Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles. Berlin is the most loathed, feared and resented of all capitals. Can it escape the burden of its past and reinvent itself as one of the world's great cities? By Jan Morris

Berlin: a modern history

David Clay Large <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 706pp, £25</em>

ISB

This is the only book I have ever reviewed that has actually given me bad dreams - not because of the specific horrors that have marred the modern history of Berlin, but because, as I read it, the unrelenting balefulness of the story became nightmarishly confused in my mind with the story of the 20th century itself. My century.

Berlin has always pined to be recognised as a Weltstadt, a world-class city like Paris, London and New York, and it certainly was one of a kind through the years of the Hohenzollerns, Weimar, the Third Reich and the Wall. It was a cockpit of humanity, where plumed emperors confronted revolutionaries and mutineers, ideologies faced each other down, schools of art clashed, private and public moralities lost their certainties, rival despots decreed the fate of nations, innocent people were condemned to extermination and armies stormed about in a rage of fire, rapine and destruction.

David Clay Large tells this awful story in straight narrative, from Berlin's elevation to capital of the newly unified Germany in 1871, to its less confident return to metropolitan status at the end of the 20th century. Large is professor of history at Montana State University, and his approach is scholarly, if sometimes embarrassingly journalistic (Leni Riefenstahl is "knee-bucklingly beautiful", and by page 600 I was ready to scream if Berlin was described just once more as "the city on the Spree").

So what exactly made me dream? Certainly not the book itself, every page of which I read with shamefaced enjoyment. No, it was the dark inevitability that seemed to attend the progress of Berlin throughout the 20th century, dragging all the rest of us along. There is something almost occult in the nature of this city. Its streets are haunted, and not by personal ghosts, but by the ghosts of ideas, policies and ambitions, more disturbing by far than spectral lovers or decapitated earls.

Constantly through this work there runs the theme of Berlin's uniqueness within Germany. Its determinedly urban attitudes make this city feel a world away from the half-timbered dirndl suggestions of the German countryside: a gulf of reputation and experience separates it from other big German cities. Only Berlin bears the several stigmata of Prussian militarism, Weimar decadence, Nazi evil, Stalinist oppression and tawdry capitalist excess.

This is largely because, throughout the 20th century, Berlin has been a capital city. Here, the Kaiser's generals planned their offensives, Eichmann calculated the logistics of the Final Solution, Honecker's border-guards murdered citizens looking for a better life, and for a few decades the gaudy materialism of the Kurfurstendamm was the world's most vulgar proclamation of democracy.

What did I first do when I arrived in Berlin from Russia in 1960? Why, I took my tin of caviar along to the Berlin Hilton, and had them keep it for me in the deepfreeze - a truly symbolic ritual in the days of the cold war. Professor Large gives the impression, however, that the introspective, rather masturbatory character of Berlin arises fundamentally not from the possession of power, but from lack of it - or rather from lack of what we now call empowerment, meaning inner assurance. Berlin never has been a world city in a more civilised sense: serene, confident and respected as London used to be, and as Paris still is. There has been nothing organic to its authority. It has been trumped up and self-conscious, as though constantly trying too hard.

Ever since Bismarck's day, when Berlin was plucked from mere provincial consequence, it has been a city of exaggerations. For generations, it was characterised by vast military parades, with horseback generals, spiked helmets, captured guns and hyperbolic emperors. Swollen allegory has been endemic to Berlin, and its architecture was always meant to startle, be it Wilhelmine Gothic, Bauhaus modernist, Nazi giganticism or Byzantine Stalinist. When its art was not state-controlled, it was deliberately sensational. When its populace was not state- disciplined, it indulged itself in shock and satire.

Music was the only civic speciality that consistently displayed a Weltstadt sense of assured pre-eminence, and so it remains. But around the glory of Berlin's musical traditions, the uncertainty of the centuries still displays itself. Now, as always, Berlin feels the need to prove itself, and to throw off the inferiority complex that has perhaps been at the root of half its troubles. Berliners could doubtless ignore the dislike that, as Large repeatedly demonstrates, the rest of Germany has habitually felt for their city, but they could never shrug off the feeling that it was a parvenu among the world's capitals. The "well-built, prim, dull and somewhat provincial town", thought Lord Frederick Hamilton in the 1870s, "was endeavouring with feverish energy to transform itself". And so it has been ever since.

What was the vast royal Schlob of the Kaisers but an extravagant attempt to keep up with the royal Joneses? What was the long walk of intimidation through Hitler's Chancellery but an admission that Berlin's chieftain needed props for his self-confidence? When, in 1995, the Bulgarian-American artist Christo draped, in acres of silver material, the whole of the Reichstag, the centrally symbolic building of Berlin, I asked one bystander if she thought it was demeaning to so historic a structure. Not at all, she said. "It will make the world notice us."

Berlin is always thinking of the world's notice. Sometimes it has wanted to impress the world, sometimes to appease it, sometimes to show defiance, sometimes remorse. Albert Speer's vainglorious schemes for the city were designed deliberately to eclipse Paris, a capital that has always made Berliners envious. The current plans for its reconstruction are intended to present it to the nations as a capital free of its terrible past, released from ideological restraint and chauvinism - a city for the new global age, sure of itself at last. And do they? Not to my mind. Today's burgeoning Berlin seems to me as restless and psychologically defensive as it ever was. Far from achieving that world-class atmosphere of easy satisfaction, its enormous office developments, its aggressive displays of technique and its myriad apologetic memorials are still enough to keep one twitching at night. The most fashionable architects from around the world - the Fosters, the Rogerses, the Libeskinds, the Gehrys - have made sure that nothing is calm or reassuring: the most mammoth of corporations have made their ominous presences inescapable.

Poor Berlin! It is doing its best, as the most loathed, feared and resented of all capitals of the modern age, and it is true that Norman Foster's glitzy new Reichstag dome supervises the work of a more decent and reliable democracy than most. But in its understandable efforts to disclaim its past and promote its present, the city has sacrificed that saving grace of a truly mature Weltstadt: a sense of modest patriotism. The best music I ever heard in Berlin was a Haydn string quartet played with exquisite sensitivity at the 200th anniversary of the Brandenburg Gate, in 1991: it brought tears to my eyes, but it was still recognisable as that old anthem of pride, shame and pathos, "Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles".

Jan Morris is completing a book about Trieste