Why spend a few days in Potsdam?
The architecture of the capital city of the Land of Brandenburg is influenced by Prussian palaces. Potdsam has many beautiful houses and places emblematic of the cold war. I like to spend long weekends there because it looks like an open-air museum and because I enjoy walking through its numerous parks or along the calm waters of the Havel River. Its cultural, historical and natural heritages make it a city worth a several-days stay.
High view on the city of Potsdam from Babelsberg
The arrival by bike from Berlin via the Berliner Mauerweg makes one go through the Babelsberg neighborhood. Its villas with views on the Havel River, which delimits the city’s borders on the east, look like small castles. Along the river, Babelsberg Park and its palace located on a hill are ideal places to enjoy the view on the Havel and on Glienicke Bridge (Glienicker Brücke).
When I arrive in Potsdam, I have the feeling of landing in another era, since its architecture is so different from the one in Berlin. The buildings are in good condition. The houses are often adorned with statues and the facades are off-white or light yellow. The houses looking like small palaces contrast with Berlin’s scruffy aspect.
In the magnificent Sanssouci Park
According to me, the best way to discover Sanssouci Park is by walking. Bikes are allowed in only a few pathways. On the west end of the main pathways, the New Palace is located. I decided to visit it because it’s the park’s biggest palace. Its large size, its more than 400 statues and its dome give a monumental and triumphal aspect. The arc-shaped pathway in front of the palace, on which there are banks, allows one to rest while contemplating the building before entering.
The palace was built under Frederick II’s reign to celebrate the end of the 7-years war that allowed Prussia to keep Silesia. It is in rococo style, whose name comes from French rocaille due to its asymmetrical ornaments looking like rock gardens and vegetation. Even though during its construction, from 1763 to 1769, rococo was outdated, Frederick II chose this decoration style anyway because he wanted his own name to be associated with it. The palace was a place of residence for the King’s guests. Several Kings from the Hohenzollern family, Prussia’s royal family, later made it one of their residences.
Frederick II, the Philosopher-King
Potsdam was a garrison city and a city of residence of Prussian kings which has influenced its architecture. The Kingdom of Prussia covered a big part of the northern half of the current German territory and of the western half of the current Polish territory. In 1871, after the victory against France, the newly proclaimed German empire incorporated Prussia and the King of Prussia became the emperor of Germany, which shows how important Prussia was in the new empire. In 1918, Germany’s defeat during the First World War caused the abdication of the emperor William II and the end of the Kingdom of Prussia. The city of Potsdam now attests the Prussian grandeur between the 18th and the 20th century because its kings built very well preserved palaces, castles and parks.
Frederick II is the most famous one because he built the Sanssouci Palace and the New Palace (neues Palais), Potsdam’s masterpieces located in Park Sanssouci. His nicknames were Frederick the Great and the Philosopher-King, which says something about his character. In 1740, he succeeded his father Frederick William I. The latter, known as the ‘Soldier King’, has strongly reinforced the Prussian army. Frederick II differentiated himself from his father by showing anti-war opinions and a taste for music and philosophy. He preferred speaking French, the language of the philosophers, than German and the French philosopher Voltaire lived among the royal court in Sanssouci for 3 years. This profile has to be clarified as he spent a big part of his reign making war against other European states. In 1740, he conquered Silesia, a rich and densely populated region located in current Poland. The way he invaded this territory that belonged to Austria, without any war declaration, affects his pacifist image. He got Prussia recognized as one of Europe’s greatest powers. However, he brought Prussia close to bankruptcy and left huge debts, while the fiscal condition of the state was very good when he became the king.
After entering the palace from behind, I arrive in a vestibule and then in the cave room, a room whose walls are adorned with rocks, shells and marine monsters’ faces. The decoration is surprising because this style is very unusual in monuments of this time. The rooms decorated in a luxurious style succeed each other. On the first floor, I discover the marble room which is impressive due to its huge dimensions, its floor in marble and its richly decorated ceiling. As I learned that balls were organized there by Frederick II, I imagined the luxury and festive atmosphere that reigned in the place.
