"How small it is," was what I thought when I walked through it the first time. Like many other Germans I had waited for this opportunity for a long time, for nearly 30 years it had been behind The Wall when you were a Wessi (a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany) and beyond the so-called death zone running in front of The Wall if you were an Ossi (citizen of the German Democratic Republic).
It isn’t really small as far as city gates go, in fact it was the grandest of a series of city gates encircling the city at the end of the 18th century. The other gates haven’t survived, the Brandenburger Tor (Tor=gate) has because it’s at the end of the famous boulevard Unter den Linden (yes, there are linden trees on either side) leading directly to the residence of the Kings of Prussia. It’s 26m (65ft) high, 65.50m (213ft) wide and 11m (36ft) thick. It’s one of the structures that gave Berlin its byname Spreeathen (Athens on the River Spree), it was built from 1788 to 1791 by the architect Carl Gotthard Langhans in the neo-classical Greek revival style (like the Reichstag nearby), its design is based upon the Propylea, the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens.
It’s made of sandstone, it has twelve Doric columns and a Quadriga (made by Johann Gottfried Schadow) on the top of the roof facing east where the castle was, four horses draw a carriage with the goddess of victory in it. The female figure was not always the goddess of victory, she started as the goddess of peace, but Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris after his victory against the Prussians in 1806, after his defeat in 1814, however, the Quadriga came back to Berlin, her olive wreath was taken off and an iron cross was put on her head thus changing her into the goddess of (Prussian) victory.
The Nazis used to march through the Gate in martial torch parades, it was damaged in WW2 but remained standing surrounded by ruins and waste land. It was restored after the war but, as I’ve already mentioned, closed when The Wall was built.
All this sounds very impressive, doesn’t it? Why wasn’t I not as impressed by its size then as I thought I would be? The reason is twofold, I had seen so many pictures of the Gate, we had a series of stamps with the Gate on them for many years, but only the Gate was always shown, no buildings in its vicinity (after the war there were no buildings any more!), so that one couldn’t see the Gate in its real proportions, it appeared more monumental than it actually is.
The other reason is its symbolic character, there is no other sight in any other capital of the world which is so laden with history. The Brandenburg Gate wasn’t only a symbol of the divided Germany, it was also a symbol of the division of the world into an Eastern and a Western bloc. Three American Presidents have visited it, President Kennedy came in 1963 and said the now world famous sentence, "Ich bin ein Berliner." (I am a Berliner) In 1987 President Reagan addressed the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, "Come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Clinton visited when the gate had been opened at last, he came in 1994 and spoke about peace in post-Cold War Europe. I think from all this it’s understandable that the symbolic Brandenburg Gate is huge and dwarfs the real life one.
When it was possible to walk through the Gate, there was nothing much to see in its immediate surroundings, it took many years to rebuild the destroyed buildings, the famous Hotel Adlon Kempinski***** , for example, founded in 1907, which is situated on the southern side of the street Unter den Linden immediately behind the Gate, was opened only in 1997(Queen Elizabeth stayed there).
The area east of the Gate is called Pariser Platz, opposite of where the hotel is now a so-called Polish Market developed when the Poles got visa in 1989 and came to Berlin to sell their wares on improvised markets. Most of them didn’t have concessions so what they did was illegal, the police tolerated the market, though, only occasionally bored policemen raided it, once I witnessed such an event. If you have a stall, you need a concession, by common understanding a stall has legs, from this follows that if you have a contraption without legs from which you sell your wares, you don’t have a real stall and don’t need a concession. The vendors had constructed rectangular boards with foldable legs which they unfolded and put on the ground if the coast was clear but which they held in front of their bodies (legs tucked underneath) on straps slung round their necks and shoulders whenever a policemen was in sight. Clever, eh?
What did they sell? Mostly memorabilia of the former armies of the GDR and the Soviet Union, badges, insignia, flags, caps, belts, coats, wooden matrioshkas (dolls in dolls) with the faces of the last Soviet leaders and chips of The Wall. I’ve got one with a toy Trabi, the famous GDR car, glued on top of it, political kitsch at its best. I got it relatively soon after The Wall fell so the chip may be genuine, over the years so many chips were sold that it’s rumoured they were produced in some third-world country.
I visited Berlin every two years in the 1990s to see what was new in the capital, the Polish market existed for quite some time, the vendors getting darker and darker. Caucasians replaced the Poles, with this I don’t mean members of the white race but people from the Caucasus Mountains, from Georgia and Azerbaidshan, men with dark skin, thick black hair and moustaches to make Mexicans envious. What is odd is that the Americans use the term Caucasian to denote members of the white race, whereas the Russians call the people from the Caucasus Mountains ‘Blacks’. I even saw Sri Lankans selling Soviet souvenirs - an example of globalisation? The term ‘Polish’ market never changed, though.
I can’t say when exactly the market disappeared, one year it wasn’t there any more. The area east of the Brandenburg Gate was being rebuilt, the street Unter den Linden becoming posh again, the market was considered an eyesore, the same fate caught up with a mobile sausage stall on the Platz des 18. März (Place of March 18th [after the revolution on March 18th in 1848] on the western side of the Gate. This place has become the Trafalgar Square of Berlin so-to-speak, people meet there for manifestations or celebrations, when I visited last October Coca Cola was organising a huge musical event, half a million spectators were expected.
I thought I knew everything about the Brandenburg Gate but I discovered something new during this last visit: in the northern gate house, (the gate houses are about half the height of the Gate and face east, the southern one houses a souvenir shop [see piccie at the top of the site]) is a Room of Silence inspired by the meditation room in the UN building in New York. It’s backed by the East Berlin Peace Movement and open for everyone no matter which religion or cultural background, you step in, sit down, meditate or simply relax, the noise of the city is muffled and filtered. The visitors’ book shows that people from all over the world approve of it.