I disliked this monument… but the history, incredible!
Firstly, there needs to be some context to my dislike. The first week in April 2014, twenty-five students from Bangor University and myself boarded a coach at 11pm to travel overnight to London. I sat at the front due to my persistent travel sickness, and if you need to know one thing about me is that I “need lots of sleep to function!”. Unfortunately the journey was like driving with the chuckle brothers, the coach got lost (despite both drivers having smart phones and a sat-nav), smashed the door trying to turn in a space far too small and at one point stopped in the middle of the road thinking a yellow sign was a speed camera?!?! As I had GPS on my phone, was awake and couldn’t believe how these guys even had driving licences let alone made it to Bangor in the first place, I gave directions. Our flight to Krakow was at 7am which equaled one very tired Charlotte. If you get the chance to go to Krakow, go! It is an incredible city, beautiful and cultural, small and sweet, inexpensive and friendly, try a Zapiekanki and their fantastic concoctions masquerading as cocktails. Cut to three days later, I was still slightly tired and boarding another overnight coach from Krakow to Berlin…. this time managing a dismal 3-4 hours sleep, interrupted by a police passport check. So 8am, arriving in Berlin and I was shattered and grumpy. But no time to snooze, we had 24 hours before boarding a plane back to the UK.
One anecdote you may enjoy, really shows how tired I was. Driving into Berlin, I opened my eyes in time to spot this building, a crescent-shaped building with columns and a big green open space stretching forward. I swore I recognized it, it looked like a monument, something from Nazi Germany, I could picture the open space filled with soldiers and swastika banners upon the building… think Nuremberg Rally and you get the picture. I swore this was a famous building, I even saw it driving out of Berlin towards the airport, but everyone was asleep so I couldn’t ask what it was. Searching Google for famous Nazi buildings remaining in Berlin was of no fruition either. It was famous, I was adamant. I get home and tell my parents who help me search and look on a map to find this historic building which I recognised. Much to my parents amusement, this building was Tempelhof Airport…
Anyway, I wanted to make sure I saw the 4 most famous landmarks in Berlin, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (which is a beautiful building, I so wished I could go inside), Check Point Charlie where I got several photos with some posing soldiers, and the Berlin Wall. The manhole covers almost act as a check list. We caught the U-Bahn to Brandenburger Tor and walked up the steps bringing you 50 yards in front of the Brandenburg Tor. Maybe I have been spoilt, living in Vienna or England but I found the structure lacking. It didn’t have that wow factor I hoped for and in my opinion did not have much architectural intricacy, it was very simplistic and uniform in structure, nor was it particularly grand in size. I think the size was my biggest disappointment, it did not seem at all tall or spectacular. Although, when I think about it, the size actually typifies Berlin architecture throughout history, classicism but modest in scale. It seemed shrouded by nearby buildings and even the trees obscure the Gate when walking through Großer Tiergarten to the Victory Column.
The one impressive feature of the Brandenburg Tor, that no body can take away from it, is it’s survival of history. Commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia, as a sign of peace, built by Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791. Standing at the western end of Unter den Lindenit it was a passageway to the Prussian Palace. Berlin at the time was a small walled city, the wall was more of a palisade, made of wood, clearly not for defense purposes but for the levying of taxes, the original wall had 14 city gates, with blockades placed in the River Spree. As the city grew between 1786 and 1802 the walls were extended and built in stone, the gates were increased due to traffic and in a more imposing style. The most notable gate, and the only remaining gate is of course Brandenburg Gate. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two passageways on each side, the middle passageway was reserved for royalty only.
The Gate is built in sandstone consists of twelve Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways, it is 65 ft high, 213 ft wide and 36 ft thick. The columns are decorated mainly with reliefs and sculptures, the majority of them based on the exploits of Heracles. Atop the gate is the Quadriga, sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow, featuring the goddess is Eirene; the goddess of peace, on a chariot drawn by four horses. It was originally named the Peace Gate (German: Friedenstor). The gate’s design is based upon the Propylaea, the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, and just like the Propylaea led to a shrine of the Ancient world, the Brandenburg Gate was meant to lead to the most important city of Prussia. It is consistent with Berlin’s history of architectural classicism (first, Baroque, and then neo-Palladian) and it inspired the nickname “Athens on the River Spree“.
