There’s a difference between impressive and important. Many places are obviously impressive, and in most instances, they’re designed to be so. Importance is something that can’t be bestowed by the creator, though. The Washington Monument in Washington DC, for example, is always going to be impressive. It’s important, however, because it acts as a focal point. Too many things have gone on around it for it to be just a gargantuan piece of stonework.
Until today, I’d never understood what made the Brandenburg Gate important. I’ve always known it as a handy shorthand symbol of. Up close, there’s no chance of anyone going “pfft, is that it?” and turning away. It’s big, it’s pompous and has all those qualities of show-off power that rulers throughout the millennia have been suckers for.
But I’d always seen it as something you go to see because it’s something you go to see. A dick-swinging equivalent of those pointlessly tall towers that nouveau-riche cities across the world are inclined to build in a spirit of insecure one-upmanship.
Undoubtedly, the Brandenburg Gate was built with something similar in mind. It was built by the upstart Prussians in 1791, a statement that Europe had a new key player and woe betide anyone that didn’t acknowledge this. On top was Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, sat in a chariot pulled by four majestic horses.
And it may have stayed that way if it wasn’t for Napoleon, who conquered Berlin in 1806. A man with such an ego was not likely to leave such a symbol of power lie, and he took the Quadriga – the chariot and horses statue – back to Paris with him. After Waterloo, the Quadriga returned, but it now had a hubristic twist. The Prussians turned Athena into Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. As a symbol of power, the Brandenburg Gate had been ratcheted up a notch.
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It helped, of course, that Nike and her magnificent supernatural horses were overlooking the French embassy, just as they are today.
But it’s more recent history that gives the Brandenburg Gate its importance. Look around it now, and there are plenty of stately, impressive buildings. But they’re all reconstructions. During World War II, an estimated 75% of Berlin was destroyed. Yet somehow, the Brandenburg Gate survived while all around it was turned to rubble.
It takes a photograph to show the real significance, though. My tour guide, Ryan, plucks one out from his blue folder. It shows the gate standing alone, unsupported and uncomplimented by anything else. When Berlin was divided up, it fell into the Russian quadrant, but only just. It found itself on the western side of the Berlin Wall, but in East German territory. It was in the death zone, which only East German soldiers and their snarling Alsatians could enter. Nothing grew around it, nothing was built around it. There was no point – no-one could go there.
It was a symbol of both the city and a strong, united, yet it was frozen in a bizarre stasis as two very different Germanys developed either side of it. But it wasn’t hidden. People on both sides of the divide could see it. They just couldn’t go and touch it.
That’s why it became not just a symbol of Berlin, or Germany, but one of reunification. The Wall was pulled down, and the elusive prize was suddenly available to all again. And this makes it far more than just impressive.
This article was kindly funded by Oh-Berlin holiday apartments
For holiday apartment rentals, Oh-Berlin.com offers a great deal of choice in the German capital, from low-cost lodgings to luxurious pads. For 15 years, their parent company has been helping travellers find a place to stay in a range of European cities, with a multilingual customer care team on hand to make the experience smooth and pleasant.