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Underground Berlin: Where Infrastructure Meets Politics

Water, electricity, gas: in Remaking Berlin, Timothy Moss presents a history of Berlin’s infrastructure networks from 1920 to 2020, and shows how their operation has varied with successive political regimes.

Reviewed: Timothy Moss, Remaking Berlin. A History of the City through Infrastructure, 1920–2020, Cambridge (Massachusetts), MIT Press, 2020, 472 pp.

For anyone interested in the history of cities, the case of Berlin is particularly rich. In less than a century, the German capital lived through a succession of different political regimes: the Weimar Republic, Nazi rule, the division of the city between two concomitant republics (one liberal and one socialist) for more than 40 years, and then, after the unification of Germany in 1990, its new status as national capital. This incomparable diversity of political regimes lends itself well to the study of an object that is renowned for its resistance to change and its insularity with regard to social contexts: infrastructure. Timothy Moss, the author of Remaking Berlin, masterfully calls into question these two received wisdoms in a fascinating monograph. His study is original in several regards. While infrastructure is typically examined sector by sector, Moss chooses to focus on five types of infrastructure simultaneously: electricity, gas, district heating, water, and wastewater treatment. This choice enables the reader to better understand the dynamics of competition at play and appreciate symmetries between the different networks considered. Moreover, analyzing the evolution of these networks over time, between 1920 and 2020, reveals continuities and changes in the treatment of these networks by heterogeneous political regimes.

Four important tensions emerge from the book. The way infrastructure companies were managed changed several times during the century under study, oscillating between municipalization—shareholding and majority control by the city—and privatization. During the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), networked services were controlled by the municipality. The municipality used them to drive industrial production and the modernization of domestic equipment. After a period of uncertainty due to hyperinflation, which peaked in 1923, the municipal infrastructure companies improved the quality and scope of their networks and offered relatively low tariffs, which rapidly increased the number of connected households. The profits of these companies contribute significantly to the municipal budget. This business model was challenged by the Great Depression and by municipal budget deficits that grew as a result of the crisis. Bewag, the Berlin electricity company, was privatized in 1931. Municipalization as a form of infrastructure management was revived under the Nazis because it allowed foreign, especially Jewish, shareholders to be expelled. The infrastructure companies, which were all state-owned in East Berlin and under majority or minority municipal control in West Berlin after the war, were finally all privatized in the 1990s. The reason for this was not so much poor performance, since Bewag and Berliner Wasserbetriebe (BWB), the water company, were profitable. Rather, the purpose of the sale was to replenish the city’s coffers, which had been left empty by massive deindustrialization and the fall in federal subsidies to Berlin after reunification. BWB was eventually re-municipalized in 2013, which shows how the triumph of any form of management (state-owned, municipal, private) depends on historically mobile political contexts.

The second important tension concerns the mode of supply of water and energy, which is constantly torn between the local and the distant. As early as the 1920s, Berlin’s infrastructure managers emphasized the need for local production, while power generation began to move away from urban centers in many other Western countries. Following the physical division of Berlin’s territory from 1948 onwards, West Berlin’s leaders confirmed this local option—a decision forced by the political and geographical isolation of the city surrounded by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and accelerated by the Soviet blockade put in place that year. In order to avoid further potential blockades, West Berlin adopted a policy of autarky facilitated by generous funding from the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Huge stocks of coal and oil were built up at West Berlin’s power and gas plants, and the maximum capacity of the water and energy infrastructure [1] was also increased considerably, with a view to achieving self-sufficiency, at the risk of developing an inefficient network if usage was not high enough. In East Berlin, the opposite phenomenon was observed: gas and electricity production was gradually moved out of the urban center, in particular to make use of the East German lignite extracted in Lusatia, and then of Soviet natural gas. This same tension also arose during the Nazi period. While Berlin’s water came from its aquifer, Hitler insisted that it should come from mountain springs instead. This costly fad was not to be realized.

