One city. Sixteen palaces. Each with its own unique landscaped park surrounding it.
It’s no wonder they call Potsdam ‘Germany’s Versailles’. It is a veritable fairy-tale kingdom, which embodies the Age of Enlightenment’s ethos of ‘A picturesque, pastoral dream to remind residents of their relationship with nature and reason’.
Not only that, it is also Europe’s Hollywood. The famous Babelsburg Studios has turned out classic films for more than a century, claiming bragging rights as world’s oldest large-scale film studio. Its impressive list of credits includes everything from Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film Metropolis to The Bourne Ultimatum, with Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Bridge of Spies thrown in. It would have been rude not to, with the actual bridge, Glienicker Brücke just on the doorstep.
I knew none of this. I’d heard of Potsdam because of its pivotal role in recent history. This scenic satellite of Berlin hosted the court of the Kingdom of Prussia and was once home to Otto Von Bismarck’s Second Reich; hence the plethora of palaces.
Yet more than that, Potsdam is where WWI started. It is where Adolf Adolf Hitler laid the first foundations of his dictatorship in a historic handshake with President Paul von Hindenburg. It is where WWII finished; where Japan was issued an ultimatum of surrender or destruction; and where the post-war balance of power was decided at the Potsdam Conference, which begat the Cold War.
None of that momentous history was evident as we drove through peaceful tree-lined suburbs to Frederick the Great’s summer palace in Sanssouci park. The restored Sanssouci windmill dominated our approach. A giant stone and wooden structure with four forty-foot sails, it towers nearly eighty-five feet into the air.
Frederick the Great, known as ‘The Old Fritz’, was King of Prussia from 1740 until his death in 1786. A legend claims that noise from the mill disturbed His Greatness, who offered to buy it. The tale alleges that when the miller refused, Big Fred threw his royal toys out of the pram and threatened to take the mill anyway, to which the miller replied,
“Of course your majesty could do that—if it were not for the Supreme Court in Berlin,” which translates as, “Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, your Maj! Even you’re not above the law.”
Apparently, this never happened—and might just have been a bit of ‘Hark at my benevolence for not shafting the prole!’ spin by His Greatness. However, Frederick, ‘The Philosopher of Potsdam’, allegedly once said, “A crown is merely a hat that lets rain in”, which does suggest a degree of humility.
Rumours say he rather liked the rustic charm of a windmill at his rural summer retreat. The name Sanssouci sums up the spirit of the place. It comes from the courtly French, sans souci, meaning ‘without worries’ and epitomised his ideal of living without a care.
When talking about the many Sanssouci palaces, the world opulent doesn’t really cut it. I have never seen magnificence on such a scale. Imagine slightly more than a baker’s dozen of Britain’s grandest stately homes spirited into vast acres of immaculately manicured gardens, after a bit of gilding for good measure. Potsdam is a housing estate of palaces.
Although I was never a fan, my mischievous side couldn’t help imagining Sanssouci as the setting for a highly upmarket version of Brookside, a defunct soap opera set in Liverpool’s Croxteth estate. Perhaps in a new plot twist, the residents of Brookside Close could all win the lottery and move to Potsdam. It would give great scope for their challenging and increasingly improbable story lines, such as the body under the patio at Number 10 and the mystery virus that forced them all into lockdown in 1995.
Parked near the windmill, our potter started at the main Sanssouci palace, a long, single-storey building with a verdigris cupola at its centre, painted in a joyful shade of primrose. It followed the Brontosaurus school of architecture; thin at one end, fatter in the middle, then thin again at the other end.
At the front of the colonnaded and statue-studded rococo façade, elegant terraced vineyards were a nod to Fred’s rural theme, while at the base, the Great Fountain and lake mirrored the stepped splendour.
From there, a wide avenue took us through less formal parkland, veined with waterways where we saw a heron fishing. Sadly, even though Frederick used to enjoy Sanssouci with his dogs, our pups had to stay on the lead, even in the bits that looked like pasture.
The gardens are famous for their fountains, although as the temperature soared into the mid-thirties, we made use of irrigation sprayers on our progress around the grounds to keep The Pawsome Foursome chilled.
Through the trees, the sun glinted on a golden figure floating aloft, wielding an umbrella. Not Mary Poppins. We had reached the Chinese House, an opulent parasol-topped pavilion. Chinoiserie – anything Chinese – was the height of baroque fashion.
