Things We Are Not Taller Than: Berlin, Germany

Nothing thrills me more than passing the Brandenburger Tor. So iconic, so stately, so scarred with history. It always instantly calls to mind the famous John F. Kennedy speech (or rather more accurately, the bits sampled in Gostan’s Klanga—an earworm if ever I had one). Tim and I took this shot on our first visit together to Berlin. It was late May, and the city was just beginning to stir with summer.

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These days the Gate stands by itself, sandwiched between an art museum and a cultural center. But when it was built in the early 1700’s, it was one of 18 gates in an otherwise completely walled city—connecting Berlin to it’s then suburb, Brandenburg. Berlin’s got a history of walls, but this wall was a customs wall—not for protection or defense, but built to ensure policing of taxable goods. If you look at the bahn map, you’ll notice there are many other “Tors” scattered through the city: Prenzlauer Tor, Frankfurter Tor, Oranienburger Tor, Hallescher Tor. These were all customs outposts just like the Brandenburg Tor. Apparently they used to be made of wood, which was then replaced by stone. And at some point, a select few were rebuilt to be imposing facades, which is where the artistry of the Brandenburg Gate comes in.

The gate has five passages flanked by twelve Doric columns—the center passage was only for royals, and citizens were only allowed to use the two far throughways. The patina-covered statue atop the Gate is called the Quadriga of Victory, and features the goddess of Victory in a chariot drawn by four hours. The statue was plundered by Napolean in 1806 and taken to Paris—then returned to the city in 1814 after Napolean’s defeat and Prussian-ified with eagles and the circular cross to mark her return.

During WWII, the Nazis seized the gate as a nationalist symbol. During the war, the gate was badly damaged by bullets, schrapnel, and explosions. Only one of the original horses heads remain, today housed safely in a museum. Post-war, governments from both East and West Germany worked together to restore the gate to its former glory. This collaboration lasted only until the Cold War, when a wall once again sliced through the city. Only this time, the gate was closed.

When the wall fell in 1989, the gate came to symbolize freedom and the desire to unify the city of Berlin. If you pass by today, you will often see some sort of protest, rally, or celebration happening at the pedestrian platz that has replaced the streets and throughways that once led through it—from anti-fascist protests to Hare Krishna celebrations to World Cup watching parties. I think it’s so interesting to think of all the things the gate has symbolized—from national pride to nationalism to freedom, and now, to tolerance—a symbol of the past restored and reclaimed to symbolize the future.

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