The capital city of Germany, Berlin is renowned for its exceptional range of landmarks, vibrant cultural scene, and a way of life that’s a relaxed simmer of energy. Home to 3.6 million inhabitants, Berlin is a city of art, artists, and museums. In fact, precious artifacts from around the world are showcased at more than 170 museums, some of which can be found on the internationally renowned Museum Island. The city is constantly abuzz with change. Berlin refuses to still for a moment.
In the early 1980s when I first laid eyes on the city, I drew a military escort to cross a small patch of Soviet-controlled ground. My entrance under orders made my transit a mere formality. Stuck waiting in a line I noticed two middle-aged men in dark trench coats posted up at the door for passage. The outside temperature was 60 degrees. Not cold enough to justify the long overcoats. Young, but astute to the ways of State Security intrigue I chuckled loud enough for my escort to overhear.
“Yes,” The MP whispered, “they are not issued warm weather coats to hide their weapons, so they wear long wool trenchcoats most of the time.”
“Very subtle.” I quipped, holding back a broad smile choosing not to antagonize. The KGB or Russian State Security wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone in that garb. As I cleared the line and passed by the two dutiful gentlemen, I could not resist the moment. I said with a warm smile, “Хорошие пальто, товарищи.” Literally translated as “Nice coats, comrades.”
Both KGB men received the compliment with a slight startle and a sly smile before shaking their heads in mock disgust at the games we played with each other in the service of our countries.
The crux of our travel story begins 72 years ago, in a vastly different Berlin. My grandfather, Captain John Quinn rode into Berlin as a decorated Army officer. The city he found lay ruined and leveled by the World War. His artillery command played its part in the devastation. As the picture portrays below, in the days after the German defeat the city’s citizens sheltered outdoors fearing the instability of shattered buildings. The devastation was complete. War hardened, my grandfather would compartmentalize his experiences in Europe. I was told he rarely talked about his time in the cauldron of conflict. Using a recounting of his medals, I have pieced together his past. Together, let us traverse time with the Brandenburg Gate in the distance serving as our journey’s reference point, as little else survived to the present day.
The great city of Berlin began in the 13th century. Originally there were 2 settlements on either side of the Spree River, Colln and Berlin. Colln was first mentioned in 1237 while Berlin was first mentioned in 1244. The two towns grew rapidly and in 1307 they made an alliance. In 1360 Berlin-Colln became a member of the Hanseatic League. By the 15th century, they were flourishing towns with about 8,000 inhabitants. In 1432 Berlin and Colln were formally united. It would seem small to us but by Medieval standards, it was a large and prosperous town.
In the early 16th century, the Reformation reached Brandenburg (the state that contained Berlin). The elector of Brandenburg became a Protestant in 1539 and Berlin prospered. But, like all towns in the 16th century, the city suffered from outbreaks from the plague. The deadly pandemic struck Berlin in 1576, 1598, and 1699 sending citizens fleeing for refuge in the isolation of the countryside. Worse, like the rest of Germany, Berlin was devastated by the Thirty Years War 1618-1648. Its population dropped to around 6,000. Plagues and pandemics are not new to the human experience.
Berlin recovered and in the late 17th century it flourished once again. Its population rose rapidly helped by French Protestants fleeing religious persecution. By the early 18th century the population of Berlin was over 50,000.
The Brandenburg Gate was built between 1788 and 1791 by Prussian King Frederick William II as a key entry point to the city of Berlin. The Gate was topped off with a statue known as the “Quadriga,” which depicted a statue of the goddess of victory driving a chariot pulled by four horses. The statue remained in place for just over a decade, before falling into the clutches of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army. After occupying Berlin and triumphantly marching beneath the arches of the Gate, Napoleon ordered the Quadriga dismantled and shipped back to Paris. The goddess victory was hastily packed up in a series of crates and moved across the continent. The victor took his spoils.
Napoleon, perhaps preoccupied with the crumbling of his recently established empire, appears to have forgotten about the statue, and it languished in storage until 1814 when Paris itself was captured by Prussian soldiers following Napoleon’s defeat. The Quadriga was returned to Berlin and once again installed atop the Brandenburg Gate, this time with one change: As a symbol of Prussia’s military victory over France, an iron cross was added to the statue.
Berlin’s next big transition came with Adolf Hitler anxiously exploiting the iconic gate and its rich symbolism. The 1936 Olympic games served Hitler’s purpose nicely. (See below)
At the end of Hitler’s reign of destruction, my grandfather found Berlin and its symbolic Brandenburg Gate on its last legs. (See below)
In 1945, the Allies divided a vanquished Berlin into four pieces. By 1949, the fluid post-war boundaries were solidified, fenced, and guarded. (Below is a map of a divided Berlin) The Iron Curtain descended splitting Germany into two pieces leaving a divided Berlin as an island of freedom in a communist sea of tyranny. My grandfather was already home. His war was over. His wounds healed. Like most volunteers, his civilian life moved on.
On August 13 in the year of my birth, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) began to build a barbed wire and concrete “Antifascistischer Schutzwall,” or “antifascist bulwark,” between East and West Berlin. The official purpose of this Berlin Wall was to keep so-called Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West. At one point, the exodus from east to the west rose to 20,000 souls a month before the wall went up.
Twenty-four years later, I arrived in Berlin via the night train. I found the Brandenberg Gate tucked behind a wall with the goddess of victory and her horses pointed heading east not west. (See below) The Soviets felt the chariot heading out of the east was bad optics for the masses in the communist utopia. The gray dystopian reality that lay beyond the wall could vanquish even the brightest souls. Please note the sign in the picture below. “ACHTUNG: Sie verlassen jetst West-Berlin” translated. “Attention: you are now leaving West Berlin”. I point this out, to emphasize, that we were free to walk into East Berlin at any time. No guards. Getting back out might be tricky. The East German guards can be testy at times.
My grandfather’s liberation of Berlin lay unfinished before me. My small detachment’s contribution to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall four years later is tough to measure. We made a difference. Every man and woman who volunteered to stand in opposition to communist oppression in West Berlin and West Germany made a difference. Their lives stood in stark contrast to the timid souls that subjugated their fellow man and woman on the other side of the fence.
Even with the real prospect of conflict with the Soviets and the East Germans, West Berlin remained vibrant, defiant, and unmoved by the persistent specter of escalating conflict. Away from the wall, life felt almost commonplace and absurdly normal given the context. The people were friendly and inviting. My Hochdeutsch or “High German” stood in stark contrast to the distinctive accent of a Berliner branding me as a foreigner, but yet, Berliners embraced me as their own. The food was outstanding. The Berlin nightlife was always electric with possibilities. However, to be fair, West Berlin also teamed with spies and communist sympathizers searching for the cracks in democracy’s shield. At a few critical junctures, the interactions between predators and prey grew almost comical, if not for the grim reaper’s threat to escalate any minor conflict. The days on that island of freedom could be surreal at times.
Only a few years later, with the Soviets and East Germans in total disarray, the Berlin Wall fell to the massing crowds crying out for freedom and end to man’s inhumanity to man. It was a glorious sight. Rarely, do our uniformed warriors get a chance to see a clear victory from their sacrifice. I remember that day. I smiled ear to ear with the satisfaction of a job well done and the German people free to unite with family separated by that wall.
Today the goddess of victory and her horses sit atop a beautifully restored Brandenburg Gate. (See below) The goddess has been turned facing west. Freedom and democracy rule in a united Berlin and the whole of Germany. My grandfather’s work is complete.
The next time you travel to Berlin a visit to the Brandenburg Gate is a must. A Gate that has seen history march under its columns.