Guided by a gate

Berlin monument

Guided by a gate

Meet me at 9.30 am in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” says the email from Dennis, a young historian from Berlin who is to be my guide for the day. Sipping my morning tea, I shut the laptop and look out of the window. It has been raining since last night and the streets of Berlin are virtually vacant, but for a few taxis whizzing by. A draft of cold breeze enters the room and I shiver, pulling my jacket tightly around me.

In a few minutes, I find myself on the street, with an umbrella and a map in hand, looking for the underground station. I am travelling from West to East Berlin, a journey that takes me just 20 minutes, and then I am walking along the boulevard Unter den Linden, translated as Under the Linden trees, towards Brandenburg Tor or Gate, one of the main landmarks of the city.

Dennis waves out to me as I cross over to the front of the gate, where he is waiting. A few children in colourful raincoats, chaperoned by their teachers, stand behind me. A handful of tourists make their way towards the gate under a drizzle. I look at the Brandenburg Tor, its massive columns drenched by the downpour from earlier. The sky is grey. Dark clouds seem to threaten with the promise of more rain.

“This is one of the oldest landmarks of Berlin, probably as old as the city itself,” says Dennis.

Once upon a time
Built on the site of an earlier gate, it marked the entrance of Berlin from the town Brandenburg, a once key city in the Prussian empire. Berlin was a small town with a fortification surrounded by gates in the 18th century. The neoclassical monument was one of the earlier gates that was part of the Berlin Customs Wall. Built on the lines of Propylaeum of Athens’s Acropolis, it was supported by Doric columns.

Originally commissioned by Frederick William II of Prussia to represent peace, it soon became a symbol of Berlin and its tumultuous history. For starters, it did not last long as the symbol of peace.

Dennis begins the story: When Napoleon’s army conquered Berlin, the quadriga, the sculpture atop the gate, was taken away by the French as a war trophy. Then the Prussians got their revenge and retrieved it. However, it took the form of Victoria, standing atop the triumphal arch, facing east, with a Prussian eagle. It changed from being a symbol of peace to a symbol of victory.

It starts raining heavily. Dennis and I head to the underground Brandenburg railway station where the walls come alive. An exhibition of events from the 18th century narrates the story of Berlin, including the many wars that have ravaged it. A caricature of Napoleon’s troops stealing the quadriga and the Prussians retrieving it catches the eye.

At the turn of every century, Berlin’s history changes dramatically and the Brandenburg Gate becomes a metaphor for every incident that manifests there. The gate that saw millions commemorate Germany’s victory in the football World Cup last year had once been the site where Hitler’s flag fluttered high. We now see images from World War II. Back then, soldiers trooped around creating a propaganda for the Nazi regime here. The sandstone monument bore the brunt of destruction during the war and lost its original quadriga, as only a head of a horse remained.

With each picture on the wall, I see an epoch beginning and ending. At one time I see the Soviet flag fluttering and at other time it’s the East Germany’s. With the advent of the Cold War, the gate becomes a key protagonist.

When Germany was divided, the gate became a border between the two countries. It was akin to a checkpoint, Dennis informs, allowing free passage to people across the East and West. The Wall changed all that. The border was sealed. It created a Death Strip or no man’s land, and no one could see what was on the other side of the gate. The Brandenburg Gate had become a symbol that divided Germany both politically and geographically.

Stern halts
A train’s arrival interrupts Dennis’s narration temporarily. He tells me that when the railway stations, too, were sealed, they resembled ghost stations, not allowing trains to enter East Germany. Change came in after a few decades.

We have come to the last displayed image that shows faces of jubilant people. It was in November 1989. Lakhs of Germans, both Easterners and Westerners, had gathered here 25 years ago to see The Wall being demolished. I see pictures of the Wall Woodpeckers who, Dennis explains, were men and women who brought in hammers to chip away portions of it. The Brandenburg Gate was opened again. No visa was required. People embraced, relatives met after years. The gate had changed its identity yet again; it had become a symbol of freedom, of united Germany.

Another train comes in and people troop in and out of the station. Laughter and conversations echo. Dennis tells me how the Brandenburg Gate has reinvented itself after its reopening a few years ago. From soccer stars to singers, it is the centre stage for all talents. People revel in concerts and celebrations. It may now be on the tourist map, but no other monument tells the story of Berlin as well as the Brandenburg Gate does. My train arrives and my next journey begins.

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