Over several years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on matters Berlin, and I’ve long been fascinated by the Brandenburg Gate (in German: Brandenburger Tor), Germany‘s most recognizable landmark.
While the Eiffel Tower probably scores higher in terms of universal recognition, there are few landmarks that are so symbolic of so much history as the Brandenburg Gate. For reasons often swinging wildly between the extremes of commendable and deplorable, Berlin has in recent centuries often been a central stage of world history.
Originally built in the 1780s as a tribute to the Prussian empire, the site upon which the current Brandenburg Gate stands was the site of less permanent and less grandiose structures that made up one of a few walls surrounding Berlin. Straddling the Unten den Linden, one of the main boulevards leading to the Prussian palaces, it lay in the path of ceremonial parades as well as being a thoroughfare to more run-of-the-mill road traffic. In modern day Berlin, it’s situated at the end of the Tiergarten and right near the Reichstag.
Cold War Berlin
The Cold War elevated it to a truly global symbol. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Berlin, like Germany itself, was divided into four regions, each controlled by one of the postwar occupation powers (Soviet Union, United States, France, and Great Britain). By the late 1940s, the Western Powers (United States, France, and Great Britain) had combined their sections, with the effect that Germany was now divided in two, with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) under Western control and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) under communist control. Berlin itself was also divided into two, East and West Berlin, although initially traffic flowed reasonably freely between the two halves.
That changed in the dead of night on August 13, 1961. In a surprise move, Soviet and East German troops sealed the border between East and West Berlin, paving the way for Berlin Wall, construction of which began shortly thereafter. That left only a few crossing points. The most famous in the West was Checkpoint Charlie; the Brandenburg Gate formed another.
Minutes before JFK gave his famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech at the Rathaus Schöneberg on July 26, 1963, he visited the Brandenburg Gate and attempted to peer over the Wall into East Berlin from a raised platform, but the East Germans had hung what amounted to massive drapes to block the view. The Gate formed the backdrop for President Reagan’s famous speech in which he called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And well after the end of the Cold War, its symbolism remained potent, so much so that Senator Barack Obama initially sought to use the gate as his own backdrop for a speech as he was gearing up for a presidential run in the summer of 2008.
The Brandenburg Gate Today
These days, it is a gate in name only; car traffic no longer flows through it, and it’s now exclusively a pedestrian affair. Adjoining Pariser Platz, and now flanked by expensive hotels and the American embassy, it stands as a powerful symbol of Germany’s, and Europe’s, tumultuous recent history. By day, tourists swarm the monument and Pariser Platz. For a small fee, you can even get your photo taken in front of the Brandenburg Gate with performers dressed in Soviet and American army uniforms.
Renovations at the beginning of this century involving a hefty sum have created a pristine monument and a site I make a special point of visiting every time I’m in Berlin, especially at night when the monument is lit up and really stands out against the darkness of the Tiergarten.