Nauener TorGeneral

Potsdam, famous for the palace and landscaped park gardens of Frederick the Great's Sanssouci, and the post-war settlement signed by the Great Powers in Schloss Cecilienhof, is one of the best-loved and most often visited attractions for visitors to Germany's capital. Potsdam is the capital of Brandenburg, the Federal State that surrounds Berlin, and lies to the South-West on the river Havel. Its relatively small population (c.150,000) gives the city an air of tranquility which can be refreshing after the hustle and bustle of the capital, and somehow makes all the more surprising the stunning range of architectural styles, landscapes and sights. Baroque palaces vie with follies, Chinese teahouses with Roman Baths, Russian dachas with Dutch city houses. A steam engine built to power the Sanssouci fountains masquarades as a mosque, a Russian Orthodox chapel perches mournfully on a hilltop, and to the west of the city, in the suburb of Babelsberg, the site of the immense pre-war Film Sudios where masterpieces like Metropolis and The Blue Angel were shot before most of the directors (Fritz Lang, FWPabst) and actresses (Marlene Dietrich) fled to escape the Nazis, pulses with life again as TV and film companies swarm in to expolit the magnificent facilities.

And around the city huge areas of woodland stretch down to the Havel and its necklace of lakes - pleasure cruises drift through dreamy canals past the waterside villas of the pre-war starlets, bathers splash through the water at Wannsee, which sports the longest inland beach in Europe, and picknickers sprawl amongst the peacocks of Pfauen Insel.


Till the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 Potsdam was relatively complicated to visit despite its proximity to Berlin since it lay beyond the Wall in Eastern Germany. Frontier delays were long and frustrating involving batteries of questions and often vehicle searches. But now the traces of its long and varied history are a short car drive or trip on the SBahn away.


Potsdam was originally a Slavonic settlement (Potzupimi) whose inhabitants farmed and fished the Havel. Its existence is first recorded in 993, but apart from the construction of a castle in 1160 to control the Havel trade, it changed very little during the Middle Ages remaining a peaceful backwater until Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector (the title Elector was given to those German Princes who chose the Emperor) decided Berlin was too crowded and smelly, and had a second palace (Residenz) built in Potsdam.

Potsdam lay south-west of Berlin, beyond the forest of Grünewald - the route there ran through the hunting park west of the Brandenburger Tor, now Tiergarten, and along a raised causeway through the swampy river valley of the Spree, now Ku'damm.

Under Frederick the Great's Hohenzollern successors the city became an important garrison and administrative centre; the demand for uniforms stimulated the textile industry and artisans flocked into Potsdam. Small-arms manufacturies were established and housing provided for the incoming workers.


But it was with the ascension to the throne of Frederick the Great in 1740 that the town was most dramatically transformed. He initiated a building programme to the west of Potsdam which was to continue till the early years of the 20thC - the Palace and garden complex of Sanssouci. Potsdam was to be a cultural oasis in the middle of barbarian Prussia, modelled on Versailles, the palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Palace after Palace sprung up, and the streets of Potsdam were lined with baroque town houses for the middle classes drawn by the gravity of the royal presence. In 1838 Potsdam was linked to Berlin by rail and the town became a favourite outing for Berliners, escaping the crowded big city to stroll in the Grünewald or swim in the Wannsee.

The Third Reich and World War II

And it was on the shore of this idyllic lake on Jan 2nd, 1942, that Heydrich, Eichmann and the planners of the Third Reich adopted the Final Solution, the detailed strategy for deporting and gassing Europe's jews in concentration camps.

Schloss CecilienhofThree years later in April 1945 a terrible bombing raid destroyed large sections of the town, killing 4000 people, but signalling the end of World War II. On Aug 2nd the post-war division of Europe was agreed at Schloss Cecilienhof at the Potsdam Conference.

The Cold War

Soon after, this division was played out on the town's doorstep as the Allies started to fall out and Berlin became 2 cities, hostilities culminating in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Potsdam found itself in East Germany, now separated from encircled West Berlin by a Wall and linked only by the Glienicke Bridge over the Havel, the bridge that features in films from the Cold War where spies are swapped between West and East.

In Potsdam itself the SED, the East German Communist Party, implemented a dramatic programme of demolition, building prefabs to house the immense numbers of homeless, preferring this to reconstruction, partly for economic reasons, but also because they felt uncomfortable with the city's imperial past. And so Potsdam remained, surrounded by the red brick barracks of the Soviet Army of occupation, till 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.


After the re-unification of Germany the SBahn, water and road links between Berlin and Potsdam were reopened, the remaining older buildings in the town centre are undergoing an extensive renovation programme and the town draws increasing numbers of visitors who come to marvel at its Baroque splendours.

