Lindens and the Brandenburg Gate

By Braden Bjella 

February 14, 2019

Photo Credit: Braden Bjella 2019 


In mid-January, thousands marched from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany to Alexanderplatz, the former center of East Berlin. The movement was in support of the Women’s March, an international protest that began in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump. Energy was high despite the cold, and the years that have passed since the Trump presidency began have not killed the spirit of the movement.


More so than any other landmark, the Brandenburg Gate lingers as the iconic marker of Berlin. Built late into the 18th Century, the gate serves as a welcoming post for new entrants to the city, guiding them from the forested Tiergarten to the bustling Unter den Linden, so named for the preponderance of linden trees that formerly lined the street. Today, the gate is primarily a tourist fixture; visitors take photos of themselves standing between its columns, or set up photos where they humorously pretend to lean on it from a distance.


For locals, the gate means not just tourists, but politics. Protestors gather before the gate on a near-daily basis, carrying banners in support of or raging against one thing or another. There’s no particular ideology associated with Brandenburg Gate protests; one day a group of Tibetans are arguing for their rights, the next, vegan activists are handing out leaflets about animal slaughter. But for every Women’s March or left-leaning group that gathers to make their voice heard at the gate, there exists an unfortunate opposite. In 2016, a group of men associated with Germany’s Identitarian movement illegally climbed the gate and unfurled a banner reading SICHERE GRENZEN SICHERE ZUKUNFT – secure borders, secure future. Police watched from Unter den Linden, eventually managing to coax them down and bring them into custody. In total, fifteen were arrested, and discussions about the far right in Germany increased. 


Lindens may be a key to how the Brandenburg Gate became the meeting point for political action. Dorflinden, translated to “village lindens,” were historically planted in the center of the small towns surrounding Berlin. The trees represented community, and a commitment to other members of the community that would grow as the trees did. 


Whether they assumed this role due to their convenient location or because of a reported calming quality is unknown, but lindens soon developed a political charge. The linden as a meeting place became the linden as a judgement ground; lindens were planted outside of towns near open fields as a sort of makeshift court. It is unclear why this practice began – some claim lindens were thought to be holy, while others report that the calming qualities of the tree provided ideal conditions for judicial proceedings. Regardless of the reason, it became such a common occurrence that the trees developed their own title, Gerichtslinde, or “court linden.”
The lindens that lined Unter den Linden were decorative, an order by Frederick William in 1647 to plant the trees in lines going from the city palace to the Gate. But no matter the intent, they carried with them the same political spirit.


In the shadow of the first World War, the Gate’s protest point status took form. The Gate, which was primarily known as an entryway for distinguished guests visiting Berlin, was suddenly turned over to the people as the aristocracy was stripped of its ruling-class powers. All five of the Gate’s entryways were now open for public use, and the people of Germany found every way to use them.


The Brandenburg Gate emerged as the preeminent spot to voice dissatisfaction with the Weimar government, hosting rallies, marches, and strikes; this annoyed the local police, who would regularly beat protestors. In 1920, a right-wing group lead by Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and put an autocracy in its place, effectively undoing the German Revolution of 1918-19. The government was forced out of the city, and the group took control of the government for five days before public protest had them removed. This became known as the Kapp Putsch.


Of course, the Gate held a prominent position during the Third Reich. The Nazi party celebrated its initial seizure of power with a torchlight march through the gate. The Gate later bore banners – long, red cloths with prominent swastikas, and smaller signs reading Juden sind hier unerwünscht (Jews are not wanted here). Hitler’s face appeared on the front of the 100 Reichsmark coin; on the obverse, the Brandenburg gate could be found topped with a wreathed swastika.


As the Second World War continued and it became clear that the Nazis would not win, the Brandenburg Gate symbolized the last vestiges of Nazi power. In the Battle of Berlin’s final days, Nazi troops turned the Gate into an inner defensive ring, creating a roadblock around the Gate and using it as a defensive post against the coming Soviet troops. When the Nazis eventually surrendered to the Soviets, Soviet soldiers climbed atop the Brandenburg gate and planted their flag, marking a new era in Germany.


The tradition of protest carried on; when the Berlin Wall began construction suddenly in 1961, thousands flocked to the Gate, almost out of instinct. Much later, the Gate backdropped Reagan’s speech encouraging then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” – a line preceded by the less memorable “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.”


Today, there are significantly less linden trees on Unter den Linden. Their faint smell is overpowered by roasting sausages, tourist perfumes, and concrete dust from the seemingly endless construction. But the political spirit lives on, a community originally formed under linden trees so many years ago.

 

Braden Bjella is a writer, musician, and artist based in Berlin.