The Quadriga has an interesting history. Firstly when Napoleon invaded Berlin, he must have appreciated the statue because he ordered the Quadriga to be dismantled and shipped back to Paris. The horse and goddess were hastily packed up in crates and moved across the continent. Napoleon, preoccupied with the crumbling of his recently established empire, appears to have forgotten about the statue, and it languished in storage until 1814, when Paris itself was captured by Prussian soldiers following Napoleon’s defeat. The Quadriga returned to Berlin and installed once again atop the Brandenburg Gate, with one change: an iron cross was added to the statue, as a symbol of Prussia’s military victory over France.
Hitler also used the gate as a monument of Nazi power and in 1942 when bombs were falling he decided not to remove the statue for risk of reducing moral, but instead made plaster casts of the statue, which allowed for repairs to be carried out after the war. By 1945 the Soviets placed their flag on top of the Gate stating their claim but only fragments remained of the Quadriga. It is surprising that the Brandenburg Gate was one of only a handful of buildings still standing in Berlin after WWII. (Today the two buildings that stand either side: Haus Liebermann and Haus Sommer, were built in the late 1990s during the restoration by architect Josef Paul Kleihues.)
During the Cold War, the Soviets decided to keep the gate and incorporate into their city, it became part of the wall, isolated and inaccessible in no-mans land. The East did eventually decide to restore the gate and statue, unfortunately it proved difficult, the plaster casts were in the west, the gate in the East, and the politicians busy denouncing the other side as usurpers and criminals. However there is only one Brandenburg Tor… which meant sharing. It proved a rare opportunity for cooperation between the sides, the statue was recast in the West, dragged into the no man’s land of the Berlin Wall and left there so that the Easterners could heft it back on top. However the Iron Cross that was added, was removed as it was proclaimed a “fascist ornament” by the communists, this upset the west Berliners who saw it as an act of vandalism and deceit. (The cross was only replaced in 1990 when the statue was dismantled for restoration during the unification of Germany.) One big question is did the Quadriga face East or West? There are many theories that the Quadriga originally faced east and was turned round in the re-positioning of the statue in 1814. Others are adamant that the statue was originally facing west and was turned to face east during Soviet occupation, the direction of Moscow, and propaganda for the Easterners, believing this was the true city, that West German could not be victorious over them, it was also another opportunity to torment the West with.
It served as the backdrop for many speeches, in 1963, John F. Kennedy visited the Brandenburg Gate, but the Soviets hung large red banners across it to prevent him looking into East Berlin. It was also the site of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in 1987 which he entreated the Soviet leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The gate was reopened on December 22, 1989, in the course of the reunification of East and West Berlin, when West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walked through it to meet East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow. On 2nd/3rd October 1990, the Gate was the scene of the official ceremony to mark the reunification of Germany, at the stroke of midnight, the black-red-gold flag of West Germany (now the flag of a reunified Germany) was raised over the Gate. It then underwent vigorous restoration beginning in late 2000 and officially reopened in 2002, though it remains closed to vehicle traffic. There is also a Raum der Stille (room of silence) located within the Brandenburg Gate which reflects the original symbol of peace, a room for reflection on the history of this monumental gate.
The Brandenburg Gate has symbolised many things to the Berliners… first peace, then victory, the resilience of WWII, division and the ideological conflict of politics, freedom, a united city and united loved-ones. Today I think all those meanings still stand, it is not just a landmark of the capital, and modern Germany, but of unifying ideas, and freedom in the modern world. (That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t like the structure though.)
I have to go back to Berlin, I need to explore the city (when I am not tired). Spend time wandering around, visit the museums and the landmarks again, maybe then my opinion shall alter.