Park "Sans Souci"

In 1744 Frederick the Great ordered the construction of his dream palace of Sanssouci 2 kms to the west of the centre of Potsdam. The French name means "carefree". Frederick had been brought up strictly by his tyranical father, the Soldier King, who had had the young Frederick's lover, an officer named Katte, beheaded in front of him, had forced him into an arranged marriage with Elisabeth Christine, and had the habit of forcing his son to kiss his boots in public, until the young man escaped to the palace of Rheinsberg (another beautiful baroque building to the north of Berlin). On his father's death, Frederick attempted to reproduce the cultured atmosphere of Versailles in what he considered the bleak wasteland of militaristic Prussia.

The architect he commissioned to build his palace was Georg von Knobelsdorff, and Sanssouci was completed the following year and the park, the Rehgarten (the deer garden), 5 years later. The buildingprogramme continued unabated till the early years of the 20th Century. The Neues Palais (the New Palace) at the west end of the park was built to commemorate the end of the Seven Years War, and the Orangerie and Mulberry Alley added in 1913.

You enter the Park from the east passing through the Obelisk Portal flanked by the Roman goddesses Flora and Pomona and, passing through the Dutch Garden, arrive at the Great Fountain, with its statues of Venus and Mars. To the north, rows of terraces with some of the northernmost vines in Europe climb up to Sanssouci itself - from the uppermost terrace a rather surreal view of the old East German prefabricated tower blocks of the Neustädter Havelbucht open up, contrasting strangely with the twin wings of the baroque palace, with its green dome, gold leaf and sun symbols.

The interior boasts 12 Rococo rooms, each in different decorative styles, including the Marble Hall, a Concert Room, and a private library of 2000 books (mostly in French, the language of the court), where Frederick lived and entertained. For a brief while the French philosopher Voltaire was his private tutor (1750-3), but as the King got older he became more and more cranky, the early promise of liberalism did not bear fruit, and he quarrelled acrimoniously with Voltaire. On his departure the King had the philosopher's bedroom redcorated with motifs of parrots and monkeys.

The increasingly eccentric "Alte Fritz" became a recluse - his dying wish was to be buried next to his greyhounds in a tomb near the eastern wing, but his nephew instead placed him next to his detested father in the Garrison Church in Potsdam, and there he lay until the end of World War 2 when he was exhumed and transported to Schloss Hohenzollern in Suabia to escape the advancing Soviet troops. Only in 1991 was the body returned to Potsdam wher he now lies buried under a simple stone memorial near Sanssouci.

To the east of the palace is the Bildergalerie, his private art collection, including works by Rubens, Vasari, Van Dyck and Caravaggio, scattered during the war but now largely reassembled. Further east lies the Neptune Grotto, a folly designed by Knobelsdorff, originally boasting Moorish statues.

Complementing the Bildergalerie, to the west of Sanssouci, lies the Neue Kammern, where Frederick's guests were housed, and beyond that the Sicilian and North European Gardens, a rock gateway with an eagle perched on it, and a reconstructed wooden windmill.

To the north of the palace, a vista leads gently uphill towards a pile of ruins on a hilltop. This folly was built to conceal a reservoir intended for water to drive the park's foutains, but attempts to fill it with water from the Havel failed dismally.

The central alley running east-west through the park leads to the New Palace, built 1763-9 at the end of the Seven Years War. The roof is topped with 428 sandstone statues, and a green dome embellished with a crown. This was Frederick's (and the later Hohenzollerns') private residence, and the interior is opulent, including the Grotto room, whose walls depict dragons and lizards formed from shells and semi-precious stones, an enormous marble chamber, and Frederick's private theatre where performances of French plays and Italian operas were presented.

Facing the west entrance to the palace are the Communs, the colonnaded quarters for the palace servants.

Running north-east, at an angle to the main alley is the Mulberry Alley. On the northern side the Italianate Renaissance Orangerie, with its towers and lions head water spouts, was built by a later Hohenzollern monarch, Frederick IV, who was much impressed by the Italian architecture he had observed in Italy on his Grand Tour. It functions now as a hothouse for tropical plants, an art gallery with copies of paintings looted by Napoleon, and also houses the current park workers.

South of the Orangerie a goldfish pond is to be found, together with a statue of Frederick the Great - a copy of that which can be seen on Unter den Linden.

Chinesisches TeehäuschenThe park, which was originally intended as hunting ground and a kind of playroom for the wealthy Hohenzollern family, sports many other visual delights - fantasies such as the Chinese Teahouse (the Dragon House) where the King's vintner was accomodated, the mock Roman Baths designed by the architect Schinkel, an enormous Toy Fortress with miniature canons, an antique temple, a Belvedere, a Hippodrome style arena, the villa Schloss Charlottenhof, and the beautiful lakeside Friedenskirche Church, where many of the royal family are interred.


The Russian colony of Alexandrowska was constructed for 62 members of a military choir taken prisoner in Latvia during the Napoleonic Wars. The settlement is laid out like a St. Andrew's cross, with the overseer's house placed at the intersection, and the individual houses are built in Russian style with plank cladding and the names of the families that originally lived there carved on the doors. On a hill above the settlement is a tiny Eastern Orthodox Church, the Alexander Newski Chapel, with its onion dome, pink stucco and icons. After the October Revolution in what became the Soviet Union, thousands of Russians fled to Germany and services have been conducted in the Chapel since then.

