Backstory Biernes #11, Friday, July 17th 2015
After two years in Berlin, I now ride past the Brandenburg Tor almost every day. I never give it much thought. To me it’s a beautiful tourist spot, and I think most people view it that way. Riding past it every day, I realized I know nothing about it. Out of curiosity, I decided to fill that knowledge gap, and write about it. I hope it doesn’t push more useful pieces of information out of my brain.
The Brandenburg Tor, a.k.a. the Brandenburg Gate, is a monumental arch that was originally named the Gate of Peace. It was also a marker of the beginning of the road from Berlin to Brandenburg, for which it is currently named.
It was commissioned by a Prussian king in the 1700s as a symbol of peace. But at over 200 years old, I don’t think that it is a symbol of peace or even Brandenburg any longer. If nothing else, it is now a symbol of Berlin and Germany. For some, it is a symbol of Europe and its progress. Many world leaders have given speeches at the gate or have simply made official visits there. But what does it symbolize to me, other than my commute? I thought looking at its backstory might help me figure that out.
During the over 200 years of its life, the “ownership” of the Brandenburg Tor passed through the hands of many European powers, beginning of course, with the Prussians. The French defeated the Prussians and took the gate. Then the Prussians took it back. The Nazis then took it, then the Soviets, then East Germany and now just regular old Germany.
As the gate passed from hand to hand, it seems to have become a symbol of whoever owned it. The Prussians originally meant it to be a symbol of peace and the Prussian Monarchy. For the French, it was a symbol of power and conquest–they actually brought the statue on top of the gate back to Paris. When the Prussians took it back, they decked it out with Prussian bling like the Iron Cross and the Prussian eagle which remain on it today. When the Nazis got it, they decked it out with their peculiar brand of fashion. After World War II, it went to the hands of the Soviets and then the East Germans, both of whom flew their respective flags on it. It was briefly a Berlin Wall checkpoint, and since Germany got back together with itself, it has passed into modern Germany’s hands. In tourism and government, the gate has come to symbolize the country. Arguably, since Germany is a leading member of the EU, it is also a symbol of Europe.
After that brief romp through history, what does the gate symbolize for me? Now remember, I said it was a beautiful tourist spot that I never think about. So take this with a grain of salt–to me, the Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of dominance and war. Even when it was intended as a symbol of peace, it was modeled after classical Triumph iconography. There was an enormous amount of blood that had to be spilled for the gate to be where it is today. Its new owners are the benefactors of all that bloodshed as its previous owners had been.
Many of you will not share my understanding of this symbol. And that’s okay. Because that’s the problem with symbols, isn’t it? We can never truly share their meaning. The same thing happens in language. Words and phrases change meaning from mind to mind.
I am certainly not the first person to think of the Brandenburg Gate in this way. I believe that the Prussians were. I don’t mean to argue that the original meaning of the gate has been preserved. Rather, it has come full circle.
My only reason for writing this was curiosity. My goal was not to badmouth the gate. Like I said, it’s beautiful. But my preference (or bad habit) is to always acknowledge the morbid side of things. I always try to put a positive spin on it. Acknowledging the negative can help us to move on from it and be reminded that things like peace and unity can easily slip from our hands.
This brings to mind the symbolism behind the Confederate battle flag that was recently taken off the South Carolina capitol building. Symbols can change over time, and maybe the battle flag is not a symbol of racism anymore, but it definitely used to be. You can’t deny that the modern context of flying the flag in the south brings slavery to mind. The Brandenburg Tor no longer brings the Prussians to mind or even the city of Brandenburg. The important part of a symbol is its context, not its origin. The Brandenburg Tor might have as much bad history as the battle flag does, but its context is much more innocuous.