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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Sunrise at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
On May 5, 2012, I had lunch at a sidewalk café on the Pariser Platz in Berlin, Germany, about a block from the famed Brandenburg Gate. I was with a tour group so I didn't dare venture much closer, but this historic edifice is so enormously impressive, there was really no need. In fact, it was probably better that I saw it only from a distance. Being a gate, there are, of course, two sides to see. I was on the western side, though the bus we were on passed near the eastern side as well where the infamous Berlin Wall once stood. The western side is the more architecturally attractive. It was here that President Kennedy proclaimed in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). The phrase can also be translated "I am a jelly donut." Near the same location in 1987, President Reagan implored Soviet Premier Gorbachev, "...tear down this wall." A little over two years later, the wall began to fall.
The Brandenburg Gate as seen from the east. Since the wall came down, the gate is now open, but only to pedestrians.
As impressive as the Brandenburg may be architecturally, it is also laden with as much political, military, and social history as virtually any other structure in all Europe. Quite apart from it's stately classical architecture, the Brandenburg also has its share of art history too, but we'll get to that later. Shortly after the Thirty Years' War, around 1688, Berlin was a small walled city within a star-shaped fort with several named gates: Spandauer Tor, St. Georgen Tor, Stralower Tor, Cöpenicker Tor, Neues Tor, and Leipziger Tor (see map, below). The Brandenburg Gate, by the way, was not one of them. It was not begun until 1788 and not completed until 1791.
Once on the western outskirts of the city, the Brandenburg
Gate today is locate near the geographical center of Berlin.
The new gate was commissioned by Frederick William II of Prussia to symbolize peace. The gate was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the Court Superintendent of Buildings, to replace an earlier guardhouses which flanked the original gate in the Customs Wall. The new gate consisted of twelve Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two on each side. Crowning the gate is a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow.
The west side of the gate, day or night, it's equally impressive.
The Brandenburg Gate has played various political roles in German history. After the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon was the first to use the Brandenburg Gate for a triumphal procession (second image below). Shortly thereafter he took its Quadriga back to Paris as a souvenir. Berlin souvenirs have changed a lot since then. Today, he'd probably cart off a leftover section of the wall. After Waterloo, the French eventually gave back the bronze ornament (below).
A visual art history of the Brandenburg Gate.
When the Nazis ascended to power during the 1930s, the gate became a party symbol. The gate survived World War II (just barely) and was one of the damaged structures still standing in the Pariser Platz ruins in 1945 (another being the Academy of Fine Arts). The gate was badly damaged with holes in the columns from bullets and nearby explosions. Only one horse’s head from the original quadriga survived. Today it's kept in the collection of the Märkisches Museum in case there's another war.
Germany, Russia, France, England, the United States and many other
nations have all lost brave men and women fighting for control of
Berlin and its famous gateway.
Following the end of the war, the governments of both East and West Berlin joined together to restore the Brandenburg Gate. The holes were patched, but like the wounds of war, were still visible for many years. Vehicles and pedestrians could travel freely through the gate, located in East Berlin, until the wall went up in August of 1961. From that point on only one of the eight original crossings was opened on the eastern side of the gate, but not for East Berliners or East Germans, who from then on needed an exit visa. During the next twenty-eight years the gate came to symbolized freedom and the desire to unify the city of Berlin. With the collapse of the East German government in November of 1989, thousands of people gathered at the wall to celebrate its fall. On December 22 of that year, the Brandenburg Gate border crossing was reopened when Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, walked through to be greeted by Hans Modrow, the East German prime minister. Demolition of the rest of the wall around the area took place the following year.
Today, the fully-restored Brandenburg Gate is once
more a symbol of peace and German unity.


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