Bridge of Spies, Potsdam’s Cold War history

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.

Sign close to Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Sign close to Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Bridge of Spies: Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Bridge of Spies: Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Berlin Wall, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, GermanyBerlin Wall, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Berlin Wall, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Bridge of Spies: Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Bridge of Spies: Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Jungfernsee, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, GermanyJungfernsee, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Jungfernsee, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

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.

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam, Germany

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam, Germany

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam, Germany

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam, Germany

Cold War memorial, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Cold War memorial, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Marmorpalais, Heiliger See, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Marmorpalais, Heiliger See, Glienicker Brucke, Potsdam, Germany

Marmorpalais, Potsdam, Germany

Marmorpalais, Potsdam, Germany

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.

Potsdam, a city built in the image of the Enlightenment

Our first sight of Potsdam was from a small park on an island in the River Havel across from the hulking St. Nicholas Church, the Old Town Hall and the Potsdam City Palace. It provides an impressive view into the former glories of a city that was once home to Prussian Kings and German Emperors. This is the town that Frederick the Great made his summer home in the 1740s, but it was already a thriving and diverse place that grew on the back of immigrants fleeing religious persecution in other parts of Europe.

Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Potsdam, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Potsdam, Germany

St. Nicholas' Church, Potsdam, Germany

St. Nicholas’ Church, Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Royal Stables, Potsdam, Germany

Royal Stables, Potsdam, Germany

Seriously damaged by Allied bombing raids and Russian artillery in the Second World War, Potsdam found itself behind the Iron Curtain in 1945. As a consequence, the capital of Brandenburg has its share of ugly East German buildings dotted amongst the architectural and historical gems – although none as ugly as the Mercure Hotel. One of the gems is the area known as the Dutch Colony. Here, in the heart of Potsdam, 18th century Dutch immigrants created a mini-Netherlands of 134 red-brick Dutch houses.

Known as Little Amsterdam, today it’s home to galleries, boutiques and cafes. In April there is even a tulip festival. The Dutch were encouraged to settle here because there was a shortage of skilled craftsmen to build the growing city. A walk down the street today is like being transported back to the Netherlands. We reached the Dutch Colony after walking through the magnificent Old Market Square which also houses the very good Museum Barberini, which had an excellent Henri-Edmond Cross exhibition.

We meandered our way through interesting streets to Brandenburger Strasse, at the far end of which sits what looks like a pale imitation of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Potsdam’s Brandenburger Tor is actually the original and pre-dates Berlin’s copy by 20 years – albeit a copy that is far grander than that found in Potsdam. It was built in the 1770s as a triumphal arch to celebrate victory in the Seven Years’ War, replacing an earlier wooden gate.

Elsewhere in the city there are streets lined with grand town houses and palaces that once catered to Prussian nobility and high-ranking civil servants. It’s miraculous that so many beautiful buildings survived the war. The streets were busy on a Saturday, with an outdoor market next to the old city gate of Nauener Tor. We passed beneath it and made our way uphill towards another unique part of the city. If the Dutch Colony had been a bit of a surprise, the Russian Colony was just odd.

Known as Alexandrowka, the Russian Colony was built in the 1820s on the orders of Frederick William III to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander I. The story of the Russian Colony goes back to 1812 though, a time when Prussia was fighting alongside Napoleon in Russia. The Prussian army captured a large number of Russian troops and, for reasons best known to himself,  Frederick William III created a Russian choir from them and forced them to live in Potsdam.

When Prussia finally allied itself with Russia and pretty much everyone else in Europe against Napoleon, the Prussian King and the Russian Tsar became friends. It was this that led to Alexandrowka being built. Today, thirteen wooden houses modelled on an actual Russian village were built around a hippodrome-shaped area of farmland. We walked through this strange area heading for our final destination, the site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference.

Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Dutch Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

Potsdam, Germany

Russian Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Russian Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Russian Colony, Potsdam, Germany

Russian Colony, Potsdam, Germany

First though, we strolled in woodland to the Russian Orthodox Church of Alexander Nevsky on a nearby hill. The church has been in use continuously since 1829, and is the oldest existing Russian Church in Western Europe. I think the woman who warily watched us as we visited the small interior may well have been the oldest Russian in Western Europe. We dropped some coins into the collection under her judgemental glare and went on our way.

A winter walk through Park Sanssouci

Frederick the Great’s decision to build his favourite residence, the delightful Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam sparked a huge flowering of building and landscaping. The result is seventeen palaces surrounded by magnificent parks and formal gardens. Sanssouci Palace was the first to be built in the 1740s and the massive Park Sanssouci expanded around it over the next few decades. You can spend the best part of a day walking the park and discovering palaces, temples and follies within it.

I was planning to take a tour of the palace but it was accessible only by guided tour – a weird feature of life in Germany that means you’ve either got to be organised enough to book in advance, or take your chances. I didn’t fancy waiting around for an hour, and it seemed crazy to spend time indoors when the sun was shining for the first time in months. It was mid-morning and the area around Sanssouci Palace was beginning to get crowded – it must be packed in summer. I headed off to explore the park.

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Archer, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Archer, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

The most imposing building in the park is the New Palace, which sits at the opposite end of the 2.5km central avenue from Sanssouci Palace. You can see its bulbous dome from a distance, the pink and white colours framed by woodland on either side of the gravel track. Despite the chilly temperatures, the blue skies and weak winter sun made it an enjoyable walk, every step giving me a better view of the palace.

