Berlin’s role as a city of imagination, myths and symbols can hardly be overestimated. The name Berlin appears for the first time in recorded history in 1244, seven years after that of its sister town, Kölln, with which it later merged. Both were founded near the beginning of the 13th century. The Berlin area was abandoned to the Slavs by the original Germanic tribes as they had migrated westward. Berlin still retains a defiant black bear standing on its hind legs as its symbol as the Slavs were subdued by Albert I the Bear.
The democratization of Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union moved the centre of European gravity eastward. This shift, expressed also by the transfer of the German federal government from the Rhine to the Spree, made Berlin the political, economic, and cultural hub of central Europe. When Berlin was a provincial capital, it only rarely rivaled cities such as London and Paris. From the 18th century on, however, its cultural contribution became distinctive, and if its 19th-century title “Athens on the Spree” seems exaggerated, the contribution of Berlin to architecture, the arts and sciences nevertheless has been considerable. Despite the stigma of Nazism, the destruction of war and division Berlin was able to rebuild its reputation as a centre of international cultural life. In fact, the division of the city into two halves doubled many of its cultural institutions and activities. As a consequence the modern Berlin is unique in its large number and variety of cultural expressions.