The History of the Brandenburg Gate- A Berlin Icon

I remember the first time I stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate. On that drizzley day in 1988, the Gate stood behind a graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall. The backside of the Quadriga only just visible from my low vantage point… the Iron Cross in Victory’s staff removed. The Gate, no longer in use, felt diminished. A gate to nowhere. Years later I was back in Berlin. This time we came up from the U-Bahn on the former East side. And there it stood… glorious and imposing. The Brandenburger Tor restored to its former glory. I could stand under the arch… touch the walls… and get a sense of why the symbol of the gate represents Berlin. These two visits, the different views, reflect the Brandenburg Gate’s History.

The Brandenburg Gate’s History

In the 1730s, Frederick William I ordered the construction of a wall around Berlin. THIS Wall wasn’t designed for defense or to keep people in or out, instead, this Customs Wall with its 18 gates insured that all goods entering or leaving the city taxed properly.

When the Royal family wanted to hunt or wander in the Tiergarten they rode down Unter den Linden from the Palace and out the Brandenburger Thor. At the time, it looked like this…


Das Brandenburger Tor-GDR-65-7-1

Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Early in the Brandenburg Gate’s History


Over the next 50 years, planners pushed the original city walls outward to accomodate a rising population. Basic wooden stockade walls got replaced by more imposing stone fortifications up to 4 meters high. Some of the gates were shifted around, others, like the Brandenburg Gate, got an upgrade.

The new Brandenburg Gate

In 1788 Prussian King Frederick William II commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans, the Prussian court architect to build a new gate at the Brandenburg opening that would be more in keeping with the new Neo Classical fashion. Langhans modeled the new gate on the Propylaea (the gate to the Acropolis in Athens), helping secure Berlin’s new nickname, “new Athens on the Spree”.

When the sandstone Brandenburg Gate was completed in 1795, it stood 26 meters high, 65.5 meters long, and a whopping 11 meters deep. The gate itself has 5 passegeways and is flanked by 12 columns. The buildings on either side housed customs officials and guards. Relief sculptures of the goddess Eirene surrounded by the virtues “friendship” and “Joy” (and weirdly “public policy”) represented peace. There are also sculptures of Hercules performing his deeds, and a few representations of legendary victories. A statue of Mars stands in a gatehouse on the left, sheathing his sword to indicate a time of peace.

The Brandenburg Gate was NOT built to be a victory tower like the Arch de Triumph in Paris. This functional gate allowed the road, Unter den Linden, to continue between the Stadtschloss for the Hohenzollern and the Tiergarten. Despite the five passages through the gate, only the Royal family could pass through the center. (Everyone else had to use the side passages, and deal with customs officals).

To complete the gate,  Johann Gottfried Schadow designed the Quadriga to watch over the city.

Brandenburg gate's history

Berlin’s Quadriga

Berlin’s Quadriga rides high atop the Brandenburg Gate. (A Quadriga is a chariot pulled by 4 horses hooked up next to each other. Quad= four  iugum=yoke) The female chariot driver, Eirene “goddess of peace”, originally held a scepter of leadership with at traditional wreath of of olive leaves. This immense bronze statue faces the Palace (East) and watches over the city.

But not for long….

In 1806 Napoleon’s Army defeated the Prussians (at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt) and entered Berlin. Napoleon, who never passed up the chance to show off a demonstration of power, rode his army under the Brandenburg Gate (sort of turning it into a Victory Arch). Naturally, the Quadriga caught his eye. With plans to house it in a grand museum, Napoleon insisted that since Johnann Gottfried Schadow built the sculpture, he shoud be the one to help his people dismantle it and pack it safely into crates for shipment to France. (Napoleon got the nickname “Horse Thief of Berlin” for this).

Charles Meynier - Entrée de Napoléon à Berlin. 27 octobre 1806
Entry of Napoleon I (the horse thief) into Berlin, Charles Meynier, Public domain

6 months later the crates arrived in Paris. No one quite knew what to do with them. Some crates had been damaged along the way, so repairs would be needed, but the museum hadn’t been built yet, so there really was no point in getting started, or even unpacking.

And there they sat for almost 10 years.

By 1813, Napoleon’s army was in serious trouble and in retreat from its failed attempt to invade Russia. Naturally, other armies took advantage of his weakness, and joined forces to end Napoleon’s stronghold on Europe. After the Battle of Leipzig, the Confederation of the Rhine collapsed, and Prussian Forces occupied Paris. And what did they find? The Quadriga! (Conveniently still in the crates) It took 6 HUGE wagons, each drawn by 32 horses to bring all the crated pieces back to Berlin (stop for a second to picture this… that’s 192 horses!)

