War and Peace, The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

You know those places in the city that are must-sees? ‘You haven’t been there if you haven’t see it’ is the typical phrase? Berlin has a number of them, but perhaps the most popular one is the Brandenburg Gate.

The Brandenburg Gate (or Tor in German) is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Berlin to the rest of the world. It was from the podium in front of the Brandenburg Gate that, during the height of the Cold War, that President John F Kennedy’s uttered his famous line, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,

And also with this backdrop that President Ronald Reagan spoke directly to the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to, “tear down this wall”.

We’ll get into more depth on these stories in later articles but what is it about the Brandenburg Gate, why was it built? Who wanted it built? To answer this we have to go back more than two hundred years to 1788 to the Netherlands.

The Golden Era of the Dutch Republic and had begun to wane with the rise of the British and French Empires around the world. And as is the case with the rise of powers, conflicts begin to brew. In this instance the Dutch who had been trading with the Americans drew the ire of the British who were at war with the Americans (in the War of American Independence). The ascendant power in the British won the war and the Dutch Republic was staring at harsh economic ruin. The economic hardship that the people were exposed to, combined with the authoritarian leadership of the statsholder of the time to ferment discontent. That led to a people’s revolution called the Batavian Revolution. It was however forcefully put down with help from the King of Prussia in 1787, albeit temporarily (the Batavian Revolution would eventually be successful with the declaration of the Batavian Republic).

Buoyed by the victory, the Prussian King Frederick William II ordered the construction of a monument on the site of the former city gate marking the start of the road from Berlin to Brandenburg an der Havel, the former capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. These former city gates were important, and Brandenburg Tor was merely one of many gates. The name of the gate indicated the city or town that the road led to, solidifying Berlin’s 17th and 18th century status as the capital of Prussia.

The vision of the Brandenburg Gate, after the wall is that it would represent peace – seeing as the Prussians helped, in their view, restore peace to the Dutch Republic. The gate had a total of twelve Doric columns, six on each side and forming five entrances. The average citizens were only ever allowed to use the two outermost entrances. Placed on top of this Roman structure was a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses with a lady christened Victoria (victory), the gate essentially commemorated the Victory of Peace.

Unfortunately, the Brandenburg Gate was not able to stay as a symbol of the victory of peace for long. For the rest of the 19th and 20th century, the Gate stood as a sign longing for peace. Napoleon invaded the Kingdom of Prussia and marched through the Brandenburg Gates in 1806, taking the Quadriga with him back to Paris as a trophy of his conquest. The Prussians took it back when they eventually defeated Napoleon in 1814. The Nazi’s then used the Gate as a party symbol when they took over the party, by the end of World War 2, the Gate was still standing (although heavily damaged). No doubt, the Romanesque architecture helping to embellish the belief in the right of the Nazi party to restore the rule of the Holy Roman Empire.

After World War 2, in a sign of solidarity, the governments of East and West Berlin came together to patch the wall back, but the job was shoddy and holes could still be seen in the wall for years.

Then came the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Brandenburg Gate remained in its semi-patched state until 1990 when the nation was once again reunited.

Stepping into the tourist-filled Brandenburg Gate, it’s easy to see how grand this gate would have appeared to the masses. Opening down the wide boulevard are tourist activities of every sort, horse-carriage riding, tour guides for hire, picture taking, painting activities, cheap souvenirs, overpriced street-food…

It was a chaotic garble designed for peace and practiced for commercialism. The postcode is still important since the most important of Germany’s Western diplomatic relations have large embassies here – United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia. Then there’s the powerful cultural value of the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for major sporting events such as the victorious reception of the German National Team after the 2014 World Cup.

It may be a mecca of capitalism and global diplomacy now, but I prefer it this way.



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