turbulent history of the alternative movement and legendary squatter scene of the 1970s and 1980s.

It is also worth looking at the adaptation of the East to the West after 1989. Author John Ardagh in his work “Germany and the Germans” has cited a pastor who said: “The old regime collapsed so quickly and the West has now moved in so totally that we are all left confused” (1995: 434). Ardagh goes on to explain how people from the East were torn between a post- mortem on the past and anxiety of the future as they were entering a new highly competitive world. For older people, there was also the sense of waste, having to “spend forty years as guinea- pigs of a Socialist experiment that failed” (1995: 435). For people in East Berlin who sincerely believed in the Socialism ideology the moral confusion was especially great. Therefore, another focus of our research project is how different generations of Berliners are perceiving contemporary Berlin and is the division of the city still alive in society or is it just a memory of the past.

Sources: Suhr, H.; Haxthausen, c. (c1990) “Berlin culture and Metropolis”

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Ardagh, J. (1995) “Germany and the Germans”

London: Penguin Books

(By Eva Spirova)

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