(Interesting side note- Ernst van Pfuel, head of an old Brandenburg family dating back to 926 CE oversaw the return of the Quadriga to Berlin. After this HIS family was granted the honor of being allowed to go throught the center section of the Brandenburg Gate. A high honor indeed. The only other people given the honor … besides the royals, of course… were new ambassadors bringing their letters of credence. Presumably, they got to go through the side gate every other time). 

Brandenburg gate's history

The Gate Restored!

By 1814 the restored and reassembled Quadriga found its home on top of the Brandenburg Gate again, this time instead of a golden staff, it had a Prussian Eagle Iron Cross and in the center of the wreath, now oak leaves instead of olive, there was an Iron Cross. Frederick William II created the new German order of the Iron Cross in 1813, as an award for Valor regardless of rank. Karl Friedrich Schinkel designed the Eiserne Kreuz, and made the one to go on top in the Quadriga. (side note- Why IRON Cross? Because in time of war, precious metals are needed by the state to finance the army. Besides, the award was given to soldiers regardless of rank. Why give the lower classes gold or silver? The award for women was often stamped “I gave gold for Iron”).

The Brandenburg Gate’s history goes quiet until until the 20th Century.

When German President Hindenburg appointed Adolph Hitler as German Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Hitler and his Brown Shirts marched by torchlight under the gate to the presidential palace. The imposing structure ended up being used for propaganda a few times leading up to the war.

And then it became a target. Although a new false Brandenburg Gate was built outside of the city to confuse Allied bombers, the real Brandenburg Gate took some damage during WWII.

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-P054320, Berlin, Brandenburger Tor und Pariser Platz
Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P054320 / Weinrother, Carl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons
After the war, in a last joint project for East and West Germany, Berlin authorities, worked together to make repairs to the Gate in 1961. The Brandenburg Gate’s history was too important to just tear it down…. (note- the Iron Cross and Prussian Eagle are gone. And although you can’t tell in the still air, the Soviet flag flies over the Gate)

But then the Berlin Wall shut the Gate off from the West. And there it stood. A Gate to nowhere.

Brandenburg gate's History

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate Today

But the symbolism was too strong to ignore. In 1963, President John F Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech not too far from the Brandenburg Gate… and in 1987, President Ronald Reagan put in his 2 cents when he told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this Wall”.

The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, and the Brandenburg Gate officially reopened a few weeks later on December 22. Since then millions of people have visited the Pariser Platz, Berlin’s “Gute Stube” to see this symbol of Berlin.

Today, anyone and everyone can freely walk under it, even through the Royal middle!

brandenburg gate's history



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12 thoughts on “The History of the Brandenburg Gate- A Berlin Icon

  1. That was fascinating. Many thanks! I love history and really appreciate articles like this one.

    1. Thank you so much! These history articles are my favorite… but they don’t always find an audience.

  2. So very interesting. Have visited once and after reading this I am anxious to see it again. Thanks!

  3. Fascinating! I was lucky enough to visit this past summer.
    (yoke, not yolk)

    1. thank you! (Happens when brain and fingers don’t coordinate. I fixed)

  4. so many memories, The day the wall was built I was having dinner with my soon to be husband when we heard on the radio that a wall was going up, no body could believe it! I lived in Zehlendorf American sector and was not able to go through the Tor anymore. I left for the US just before Christmas 1961 so only saw the Wall coming down on TV. . But as a born Berliner part of my heart is still in the city, Kudam bummel, KADEWE besuch and so much more. Thank you Karen For the memories, Gloria I am using the umlaut info now, thanks again

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I can’t imagine just having dinner and hearing that my city was being divided by a wall… madness.

  5. I remember visiting Berlin just before I left Germany in 1981 and seeing the Tor on the other side of the wall and then years later walking through it

    1. I found it a little disorienting… and yet wonderful.

  6. My cousin wanted to treat me to a trip to Berlin but on the Thüringian side. So I saw the Tor from the other side. We had no permission to go on this trip and when we arrived at the hotel in Berlin the personnel asked for our passports, we said they were still in the car. They never saw the passports. It was an experience to see all that and how the Eastern part existed. One can compare the East to a black and white movie and the West to color.

    1. It certainly felt that way when I was there in 1988. Grey day. I didn’t go to the East because I was with my mother and her cousins, both German citizens… so we couldn’t go over.

  7. I was born in Berlin 1935 and went to Australia because we had nothing to eat. My first money from my job, I bought food and sent it home. I visit my family in 1972 and I saw the Brandenburger Tor and the wall. I had good memories when I was a child. Pity I can’t see it anymore,I am too old.

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