The third type of tension, between urban priorities and the national agenda, is best illustrated by the Nazi period. Berlin, the capital of the new Reich and, in Adolf Hitler’s eyes, the symbol of the "degenerate" metropolis in the hands of Marxist proletarians and Jews, was an ideal terrain for implementing Nazi policies. Municipal interests were subordinated to those of the party and the state. The Nazi leadership forced the construction of a gas pipeline from Watenstedt to Berlin in order to supply the capital’s munitions factories. They forced Bewag to buy a third of its electricity from the national electricity supplier. The Nazi agenda prioritized the use of wastewater to produce agricultural fertilizer for farms near the city and neglected the quality of sanitary water. All these measures were part of a context of preparation for an imminent war that forced the strengthening of national autarky, to the detriment of the independence of the city of Berlin. When the war broke out, it was obviously the military uses of the infrastructure that took precedence over civilian uses, forcing households to restrict their consumption so that the war industry could run at full speed. Urban infrastructure was relatively spared by Allied bombing and Soviet artillery, particularly because it was partly underground. This will not prevent the post-war period from being marked by chronic shortages of coal supplies, limiting the supply of electricity and gas and complicating the activation of water pumps—indicating from this point of view the centrality of the use of coal in the operation of various types of infrastructure. The partial destruction of the sewage treatment system as well as housing also leads to the discharge of impressive quantities of untreated water into the city’s waterways.

The final tension relates to the distance, over the entire past century, between demand forecasts and unpredictable fluctuations in consumption. Based on ambitious demographic projections, infrastructure company executives mostly formulate forecasts of rising demand to justify network expansion. According to Moss, the watchword for this strategy, which was dominant during the period, was "build and deliver." This strategy was used in the Weimar era, in the GDR, and in reunified Berlin. However, it often clashed with reality. The socialist five-year plans predicted that the average water consumption in East Berlin would double between 1959 and 1980, but this significant increase did not take place. The same optimistic assumption of increased demand characterizes the projections following Berlin’s reunification. However, the amount of electricity and water consumed in the city declined between 1990 and 2011. In total, 13,439 million kWh were sold in Berlin in 1990, compared to 11,371 million in 2011. Some 369 million cubic meters of water were distributed in Berlin in 1989, compared to 217 million in 2013. This decline is explained by, among other things, the massive deindustrialization of the urban area as well as a slight demographic decline. But Berlin’s history is also punctuated by relatively unsuccessful attempts to reduce demand, particularly during World War II and the GDR era. However, according to Moss, coercive campaigns—for example, the campaigns to control electricity consumption in the GDR during the 1950s—have only marginally influenced the consumption behavior of households, who respond mainly to price signals. It should be noted in passing that Moss follows the perspective of the history of networks developed by Thomas P. Hughes (1983), which focuses on the actions of producers and planners and less on those of consumers of water and energy, whose role is nevertheless questioned in Remaking Berlin.

The political history of Berlin’s infrastructure from 1920 to 2020 thus deepens our understanding of the relationship between political regimes and the functioning of urban networks. Continuity and change have succeeded each other in terms of infrastructure policies, but they have also overlapped at different times in this historical period. For example, if the symbolism linked to Berlin’s infrastructure was invested by Nazi rhetoric—think of the illumination provided by Bewag and Gasag at the 1936 Olympic Games—the physical form of the networks was not upset under Hitler, maintaining the framework of the developments initiated in the 1920s. Nor is there a direct link between a certain political context and a certain type of infrastructure. The recovery of sewage gas as a vehicle fuel was explored as much in the Nazi era for the purpose of national autarky as in the 2000s, which were marked by a preoccupation with short circuits and sustainable development. The richness of this book is therefore to offer a refreshing complexity to the often presentist contemporary debates on infrastructure and urban transitions. As such, it will be of interest to the historical community as well as to geographers and urban planners. Its clear writing, numerous illustrations, and compelling narrative are sure to appeal to the general public as well.


  • Hughes, T. P. 1983. Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Further reading:
See this documentary series on the history of Berlin’s infrastructure, presented by Timothy Moss.

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To cite this article:

Clarence Hatton-Proulx & translated by Oliver Waine, “Underground Berlin: Where Infrastructure Meets Politics”, Metropolitics, 2 December 2022. URL :

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