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Potsdam: the sights of the Brandenburg’s capital

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Potsdam
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The city of Potsdam in Germany is the former residence of the Prussian kings and the capital of the federal state of Brandenburg. Potsdam is essentially a suburb of Berlin: the distance from the German capital to Potsdam is only 20 kilometres. Potsdam is located on the banks of the river Havel, stretching over a plain with numerous lakes. About 70% of the city is covered by greenery. Potsdam is considered a small city; its population is only slightly more than 180,000 people. Potsdam is known as a city of palaces and gardens. Since 1990, the city’s cultural urban landscape has been included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

A Slavic settlement and a trading town. The history of Potsdam began in the 10th century with the founding of a Slavic settlement Poztupimi. The first mention of the settlement dates back to 993, when Holy Roman Emperor Otto III donated this land to the Quedlinburg Abbey. Potsdam received city status in 1345. However, even in 1573 it remained a small trading town with a population of about 2,000 people. Approximately half of the city was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).

The royal residence. The fate of Potsdam changed in 1660, when it became the hunting residence of Frederick William I, Elector of Brandenburg (often called the Great Elector for his numerous achievements during his rule). In 1685, he issued the Edict of Potsdam, encouraging French Huguenots to relocate to Potsdam. About 20,000 persecuted Huguenots took advantage of the Great Elector’s invitation.

Subsequently, Potsdam became the residence of the Prussian royal family. The majestic buildings and palaces were mainly built during the reign of Frederick the Great. The Sanssouci Palace and its homonymous park are famous for their English gardens and Rococo interiors.

The Potsdam conference. Potsdam was badly damaged during the Second World War. In just one day, on 14 April 1945, the Allies used 500 planes to drop 1,750 tons of bombs on the city. More than 850 houses along with the City Palace fell into ruins. However, miraculously the city’s numerous castles and gardens remained almost unscathed. At the end of April 1945, Potsdam was taken by the forces of the first Belarusian front under the command of Georgy Zhukov. The city is known all over the world as the site of the Potsdam Conference. The conference took place in Potsdam in July—August 1945. Potsdam was part of the GDR.

The Sanssouci Palace and Park (Schloss und Park Sanssouci)

The Sanssouci Palace (Schloss Sanssouci)
Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

The Sanssouci Palace (Schloss Sanssouci)

Sanssouci was the favourite residence of the Prussian King Frederick the Great. It is often called the «Prussian Versailles.» This is perhaps the most famous landmark of Potsdam and a symbol of the city. The palace was built on a hilltop surrounded by vineyards in 1745–1747 according to the sketches the king himself had done. The construction was led by his close friend, the architect Georg von Knobelsdorff, the founder of the Frederician Rococo style.

Sanssouci was considered the king’s personal palace and was not intended for representative purposes. In times of peace, Frederick II lived there from late April to early October. It was a summer residence, where the king rested and indulged in his favourite pastimes — philosophy, music and painting. Sanssouci was a palace «sans femmes» — without women. To placate his wife Elisabeth Christine after this decision, Frederick granted her the Schönhausen Palace of Brunswick near Berlin.

There is the Picture Gallery of Sanssouci near the palace. Its construction was commissioned by Frederick the Great, who was an avid art collector. The majority of the gallery’s works are those of Renaissance artists such as Rubens, Titian, Van Dyck, Watteau and Caravaggio.

The last will and testament of Frederick the Great. Long before the palace’s construction, Frederick ordered a burial chamber to be built on the uppermost terrace of the hill, where he should have been buried. One day, during his stroll along the terrace, he pointed to the place and said: «Only here I will be without worries.» Supposedly, that was the reason behind the inscription «Sans souci», which was placed on the palace. «Sans souci» is a French phrase, which means «without worries.»

