Brandenburg Gate, symbol of German unity, a curious structure, recognized worldwide and steeped in history. Tourists flock to it, but few Berliners. Our author went there to find out why
There are a number of things you’ll never hear Berliners say: “The new airport will be great!” or “Wow, the traffic’s really moving.” But least of all: “Come on, kids, let’s go see Brandenburg Gate.”
Why should they, after all? The Gate may be the German capital’s greatest landmark, but it’s not Berlin’s, because the capital and Berlin are very different things. One is the representative seat of government that likes to style itself a world metropolis. The other, a city whose quirky neighborhoods and old-fashioned meatball-and-beer joints create a greater sense of home than any grand piece of architecture. Speaking as a Berliner, I would say that our familiarity with Brandenburg Gate is at best due to the occasional studio backdrop we see on TV when politicians are interviewed for the evening news or a magazine show.
There it stands dramatically illuminated, the German national colors flying. It’s the ultimate symbol of German history, of the victories and defeats, partition and unification of a country torn between pride and shame.
Brandenburg Gate is a curious construction, simultaneously large and small, significant and irrelevant, present and yet not there. Due to its great weight – built of two million bricks and clad with sandstone two centuries ago at the behest of Prussia’s King Frederick William II – it threatens to sink into the ground, but if you knocked on it, it might sound hollow, like a papier–mâché mock-up dragged out for visitors of state, like Prince William and Kate, who recently posed in front of it, waving to their fans. The rest of the country and the rest of the world have invested it with so much meaning that it has none at all for the people who live here.
The real question is: Does it even exist? And if so, what’s going on? What purpose can there be – apart from an ornamental one – in a gate through which one can enter and exit, but whose adjacent customs walls were razed in 1865? What else about history, what stories, can it tell me? What will I feel and experience if I overcome my reluctance and pay it a visit?
It’s 7 a.m. on a summer’s Friday and the air is still cool inside Brandenburger Tor subway station, where mint-colored tiles recall the indoor swimming pools reserved exclusively for East Germany’s political bigwigs. Up on street level, a cleaner truck sucks yesterday’s refuse from the sidewalk. A vendor sullenly unloops the chain securing the folding chairs in front of her kiosk, while embassy security guards rub sleep from their eyes.
Throngs of tourists milling around make the monuments disappear
And there it is, standing like a freshly scrubbed molar in the first hard light of day. It is real, its contours almost too real against a perfect sun in a brand-new sky. These minutes are precious. The four-horse chariot (quadriga) 20 meters above the ground still appears effortlessly composed. The coffee still tastes like coffee in the surrounding coffee shops, and the breakfast rolls like breakfast rolls. But when the tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world begin consuming whatever they can find, the coffee will turn to dishwater, the rolls to coals,
and Victoria in her chariot will let her wings droop with exhaustion. Thus I muse as I sit on a park bench a suitable distance away, sipping from my paper cup. Napoleon rode through the central arch in 1806 after defeating Prussia and then had the quadriga removed and taken back to Paris. I try to breathe in some of this history, but it gets lost on the wind when a grotesque ensemble sets up camp at 7:30: a woman dressed as a sad clown twisting colorful balloons into animal shapes, an organ grinder with a tattoo on his face, a dozen tour guides carrying signs in different languages, and a congregation of rickshaw drivers who stoically park at the roadside like lurking alligators on the banks of a dangerous river.
Their prey arrives soon afterwards by coach. One bus from a small German town unloads its cargo of senior citizens. They take snapshots just as the itinerary suggests, buy overpriced balloon dogs, stand around awhile looking lost and then board the bus for Sanssoui Palace in Potsdam or wherever else their discount travel package has in store.
At nine o’clock, the school buses arrive full of sleepy youngsters, who roll their eyes and ignore everything their dauntless history teacher tells them. As always, they take lots of selfies – smile on, smile off. The more the Gate is used as a backdrop, the more illusory it becomes. By late afternoon, I’m wondering if it isn’t just an amazingly realistic projection.
This often happens at historical sites: The history evaporates, leaving only mundane reality behind. The Acropolis, the Pyramids of Giza, Versailles: Wherever I’ve gone, the throngs of tourists milling around have made the monuments disappear. In Istanbul, I saw little more of the Basilica Cistern than the checkered three-quarter pants of the package tourists pushing through the crowd ahead of me. “Two things are infinite,” said Albert Einstein, “the universe and human stupidity.” He failed to mention tourist crowds.
Berlin is particularly susceptible to obliteration, both by its visitors and by those dedicated to lightening their wallets.
Everywhere you might expect to find something worth seeing, you are sure to see a Trabant car rally in progress or a swarm of poker-backed Segway tourists. A sign at the Holocaust Memorial prohibits jumping from one stele to the next – presumably because people cannot tell the difference between a playground and a memorial.
It’s not yet noon, but the riders of the beer bikes turning up at Brandenburg Gate are already surprisingly drunk. One of them vomits into a garbage can. A small group of Americans wearing neck pouches and smart watches are keen to learn some history but “the Brandenburg Gate is very tall,” is all their uninspired tour guide can offer. Before they leave, they spend ten euros each on a can of Berlin air. It may be rich in particle pollution these days, but that’s still an extortionate price.
The sad clown blows up so many balloons that by one o’clock, I can hardly see Brandenburg Gate behind her. A small boy fills his pockets with gravel as though he’s afraid he’ll be blown away by the storm of history that his grandparents have released into his ear. But where is all this so-called history? Not here, that’s clear. It’s been suppressed and trampled underfoot by all the tourists checking off their been-there-seen-that lists.
In the end, I follow the crowd like a gnu who suspects that it’s probably a bad idea to fling himself into the Mara River along with all the other gnus, but who does it anyway thanks to his herd instinct. And so, for the first time in my life, I finally approach the famous gate.
Potentates and power grabbers once marched beneath the frieze depicting Hercules battling the centaurs. An apotheosis for them, passing through is now just a please-move-along, a passage from one banality to the next, where Helene Fischer sings a welcome to Germany’s World Cup-winning soccer team. There’s nothing so sacred – neither the German national squad nor Brandenburg Gate – that it cannot be turned into an event.
I don’t know if U.S. President Ronald Reagan knew what would occur when on June 12, 1987 he called out: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!” All I know is that three bachelors are urinating on a fence. Brandenburg Gate once had the power to make history and change lives. Today isn’t one of those days.
I’ve had enough, I’ve seen enough, it’s four p.m. and my search ends here. This was my first trip to Brandenburg Gate and it will be my last. Perhaps it’s all part of being a Berliner, or in my case, a new Berliner. You never go anywhere near the Gate, and once you accept that fact, you find that the city and its citizens accept you. I broke an unwritten rule; I won’t do it again.
At least now, if I had one, I could cross it off my list. By the way, I have also ascertained that the Gate really does exist; cunning person that I am, I knocked on it as I went by and it didn’t sound hollow at all.
Every morning, when the cleaning truck arrives, Victoria will spur her horses east, and the tourists wandering about down below will stay until evening, although the way they look, they would rather be at the beach. You could say it’s a sign that history has slipped from memory, but I prefer to call it a sign of peace.
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