The Hidden History of a Fairy Tale Land

By Ruben Alexander

GERMANY – Just like royal families other countries built their residences just outside their capitals, the kings and queens of Prussia chose to build their permanent residence in a town just west of Berlin called Potsdam. Bombed in WW2 and separated from West Berlin by the Iron Curtain afterwards, many things have happened there since Germany became a republic in 1918. But Potsdam (population: +/- 175,000) and its surroundings seems to be slowly erasing this very real part of its history and are returning to being the fairy-tale setting designed by romantic painters that it once was.

At least that was my impression after I went for a walk around the Glienicker Laake and Tiefer See (with the co founder of WPP), only knowing about the history of the shores of that exact lake because I happened to have read half a book about it. It’s hard to imagine the landscape we walked through being bombed, overrun by armies and criss-crossed by an ugly wall that shut a big city off from the world.

Part 1: Glienicke

We parked the car on Wannseestraße, in a small part of Potsdam sandwiched between the north bank of the Tiefer See and the upmarket Berlin neighbourhood of Wannsee:

1. Wannseestraße

One of a number of Schweizerhäuser (‘Swiss Houses’) that, inspired by the work of various romantic poets, were built to go with the artificial cliffs that adorn the Böttcherberg, a hill that rises between the Glienicker Lake and Wannsee:

2. Waldmüllerstraße

The village of Klein-Glienicke was cut in half by the Berlin wall during the cold war. The village church was in the east…

3. Wilhelm-Leuschner-Straße

… while the first of many castles we saw, Jagdschloss Glienicke, was just in the west:

4. Jagdschloss Glienicke

Glienicker Lake, which is connected to Tiefer See, one of many lakes along the course of the Havel river. This picture was taken in what was once West Berlin, and the wall used to follow the opposite shoreline. During the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of West Berlin, one aeroplane full of food or coal would fly low over the lake every four minutes as it came in to land at the nearby British air base in Gatow. Babelsberg Palace, which I will show you from close by at the end of this post, is visible on the opposite bank:

5. Glienicker Lake
6. Glienicker Lake

A few hundred meters to the north west, Glienicker Brücke (seen here from the Potsdam end), also known as the Bridge of Spies, is where the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged hundreds of captured spies between 1962 and 1986:

7. Glienicker Brücke
8. Glienicker Lake

Glienicker Lake and the 212 meter-high Fernmeldeturm Berlin, which was built between 1961 and 1964 to enable communication between West Berlin and West Germany:

9. Glienicker Lake

Part 2: Potsdam

Walking into Potsdam along Berliner Straße, a street that runs parallel to the Tiefer See:

10. Berliner Straße
11. Berliner Straße

It didn’t take long for us to reach Potsdam’s main square, Alten Markt, which was thoroughly renovated in the 1990’s as part of a plan to restore the city center to “something that approaches the pre-war situation” (according to Wikipedia).

12. Alten Markt
13. Alten Markt

According to Wikipedia, the East German government did their best to remove all remaining symbols of “Prussian militarism” after WW2, and people I know told me that many of the remaining historic buildings were badly neglected as well. But some things seem contradictory: the Church of St. Nicholas (St. Nikolaikirche) in the middle of the main square, which was originally built in the first half of the 19th century, was reconstructed in 1981, in the middle of the G.D.R. period. Reconstruction of the city continues around the church, and new old buildings will soon hide the typical G.D.R. plattebau on the left:

14. Friedrich-Ebert-Straße

I imagine most of the buildings in the surrounding streets are original though:

15. Yorckstraße

The Church of St. Nicholas and the newly re-dug Alter Stadtkanal:

16. Yorckstraße

Some more typical streets in central Potsdam:

17. Bäckerstraße
18. Lindenstraße

Though central Potsdam is old and low rise, there are many typical plattenbauten from the G.D.R. just south of the center:

19. Schopenhauerstraße

To give you slightly more of an impression of Potsdam’s city center, I’ll share with you some pictures of the only other time I made pictures there, which was during a holiday in Berlin on April 9th 2016. As you can see, most of Potsdam is quite picturesque, and I’m not even showing any of the main sights here. These include: Sanssouci Palace (the main residence of the Prussian kings), Potsdam’s own Brandenburger Tor (which I always say is bigger than the one in Berlin, which it’s not, just to annoy Berliners), the Dutch Quarter (which, being Dutch myself, doesn’t quite look Dutch), the Russian Quarter or the futuristic Einstein Tower from 1924.