The Old Fritz, as Frederick was called by the people, died on 17 August 1786 at the Sanssouci Palace. In his will, he wished to be buried in Sanssouci on the upper terrace next to his beloved dogs. However, his nephew and successor Frederick William II did not comply with these instructions and ordered Frederick the Great to be buried in the Potsdam garrison church next to his father, Frederick William I. The garrison church was destroyed in 1945. Luckily, a couple of years before that, the remains of the Prussian kings were relocated to an underground bunker, and were kept in Marburg as well as the Hohenzollern Castle in Baden-Württemberg after the war.

Exactly 205 years after the death of Frederick the Great, his last will was finally fulfilled — on 17 August 1991, the king’s remains were reburied in Sanssouci in a grave prepared by his order back in 1744. On Frederick’s tombstone, local residents often leave potatoes as a token of gratitude. After all, it was Frederick the Great who introduced this vegetable to the 18th-century peasants, which later saved them from hunger more than once.

The Sanssouci Park (Park Sanssouci)

The Sanssouci Park (Park Sanssouci)
Mike Mareen / Shutterstock

This is the most famous of the seven parks of Potsdam. On an area of almost 300 hectares, there are lots of palaces and churches, orchards and rose gardens, fountains and sculptures. By order of Frederick the Great, vineyard terraces were laid here in 1744. The park’s main alley is 2.5 kilometres long and connects Sanssouci Palace with the New Palace. A staircase of 132 steps is laid through the terraces and vineyards, connecting the Sanssouci Palace with its park.

A lot of landmarks appeared in the Sanssouci Park under King Frederick’s rule. Among them are the New Palace, the Picture Gallery of Sanssouci, the Chinese House, the Neptune Grotto, the Temple of Friendship, the Antique Temple and the Belvedere on Mount Klausberg. Frederick William IV later added more buildings to the Sanssouci Park and the adjacent Charlottenhof Park. Those include the Charlottenhof Palace, the Roman Baths, the Orangery Palace on Mount Clausberg and the Friedenskirche with a burial vault, in which many representatives of the royal dynasty are buried.

The New Palace (Neues Palais)

The New Palace (Neues Palais)
Mistervlad / Shutterstock

The New Palace was built by order of Frederick the Great after the end of the Seven Years’ War to demonstrate the greatness, strength and wealth of Prussia. This luxurious palace in the Prussian Baroque style was used by the king exclusively for representative purposes. As such, lavish receptions and balls were often held here. Frederick preferred Rococo and Baroque to the Neoclassical style, which dominated Europe at that time.

The New Palace is located in the western part of the Sanssouci Park on the opposite side of the Brandenburg Gate of Potsdam. This is the largest palace in Potsdam. It has over 200 rooms, four ceremonial halls and a Rococo theatre. Interestingly, there was no royal box in the theatre; Frederick liked to sit in the third row. More than 400 sculptures of ancient gods adorn the facade and roof balustrade. The dome (with a height of 55 metres) depicts Three Graces — Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia — supporting the crown of Prussia and symbolising beauty, joy and abundance. For its grandiose size and rich decor, Frederick called the palace «Fanfaronade», which means «boastfulness.»

There is a square in front of the palace, where various ceremonial events and military parades have been held. The Communs housed the servants’ living quarters; they were made to resemble the Grand Commun at the Palace of Versailles. Later, a room for the guardsmen was attached to the building. After the Second World War, the Brandenburg College was opened within the walls of the Communs. Today these are the campuses of the University of Potsdam.

The Chinese House (Chinesisches Haus)

The Chinese House (Chinesisches Haus)
Mistervlad / Shutterstock

The Chinese House in the Sanssouci Park is an exquisite example of park architecture of the 18th century. The garden pavilion was designed by the court architect Johann Gottfried Büring. Now it is considered one of the most beautiful pavilions in Europe. The Chinese House has the cloverleaf shape: three rooms adjoin the round hall in the centre with open verandas in-between. The house displays a royal collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain.

The Chinese House was built according to the sketches of Frederick the Great in 1754–1757 at the peak of Chinese fashion. The monarch fell in love with that style and later ordered the construction of a pagoda-style building in the neighbourhood — the Dragon House.

