Brandenburg Gate

A National Icon

For more than 200 years, Brandenburg Gate has served as the national icon for an evolving German identity. In the 1730s, King Frederick William I issued orders for the Prussian capital of Berlin to be fully enclosed by a wall. Built not to defend the city, but to tax people as they traveled in and out of town, the Customs Wall was intended to reduce the power of the estates general (the clergy, wealthy merchants, and lesser nobles) by transferring their capital to the crown who spent it on a large professional army to expand the kingdom.

Fifty years later, King Frederick William II decided that the Customs Wall, while useful, was not an aesthetically pleasing way to enter the city. He wanted a much grander entrance befitting royalty but that would also serve to impress and intimidate visitors. Of the eighteen small gates originally set into the wall, only one led to the royal palace on the outskirts of Berlin and to the city of Brandenburg beyond. It was at this site that the monument known today as the Brandenburg Gate would be constructed.

Completed in 1791 by architect Carl Gotthard Langhans and sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow, Brandenburg Gate was a Neoclassical masterpiece that immediately became one of the most recognizable structure in Berlin. Its imagery combined representations of peace with classical allusions to famous victories, suggesting that Prussia’s peace rested on its successful military conquests under the leadership of its king.

In 1806, the city of Berlin was invaded by France. To celebrate his conquest, Napoleon used Brandenburg Gate for a triumphal procession before carrying the Gate’s bronze quadriga statue back to Paris as spoils of war. After eight years as a French satellite, Prussia rebelled against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The Prussian army was able to seize the quadriga and return it to its rightful place. To mark this new victory, the goddess statue was supplemented with an Iron Cross, a military decoration first given to Prussian soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, and the Black Eagle, the primary element of the Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Prussia. These two additions suggest that the symbolism of Brandenburg Gate had shifted slightly, focusing less on the power of the Prussian king and more on the power of the Prussian military.

This victory over France and the increased national pride that followed was exaggerated over the course of the next century, eventually becoming a devastating nationalism that led to the rise of Adolph Hitler and his Fascist government in 1933. Hung with the red flags of the Nazi party, Brandenburg Gate became a party symbol. The Athenian iconography of the relief sculptures of the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, representing the victory of civilized men over barbaric and nonhuman creatures, would have appealed to Nazi ideals.

Berlin was bombarded in the final days of World War II and Brandenburg Gate, the city’s symbol of victory, national pride, and the Nazi party, was a frequent target. Although it was highly damaged, the Gate survived the war and became a witness to a new era of history. Because of its central location in the city, Brandenburg Gate was used to mark the boundary between Communist East Berlin and the Federal Republic of West Berlin. Walled off from both sides with concrete and barbed wire, the Gate was not accessible to the public for nearly thirty years.

However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Brandenburg Gate was integrated back into the reunited country. To ensure its new place as a symbol of unification, West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl, walked through Brandenburg Gate to meet East Germany’s Prime Minister, Hans Modrow on the other side. Although the Gate today represents a united Germany, its solid presence also acts as a reminder of this once divided nation.

Today, approaching the 25th anniversary of unification, the Brandenburg Gate is a key symbol of modern Berlin and visited by tourists daily. Still dominating the Pariser Platz after more than two centuries, the Gate remains the visual embodiment of German identity.

Greek Iconography

When Frederick William II commissioned Carl Langhans to design his monumental gate, Langhans took a bold step away from the popular ornate designs of French Baroque to introduce the first Neoclassical structure in Berlin. By embracing the clean lines of Classical Greek architecture and the iconography of Greek mythology, Langhans and sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow, joined a new cultural movement known as the Enlightenment, which espoused ideals of intellectual freedom and discovery, based on ancient models.

Langhans modeled the Brandenburg Gate on the Propylaea, the entrance gate to the Athenian Acropolis, which includes Doric columns, a capped pediment, and adjoining temples. The themes continued into Schadow’s sculptures: most noticeably, the quadriga that crowns the Gate. Originally, this bronze statue was a depiction of Eirene, the goddess of peace. Her iconography included a scepter of leadership and a wreath of olive leaves. However, after the sculpture was captured by Napoleon and returned some years later, the goddess was refashioned. By placing the Iron Cross inside the wreath and topping it with the Prussian Black Eagle, the goddess no longer represented peace, but military victory.

Although the iconography of the goddess statue changed from peace to victory not long after it was built, the relief sculptures on the Gate still reflect the original message of peace. The panel below the bronze quadriga depicts the goddess Eirene surrounded by the personifications of virtues such as Friendship, Joy, and Public Policy. There are also symbols of the arts and sciences which flourish in times of peace. Additionally, in the small temple to the left of the Brandenburg Gate which once served as a guardhouse, there is a small statue of Mars, the Roman god of War, sheathing his sword, and thereby, bringing war to an end.

Finally, Schadow included relief sculpture panels and tondos (round medallions) depicting the many difficult labors of Hercules on the walls of the five passageways through the Gate. In ancient Athens, these scenes were meant to celebrate the Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 BCE, but in 18th century Prussia, the same images came to represent Prussian royal strength and persistence. Later political rulers like Adolph Hitler interpreted these images as relating instead to German power and perfection. Today, Brandenburg Gate no longer stands for peace or for military victory, but instead as a symbol of unity.

Documenting an Icon

In preparation for Germany’s 25th anniversary of unification, CyArk partnered with the University of Stuttgart’s Institution of Photogrammetry and with Iron Mountain, to scan Brandenburg Gate as well as the entire Pariser Platz. This project allows visitors to explore the Gate like never before, accessing details that are normally difficult to see, such as the quadriga and relief sculptures. The data collected will also be used to complement a historical archive of documentation and conservation materials, advancing the capability for planning future preservation efforts.

As a national icon and potent symbol for the German state, Brandenburg Gate has been a military target and the frequent focus of rebuilding efforts. For example, at the end of World War II, the Allies bombed many of Berlin’s historic buildings and structures, leaving Brandenburg Gate extensively damaged. After a decade of neglect, the governments of East and West Berlin decided to undertake the restoration of this national symbol together in 1956, shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Much of the damaged sandstone was restored and the crippled quadriga replaced, but the eagle and cross motif held by Victory that represented Prussia was replaced with an East German flag.

In late 1989, during the nationwide celebration of unification and the fall of the Berlin Wall, many spectators climbed Brandenburg Gate’s highest reaches, damaging both the Gate and its central sculpture of Victory. Ten years later, the entire Gate was once again restored to its original state. Although its status as a national treasure means that Brandenburg Gate may always be under threat, as a witness to centuries of German history, it must be preserved.


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