It’s no coincidence that at the end of the Second World War, with Berlin smouldering in ruins, the leaders of the victorious Allies chose to meet in Potsdam. The residence of Prussian Kings and German Emperors, the symbolism of the location wasn’t lost on the watching world. Over sixteen days in July and August 1945, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, US President, Harry S. Truman, and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (and his successor, Clement Attlee), would decide the fate not just of Germany, but of Europe and large parts of the rest of the world.
The Potsdam Conference is a seminal moment in modern history, the results of which continue shape our world today. Schloss Cecilienhof, the mock Tudor manor where the meeting took place, sits in quiet, picturesque parkland overlooking the calm waters of the Jungfernsee. It’s an incongruous place for such historic events, but perhaps it’s also no coincidence that a short boat ride from here is the lakeside villa where the Wannsee Conference took place, the spot where the Nazis planned the annihilation of European Jewry.
Potsdam, the capital of the State of Brandenburg, was firmly under Russian control at the end of the war, and Schloss Cecilienhof is only a short distance from the boundary between Brandenburg and Berlin. The border cuts through the middle of an early 20th century bridge, Glienicker Brücke. When the Cold War started and the Berlin Wall was built, this became the border between West Berlin and Communist East Germany. The bridge became the scene of some of the most famous prisoner exchanges of the Cold War.
Once a militarised zone, Glienicker Brücke now attracts curious tourists eager to see a place where Cold War history was played out in the flesh. In February 1962, the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the American spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers walked across the bridge in a famous exhange. The events leading up to that moment are central to the 2015 film, Bridge of Spies, which recreates the terrible tension of an era when two nuclear superpowers were desperate for an advantage over each other.
A tram from central Potsdam dropped us close to the bridge and we walked the last few hundred metres on a freezing late February morning. With due reverence to the memory of the Cold War we crossed the bridge to the Berlin side, drinking in the view over the Jungfernsee, and then returned back to Brandenburg. There’s a small section of the Berlin Wall and information boards next to a museum detailing the history of the border crossing.
Leaving Glienicker Brücke behind, we walked through peaceful parkland alongside the banks of the lake to Schloss Cecilienhof. It is a beautiful area to explore regardless of its fascinating history. As a side note, Schloss Cecilienhof has a checkered history tied to the First World War and the demise of Germany’s monarchy. Built at great expense between 1914 and 1917, it became a symbol of the lack of concern for the suffering of the people of Germany, particularly during the 1918 Revolution.
We arrived at Cecilienhof just as it was opening, visits were (again) only by guided tour and we’d have to hang around for the first one to start 45-minutes later. We decided to continue our walk through the park instead and headed to the Marble Palace, or Marmorpalais. Built at the end of the 18th century on the shore of the lake, it is a very striking building. Nearby is an Orangerie built in a bizarre Egyptian style next to a row of Dutch-style houses. The whole thing smacks of aristocratic excess.
The walk from Glienicker Brücke to Schloss Cecilienhof takes in a lot of history: one is the site of Cold War intrigue, the other the site where the Second World War ended by laying the groundwork for the start of the Cold War. Even if that isn’t something of particular interest, a visit here is worth the effort just for the beautiful landscapes and tranquility of the parkland and lakes.
8 thoughts on “Bridge of Spies, Potsdam’s Cold War history”
This is fascinating. I do so much reading about this period of history, but seeing the modern photos really hits home the situation and where it all happened. Next time we go to Berlin I’d love to see these and all so Gross Wannsee.
There’s so much history in and around Berlin, it’s hard to avoid. There’s an area along the Seelow Heights that’s now a museum to the Battle for Berlin, once the lockdown is lifted I’ll be visiting. The House of the Wannsee Conference is a fascinating place to visit if you head out to the lake there.
Hard to believe such peaceful surroundings once were the centre of ferocious fighting and Machiavellian negotiations…
The sad part is that the memory is fading…
I always find it sad when people stay only in Berlin and never once take a day off to go to Potsdam.
Oh, oh, this brings back traumatic Cold War memories. 😦
On the other hand, human spies were at least still needed, even if we never received any recognition for it. But nowadays, everyone is just hacking and phishing and doing other things that we old timers don’t understand.
It seems amazing to wander around a place that holds such historical significance.
Potsdam’s not a huge place, but it really packs in a lot of history. Plus you could spend days wandering through the parks.
Great post 😁