20. Gutenbergstraße/Jägerstraße

Nauener Tor, one of Potsdam’s three remaining of city gates:

21. Friedrich-Ebert-Straße

Peter-und-Paul-Kirche, which was completed in 1870 and renovated in 1950 (again contradicting that the East Germans demolished and neglected everything):

22. Peter-und-Paul-Kirche

Walking out of town on the street to the station:

23. Breite Straße

The site where the Garrison Church (Garnisonkirche) stood before it was bombed in WW2. There are plans to reconstruct the church, but these have been put on hold due to both financial (the money could also go to restoration of damaged heritage) and ideological (related to the religious or non religious use of the building) controversy. The building in the background is actually only a facade with parking lots directly behind it:

24. Breite Straße

New buildings on the other side of the street:

25. Breite Straße

Rechenzentrum Potsdam, or Potsdam Calculation Center, which now houses an arts center on a parcel of land next to where the Garrison Church once stood. Though I think the building itself is horrible, I’m sure many people (including myself) hope that the mosaic depicting various aspects of the socialist economy (including space exploration) will be preserved:

26. Breite Straße
27. Breite Straße
28. Breite Straße
29. Breite Straße

Back to 2019, a fair on the square in front of the Brandenburg state parliament:

30. Breite Straße

Turning left before we reached Potsdam Central Station (which is situated in a rather ugly modern shopping mall), we followed the Alte Fahrt, a canal seperated from the Havel by the Freundschaftsinsel (‘Friendship Island’). The tower is part of an old-people’s home called Residenz Heilig-Geist-Park:

31. Alte Fahrt

Part 3: Park Babelsberg

Wanting a residence of his own like his brothers and sisters, Prince William of Prussia received a “limited budget” from his father King Frederick William III to have Babelsberg Palace and its park built in the first half of the nineteenth century. His plans were supported by Prussian Garden Director-General Peter Joseph Lenné, who thought it fitted into his plan to turn the area around Potsdam into an “artistic synthesis” (thanks Wikipedia). The palace itself was designed by Romantic painter and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Everything about Park Babelsberg is in line with the thinking of the artists of the Romantic era, who, nostalgic for the past in a rapidly industrialising world, envisioned the world as an idealised version of the middle ages.

Lack of funds would later force the Hohenzollerns (the Prussian royal family) to sell parcels of land to rich civilians who built summer houses and villas there. During the cold war, a double line of walls and fences cut the park of from the lake. The area was also heavily patrolled, and bored Soviet soldiers vandalised and burned the palace and other buildings in the years immediately after WW2. The area has since been restored to its former glory and included in the UNESCO World-Heritage site ‘Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin’. When walking through Park Babelsberg today, it is as if 50 years of its history never took place.

Park Babelsberg is not to be confused with Filmpark Babelsberg, the film studio that was founded on the other side of the hill in 1912, making it the oldest large-scale film studio in the world.

About a kilometer and a half up the Havel from where the last picture was taken, the Tiefer See and Park Babelsberg seen from the Humboldtbrücke:

32. Humboldtbrücke

The Berliner Vorstadt, though which we walked into Potsdam earlier that day, is just visible on the other side of the lake:

33. Park Babelsberg

A house near the entrance of the park:

34. Park Babelsberg

The Flatowturm (Flatow Tower), which was inspired by the medieval Eschenheimer Turm in Frankfurt am Main:

35. Park Babelsberg

One of many Gerichtslaube in park Babelsberg. Wikipedia defines a Gerichtslaube as ‘a planned but medieval-looking court building’. It is similar to the English word ‘folly’:

36. Park Babelsberg
37. Park Babelsberg

Park Babelsberg is a popular hangout for young people from Potsdam and Berlin on pleasant days like this. I could almost guess where people come from by the music they were listening to: the horrendous German rap that you hear all over Berlin and the equally awful hardcore techno that I can imagine is popular in the former East Germany (48% of people under the age of 15 have a non-German background in Berlin, while Potsdam is largely German, with a minority of immigrants from countries in the former Eastern Block):

38. Park Babelsberg
39. Park Babelsberg
40. Park Babelsberg

Glienicker Bridge again:

41. Park Babelsberg
42. Park Babelsberg
43. Park Babelsberg

Babelsberg Palace:

44. Park Babelsberg
45. Park Babelsberg
46. Park Babelsberg

The steam-powered pumping house that was built to provide water for the irrigation of the park. The the tower contains the chimney:

47. Park Babelsberg
48. Park Babelsberg

Glienicker Lake and Jagdschloss Glienicke (on the other side of the lake), which we passed at the beginning of our walk:

49. Park Babelsberg
50. Park Babelsberg

Having almost reached the car, I will leave you with a picture of the sun setting over the Glienicker Lake. This picture was taken from a bridge over the westernmost part of the Teltow canal, which runs close to the house I lived in from August 2018 to February 2019:

51. Park Babelsberg

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This entry was posted in Berlin, Brandenburg, Germany, Potsdam, Steglitz-Zehlendorf

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