Chinese fashion came to Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when Dutch merchants established maritime trade with China. At that time, Chinese cabinets appeared in many European palaces and castles, upholstered in silk and filled with porcelain and elegant figurines from the Celestial Empire.

The Temple of Friendship (Freundschaftstempel)

The Temple of Friendship (Freundschaftstempel)
Mistervlad / Shutterstock

The Temple of Friendship was built by order of Frederick II in memory of his beloved sister Wilhelmina of Prussia, «the patroness of fine arts», ten years after her death. In the niche of the semicircular arch, there is a life-size marble statue of the margravine, holding a book in her hands.

An elegant rotunda was erected in 1768 near the New Palace, designed by the architect Karl von Gontard. The architecture of the building followed the style of the temples of Ancient Greece. The Temple of Friendship forms a beautiful architectural composition together with the Antique Temple, which was built at the same time.

The historic mill of Sanssouci (Historische Mühle von Sanssouci)

The historic mill of Sanssouci (Historische Mühle von Sanssouci)
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The historic mill appeared under Frederick II’s father, Frederick William I, when the Dutch arrived in Potsdam. In 1739, one of them built a mill thus deciding to settle away from the Dutch quarter and closer to nature. When Frederick II began the construction of the Sanssouci Palace, he found that the mill was «spoiling» the beautiful view of the park; additionally, Frederick was annoyed by its noise. Initially, the monarch tried to buy the mill, but his offer was refused. So he gave an order to demolish the mill.

Legend has it that the Dutchman did the unheard-of — he sued the king. More than that, to everyone’s surprise, he even won the case! Frederick had no choice but to accept. Later the king even fell in love with the mill. In his last will, Frederick wished to be buried in front of the Sanssouci Palace, with a condition that the mill should be seen.

Since then, the mill has been rebuilt twice. The first time was after the death of Frederick II. Then, during the battles for Potsdam in 1945, the mill burned down. It was rebuilt in 1993 for the second time.

The Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel)

The Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel)
Mistervlad / Shutterstock

The Prussian king Frederick William I invited the best Dutch masters to work in Potsdam; a Dutch Quarter was built in the city in 1733–1740 to house them. The work was carried out under the guidance of one of the first settlers, the architect Jan Bauman. A total of 134 red brick houses were built in the quarter. Their typical Dutch architecture distinguishes them from the rest of the city. At the entrance to the Dutch Quarter there is the Nauen Gate (Nauener Tor), which is the old city gate of Potsdam. The gate’s sketches were made by King Frederick the Great.

Now the Dutch Quarter is home to various fashion and antique shops, souvenir boutiques, popular restaurants and cosy cafes. The authentic atmosphere of Holland has been carefully preserved. In the spring, the Tulip Festival is held here, and in the fall, the Dutch Pottery Fair opens. Before Christmas, Sinterklaas — the Dutch Santa Claus — solemnly enters the quarter.

The Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)

The Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor)
Mistervlad / Shutterstock

The Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam is a triumphal arch, built in 1770 by order of King Frederick the Great in honour of the victory in the Seven Years’ War. In truth, it was the Russian Emperor Peter III, who saved Prussia by concluding a separate peace with Frederick, his old idol.

The gate was inspired by the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam has two different facades; this is due to the fact that two architects worked on the gate. Carl von Gontard designed the facade facing the city, while his student Georg Christian Unger designed the outer facade. Interestingly, the Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam is 18 years older than the famous Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Alexandrowka, the Russian Colony (Russische Kolonie Alexandrowka)

Alexandrowka, the Russian Colony (Russische Kolonie Alexandrowka)
ARK NEYMAN / Shutterstock

By order of the Prussian King Frederick William III, the Russian colony Alexandrowka was founded in 1827 honouring the friendship with the Russian Emperor Alexander I. It was a small settlement in the north of Potsdam, consisting of 14 wooden houses and a stone church. The construction of the colony was completed two years after the death of Alexander I, after whom it was named.

