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Germany

Memories of a Nation

By Neil MacGregor
15-minute read
Audio available
Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

Germany (2014) is about the culture and history of the Germanic nations that eventually came together to form modern Germany, a state which has had its share of dramatic historical moments.

  • Culture vultures
  • Historians
  • Travelers to Germany

Between 1987 and 2015, Neil McGregor served as the director of multiple British art and history museums, including the National Gallery and the British Museum. His other work on Germany includes a BBC Radio 4 series and an exhibition at the British Museum. He’s also the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects.

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Germany

Memories of a Nation

By Neil MacGregor
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor
Synopsis

Germany (2014) is about the culture and history of the Germanic nations that eventually came together to form modern Germany, a state which has had its share of dramatic historical moments.

Key idea 1 of 9

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the most famous monument in Germany, has a bittersweet history.

On July 13, 2014, a sea of wild soccer fans stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Germany’s capital city, Berlin. It was the day of the FIFA World Cup finals, and, on a screen as tall as the gate itself, Germany went head to head with one of the federation’s most formidable teams, Argentina.

Why did Germany screen this historic game here?

Well, the Brandenburg Gate, according to professor and politician Monika Grütters, is a locus of symbolic power for Germans, a sort of centerpiece to all national celebrations. Indeed, this austere monument, which is considered a masterwork of neoclassical architecture, is the most famous landmark in modern-day Germany.

Commissioned by the Prussian king Frederick William II and intended as a symbol of peace, the Brandenburg Gate was constructed between 1788 and 1791. It was modeled after the gate to the Acropolis in Athens, and it served as a sort of capstone to Frederick II’s project of cultural improvement in Berlin. He’d already had a series of new and fashionable streets built, as well as an opera house and a palatial library.

But, though born in triumph and optimism, the gate soon saw darker days. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte led the French army past the gate’s Doric columns and into Berlin. The French had prevailed at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt, defeating the Prussian army. Napoleon was now ruler of Prussia’s capital city.

Nor did Napoleon hesitate to demonstrate his dominance. He had the bronze sculpture that crowns the gate removed, carted all the way to Paris and put on display in the Louvre. This was a symbolic slap in the face, for the sculpture in question was the Quadriga of Victory – a horse-drawn chariot driven by the female figure Victory.

But the Prussians got the last laugh. Seven years later, with the assistance of the Russians, they defeated Napoleon and marched to Paris, where they reclaimed the stolen Quadriga. In 1814, it was returned to its rightful place atop the Brandenburg Gate.

It’s still there to this day. On that July day in 2014, it overlooked the crowd of joyful soccer fans as Germany scored one goal against Argentina and won the country its fourth World Cup.

But the Brandenburg Gate is far from being a symbol of victory and unity for modern-day Germans, as you’ll learn in the next blink.

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