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Berlin history

Historical maps of Berlin: from 1600 to 1920

Berlin has changed a lot over the years. Here are twelve maps that show how the city has changed through the ages.

Historical map of Berlin around 1739. Photo: Public Domain

Berlin is a young city by European standards. Even though its history goes back about 800 years, it’s only from around 1600 that we have maps of its layout. And maps aren’t simply a charting of terrain, you can learn a lot about how a place perceives itself socially and politically by the way it draws maps of itself. We’ve assembled 12 examples spanning 400 years. This is the story of Berlin through maps.

1600 – A city is born

Historical maps: Berlin around 1600. Photo: Public Domain

Did you know Berlin actually used to be two different villages? The first documented mention of Cölln (the other one) goes back to 1237 and Berlin to the year 1244. The two towns merged in 1309 and from 1432 onwards we see records mentioning the twin-town of Cölln-Berlin. This is what it looked like around 1600. Fun-fact, this is where the name ‘Neukölln’ comes from. 

1652 – After the Thirty Years’ War

Historical maps: Berlin around 1652. Photo: Public Domain

This map from 1652 shows the layout of Berlin and Cölln. Designed by Johann Gregor Memhardt, the churches and other important buildings on what we now call Museum Island and Mitte are marked. The city had just survived the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which some historians estimate to have halved Germany’s population.  

1712 – the reign of Friedrich I.

Berlin around 1712. Photo: Public Domain

Here is a “thorough outline of the royal capital and residence city of Berlin” from 1712. Less colourful, but we do see the important streets listed. This was during the reign of Frederick I. The regent allowed French religious refugees to come to the city and promoted many building projects, including barracks and town houses.

1739 – the reign of Friedrich II.

Historical map of Berlin around 1739. Photo: Public Domain

This historical map from 1740 is actually an updated copy of the original from 1739, based on Johann David Scheuen’s plan. The plan is bordered by drawings of important landmarks and a “Prospectus of the City of Berlin Viewed from the North Side”. The statues of Friedrich Wilhelm and Friedrich I are marked on the plan. Included in the drawings are the most important churches in the city, some of which are still standing today and are among the oldest buildings in Berlin.

1769 – Center of Prussian power

Berlin around 1769. Photo: Public Domain

Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, was King in Prussia from 1740 and King of Prussia from 1772 (apparently the distinction was important. The restrictive title “in Prussia” was necessary because the designation could have been understood as a claim to the entire territory of Prussia, the western part of which belonged to the Kingdom of Poland. Here we’ve translated ‘in’ to in and ‘von’ to of). A subtle historical difference. During his reign, which ushered in the age of enlightened absolutism, Berlin rose to become a European metropolis. Famous Prussian architects and sculptors shaped the cityscape, art and culture flourished, and the kingdom gained military importance in Europe. Although the legendary monarch had many representative buildings erected in Potsdam, Berlin was the centre of Prussian power.

1798 – Classicism on the rise

Berlin around 1798. Photo: Public Domain

The historical map from 1798 is more like a city map. A directory of streets and important buildings provides a good overview. You can see the expansion of the city, the old city-centre on the river is no longer alone, as areas have been developed in almost every direction. The late 18th century was shaped by Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was King of Prussia from 1786 to 1797, succeeding his uncle Frederick the Great. In this era, the city was redesigned according to classical ideals.

1811 – The bourgeoisie gains strength

Berlin around 1811. Photo: Public Domain

From 1806 to 1808, Berlin was occupied by the French, after which there was a rapid rise to become one of the most populous metropolises in Europe. Urban self-government was established, and in 1809 the Berlin City Council was formed. With this, the Prussian city slowly broke away from its feudal heritage and the era of the monarchy and slowly made its way towards being a republic. The bourgeoisie also grew stronger at that time and an independent bourgeois culture emerged.

1840 – Change to a metropolis

Berlin around 1840. Photo: Public Domain

Traffic was revolutionised, the railways were built, industrialisation was on the rise. In 1840, Berlin no longer resembled a medieval settlement on the Spree, where the subjects of the gracious regent toiled in the fields, but increasingly began to resemble a modern city. Berlin grew beyond the city walls, the first tenements were built, but also the negative aspects of urbanisation such as crime, noise and air pollution began to become a problem for Berliners. 

1871 – Capital of the German Empire

Berlin around 1871. Photo: Public Domain

In 1871 everything changed politically. The German Empire was founded, King Wilhelm I became Kaiser Wilhelm I and Berlin became the capital of the German Empire. Berlin was very much in the midst of the political turmoil of the late 19th century. The city grew into a metropolis of millions, the Reichstag was founded and got its own building, and new waterworks, central slaughterhouses, railway stations, streets and parks were created. Residential buildings shot up everywhere in and around Berlin.

1895 – Fin de Siècle

Berlin around 1895. Photo: Public Domain

The plan from 1895 shows Berlin with all its suburbs and the complete Stadtbahn and Ringbahn. It starts to look very recognisable to us at this point. Most of the districts we speak of today have been developed by 1895, even if they don’t officially belong to the city of Berlin. Berlin was a working-class city, with cheap tenements, dark courtyards and smoking chimneys. But modernity hadn’t quite yet arrived.

1907 – The modern city

Berlin around 1907. Photo: Public Domain

In the years leading up to the First World War, the city finally took on its present form. There was construction everywhere, and art critic Karl Scheffler was quoted as saying that Berlin was “damned to always become and never to be,” all the way back in 1910! People rode the subway, swam at Wannsee, walked through Tiergarten and enjoyed themselves in the large ballrooms we still frequent to this day. The trams drove through Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, the telephone network was getting denser and people shopped in the new department stores in Tietz and Wertheim. 

1920 – Greater Berlin is created

Berlin around 1920. Photo: Public Domain

Greater Berlin came into being on October 1, 1920. With the incorporation of the surrounding cities, towns, rural communities and villages, Berlin became the third largest metropolis in the world overnight. At the time only London and New York were bigger. Berlin rose to become a modern city and became the epitome of the vibrant life of the Roaring Twenties.

A century has passed since then, a world war, the division of the city, 28 years of the Berlin Wall and reunification followed. For 30 years, Berlin has been developing peacefully and united and is considered one of the most exciting cities in the world.