Completed in 1769, the New Palace was intended to celebrate the end of the Seven Years’ War, which had confirmed Prussia as a European power. The monumental scale of this Baroque masterpiece was also intended to send a message to Prussia’s enemies. This is one reason Frederick preferred to use it to host foreign dignitaries rather than to live in it. Something of a waste considering the vast cost to build it and the fact that it has more than 200 rooms.

The palace fell into disuse after Frederick the Great died, and it was only in the middle of the 19th century that life returned to it when Frederick III used it as a summer residence. In one of those historical asides, when the last German Emperor, Wilhelm II, abdicated in 1918, furniture was removed from the New Palace and shipped to Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, where he lived in exile until his death in 1941. In the 1970s the Dutch discovered most of it in packing crates and returned it to the New Palace.

As I wandered around the side of the New Palace I spotted even more grand looking buildings. Directly behind the palace are the Communs, which housed the kitchens, palace guards and a multitude of servants, including a small army of gardeners. This area has been recently reopened to the public but there is still some restoration work going on. It now houses the University of Potsdam.

Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Orangery Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Orangery Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Communs, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Communs, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Chinese Pavilion, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

Chinese Pavilion, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany

I set off back towards the town of Potsdam taking random paths through the grounds, and unearthing a variety of Italian-style buildings that date from a later period of the expansion of Sanssouci. I also found myself gazing somewhat incredulously at an ornate Chinese teahouse built between 1755–1764, when all things China were big in Prussia. It wasn’t open but has a collection of porcelain, which was so valued in Europe that it became known as ‘white gold’.

I wondered through gardens beneath the Orangery Palace, with a dramatic statue of an archer from antiquity, before arriving back at Sanssouci Palace. I’d passed several fountains which Frederick the Great had installed, but which he and his engineers could never make work. It would take 100 years and the advert of steam power before they would function properly. Which just goes to show, that even one of the most powerful rulers in Europe didn’t always have things his own way.

Schloss Sanssouci, summer retreat of the Potato King

It’s true. Potatoes have a king, and he’s German. Frederick II of Prussia or Frederick the Great as he is better known, is affectionately remembered as Der Kartoffelkönig, the Potato King, in Germany. Sanssouci was his beloved summer palace and it is where he came when the affairs of state became too much and he needed peace and quiet. He’s buried on the terrace in front of Sanssouci Palace, next to his much loved greyhounds, overlooking Potsdam.

The man who would make Prussia a European power was as famous for his mastery of military tactics and crushing military victories, particularly over Austria, as he was for embracing the principles of the Enlightenment and patronage of artists, musicians and philosophers. At the same time as he aggressively expanded his territorial possessions through warfare, he was renowned as the embodiment of ‘enlightened absolutism’. He would reform the judicial system, enforce religious tolerance, and liberalise Prussia’s education system.

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Frederick the Great's grave, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Frederick the Great’s grave, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci became the playground of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Voltaire would briefly call it home and corresponded with the King for many years. Frederick was also passionate about farming, he transformed vast areas of Prussian wilderness into farm land, draining swamps and building canals, and he introduced new crops, including the turnip and the potato. England’s Viscount Townsend was already known as ‘Turnip Townsend’, so Frederick presumably had to settle for the title, ‘Potato King’.

Modern day visitors to Sanssouci honour his agricultural achievements by adorning his grave with the tuber with which he is most associated. On a frozen winter morning, the frost still clinging to the ground under a faint sun, we ascended the many steps of the stone staircase through multiple terraces to the Palace of Sanssouci. In summer, vines cover the terraces, but in winter they are bare. Sanssouci itself is an expression of pure joy that befits the meaning of its name: without a care.

The former royal estate that began life with Frederick’s modest summer retreat, was expanded over the centuries by his descendants until it contained over 150 buildings and covered 1,200 acres. The grandest and most imposing of all the many wonders of Sanssouci is the massive pink wedding cake of a building, the Neues Palais, which you can reach on a stroll down the wooded central avenue. The whole park is justifiably an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I spent a large part of my young life studying 18th and 19th century European history, and Frederick the Great featured heavily in my education. Prussia’s philosopher king was a legendary figure, his shadow cast across nearly 300 years of German history. It was reassuring to discover that a man who spent most of his reign engaged in bloody wars, which he often started, was somehow relatable as a person through the intimate palace where he preferred to spend his time.

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Windmill, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Windmill, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, Germany

History though is a strange thing. Although Frederick was highly regarded for more than a century after his death – Napoleon visited his grave to pay his respects – his reputation was tarnished during the second half of the 20th century because he was embraced by the Nazis. Hitler is said to have had a picture of Frederick with him in the bunker as the Russian’s closed in. This is bitterly ironic given that Frederick was almost certainly homosexual, and would have ended his life in an extermination camp under the Nazis.

It’s easy to see why Frederick loved Sanssouci, so much so in fact that he left orders to be buried on the terrace. This was ignored by his successor, Frederick William II, who buried him in Potsdam’s Garrison Church. Towards the end of the Second World War the Nazis transferred his remains to Marburg, where the US Army captured Germany’s greatest military leader in 1946. Sadly for Frederick, the Russian’s controlled Potsdam, so his burial wishes would only be carried out in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.