27th October 1806: On this day in Berlin history, hundreds of Berliners gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to witness a triumphant military procession. Despite the glorious weather, the mood of the onlookers was sombre as the soldiers entering the city were not their own. They were French and among them rode their glowering commander, a man feared and despised throughout Europe: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two years into his reign the French Emperor was riding high. A series of brilliant victories had Europe on its heels. The decisive blow for Prussia came swiftly, at the disastrous battles of Jena and Auerstadt. The total collapse of the Prussian military, once considered the greatest in the world, was a bitter pill to swallow. More humiliating however was French occupation.
By the time Napoleon rode into Berlin that sunny afternoon 214 years ago, the King and Queen of Prussia had already fled, leaving their subjects to feed and house thousands of enemy troops in their very own homes. The capital was stripped of its treasures, including the newly completed Quadriga which crowned the Brandenburg Gate. An act which would earn the despised French leader a new nickname among the locals: the “horse thief”.
Prussia was to be carved up, losing vast swathes of land to both east and west, and shackled with massive indemnities. All of this served not only to fuel Prussian antipathy towards the French, but also to stoke a smouldering Nationalism. Onlookers that day could not know, but they were witnessing an event which some historians believe set Prussia on a destructive and eventually disastrous course which a century later would drag Europe to war and ruin.
This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this October. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.