A five-meter tall resplendent Quadriga sculpture tops the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Wellington Arch in London, The Bolshoy Theater in Moscow, the Victor Emmanuel Monument in Rome, and other important structures elsewhere. Quadriga is a Latin word (quad=square plus yoke or iugum), the name of the two-wheel chariot drawn by four horses (not three as the Russian Troika) yet harnessed abreast, one beside the other, projecting an image of unusual power. The four-horse Quadriga was used in chariot races by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines and its drivers, the charioteers, were popular heroes like Formula One race drivers today. Some were even driven by gods and the Quadriga image was used also on coins. So the Quadriga became a symbol of war, victory and also the peace following a military victory.
The Brandenburg Gate, built 1788-1791 and modeled on the Propyläen of the Acropolis in Athens, was conceived of as a “Friedenstor” or “peace arch”, a reminder of the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict fought between 1756 and 1763 involving every European great power of the era. Though intended to celebrate victory, its name actually celebrated the new peace. Seven years was enough. Genug Krieg! Now eternal peace! The promise that follows most wars.
It seems ever since the ancient Persians, the Greeks and after them, the Romans, there has always been a confusion between victory and peace. War to end all wars. War is peace. World War 1—the war that was supposed to end all wars—had not even ended while at the same time it was declared the last war, WWII was being hatched. Then after WWII when much of the world wanted (in words) to bow out of war, the United States of America carried on the task alone: the slogan “war to bring peace” was erased and eternal war became the reality. Like the Romans experienced, the US system of new wars to finance past wars no longer suffices. The $700 billion for “US defense” in 2018, defense executed from one end of the world to the other, from the 1000 US military bases abroad has bankrupted the USA: its dollar is staggering and declining as new world economic-financial alignments are making the famed US dollar obsolete.
Nonetheless, the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, at first a beautiful symbol of victory and the resulting peace, today represents over two hundred years of German prosperity and peace tainted by periodic horror and defeat. In my time the significance of the Brandenburg Gate and its Quadriga have mutated and transformed. The intended symbol of peace came to represent something else; it had conformed to changing political circumstances and become the place for the military marches of conquerors, like that of Napoleon’s troops which entered the city through the gate in 1806. It became a sort of Kriegstor. A war gate.
Although the Quadriga symbol of victory in war and the following peace has been placed on major monuments in great cities of Europe, it is conspicuously missing on prominent monuments in the United States. The Quadriga, the prominent symbol of war is absent in the world’s most warlike country. The wars. Not only the wars I have known. I researched the list since the Mexican War of 1844. Astounding. Uninterrupted war. Eternal War, like the Roman Empire. War of 1812, Opium wars in China, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, Boxer War in China, WWI, Intervention in the Russian Civil War, WWII, Korean War, Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, Bosnian War and Kosovo War, Afghanistan still underway, Iraq War still on, Libya, Syria, plus dozens and dozens of dozens of wars against native American peoples, Sioux, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Seminoles, Navajo and the police actions and the putting down of internal rebellions, endless interventions and occupations in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Central America. War. War. War. (See the essay “Homeland”, Babylon Falling, Gaither Stewart)
While the US war machine ploughs ahead, insane and uncontrollable only weak and isolated voices rise against its war policy, like the recent “World Beyond War” conference in Washington itself.
Napoleon’s troops entered the city of Berlin in 1806 through gate with the Quadriga. The conqueror made his military mark on history. Then when Prussia defeated the French and founded the German Empire its troops marched through the gate under the Quadriga. German soldiers also marched through the Gate at the beginning of World War I.
The most notorious march through Brandenburg Gate took place on January 30th, 1933 when the first legions of Adolf Hitler marched under the symbol of the Quadriga and changed the course of world history. That very same day, neo-Chancellor Hitler led a procession through Berlin and through the Gate of Brandenburg on his way to the presidential palace. Nazi troops paraded to celebrate power and the myth of war. WWI had never ended. That propaganda parade through the Brandenburg Gate under the Quadriga to the sound of drums and martial music and military boots on the paving stones swept up also the German people in a fever of revenge and the dream of reversing the outcome of WWI. It swept up also international capitalism: it had found the instrument to crush evil Communism burgeoning in the East. The Friedenstor, the Peace Gate was again the symbol of victory (the victory of tyranny) but also of the wars to come. The electoral victory and entrance into the German Parliament of the neo-Nazi Alternative For Germany Party on September 24, 2017 is a reminder of that fateful day in 1933.
Symbols, rites, rituals and sacred places are powerful ideological phenomena that arouse enthusiasm and express political statements about oneself and the world. The significance of a symbol changes with time … and application. In the late twentieth century the Quadriga, originally a symbol of both victory in war and the peace that should follow, took on other meanings. When the Berlin Wall went up the Brandenburg Gate was on the borderline between East and West, thus it and its Quadriga signified separation and division; with the fall of the Wall, it was interpreted to mean unity.
Since ancient Rome’s slaves rose up against their oppressors revolutionary symbols through the centuries have been similar. For two spring months in the year 1871 the red flag waved over Paris. The red flag became the symbol of the historical act of the prise du pouvoir, the seizing of power, by Socialists and Anarchists. The conditions in which the Paris Commune was born and its bloody end made it an important link in the chain of events marking the development of workers’ resistance to traditional power. The red flag stood for revolt … for blood shed. It symbolized the aspirations of the international proletariat for revolution against oppression and exploitation, which culminated in the Russian Revolution forty years later. Today the Paris Commune itself is a symbol of proletarian revolution; the mention of the Paris Commune rings revolutionary to many ears. Both red flag and Commune differ radically from the show of power of the Quadriga.
On the Great Seal of the United States—as on the front cover of my US Passport—a bald eagle spreads its wings in a show of power. The bird represents freedom, thanks to its ability to soar through the skies, but was also chosen for the power it projects, and a belief at the time of the seal’s creation in the 18th century that it only lived in the U.S. In his talons, the eagle holds a quiver of arrows and an olive branch, representing war and peace. So the bald eagle’s meaning is not significantly different from the Quadriga: war and the power derived from victory. Thus such convictions of power and strength were born in the USA already in the 1700s from which then emerged American Exceptionalism.
Meanwhile, for a short time, the Brandenburg Gate, despite war damages and many reconstructions, I like to think influenced by the determination of the Quadriga, began to embody also the positive quality of perseverance in the face of the adversity of misuse of its symbolism by the German nation’s cynical and subservient political establishment and its US controllers. And yesterday, unbelievably, like a recurrent incubus to most people, but a return to the future for others, the election to Parliament and as the nation’s third political party, the Alternative For Germany (Alternative Für Deutschland), a neo-Nazi grouping composed of many persons who resemble those of Adolf Hitler and voted for by hoodlum, self-declared Nazis.
Crossposted at The Greanville Post
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.
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