A part of the building is dedicated to the apartments of the family of William II, the last German emperor, who lived there until his abdication in 1918. In these rooms, the mix of luxury and comfort amazes me. They are furnished in a very modern way compared to the standards at the beginning of the 20th century: the apartments had electricity and a bell system allowed the empress to call her maids. Later on during the visit, on a wall, one can see handwritten words in Russian along with the Soviet sickle and hammer that were left by soldiers who occupied the palace at the end of the Second World War. This graffiti expresses the atmosphere of the place at the end of the war because these words insult Germans.
At the end of the tour, behind the palace, one can see the Communs , two annex buildings separated from the palace by elegant colonnades. The kitchens were there, connected to the palace by an underground tunnel. Thus, guests were not disturbed by smells and noises coming from the kitchen. The ultimate in comfort!
While crossing the park to the East, I pass by the Sanssouci palace. It’s located at the top of a majestic stair adorned with vine plants (see picture at the top of the article). Frederick II chose the name of Sanssouci (French for ‘without any concerns’) because he wanted to forget his worries while living in the palace. Its small size makes the tour pleasant. I advise you to go to the courtyard of honor behind the palace and contemplate the Ruinenberg far ahead. The beautiful and clear view on the ruins of a Roman palace and on the fountain gives a romantic feeling to the place.
Perfectly restored Prussian buildings in the city centre of Potsdam
The Dutch Quarter is a small neighbourhood formed by houses with typical Dutch architecture. The gabled houses show large red ochred facades made of bricks. Frederick William I and later Frederick II built this neighbourhood to accommodate the qualified Dutch workers who worked in Potsdam. Nowadays, the houses serve as small boutiques, cafés and restaurants. It’s very pleasant to walk the streets and sit on a terrasse while enjoying the surprising architecture.
St. Nicholas Church (St. Nikolaikirche) can be seen from far away because of its dome. The monumental building dominates the Alter Markt square. At the center of the latter, an obelisk is adorned with the portraits of four of the most famous Prussian architects. The church was badly damaged by the allied bombardments at the end of the Second World War. Its renovation which finished in 2010 gave it an immaculate and majestic look. I contemplated the church with a beautiful pinkish sunset in the background.
On the other side of the square, the City Palace (Potsdamer Stadtschloss) symbolizes Germany’s past. The palace was built in the 17th century and became Hohenzollern sovereigns’ residence place when the first King of Prussia ascended to the throne. Frederick II undertook work to redesign the style in his dear rococo style. The Sanssouci palace being his summer residence, Frederick the Great made the City Palace his winter residence! The palace was also badly damaged by the bombardments at the end of the Second World War. In 1960, the East–German regime decided to definitively level the palace’s ruins. Between 2010 and 2014, the building was rebuilt in the same style as before its destruction and since then it hosts the parliament of the Land of Brandenburg. I find its rectangular shape and its impeccable pink facade very elegant.
East, the restful gardens close to the Havel River
Away from the city center and at the edge of the Havel, the walk path in the Neuer Garten is very relaxing and leads to discovering places charged with History. I enter the garden and follow one of the numerous walk paths with high trees and lawns. I reach the small Cecilienhof Palace that has been the location of the Potsdam Conference.
The Potsdam Conference
In July and August 1945, two months after the end of the war in Europe, the Potsdam Conference brought the Soviet leader Stalin, the President of the United States Truman and the British Prime Minister Churchill together. The latter was replaced during the conference by the winner of the elections in the United Kingdom, Clement Attlee. The previous conference gathering the three powers took place in Yalta, where the Allies decided to force Germany to unconditionally surrender. In Potsdam, the winners of the war decided on the fate of the beaten Germany and agreed on some borders in Europe which afterwards remained as we know them today.
