History In The Headlines

Brandenburg Gate: A Brief History

By Barbara Maranzani
On Wednesday, Barack Obama became the fourth U.S. president to deliver a speech near Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate, following in the steps of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The Brandenburg Gate, an 18th century triumphal arch that has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Europe, has played witness to some of the most significant moments in modern history. From political speeches set against the backdrop of a divided city, to its role in the emotional reunification of a nation, here’s a look back at some key moments in the history of the Brandenburg Gate.

October 1806: Napoleon steals a statue

Napoleon's troops march on Berlin, October 1806.

Napoleon's troops march on Berlin, October 1806.

Built between 1788 and 1791 by Prussian King Frederick William II as a key entry point to the city of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate was topped off with a statue known as the “Quadriga,” which depicted a statue of the goddess of victory driving a chariot pulled by four horses. The statue remained in place for just over a decade, before falling into the clutches of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Army. After occupying Berlin that fall and triumphantly marching beneath the arches of the Gate, Napoleon ordered the Quadriga dismantled and shipped back to Paris. The horse and goddess were hastily packed up in a series of crates and moved across the continent. Napoleon, perhaps preoccupied with the crumbling of his recently established empire, appears to have forgotten about the statue, and it languished in storage until 1814, when Paris itself was captured by Prussian soldiers following Napoleon’s defeat. The Quadriga was returned to Berlin and once again installed atop the Brandenburg Gate, this time with one change: As a symbol of Prussia’s military victory over France, an iron cross was added to the statue. The cross was later removed during the Communist era, and only permanently restored in 1990 during the unification of Germany.

January 1933: Hitler comes to power

Hitler becomes chancellor, 1933

January 1933 Nazi rally following Hitler's selection as German chancellor.

After a meteoric rise to power at the head of his Nazi Party and a power struggle with German President Paul von Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler was appointed to the position of chancellor on January 30, 1933. That evening, the new chancellor was treated to a torchlight procession through Berlin, as thousands of brown shirted stormtroopers and SS members passed under the Brandenburg Gate to the presidential palace, where Hitler and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party were cheered. It was the first of many large-scale propaganda events held by the Nazis as they tightened their control over Germany in the years leading up to World War II. The end of the war destroyed much of Berlin, but the Brandenburg Gate survived, albeit with heavy damage. In one of the last cooperative measures before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the East and West Berlin authorities worked together on its restoration. Once the wall went up, however, access to the Gate, located in what was now East Berlin, was cut off.

June 1963: “I am a Berliner”

Crowds gather to watch President John Kennedy speak in Berlin on June 26, 1963. (Credit: JFK Library)

Crowds gather to watch President John Kennedy speak in Berlin on June 26, 1963. (Credit: JFK Library)

Almost two years after the Berlin Wall was erected, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most famous addresses of his presidency to a crowd of more than 120,000 gathered outside West Berlin’s city hall, just steps from the Brandenburg Gate. Like Ronald Reagan after him, Kennedy’s speech has been largely remembered for one particular phrase. In Kennedy’s case, it was in German—poorly spoken German, some believed. Kennedy had tried out a variation of the “I am a Berliner” line in an earlier speech, and worked on the German passages with his speechwriters and State Department translators to ensure the correct pronunciation, going so far as to spell the possibly tricky phrases phonetically. In the 50 years since Kennedy’s speech, German linguists have chimed in on the debate, insisting that the president’s grammar was essentially correct and that contrary to popular belief, he did not try to turn a Cold War moment into a culinary one by erroneously announcing to the crowd, “I am a jelly doughnut.”

June 1987: The line that almost didn’t happen

Ronald Reagan speaks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Wall, June 1987.

Ronald Reagan speaks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Wall, June 1987.

Ronald Reagan had visited Berlin once before in his presidency, in June 1982, when he addressed West German dignitaries and a crowd outside the city’s Charlottenburg Palace, affirming America’s support for the city of Berlin and its people. Five years (and three Soviet leaders later), Reagan prepared to return to West Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. The preceding years had seen an escalation in rhetoric on both sides (with Reagan famously referring to the USSR as an “Evil Empire”), but also the first noticeable “thaws” in the Cold War in nearly a decade, including the Reykjavik Summit in Iceland the year before and ongoing negotiations that would result in an arms treaty in late 1987. Although authorship of the 1987 Berlin speech’s most famous line remains in dispute, there is little doubt that Reagan’s advisors were almost as deeply divided about whether he should use the potentially inflammatory words, as the city of Berlin was itself. Some feared antagonizing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom Reagan had built a successful working relationship. Others on Reagan’s team, fearful of charges that the administration had gone “soft,” argued that the time had come for a full-throated challenge to the Communists. The back and forth over the text continued for almost a year, but in the end Reagan made the final decision to keep the line in, and on June 12, 1987, he addressed not just the crowd of more than 20,000 gathered at the Brandenburg Gate itself, but millions of listeners in the Unites States, the Soviet Union and around the world, thunderously calling for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

December 1989: Lenny takes Berlin

Leonard Bernstein leads the 1989 Berlin Concerts.

Leonard Bernstein leads the 1989 Berlin concerts.

One of the most emotionally charged moments in the history of the Brandenburg Gate involved musicians, not politicians. Just weeks after the November 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall, American conductor Leonard Bernstein held a series of concerts in music halls on both sides of the famous divide. Leading an international orchestra comprised of musicians from the four countries that had occupied Berlin following the end of World War II (France, England, the United States and the Soviet Union, which would itself collapse just two years later), both concerts featured performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bernstein, however, eager to honor the momentous historical change afoot, made a crucial change to the work’s famed final movement, known as the “Ode to Joy.” Tweaking the original 18th century text by poet Friedrich Schiller, Bernstein substituted the German word Freiheit for the word Freude, and led a group of singers from two leading East and West German choirs in an emotional rendition of what was now the “Ode to Freedom.” The first of the two concerts, held in West Berlin, ended at midnight on December 23, the same moment that the Berlin Wall became permanently and fully open; the second was held two days later, on Christmas morning, in East Berlin. Both concerts were broadcast to tens of thousands of spectators gathered at the Brandenburg Gate and throughout the two Berlins, and it was the first television events transmitted to both East and West Germany in more than 30 years.

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Categories: Cold War, Germany