After Letzte Generation vandalise the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, journalists & intellectuals line up to explain why it's not a big deal, why the gate looks better now, and why we deserve it anyway
On Sunday, 17 September, members of Letzte Generation loaded fire extinguishers with orange paint and used them to attack all six columns of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. Police arrested fourteen activists in connection with the vandalism. Letzte Generation intended the action to introduce a new wave of heightened protests in the capital of the Federal Republic, and in the ensuing weeks, they have debuted new tactics, in one instance blocking the A100 motorway with the help of rented automobiles. Two ambulances were caught in the traffic jam; as always, Berlin authorities, who often appear complicit with the activists, denied that the delays had “concrete medical consequences.”
The damage Letzte Generation have caused to the eighteenth-century sandstone columns of the Brandenburger Tor is considerable. Pressure cleaning could remove only about 80% of the paint; the rest of it has penetrated deep into the stone, and some doubt whether all of it can ever be removed. Scaffolding will have to be erected around the monument, and the total operation is expected to cost well into the six-figure range.
The Brandenburger Tor was erected by King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia between 1788 and 1791, to celebrate his suppression of the Dutch Patriotten and the restoration of Orangist power over the Netherlands. Since then, it has been an iconic monument of Berlin, of ever-changing political significance. It was among the only structures left standing on Pariser Platz after the war in 1945, when the city was partitioned along a line passing directly in front of it. The Tor fell just within the Soviet zone, but the governments of East and West Berlin collaborated in its post-war restoration. City residents could pass through its columns from the Soviet to the Allied zone until the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which cut the gate off from the West.
The Wall was finally removed in 1989, and the Brandenburger Tor was reopened, cementing the gate as a contemporary symbol of Western freedom and democracy. The protests of Letzte Generation abound with references to liberal values and the 1949 constitution of the Federal Republic, but as with all activist groups, their tactics sooner or later betray their true nature. It can be no accident that precisely this gate – iconic for the passage out of the drab, repressive DDR to the liberal West – has attracted their ire and their worst act of vandalism to date.
The German press have to walk a peculiar tightrope when it comes to reporting on Letzte Generation. While the group are notorious for their disruptive protests and deeply unpopular with the population at large, establishment journalists are sympathetic both to their specific message and to the idea of leftist activism more generally. Newsrooms and media desks are now under the firm control of the 1968 generation. The prevailing line is therefore that Letzte Generation are to be praised for drawing attention to the impending, existential climate emergency, while their tactics in specific instances may be regrettable. The defacement of the Brandenburger Tor, which naturally arouses particular anger in Berlin, has forced some establishment voices to specifically defend the action. Thus we are treated to remarkable arguments about how the orange paint has actually improved the monument, or is no big deal, or how it is wrong or hypocritical to get angry about it.
The contemporary historian Hedwig Richter – a head girl if ever there was one – took to Twitter to call the vandalism “a worthy use of our national monument.”
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