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On January 17, 1988, a group of human rights activists were arrested in East Berlin during the annual memorial march (top right) in honour of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were murdered by right-wing street fighters in January 1919. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were socialists who formed the Spartacus League, a revolutionary and anti-war group in Berlin, in 1914. This led up to the November Revolution of 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser. The artist George Grosz made an ink and wash drawing ‘In the memory of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’ (bottom left), which commented on the brutality of their killing, with the ghost of justice draping a blood-spattered robe across their open coffins. My father Harry Petzal remembered seeing shooting during the November Revolution, at the age of 10, in the Tiergarten Park close to his home.

At the time of Harry’s birth in 1908 the mood was still optimistic, and Germans were not contemplating the end of the monarchy. A grandson of Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II (centre) had substantial aspirations for his country and his capital. The 18th century Brandenburger Tor (Brandenberg Gate) (centre right), had long symbolised the changing fortunes of imperial might. Atop the gate is ‘Quadriga’, a four-horse drawn chariot with the goddess Victoria. After Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians in 1806, he looted the statue to Paris. After his subsequent defeat, Quadriga was restored to Berlin and, to reinforce her, equipped with a Prussian eagle and Iron Cross on her lance and a wreath of oak leaves. Wilhelm, who had inherited a unified Germany, wanted to add his own memorials to the city, commissioning the Evangelical Berliner Dom (cathedral) in 1905 to emulate St Peter’s in Rome.

Early 20th century Berlin was a sprawling metropolis of contradictions and contrasts, but also of power and innovation. The American writer Mark Twain wrote; ‘Berlin seems to be the most governed city in the world, but one must admit that it also seems to be the best governed. It has a rule for everything and puts the rule in force; puts it in force against the poor and powerful alike, without favor or prejudice’. Rules went hand in hand with a vast bureaucracy. With a methodical approach, the Germans counted and kept meticulous records. On one day in 1900, 87,266 crossed Potsdamer Platz; by 1908, the hourly traffic, now with cars, had risen to 174,000. Inevitably the police could not cope, so traffic lights were developed and installed, the first in Europe (top left).

A city of electricity and light, of tramways and underground railways. The industrialist and engineer Werner Siemens and his sons created Siemens Stadt, an entire district of north west Berlin devoted to the giant electrical company. In 1913 there numbered 7,000 people in one factory, 3,000 in the electric-motor works and 3,000 people in the cable works. Women were also becoming essential to the Berlin economy, in the factories as well as working from home. This vibrant pre-war economy was also culturally rich and diverse. Expressionist art and architecture were at their height. The composer Richard Strauss was running the Berlin Opera House, Claerchens, famous dance hall
was packed nightly, there were cinemas, popular music, concert halls, cafes; every form of entertainment. Cabarets (bottom right) first opened in 1901, although censorship meant they did not flourish until the Weimar Republic.

In November 1911 Auguste Bebel, a Marxist politician and colleague of Liebknecht and Luxembourg, issued a prescient warning to the German parliament; ‘There will be a catastrophe. 16 to 18 million men, the flower of different nations, will march against each other, equipped with lethal weapons. I am convinced that this great march will be followed by the great collapse’. His colleagues laughed.