Built in a trefoil (clover-leaf) shape around a circular centre, the Chinese House is a delicate mint green, surrounded by gilded pillars and statues of Chinese revellers eating, drinking and generally living the good life. The characters look a little less oriental than they might, since the sculptors used local people as models!
We sat for a while in the honeyed shade of vines at Schloss Charlottenhof, where our water-loving Ruby was most put out at being unable to paddle in the lake to the front of the Neoclassical Roman villa.
Fast forward forty years from Frederick the Great to Crown Prince Frederick William (who became King Fred Will IV), who added this palace on the foundations of an old farmhouse. His dad. King Frederick William III, gave him the real estate bordering Sanssouci for Christmas in 1825; an imaginative gift, if a little difficult to wrap.
Charlottenhof takes its name from the former owner, Maria Charlotte von Gentzkow, although the heir to the throne called it ‘Siam’ (today’s Thailand), which was considered the land of the free. He remodelled the grounds into English-style gardens that connect with the main Sanssouci parkland. Italophile Frederick William IV also designed the nearby Roman Baths, where we took advantage of a shell-shaped fountain to cool off The Fab Four while no-one was looking!
At the western side of the park, a mile-and-a-half from the Obelisk that marks the eastern boundary, Fabulous Freddie the Great constructed the 200-room Neues Palais (New Palace). He built it to celebrate Prussia’s success over the Habsburgs at the end of the Seven Years’ War, which ceded Silesia to Prussia.
In contrast to the modest ten-room refuge of Sanssouci, the New Palace was a formal venue to receive and entertain dignitaries. Almost a century and a half after Fred The Great’s death, it became the principal residence of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, and is where he signed the Declaration of War in 1914.
We returned from our potter via Fred Will IVs Orangery Palace, a 300-metre façade built in the style of the Uffizi in Florence. With buildings like this to his credit, no wonder he was known as the “romanticist on the throne”. The surrounding Paradise Garden is home to many exotic plants, while the University of Potsdam still uses the Botanical Garden for teaching.
In much need of sustenance and shade, we stopped at the Mill for refreshment and after braving a lengthy queue, I tried my first iced coffee. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted—just like a normal coffee that had gone cold. A sensation I remember all too well from the heady days of having four puppies in the house!
It was clear that we needed much more than a day to see Potsdam properly.
We didn’t touch the Babelsburg Park or the Cecilienhof Palace, where the Potsdam Conference took place from 17 July to 2 August 1945. ‘The Big Three’ Allied victors, namely the USA, Britain and the Soviet Union, got together to forge the Potsdam Agreement, which shaped the future of postwar Europe. Part of the Agreement, The Potsdam Declaration, outlined an unambiguous ultimatum to Japan; surrender completely or face ‘prompt and utter destruction.’
I would have liked to see the Garrison Church, where on The Day of Potsdam, 21st March 1933, the popular, newly elected right-wing Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, celebrated the re-opening of the Reichstag following a fire.
Hitler chose this date carefully to commemorate the inauguration of Imperial Germany’s first Reichstag on the same day in 1871. Hitler shook hands with Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to seal the “marriage of the old grandeur and new power”. The notoriety of the Day of Potsdam shimmers down through history, since it sowed the seeds of 1933’s Enabling Act, which opened up Hitler’s path to dictatorship.
The Enabling Act granted absolute authority to the Nazi Cabinet, who could then bypass the Reichstag, von Hindenburg and the Constitution. Then, in the Night of the Long Knives, they simply murdered or intimidated those who opposed them and so completed Germany’s frighteningly swift slither down the snake from liberal democracy to authoritarian dictatorship.
Does this remind you of any other popular newly elected right-wing leaders? I won’t even mention Trumb, but to get his own way, British PM Boris Johnson, who reputedly models himself on Winston Churchill, expelled all the moderates who opposed him from the Tory party, including Churchill’s grandson. He illegally prorogued (suspended) parliament to push through his Brexit agenda and has caused discomfort by avoiding parliamentary scrutiny while wielding the extraordinary powers granted to his government through the Coronavirus Act 2020. Among many other freedoms, his controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill threatens the fundamental democratic right to peaceful protest, and the media is forced to tow the government line on coronavirus reporting.
But like Brookside’s preposterous storyline about a killer plague taking over the world in 1995, we all know that could never happen. History couldn’t repeat itself, could it?
Join us next time as we face a very unexpected turn of events as we head into Berlin.