Potsdam seeks brighter future from its mixed past Renewal, again: Germany is reviving the 1,002-year-old city of kaisers, Nazis and Soviets.

April 28, 1996|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Past the villa where the Holocaust was planned, across the bridge used for U.S.-Soviet spy swaps, up by the castle where the Iron Curtain was dropped on Europe, is the Prussian playground built by Germany's greatest king.

The imperial city of Potsdam is an easy day trip from Berlin, a 20-minute bus or rail ride to three centuries of power-mad kaisers, Nazi mass-murderers, dashed post-World War II utopias and Cold War treachery.

Most visitors to Potsdam come for the grand collection of imperial palaces and gardens. But beneath the newly painted veneer and freshly mowed lawns lie darker chapters of the German past.

"Potsdam is a place with a great deal of history, much of it the kind that many Germans would rather forget," said Roland Wirth, a historian with the European Academy in Berlin.

Potsdam today is humming with activity after awaking in 1990 from 40 years of slumber and rot under communist rule. The government of unified Germany is spending millions to bring the 1,002-year-old city back to the baroque splendor of its zenith under the kaisers.

Buzz saws and jackhammers resound around the three-story mansions of the old city, while scruffy coffeehouses of the East German era give way to chic bistros and shops.

At night, university students with gazes of well-honed boredom glance out the front window of smoke-filled cafes in the same kind of see-and-be-seen scene favored in Berlin.

Beginning in 1660, Potsdam was home for the kings of Prussia -- out in the countryside, but close enough to Berlin that the kaisers could ride back the same day in case of trouble.

Potsdam filled up with castles built by the kings and their noble hangers-on. The most sublime is is Sans Souci, the jewel box finished in 1745 by Frederick the Great, who is Potsdam's most famous permanent resident.

When Frederick became king in 1740, he filled Potsdam with musicians and painters. The French writer Voltaire lived at court and Sans Souci -- French for "without care" -- was built as a courtly pleasure palace.

War intervened. Frederick nearly lost his kingdom to Russia before fighting back to establish Germany as a major European power. But he would never again be "sans souci" and died in 1786 an eccentric, despotic monarch unloved by his people.

Frederick wanted to be interred at Sans Souci next to 13 of his beloved greyhound hunting dogs. But his family buried him at Potsdam's Garrison Church, next to the father he despised.

During World War II, the Nazis worried that the kings' carcasses would be blown up by Allied bombers or captured and desecrated by advancing Red Army troops. They were secretly dug up and moved to a castle in far-off Swabia for safekeeping.

A wish fulfilled

In August 1991, after German reunification, Frederick's wish was fulfilled. He was buried next to his dogs in a ceremony some Germans found uncomfortably full of Prussian military pomp.

Frederick's one-story palace sits low atop a terraced hill covered with vines. A grand marble staircase leads down to a reflecting pool. The palace exterior is painted a golden yellow, a color much copied later by the burghers in town for their mansions. Most of the rooms of the palace are decorated in a riotous rococo, especially the Concert Room.

The palace is surrounded by delicate wrought-iron fences, railings, garden gates and decorative archways, often capped with a golden sun, symbol of Frederick's monarchy. Pathways lead out to thick landscaped forests that occasionally open up to vistas of far-off pavilions, statues or fountains. Everything is designed to please the eye and calm the spirit.

City's golden age dies

The golden age of Potsdam died with the abdication of the last kaiser at the end of World War I, in 1918. But Potsdam remained holy ground for the German military, home to a large army base and the Garrison Church, where the kaisers were buried.

Adolf Hitler's dreams of empire played well in Potsdam, where he once drew 60,000 to a rally. The Nazis chose a pretty villa in the bucolic woods at nearby Wannsee Lake for the January 1942 meeting to draw up plans that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews. The house at Am Grossen Wann-see 56 where the infamous "Wann-see Conference" was held is now a Holocaust museum and educational center.

The Nazi era doomed Potsdam. Nazis burned the city synagogue -- all that remains is a plaque just north of the main post office. For most of the war, the city was spared the bombing that devastated Berlin. But on the night of April 14, 1945 -- less than a month before the end of the war -- more than 500 British bombers hammered the city, killing 5,000 residents. Some of the palaces were damaged and the Garrison Church was gutted.

Defeated and smoldering, Potsdam gave way easily to the advancing Red Army, which bivouacked troops in the Sans Souci gardens and took over many of the remaining homes.

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