The houses were built for the singers of the Russian soldiers’ choir who served in the Prussian army. They were captured by the French back in 1812 and remained in Potsdam, because Prussia was in alliance with Napoleon at that time. The choir of Russian prisoners of war sang for Frederick William III in his military camp. After a new alliance between Russia and Prussia and the subsequent victory over Napoleon, Alexander I allowed the soldiers’ choir to stay in Prussia.

The project of the colony resembles the St. Andrew’s cross: the territory is diagonally crossed by two main streets. The houses’ facades are decorated with balconies and lace wood carvings. They were built in the image of Slavic countryside log huts called izba. Nowadays, only one remaining descendant of the original settlers lives in Alexandrowka — Joachim Grigoriev.

The Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church is located on the nearby hill. It is a white and pink building with 5 domes, erected in the late Empire style. The construction of the church was carried out at the expense of the Russian treasury and personal donations of Emperor Nicholas I.

The Church of St. Nicholas (St. Nikolaikirche)

The Church of St. Nicholas (St. Nikolaikirche)
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The Church of St. Nicholas is an Evangelical church, which is located on the Old Market Square. It is one of the main attractions of Potsdam and the largest church in the city.

The monumental neoclassical building took decades to build. In 1826, the Prussian King Frederick William III commissioned the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to develop a project for a new church on the site of the old one, which had burned down during repairs. Schinkel, inspired by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, decided to create a church with a large dome.

In 1830, Schinkel’s student Ludwig Persius took over the project. After the death of Schinkel, he made some additions to the original plan. In 1845, after Persius’ death, the construction was continued by Friedrich August Stüler. The construction of a grandiose dome was completed only in 1850.

During the Second World War, the church of St. Nicholas was heavily damaged. The building’s reconstruction lasted several decades. The re-consecration took place in 1981, when the church was finally restored to its original form.

The Charlottenhof Palace (Schloss Charlottenhof)

The Charlottenhof Palace (Schloss Charlottenhof)
Sanga Park / Shutterstock

The Charlottenhof Palace was the former summer residence of Crown Prince Frederick William, who became King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1840. In 1825, the Prussian King Frederick William III bought the manor and parks south of Sanssouci as a Christmas present for his son, Crown Prince Frederick William and his wife Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria.

The Charlottenhof Palace was built in 1829 by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the Classical style. Schinkel was assisted by his student Ludwig Persius. The project drew inspiration from ancient Roman villas. Crown Prince Frederick William personally participated in its design, making sketches himself. The decorations were designed in white and blue colours, resembling the flag of Bavaria — the birthplace of Crown Princess Elisabeth. Ten halls of the palace have been preserved in their original form to this day, along with the original furniture, made according to Schinkel’s sketches.

Unlike many other palaces, Charlottenhof is not named after some Prussian princess. The history of its name is rather simple. The palace was constructed on the foundation of the estate, which was located there previously. The owner of said estate was Maria Charlotte von Gentzkov, the wife of the Sanssouci Palace’s chamberlain. The castle and park were named after Maria Charlotte. Charlottenhof Park is an English landscape park. Garden architect Peter Joseph Lenn managed to skilfully connect the Charlottenhof park with the old Sanssouci park.

Not far from Charlottenhof, another complex was built according to the project of Schinkel — the Roman Baths (Die Römische Bäder). The interiors of the building resemble the houses of ancient Pompeii.

The Babelsberg Palace (Schloss Babelsberg)

The Babelsberg Palace (Schloss Babelsberg)
Pani Garmyder / Shutterstock

The Babelsberg Palace is a neo-Gothic building that for more than half a century served as the summer residence of William I, the crown prince and later the King of Prussia and the first Emperor of the German Empire.

The palace was built in the middle of the 19th century in the Tudor (or English late Gothic) style. The project was developed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and continued after his death by his student Ludwig Persius. William’s wife, Augusta, the daughter of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, and niece of the Russian Emperor Alexander I, insisted on the construction of the neo-Gothic palace.

