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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

What is the Brandenburg Gate?

The Brandenburg Gate, or Brandenburger Tor in German, is a former city gate at the western edge of 18th-century Berlin that now stands as an iconic symbol of a peaceful, united Germany.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate History

Nearly 800 years ago, shortly after Berlin was founded, a medieval city wall was erected, for security and to control the transport of goods. This first wall, up to four and a half metres high and two metres wide, fortified with towers, protected the historic centre of Berlin for almost four centuries. In the mid-17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, the medieval city was devasted and its population dramatically declined by around 50%. Following the war, Frederick William, the Great Elector, decided a new fortification was necessary. This second defensive wall transformed the city into a sort of water fortress, since Berlin was now encircled by a protective moat.

Frederick William’s fortification, which he forced Berliners to help build due to the lack of funds available for its construction, was thankfully never tested in war. However, just a couple of decades after the wall was completed, it was clear that greater Berlin, now a conglomerate of various settlements and suburbs that had formed all around the city walls, was in need of a further protective barrier. In the 1730s, King Frederick William I of Prussia ordered the construction of the Akzisemauer (or Customs Wall). Built in the early 1790s by Carl Gotthard Langhans to replace an earlier, smaller gate, the Brandenburger Tor (or Brandenburg Gate) is today the only surviving entry point from this wall, of which there were once 18.

Chariot of the gods (Quadriga) on Top of the Brandenburg Gate

Atop the iconic Neoclassical monument sits the Roman goddess of victory, in a chariot drawn by four horses, a so-called Quadriga. On the 27th of October 1806, a triumphant Napoleon entered Berlin via the Brandenburg Gate before occupying the city. Two weeks previously, his army had decisively defeated the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt, and Prussia effectively became a French client state. That 1806 defeat resonated throughout subsequent German history and became a touchstone for nationalist fervour following the German defeat in the First World War. After Napoleon’s triumphal entry, the Quadriga was transported to the Louvre in Paris. It returned to Berlin only after the coalition’s victory over Napoleon’s forces at Leipzig in 1813. The same occasion that led to the return of the Quadriga, the Prussian conquest of Paris, also gives the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate its name, Pariser Platz. During the restoration process following its return, the Roman goddess received a new standard, which she still holds: an Iron Cross, framed by an oak wreath and topped by a crowned eagle. Napoleon’s defeat led to Prussia increasing greatly in size and power, which set the stage for its leading role in German unification 50 years later.

In the mid-19th century, the Customs Wall and almost all of its gates were demolished. It was a hundred years before the fourth – and hopefully final – barrier was erected in the city, the Berlin Wall. The Cold War barrier looped along the back of the Brandenburg Gate, and in 1987, from a stage set up on the Western side, US President Ronald Reagan implored Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’. Although for most of its existence, the Brandenburg Gate has represented a barrier – first between the city and its surrounding settlements, then East and West Berlin – the iconic monument now proudly stands as a symbol of a united, peaceful Germany.

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