Obsessing Over a Berlin Landmark | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 03.10.2002
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Obsessing Over a Berlin Landmark

Berlin historian and New York City native Michael S. Cullen recently finished work on a film about the Brandenburg Gate, which will be dramatically unveiled Thursday after 20 months of repair work.


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Michael S. Cullen, a New York City native, has become one of Berlin’s best known and most vocal local historians.

He has written books and made documentaries about the German Reichstag, the city's Old Museum and the planned Holocaust Memorial.

He first wrote a book about the Brandenburg Gate in 1990, after a friend invited him up to the top of the Gate immediately following reunification. He then became involved in its first restauration since the reunification.

Willkommensgruß am Brandenburger Tor

Undated handout photo by German Telekom of a poster showing The White House seen behind the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, and the slogan "The world's getting closer - T-Mobile". A banner depicting this motive will be fixed at the Brandenburg Gate Tuesday, May 21, 2002 in order to welcome U.S. President George W. Bush for his visit to Germany from May 22 through 23, 2002. The banner will cover the Berlin landmark that is under construction for restauration works currently. German Telekom is the main sponsor of the works. (AP Photo/Deutsche Telekom)

The gate, covered for the last 20 months as its sandstone facade is cleaned will be unveiled in dramatic fashion on Thursday, Germany’s Reunification Day. At around the same time, Berlin TV will air a documentary on the 211-year-old gate produced by Cullen and colleagues, Wilma Pradetto and Hans von Brescius. Cullen spoke with DW-WORLD’s Andreas Tzortzis about the gate that has been a part of his life for the better part of the last 12 years.

Was the Brandenburg Gate always an important symbol for Berlin, always part of its identity?

Until the quadriga (the horse and chariot statue crowning it) was taken away, it was part of the city, but it wasn’t extremely a part of the city. You didn’t get to see the Brandenburg Gate if you were in another part of town because there was basically no way to get to it. Berliners began to notice it when Berlin was occupied by the French in 1806 and when Napoleon took it away they began to miss it. The situation was like that for 6 1/2 to 7 years and in 1814 the Prussian allies defeated Napoleon in Leipzig and the victorious allies entered Paris and found the quadriga. It took them 50 days on the road to bring it back and the return trip became a triumphal procession … They had beaten Napoleon, this was a wonderful symbol of Prussia getting back on its feet again.

What did it mean to the city afterwards?

It acquired a symbol of being Berlin’s identification and of course it’s been made into a symbol of victory. I think that's because it’s very good looking. It’s been in the way, it’s been a traffic problem. The Nazis even tried to use it and did, but they never got to the point where it was identified as an evil building the way the Reichstag was. Because of the fire and Hitler and his speeches, the Reichstag has always had a very nasty reputation. With the Brandenburg Gate you have no problems with it, nobody has any problems identifying with it and I like that.

What sort of a place does it hold in modern Berlin?

Nowadays it’s a symbol of Berlin, it became a symbol of the end of the Cold War because (former Berlin Mayor Richard von) Weizacker had made a statement when he was mayor of the city from 1981 to 1984: “As long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed, the German question is open.” So, the Brandenburg Gate is open, the German question is closed - theoretically it should be that way. You could say that most of the German questions or problems have been solved and the Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of that, it’s a symbol of normality.

Is there a difference in the way residents of former East Berlin and West Berliners look at the gate?

Mauerfall Brandenburger Tor

Revelers stand on the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of the East-West German borders, in Berlin in this Nov. 10, 1989 file photo. On November 9, 1989 stunned East German border guards watched helplessly as jubilant Germans danced on the Berlin Wall. Thousands crossed the border to experience long-forbidden freedoms and riches on that memorable night, which marked the downfall of the East German communist regime. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, File)

Most of the East Berliners don’t have the same kind of feelings about the Brandenburg Gate as people in the West do. I guess for many of them, since the reunification hasn’t been so favorable or so good for them, they probably associate it with that, it’s like bad weather. I imagine many of them are not eager to go to the Brandenburg Gate or be around it. But there are many who love it and the art and architecture involved.

You've spent the better part of 12 years researching the Brandenburg Gate, poring through old files, pictures - aren’t you sick of it?

No. If you ask me, I’d like to do more. There are lot of unanswered questions and I want to research them and I hope to have the time left in my life to do it. There’s a lot of work. You find little things that nobody has paid any attention to. I’ve been doing the Reichstag a lot and it keeps coming back up, so I keep getting involved and I’m happy to do it.