Wednesday 18 December 2013
Alec spent his last day before returning home taking a stroll down Unter Den Linden, the grand boulevard running through former East Berlin, reminding himself of the main sights.
He had walked up and down the boulevard so often now that he had started taking it for granted. He appreciated the extent to which he had fallen into this trap when he started at the western end, and immediately realised he knew next to nothing about that most famous of all symbols of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate.
The Brandenburg Gate has become a symbol of freedom in recent years, but it wasn’t always like that. According to its Wikipedia history it was first constructed on the orders of King Wilhelm Friedrich ll of Prussia in the 18th century after restoring the power of the House of Orange by suppressing Dutch popular unrest, which did not sound like too promising a start to Alec.
The Gate was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the court supervisor of buildings, and the quadriga – a chariot drawn by four horses – on top sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow. Since then, it has been used as a political stage by world leaders from Napoleon to Barack Obama.
On Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at the Gate in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the word “Freiheit” (freedom) substituted for the original “Freude” (joy) in the final-movement choral rendering of Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.”
Pariserplatz, the square located beneath the Brandenburg Gate, which itself is within easy walking distance of the Reichstag (parliament) building and the German Chancellor’s office complex, is the best possible location for foreign embassies and not surprisingly is the site of those of Germany’s most important allies and partners.
The embassies of the United States and France face each other across the square, while the representative office (embassy equivalent) of the European Union is almost as well placed, at the western end of Unter Den Linden. The British embassy also occupies a privileged position just round the corner in Wilhelmstraße. A little further east on Unter Den Linden, occupying a large, well-protected site, is the embassy of the Russian Federation.
Other prominent buildings on or just off Unter Den Linden include the Adlon Kempinski Hotel, where Alec and some friends once celebrated one of their birthdays extravagantly with champagne; the Comic Opera and State Opera – two of Berlin’s three opera houses, the third being the German Opera in Charlottenburg – and Humboldt University; St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the new Watch House, and the German Historical Museum, all discussed elsewhere in this series.
Crossing the River Spree, one passes a pleasant, grassed square, the Lustgarten, on the left providing a green setting for Berlin Cathedral and Museums Island. Unter Den Linden eventually gives way to Karl Liebknecht Straße, leading into Alexanderplatz.
The City Palace, also known as the Berlin Palace, stands at the bottom of Unter Den Linden, close to the Cathedral and Museums Island. The Palace’s predecessor buildings have a history dating back to the 15th century as residences of the Hohenzollern rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia. At one stage there was a baroque version created at the turn of the 18th century by Andreas Schlüter, one of Germany’s most famous architects.
The palace was badly damaged in the Second World War and demolished by the East German authorities in 1950, to be replaced by a modernist Palace of the Republic which was used by the East German regime as a parliament building. In 2009, full of asbestos, it was demolished again to make way for a new palace, built to a design by the Italian architect Franco Stella, with three of the previous facades rebuilt but a modern interior, as determined by the Bundestag after a long public controversy. Opened in 2020, it now houses the Humboldt Forum, which styles itself “A Palace for Culture and Science, for Exchange and Debate.”
Alec watched the reconstruction in progress during his visits to Berlin from 2013 onwards, though he never visited the completed building. He does however sometimes get a glimpse of its courtyard when the Berlin Philharmonic, for which he has an online subscription, plays a concert there.
Unter Den Linden was to experience years of disruption during the second decade of the 21st century as a new underground rail line was constructed beneath it to carry tourists and others between the sights described here.
Though this marked the end of Alec’s three months of study at the Goethe Institute, five years later he was to return to Berlin Free University, where he had previously studied the European Union (Part 8), to read German philosophy. So, join him next time as he struggles with the obscure and difficult works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the only slightly easier philosophy of Karl Marx.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign the Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.