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Berlin, Capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, is located at the heart of Europe and also, after EU enlargement in 2004, at the centre of the European Community. With about 3,400,000 inhabitants, Berlin is the largest City in Germany. It is 38 kilometres long and 45 kilometres wide and covers an area of 889 square kilometres. In the middle of the Brandenburg region, the city occupies the flatlands on the banks of the Havel and Spree rivers and is criss-crossed with numerous canals.

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Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, no city in Europe has seen more development and change. Two Berlins that had been separated for almost 30 years struggled to meld into one, and in the scar of barren borderland between them sprang government and commercial centers that have become the glossy spreads of travel guides and architecture journals. After successfully uniting its own east and west, Berlin, as the German capital and one of the continent's great cities, now plays a pivotal role in a European Union that has undertaken the same task.

But even as the capital thinks and moves forward, history is always tugging at its sleeve. Between the wealth of neoclassical and 21st-century buildings there are constant reminders, both subtle and stark, of the events of the 20th century. For every new embassy and relocated corporate headquarters, a church stands half-ruined, a synagogue is under 24-hour guard, and an empty lot remains where a building either crumbled in World War II or went up in dynamite as East Germany cleared a path for its Wall. In the chillier months, the scent of coal wafts through the trendy neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain, where young residents who fuel the cultural scene heat their unmodernized apartments with coal stoves.

Compared to other German cities, Berlin is quite young and, ironically, began as two separate entities in 1237. The Spree River divided the slightly older Cölln on Museum Island from the fishing village Berlin. By the 1300s Berlin was prospering, thanks to its location at the intersection of important trade routes. After the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, Berlin rose to power as the seat of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, in the almost 50 years of his reign (1640-88), touched off a renaissance by supporting such institutions as the Academy of Arts and the Academy of Sciences. Later, Frederick the Great (1712-86) made Berlin and Potsdam his glorious centers of the enlightened yet autocratic Prussian monarchy.

In 1871 Prussia, ruled by the "Iron Chancellor" Count Otto von Bismarck, unified the many independent German states into the German Empire. Berlin maintained its status as capital for the duration of that Second Reich (1871-1918), through the post-World War I Weimar Republic (1919-33), and also through Hitler's so-called Third Reich (1933-45). The city's golden years were the Roaring '20s, when Berlin, the energetic, modern, and sinful counterpart to Paris, became a center for the cultural avant-garde. World-famous writers, painters, and artists met here while the impoverished bulk of its 4 million inhabitants lived in heavily overpopulated quarters. This "dance on the volcano," as those years of political and economic upheaval have been called, came to a grisly and bloody end after January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. The Nazis made Berlin their capital but ultimately failed to remodel the city into a silent monument to their power. By World War II's end, 70% of the city lay in ruins, with more rubble than in all other German cities combined.

Along with the division of Germany after World War II, Berlin was partitioned into American, British, and French zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. By 1947 Berlin had become one of the Cold War's first testing grounds. The three western-occupied zones gradually merged, becoming West Berlin, while the Soviet-controlled eastern zone defiantly remained separate. Peace conferences repeatedly failed to resolve the question of Germany's division, and in 1949 the Soviet Union established East Berlin as the capital of its new puppet state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The division of the city was cruelly finalized in concrete in August 1961, when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall, the only border fortification in history built to keep people from leaving rather than to protect them.

For nearly 30 years Berlin suffered under one of the greatest geographic and political anomalies of all time, a city split in two by a concrete wall—its larger western half an island of capitalist democracy surrounded by an East Germany run by hard-line Communists. With the Wall relegated to the pile of history (most of it was recycled as street gravel), visitors can now appreciate the qualities that mark the city as a whole. Its particular charm has always lain in its spaciousness, its trees and greenery, and its anything-goes atmosphere. Moreover, the really stunning parts of the prewar capital are in the historic eastern part of town, which has grand avenues, monumental architecture, and museums that house world treasures.

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