Walk Through The Brandenburg Gate
Take the former royal route into the heart of Berlin
There is no more meaningful way of entering Berlin’s historic Mitte district than to walk through the central reservation of the Brandenburg Gate. This glorious twelve-column neo-classical monument - inspired by the Propylaea entrance to the Acropolis in Athens - was erected by the Prussian Hohenzollern monarchy in 1791 as a dramatic ceremonial entrance - a ‘Peace Gate’ (Friedenstor) - into the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. It replaced an earlier structure that had been integrated into Berlin’s Customs Wall - and is the only entrance remaining of the eighteen that once surrounded Old Berlin (Alt-Berlin). Until the abdication of the last German Emperor, William II, in 1918, the use of this gateway was strictly regulated. With commoners only permitted to use the outer two lanes either side - and the central passage reserved for royalty. Now, more than 200 years after its construction, the Brandenburg Gate is open to all - a recognisable icon of the German capital used by thousand of people daily to cross between the two squares of Platz des 18. Marz (on the west side) and Pariser Platz (on the east).
The symbolic shift in the use of this iconic entranceway was made possible only through a series of significant events in Germany’s stormy past - as this monument played its role as a recurring station on the long to parliamentary and federal democracy in the region. Beginning with its peculiar origin story. The ‘peace’ this gate was said to originally stand for was unquestionably more a matter of coercive pacification. The kind of peace that is granted by a victor - as King Frederick William II in alliance with his sister, Wilhelmine of Orange, forcibly brought harmony to the Republic of the United Netherlands - through the use of invading Prussian troops. This convenient distortion would set the stage for the calamities the Gate would endure through the turbulence of future events - as subsequent regimes took to integrate this monument, both geographically and as a recognisable icon, into their own narratives. And the Gate languished in the long shadow of its radix malorum - its fons et origo - the troublesome original sin.
- From Greek neo-classicism to French revolution -
With the unwelcome arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte to the city on 27th October 1806, Berlin would lamentably be forcibly pacified by occupying French forces - a mere fifteen years after the completion of this passageway. The French Emperor entered the city without a shot fired - through the ‘Peace Gate’ - following the routing of the Prussian forces in the twin battles of Jena & Auerstedt. His success brought about not only the temporary removal of the the four horse drawn chariot - the pale-verdigris Quadriga - atop of the Gate (briefly taken as war booty to Paris before being recovered after Napoleon’s defeat), but a critical reassessment of continental order.
The Holy Roman Empire, of which Prussia had been a part, was dissolved and replaced with a conflagration of independent states that would form new alliances. A return to the concept of the European ‘patchwork carpet’ (Flickenteppich) - although lacking the previous unifying sovereign authority. Bringing with it a simmering tension between people and state. The former campaigning for liberalisation of society, universal suffrage, parliamentary representation, and a constitution. The latter - in the form of absolutist monarchical rule upheld by the conservative aristocracy - seeking to ensure its continuity and exercise authority. Predisposed to crush rebellion with military force.
The enthusiastic early idealism of the French Revolution that had inadvertently led to the installation of the General of the 18th Brumaire would be revisited following Napoleon’s defeat. Starting in France in 1848, mass public protests swept through Austria and other states before reached Berlin in March of that year. As demonstrators formed barricades across the city, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbolic choke point in the battle between commoner and crown. Prussian King Frederick William IV would eventually yield, if only temporarily, to the demands of the rebels - parading through the streets of Berlin wearing the revolutionary red, black and gold tricolor to a service at Gendarmenmarkt for the 254 victims of the insurrection. The success of the uprising in the city though would be short lived - as the backlash from the ruling order against revolutionary agitation proved to be brutal. Two years later, it was said the only reform left was the Berliner’s right to smoke in public.
