Potsdam automatically became a focal point of the Cold War because of its close proximity to the occupied zone of Berlin and the fact that it became part of the west Berlin / East Germany borderline. Visiting Potsdam today is crucial in understanding this history.
Once the former royal seat of Prussia and military stronghold under King Frederick the Great, the grand heritage of Potsdam was either destroyed by war or became out of reach when occupied by the Russians as part of the newly formed German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Rebuilding its legacy, today Potsdam retains its title as Berlin’s “posher sister” – it’s once cultured, refined and decadent persona beautifully restored after the fall in the wall and demise of the communist occupation in 1989.
What’s Old? What’s New?
Bombed by the same air force that destroyed Dresden in the second world war, 80% of Potsdam’s 300-year-old city centre succumbed to the fatality of war, especially the Old Market Square area where the original City Palace and St. Nicholas Church sat.
During the Cold War, the Soviets only rebuilt some central residential buildings in the same style, although later gave up with the influx of eastern Europeans to Germany and most notably Potsdam, hence the sporadic concrete high rises.
The outskirts of the city, such as the parks and palace grounds, remained in tact and untouched, much of it being off-limits to citizens and not priority for the Russians to demolish.
Post occupation, Potsdam underwent grant restoration, leaving twelve palaces with their landscaped gardens and beautiful woodland, World Heritage status parks and grand Prussian architecture within the city that is architecturally as one. It’s no wonder it’s dubbed the countryside on Berlin’s doorstep.
Yet being Berlin’s neighbour came at a price. An ‘island’ completely surrounded by water, Potsdam’s riverside became the designated route of part of the Berlin wall, stretching over a length of 160 kilometres. The famous Glienicke Bridge became a key sector border between West Berlin and the GDR/East Germany, well known for its exchange of agents, military and diplomats belonging to both political systems.
You can cycle the wall trail retracing the course of the wall, where border towers and crossing points remain. At the Glienicke Bridge, you can cycle along it for a few minutes and officially be in Berlin when you reach the other side, before turning round and returning to Potsdam. It’s hard to believe that this thoroughfare between two cities was once a part of the Iron Curtain.
Modern Day Potsdam
Potsdam remembers its past but proudly looks forward. Now, open parks and their landmarks such as Sanssouci Palace and the Marble Palace tell the splendor and glory of Prussia while the Palace of Cecilienhof (where Truman, Churchill and Stalin met in 1945 to decided the future and division of Germany) tells the story of post war via its museum wing.
Old Russian school buildings are being used as modern classroom space, the Stassi prison is now open to the public as a documentation centre and former bland GDR architecture (although very sporadically scattered) has been refurbished in a modern retro style. Local houses, once taken over by Russian soldiers, are now back to being prime real estate.
Proud of it’s heritage yet keen to display it’s modern reinvention as young and dynamic, Potsdam’s old city palace was rebuilt in similar style yet not for the same purpose. Housing the Parliament of Brandenburg since the end of 2013, it displays the words “Ceci n’est pas un chateau” – ‘This is not a palace.’ In the adjacent Babelsberg neighbourhood are the ‘Babelsberg Studios’ – the home of film production, where leading films including The Bourne Ultimatum, Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds were produced.
The central heart of the city bustles with life, from café culture to fine dining, street performers to creative galleries, awash in the glow of architectural beauty that Potsdam was always known for.
Potsdam is nostalgic but progressive, tainted by a troubled past but eager to assert its original identity as a key German city. Potsdam rebuilt itself, and in parts remodelled, but whether you rejoice in the heritage or lament the remains of the brutal history, there’s no denying that Potsdam is an incredible place to visit, even if only as a day trip from Berlin.
Potsdam was the second stop on my ‘Fall of the Wall’ trip to former east Germany towns and cities in conjunction with the German National Tourist Office, to look at modern Germany and how it’s changed since reunification. All opinions remain my own, including my obsession with architecture and dislike of Soviet style buildings.