Germany and its cities have a more complex recent history than some of its European neighbours. The country started the 19th century as a collection of microstates, began the 20th as an empire, and finished it as a coherent (if smaller) nation; in the middle, it tried life as a republic, had a go at fascism, was occupied by four countries, and then became the chief battlefield in the world’s biggest-ever proxy war.
It’s that last bit is crucial to understanding Germany’s cities in the 21st century. When the country was split into two acronyms – the FDR, or West Germany, and DDR/GDR, East Germany – the capital of Berlin was left in a tricky spot.
Split between east and west, with a wall enveloping the western side, it was the chief battleground for the latter 20th centuries battles of rhetoric and ideology, if not of actual boots on the ground.
So while the other chief European capitals of Paris and London were booming, growing, and locking down the total dominance of their respective nations, Berlin was left behind. Half of it was the capital of communist East Germany, but the other half was a rigorously maintained PR exercise for the West’s hopes and dreams, with the real workings of a capital shuffled off to Bonn, on the Rhine.
But despite the setbacks that a very long wall, lots of empty no-man’s land, the odd blockade and airlift, and a few hundred miles in barbed wire might offer, Berlin is still Germany’s largest single city. With 3.6m people living in the city proper, and 6m in the wider urban area, it’s the big beast of German cities.
Germany’s largest cities by population
Sticking to individual official cities – a clarification that will become very important – it stands a fair way ahead of its nearest rival. But relative to the way Paris and London absolutely dwarf out all other cities in their respective countries, Germany actually has a fairly good selection of moderately large cities. Here’s the top 10, in terms of official city populations:
- 1. Berlin – 3,275,000
- 2. Hamburg – 1,686,100
- 3. München (Munich) – 1,185,400
- 4. Köln (Cologne) – 965,300
- 5. Frankfurt – 648,000
- 6. Essen – 588,800
- 7. Dortmund – 587,600
- 8. Stuttgart – 581,100
- 9. Düsseldorf – 568,900
- 10. Bremen – 527,900
Source: City Mayors, 2015.
The boundaries of Germany’s cities
Official government boundaries are not the only way of defining cities. Indeed, when it comes to comparing cities, and one has boundaries that are much more expansive than another, it can be pretty misleading at times.
A more solid way of defining things is to, basically, draw a line around an urban area and call it a city. That’s essentially what the US consultancy Demographia does every year in its World Urban Areas report. Here’s the top 10 from 2016:
- 1. Essen-Dusseldorf – 6,675,000
- 2. Berlin – 4,085,000
- 3. Cologne-Bonn – 2,115,000
- 4. Hamburg – 2,095,000
- 5. Munich – 2,000,000
- 6. Frankfurt – 1,930,000
- 7. Stuttgart – 1,385,000
- 8. Dresde – 735,000
- 9. Hannover – 715,000
- 10. Nuremberg – 675,000
Source: Demographia, 2016.
Suddenly Berlin has lost the top spot to Essen-Dusseldorf, a conurbation several dozen kilometres across on the shores of the Rhine. Whether that’s a single city or not is a different question.
While we’re here, note, too, that the gap between the largest urban areas and those ranking 3rd to 6th is relatively narrow. Compare that to the UK, where London’s 10m or so people completely dwarfs the under three million in Birmingham and Manchester.
For what it’s worth, Bremen, which sneaks into the top 10 when considered an individual city, just misses it as an urban area, ranking 11th with 660,000 people.
Cities by metropolitan area
There’s one more way we can define cities: by their metropolitan area, that is, the entire economic footprint of a city including its suburbs and commuter towns.
The German government, helpfully, does all that for us: its metropolitan areas are collections of local authorities which have signed treaties to co-operate in certain areas. Many of these regions cross state boundaries: Hamburg, for instance, is a city-state in itself; but its metropolitan region also includes eight districts in Lower Saxony, six in Schleswig-Holstein, and two Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Judge city size on this basis, and the top 10 looks like this:
- Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (includes Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Bonn) –11.3m
- Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region – 6m
- Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region – 5.8m
- Stuttgart metropolitan region – 5.3m
- Munich metropolitan region – 5.2m
- Hamburg metropolitan region – 5.1m
- Central German metropolitan region (basically Leipzig and Dresden) – 4.4m
- Hannover–Braunschweig–Göttingen–Wolfsburg metropolitan region – 3.9m
- Nuremberg metropolitan region – 3.5m
- Rhine–Neckar metropolitan region (mostly Mannheim and Heidelberg) – 2.4
Once again the striking thing here is how flat these figures are. Sure, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr region is enormous, on a par with London or Paris – but beyond that, there are another six cities of around half its size.
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