To the north, at the foot of the Pfingstberg, another hill, lies a walled Jewish Cemetery, from the year 1763. Between 1933 and 1945 the Jewish population of Potsdam was almost entirely deported and murdered.

Neuer Garten

The New Garden stretches round the west side of the Heiliger See (the holy lake). It contains the Marble Palace, built for Frederick William II, who died there in 1797, reportedly as a consequence of his dissolute lifestyle. In the DDR (old East Germany) it became a military museum.

Schloss CecilienhofThe most famous building in the park is the Schloss Cecilienhof, built 1913-17 - a mock-Elizabethan stately home where the post-war Potsdam Conference took place in July/Aug 1945, attended by Truman, Stalin and Churchill (later replaced by Atlee). After an arson attack on the conference hall in 1990, it has been now restored, and visitors can view the chintzy decor in the delegates' rooms and contemplate the different amount of space alloted the different delegations.

Across the lake the expensive villas of the Potsdamer Vorstadt can be glimpsed. This is where the directors and starlets of the pre-war film industry resided, to be followed, in the DDR, by government functionaries. And beyond the Vorstadt, along the Berliner Strasse leading to Berlin, is the Glienicke bridge where Gary Powers, the U2 pilot, was swapped and where Anatoly Scharansky was released.

The City of Potsdam

St. NikolaikircheThe oldest part of Potsdam is the area around Am Kanal and Fischerstrasse, close to the island in the Havel where it runs southwards from the Tiefer See. Here was the earliest Slavonic fishing settlement.

When the town became an important administrative centre for the Hohenzollerns it was enclosed with a city wall. Several of the original city gates (reconstructed) are still in evidence. They bear the names of the German towns where roads out of Potsdam led: the Brandenburger Tor (1770), the Jägertor (1733) and the Nauener Tor (1755).

The baroque town centre is organised round a number of squares. The Platz der Einheit (Unity Square, earlier Wilhelmplatz) has a mock baroque post office in the south-east corner, to its north was the synagogue. Further north again lies Bassinplatz with the first catholic church in the town, the Peter-Paul Church, modelled on the campanile of the Sam Zeno Maggiore in Verona, and the French Church, designed ny Knobelsdorff as a copy of the Pantheon in Rome.

To the South-east of the square, the Old Market leads to the Nikolaikirche, a domed neo-classical building designed by Schinkel with an interior displaying painted events from the New Testament.

Opposite the church, the former Palladian Townhall adorned with a statue of Atlas holding a golden globe aloft is eye-catching and of interest not least because of its history. The circular tower served as the town prison till 1875. 10 years later the building became a bank; in the DDR it was transformed into a cultural centre. The obelisk in front of the building was designed by Knobelsdorff and depicts the four architects who were resposible for so many of Potsdam's buildings: Knobelsdorff, Schinkel, Perseus and Gontard.

Other sights of note in the centre include a wonderful row of Baroque city houses in Yorckstrasse, the Kabinetthaus on the New Market - the palace where Frederick William II was born, the Marstall (the former orangerie then royal stables) which now houses Potsdam's film museum, and not least the Pumphouse designed by Perseus to drive the fountains in Sanssouci which is built in the shape of an oriental mosque with minaret.

The Dutch Quarter is one of the most striking areas of the town, boasting a remarkable collection of 128 red-brick, high gabled Dutch terraced houses built around 1740.These were erected to house Dutch engineers invited by Frederick William I to assist, in their role as water specialists, with canalisation in Potsdam and the surrounding area. Potsdam (like Berlin) is predominantly flat with sand and clay soil, and drainage posed regular problems. The houses, with their high stepped rooves, are in the process of restoration and this area of the town is moving upmarket rapidly.


To the east of Potsdam lies the suburb of Babelsberg. It was here that the largest film studio in Europe grew up in the 1920s, the famous UFA Studios. Here films like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and The Blue Angel, and Wiene's The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari were shot, actresses like Marlene Dietrich and directors like FW Pabst worked, before they fled the Nazis, many moving to Hollywood. Under the Thrid Reich the studios were used to shoot many anti-semitic propaganda films, and under the Communist regime the state production company DEFA was based here.

Nowadays the site is the base for many smaller independant film and TV production companies, as well as hosting foreign film productions - recently the remake of Stalingrad was shot here. It also offers a Film Theme Park, with collections of sets, properties, costumes and models from the early days of the film industry, and a virtual 3D ride.

Babelsberg's other sights include a 19th century Telegraph Station which has been converted into an astronomical observatory with a 1920 observation tower where Einstein carried out some of his experiments into the Theory of Relativity, and the Park Babelsberg with its palace, a mock-gothic fantasy by Schinkel and the Matrosenhaus (sailors' house) for the men who sailed the royal barges along the rivers and canals that surround Potsdam.

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