Honors for Frederick the Great bestir fears of resurgent German nationalism

August 18, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

POTSDAM, Germany -- Margit Lichtenberger glowed yesterday after she walked by the coffin holding the body of Frederick the Great, one of Germany's most famous historical figures.

"A great man. I'm so happy that he's back here," the 55-year-old bookstore owner said.

Mrs. Lichtenberger and thousands of other proud and curious onlookers braved bad weather to pay their respects to Frederick, whose remains were returned to Potsdam yesterday for a lavish and controversial midnight reburial. The remains had been in West Germany near Stuttgart for the past 39 years.

Frederick's body was removed from Potsdam as the Soviet army advanced at the end of World War II and eventually was spirited out of the Communist-controlled East. Now that Germany is reunited, the former German royal family brought its most famous ancestor back to Potsdam, fulfilling his wish to be buried at his palace, Sans Souci.

The train left the family's castle Friday and made its way by a secret route to Brandenburg, where the electric locomotive was changed for a steam one that chugged into Potsdam around noon yesterday.

The coffins of Frederick and his father, Frederick William I, were unloaded, and the latter received a simple reinterment in a church.

Frederick's coffin lay in a courtyard of Sans Souci, where he had asked in his will to be buried next to his favorite dog "without pomp or show." Thousands like Mrs. Lichtenberger, however, paid homage while a German military honor guard of eight officers stood at attention.

At midnight the coffin, draped in Prussia's black and white colors, was brought to the gravesite.

The coffin was lowered into the very grave that Frederick had picked out more than 200 years ago, but the ceremony was much more elaborate than the burial "by a single lantern and with no one following me" that he had requested in his will.

One of the 60,000 who walked by the coffin was Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who defended his presence by saying that Frederick's reburial was a symbol of last year's reunification.

Others saw it differently.

"Frederick the Great was the embodiment of militarism and expansionism. He started three aggressive wars and was an absolute ruler. We should honor this man?" said Walter Momper, a historian and former mayor of Berlin.

Frederick, who ruled from 1740 until his death in 1786, is considered the greatest Prussian leader, having lifted his state from poverty into the ranks of Europe's five major powers.

But his legacy is considered dangerous not only because of its association with militarism. Following his death, Frederick was admired and honored by expansionists, such as Napoleon, and by Adolf Hitler.

After Germany surrendered in 1945, the Allies made a conscious effort to eradicate Prussianism. Frederick was cast in the role of a forerunner of Hitler, and most of the territory that made up Prussia was awarded to Poland.

But Rudolf von Thadden, a historian at universities in Goettingen and Paris, says that Frederick should not be held responsible for the distortions of the Nazis and today's neo-Nazis.

Frederick's Prussia, Mr. von Thadden argues, was no different from other 18th-century European nations in its absolutism and its desire to expand. It was, however, one of the era's most tolerant countries, admitting political refugees and guaranteeing the rule of law.

"Every human society has the legitimate need for identification. As long as the positive aspects of Frederick the Great and Prussia are emphasized, then I see no harm," Mr. von Thadden said.

The controversy over yesterday's ceremony has been brewing all summer. It comes on the heels of a series of similar historic events that proponents see as necessary to build a healthy sense of history and pride in Germany but that critics view as dangerously nationalistic.

In June, for example, the Parliament decided to move the government to Berlin. And two weeks ago, the country celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin landmark that is topped with a Prussian eagle and iron cross.

Mrs. Lichtenberger said she does not view any of these events as dangerous. "A bit of pride in one's history is normal and doesn't necessarily mean a turn to nationalism or militarism," she said.

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