- The 'Royal Reception Room' -
The tenets of Prussian enlightened absolutism would continue - with the central passage remaining accessible only to the monarch plus the remarkable addition of a Prussian General, Ernst von Pfuel (and his family), responsible for returning the Quadriga from French captivity in 1814. The square on the west side of the Gate has been known as Platz des 18. März since June 2000 - after the most significant date of the 1848 protests - although originally it was for a long time simply named Platz vor dem Brandenburger Tor (the square before the Brandenburg Gate). To the east is the grand reception area of Pariser Platz, laid out in the 18th century as one of three impressive baroque piazzas (Pariser Platz, Mehringplatz, and Leipziger Platz) on the western side of the historic royal district of Berlin. Each of these would originally be named after their respective shapes - Quarree or Viereck (Square) - Pariser Platz - Octogon or Achteck - Leipziger Platz, and Rondell (Circle) - Mehring Platz. The topography of Pariser Platz, however, at the opposite end of the impressive Unter den Linden boulevard to the City Palace, meant that of the three city entrances this would become the most significant. The arrival of the Gate flanked by two huge guardhouses in 1791, brought a new characteristic aspect to the Quarree that would establish its reputation as the city’s royal reception room - as well as the setting for various military and political celebrations.
Not only would Napoleon’s forces march through the Gate onto this square in 1806, but following the French Emperor’s defeat a triumphant procession would pass through the arches as the stolen Quadriga was returned. The Prussian victories in the Wars of Unification brought similar fanfare and later in 1914 soldiers departing westwards - towards the bloodshed and misery of trench warfare in the fields of France and Belgium - would pass through the Gate. Those that returned four years later would be greeted with the ominous words of new Chancellor Friedrich Ebert, admonishing the troops: “I salute you, you whom no enemy has defeated on the battlefield.” Carelessly fuelling the myth that if only Germany had not been betrayed by its politicians - and internal enemies - then its mighty military could have triumphed after all in 1918. This ‘Stab-In-The-Back’ legend would play a fundamental part in the growth and success of Hitler’s National Socialist movement. It was thus here, in 1933, that the Nazis would celebrate the Austrian corporal’s appointment as German Chancellor with a theatrical torch-lit procession that involved units of the SS, the SA, and the ‘Stahlhelm’ veterans’ organisation marching through the Brandenburg Gate.
- The Gate opens for traffic -
Following the abdication of the German Emperor in 1918 - at the end of the First World War - the central passageway of the Brandenburg Gate had been opened for use by traffic. Some Berliners, however, still prefered the original regimentation of the lanes of the Gate and the societal order it represented - chiefly among them, Lorenz Adlon, the proprietor of the Hotel Adlon on Pariser Platz. A staunch monarchist, Adlon thus never imagined normal traffic would pass through the Brandenburg Gate's central archway, and endeavoured to pay little attention to it. Tragically, this resulted in the hotelier being hit by a car in 1918 on Pariser Platz. Three years later, on April 7, 1921, Adlon was again hit by a car at exactly the same spot, this time fatally.
Despite damage inflicted to the surrounding buildings during World War Two, as the Soviet army advanced into the city and as a result of British/American air raids, the Brandenburg Gate survived in relatively good condition - although still bears the acne-scar patina of shrapnel damage on close inspection. The partition of Berlin meant that the Gate would eventually fall under the control of the Soviet authorities, tasked with administering the central district of Mitte. While just beyond the Hindenburg Platz (as it was then known) on the west side of the monument was the British occupation sector - with the immense Tiergarten central park. It was during this period that the flow of traffic through the central arch was restricted until it was completely stopped with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
- The moment of redemption -
For 28 years, 3 months and 28 days following the construction of the Wall, the Gate remained inaccessible - stranded in the middle of the notorious East German ‘Death Strip’. Although tourists on the East side would sometimes be granted escorted access to the area, with a government handler (and perhaps tour guide present), the zone was patrolled by armed guards - expected to maintain the integrity of the border and halt escape attempts over the Wall by all means. Including lethal force. The ‘Fall of the Wall’ in November 1989 finally granted the people of the city full access to the Brandenburg Gate. The result of what is often in Germany referred to as the ‘Peaceful Revolution’. As not only would the calls for changes in the policies of the government of East Germany and the division of the country be expressed using peaceful means - but the regime would wither away without resorting to violence in its dying throes. Perhaps the true moment of redemption for the Gate - and the part is played in that episode of German history.
Through all the changes that have happened around it, the Brandenburg Gate still stands on Pariser Platz - as a symbol of the city’s tumultuous past and an historic landmark for all to visit today. The monarchy has fallen, the Junkers aristocracy gone. Germany imperial ambition contained - and, at no small expense, National Socialism defeated. The frontier is open. With only the horizon to stand as a measure of your exploration here.
Address: Pariser Platz, 10117 Berlin
Nearest Station: S-bahn Brandenburger Tor