Augusta took an active part in the palace’s design and often argued with architects who insisted on giving the palace a more austere look. After the death of Persius, the new architect Johann Heinrich Strack finalised the project in accordance with the tastes of Augusta, adding a variety of turrets and decor. The Little Palace, the Sailor’s House, the Court Arbour, the Flatow Tower and the steam-powered pump house (Dampfmaschinenhaus) in the style of a fortress with battlements and turrets are located on the territory of the Babelsberg Park.

In 1862, amidst a constitutional crisis, a historic meeting between King William I and the Prussian diplomat Otto von Bismarck took place in Babelsberg. The next day, the king appointed Bismarck the prime minister (minister-president) of Prussia.

The Cecilienhof Palace (Schloss Cecilienhof)

The Cecilienhof Palace (Schloss Cecilienhof)
Seqoya / Shutterstock

Cecilienhof is the last residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The palace is also famous all over the world as the site of the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

The Cecilienhof Palace was built by the Emperor William II for his son, the last German Crown Prince William and his wife Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the great-granddaughter of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I, and the daughter of Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna. The palace was named in honour of the charming princess Cecilie.

Cecilienhof was built in 1917 beside a picturesque lake with a romantic name Jungfernsee, which means «Maiden’s Lake.» The most beautiful place in Potsdam was chosen for the palace — the New Garden (Neuer Garten). The palace was surrounded by countless gardens and was always full of flowers. The crown prince’s family lived in the palace until the beginning of 1945.

The palace was built in the style of British manors; its decorative elements were made of dark oak. The Tudor-style palace has 176 rooms and 55 chimneys on the roof, each one completely different from the other. Only some of those chimneys are functional, many of them are simply decorations.

The rooms in which the Potsdam Conference has taken place are preserved unchanged. In the Great Hall, where Stalin, Truman and Churchill have been negotiating, there is still a huge round table with a diameter of 3 metres. The table was produced at the Soviet factory specifically for this event. In the courtyard, in front of the main entrance, there is still a well-groomed flower bed, made in 1945 in the shape of a five-pointed red star. The Cecilienhof Palace now houses the Potsdam Conference Museum and a luxury hotel. Visitors can also see the private quarters of Crown Prince William and his wife.

The international conference in Potsdam

The international conference in Potsdam
Edward Haylan / Shutterstock

The Potsdam Conference was the last meeting of the Anti-Hitler coalition’s leaders (the Soviet Union, United States and United Kingdom). The conference took place in 1945, from 17 July to 2 August, in the Cecilienhof Palace — the last residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty. The leaders of the Big Three — Stalin, Truman, Churchill and later Attlee — discussed the principles of post-war peace and security in Europe.

The central topic of the conference was the fate of Germany. In order for the country to no longer pose any danger in the post-war world, it was decided to break its military potential. The Allies soon agreed on the Four Ds: demilitarisation, denazification, democratisation and decentralisation of Germany. This meant the disarmament and liquidation of the country’s military industry, the prohibition of all Nazi organisations and laws, the restoration of multi-party elections and the creation of self-government bodies throughout the country, as well as the payment of reparations and the trial of war criminals.

At the Potsdam Conference, the question of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war with Japan was discussed. The Soviet authorities confirmed the promise to oppose Japan, given at the Yalta Conference. The Soviet delegation suggested giving East German lands to Poland, while Königsberg with its adjacent territories was ceded to the Soviet Union. The Allies also discussed the peace settlement with the countries that fought on the side of Germany — Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Finland.

The meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam, which took place after the conferences in Tehran and Yalta, was not originally conceived as the last one. The Allies had many plans regarding the rebuilding of the world. There were preparations for the final peace conference. However, that was not destined to happen. The defeat of the common enemy led to a new confrontation between the former allies, eventually leading to the Cold War.

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