Potsdam: Past and Present

With vestiges of Cold War espionage, Soviet rule and World War II, Potsdam, Germany’s compelling history is unmatched By: Jim Calio
Castle Hotel Cecilienhof was the home of the Potsdam conference in 1945.  // © 2010 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Castle Hotel Cecilienhof was the home of the Potsdam conference in 1945.  // © 2010 Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

The Details

German National Tourist Board

Potsdam, located an hour’s drive south of Berlin, was the scene of one of the most important events at the end of World War II. It was there that the Big Three — the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union — met, carved up a defeated Germany and set the tone for the Cold War that followed. It was not necessarily a friendly meeting and, when it was over, the fate of war-torn Europe had been sealed for decades to come.

I was reminded of this when I stayed at the Castle Hotel Cecilienhof on a recent visit to Potsdam. It was there, in the high-ceilinged conference room, that the meetings took place. You can try to imagine what it must have been like. The round conference table still sits in the middle of the room, with the flags of the three countries displayed on a stand in the middle.

Outside, in the garden adjoining the conference room, there is a stark reminder of the fact that this part of Germany was once under Soviet control. There is a large red star in the garden and, from a bird's-eye-view, it stands out against the red roof and country-style architecture of the hotel.

But there are many other reasons to visit Potsdam, and much of it has to do with what happened before World War II. Potsdam was once the playground of the Prussian kings. The huge Sanssouci Palace was built by Frederick the Great as a private getaway from the cares and woes of the capital. In later years, the area became a refuge for rich Berliners, who built some of grandest homes to be found in Germany. Such architects as Mies van der Rohe and Hermann Muthesius lent their talents to the design and construction of mansions along the city’s banks.

Today, Potsdam, fully restored to its former glory, is one of the most expensive areas to live in the former East Germany. There are still distinct areas of the city, the Dutch quarter, the Russian colony of Alexandrovka and the pricey Babelsberg enclave, all distinguished by their unique architecture.

Potsdam is also a popular destination for filmmaking. Such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang worked at Studio Babelsberg, and many actors and directors built homes nearby. More recently Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy film, “Inglorious Basterds,” was filmed here. Visitors can tour the Babelsberg Film Park which includes an original film set and, perhaps, get a sneak peek at a current movie in production. Next year will be designated as “Potsdam 2011 — City of Film,” and special city tours, exhibitions and an evening of espionage on film complete with a stunt show will offered.

Visitors to Potsdam will also see reminders of espionage in the Cold War, which ended with the reunification of Germany after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. For example, the more than 300-year-old Glienicke Bridge was the scene of many real-life spy swaps. It was there that the Soviets and the U.S. met face to face when making prisoner exchanges, a scene recounted in many spy movies and novels.

But for me, the lure of Potsdam — aside from the lovely lakes and beautiful parks, many of which are recognized by UNESCO — is the chance to imagine what history was like when the world’s fate was decided in the Cecilienhof conference room.

Late one afternoon, I took a walk out to nearby Lake Jungfernsee and, sipping a cup of coffee, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be there. As the light faded, I would swear I heard the ghosts of that time speaking off in the distance. Or, maybe, it was just the whisper of the wind.

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