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Rick Steves Classroom Europe™ is a free resource allowing teachers to share the best of European art, history, and culture with their students and fellow educators.

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Berlin as Capital of Prussia

Berlin, Germany

In the 1700s, with the reign of Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, Berlin became a world-class capital, with a powerful military, grand architecture, and art-filled museums. Romantic art helped fuel the nationalistic German unification movement in the 1800s.

Complete Video Script

The Brandenburg Gate is a glorious reminder that, long before the birth of modern Germany in 1871, the country of Prussia was the leading German state and a European power. Its capital was Berlin.

While it’s overseen plenty of war, the Brandenburg Gate was designed as an arch of peace, crowned by a majestic four-horse chariot with the Goddess of Peace at the reins.

Berlin is built around a historic axis. Five hundred years ago, this boulevard was just a carriageway connecting the Prussian emperor’s palace in the city center with his hunting grounds — today’s sprawling park, the Tiergarten.

The home stretch of that axis, leading to the palace, was Unter den Linden. This leafy boulevard — named for its linden trees — was, in its day, the Champs-Elysées of central Europe.

With the reign of Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great in the 1700s, Berlin became a world class capital. Frederick was part of a dynasty, which ruled Prussia and then Germany until the end of World War I.

In order to compete with Austria, France, and Russia — all of which had lots more people — Prussia became a virtual military boot camp. It raised Europe’s largest army, Berlin was a military metropolis, and goose-stepping was in. Voltaire said, “Some countries have an army and in Prussia the army has a country.”

Today, Frederick the Great looks out intently over grand buildings, which symbolized his reign. A man of the Enlightenment, his vision was to create not just a military power, but a land of high culture…“a new Rome.” Under Frederick, Humboldt University was instituted as the leading German center of higher learning, where Marx and Lenin would study and Albert Einstein would teach.
To underline the focus on culture, an impressive ensemble of purpose-built museums fill Berlin’s Museum Island. Galleries here feature art through the ages from Egypt and Ancient Greece to romantic age art that celebrates German nationalism.

Before 1871, Germany was fragmented — a disorganized collection of little German-speaking dukedoms and kingdoms. But a unification movement was growing. And artists and intellectuals here were all about legitimizing the notion that Germany should be a single, independent nation.

The Old National Gallery is filled with paintings from the Romantic 19th century, which made that case powerfully. Dreamy castles harken back to Germany’s misty medieval roots. Heroic struggles were waged for the fatherland. German cities were idealistic God-fearing centers of high culture. And Romantic patriots dreamed of a land where German-speaking people could raise their beautiful children true to their heritage.