Stalin, at that time at the height of his glory, is in favorable ground because, as his troops took Berlin less than 3 months earlier, he is seen as the greatest winner over nazism. Ideologically and politically opposed to the Soviet leader, Truman and Churchill seek standing up to Stalin. An event gave Truman an advantage: the successful testing on the atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico in the United States. The American president, informed just before the beginning of the conference, is therefore the first one to acquire the atomic weapon. The Allies decided to denazify, democratise, disarm and decentralise Germany, and to divide its territory into four occupation zones for the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French.
The main point of tensions is about the German and Polish borders because Stalin wanted to gain the territories of the Baltic countries and east of Poland which were occupied by his army. Poland must be displaced to the West in compensation for their Eastern lost territories, and the three Baltic countries must be annexed by the USSR in the form of socialist soviet republics. Poland receives Pomerania and Silesia, and the new German-Polish border runs along the Oder and Neisse Rivers. Several million German people who live in these regions have to flee to the West.
The second central discussion topic is the end of the war in Asia, where the American soldiers still fight against Japan. An ultimatum signed by Truman, Churchill and Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek is sent to the Japanese asking them to surrender, otherwise their country would be completely destroyed. The Japanese ignore it and so Truman from Potsdam gives his green light to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan in order to precipitate the end of the war and to limit American human losses. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese emperor surrenders and, a few weeks later, the armistice is signed.
The tensions between the Allies during the Potsdam Conference heralded the beginning of the cold war. The increasing divergence between western and eastern allies led to the creation of two German states in 1949, and then in 1961 to the construction of the Berlin wall.
The part of the palace where the conference took place, on the ground floor, is small. The very detailed tour gives information about the context in which the conference took place, the composition of the delegations, the negotiation topics and the results. In the central room, the three leaders and their delegation were negotiating during plenary sessions every day in the late afternoon at a big table of 3 meters diameter located between a dark wooden stair and a wide window with a view on the river.
The reconstitution of the room makes it look like it was during the conference and the detailed information allows oneself to understand the context. I imagine myself Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill sitting on three chairs, bigger than the others, surrounded by their delegation, interpreters and the rapporteurs. Around the main room, smaller rooms served as the three leaders’ offices. Their furniture, such as wooden or mahogany desks, make me imagine the comfort in which they were working. During the tour, I go to the inside courtyard of the palace where a perfectly cut flower star commemorates the conference.
Afterwards, I walk down the path bordering the river in the Neuer Garten that follows the wall track until Glienicke Bridge (Glienicker Brücke), an emblematic spot of the cold war. The bridge connected Potsdam and Berlin, which made it a border between GDR and West-Berlin. It is famous because it was used several times by Americans and Soviets to exchange captured spies. Steven Spielberg’s movie Bridge of Spies tells the true story of the exchange between a Soviet spy captured in the United States and an American airforce pilot captured in the USSR. The final scenes showing the exchange take place on Glienicke Bridge.
The bridge is surrounded on both sides by attractions. On Potsdam’s side, right after the bridge, the Schöningen villa is located. It’s impressive to imagine that, for 30 years, before the fall of the wall, the river banks were not accessible because the no man’s land was there. A section of the wall can be seen close to the villa.
On Berlin’s side, there are Glienicke Palace (Schloss Glienicke) and Glienicke Hunting Lodge (Jagdschloss Glienicke) located in Klein-Glienicke Park. It was registered as a Unesco world heritage site in 1990 and to me it’s worth visiting because walking in the green nature bordered by water is very relaxing. The white and geometric-shaped Glienicke Palace with its superb aspect reminds me of Italian Renaissance palaces. The palace and the hunting lodge, built in the 18th century, were the residence of Prince Carl of Prussia, a general who never reigned over the Kingdom. On the path leading to the hunting lodge, I enjoy the proximity to the Havel and the view of Babelsberg Park and its palace.