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  • Meirion Harries

DAY EIGHT The Meaning of Sanssouci

Now I am crossing the river out of the old West Berlin zone from Wannsee to Potsdam across the Glienicke Bridge. On this bridge, at the boundary of the American sector, is where spies- like Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot shot down by the Russians - were exchanged.

Over the bridge and into Potsdam - scene of some remarkable meetings. At the Garrison Church in 1933, the President of the Reich, von Hindenburg, shook hands with his new Reichskanzler, Adolf Hitler, symbolising the "marriage of the old grandeur and new power"; Hindenburg then laid a wreath at the tomb of Frederick the Great.

And here, twelve years and seventy-five million deaths later, Stalin, Truman and Churchill met to settle Germany's fate. The French weren't invited. The Allies intended to denazify and democratise Germany and ensure that it would not be able to remilitarise. Germany's land area, as it had been in 1937, was reduced by 25% by bringing in its eastern borders, with an “orderly and humane” expulsion of Germans from the forfeit territories. The economy was propelled into pacifism by destroying heavy industry and shipyards and shifting the emphasis on to agriculture and peaceful domestic industries. Exports now were to be "coal, beer, toys, textiles, etc.” There was no urge to make the pips squeak. The reason the Allies convened in Potsdam was to exploit the national symbolism of the city. Potsdam has always belonged to Frederick the Great.


Frederick ruled over Prussia from 1740 until his death in 1786. He was a brilliant military theorist and leader: he freed Prussia from Austrian oppression and built a military machine that was supreme in Europe. A century later, the Choshu han in Japan would choose the Prussian military system as their model to replace the samurai caste. The modernising Japanese also chose the Prussian educational system as their model and, to this day, Japanese schoolboys wear a uniform based on the Prussian Waffenrock or 'weapon-tunic'. But for naval warfare, the Japanese chose the Royal Navy as their template: we built their ships and trained their sailors and won them victory over the Russian Imperial Fleet in 1905. Frederick's father's highest ambition was for him to be a great soldier: but Frederick became much more than that. He was extremely well-read. As a boy, against his father's wishes, he conspired with his tutor to acquire a library of 2,000 books. Frederick was fluent in French: in fact, he said he disliked the German language because it piles “parenthesis upon parenthesis, and often you find only at the end of an entire page the verb on which depends the meaning of the whole sentence". He was a gifted flute player and wrote flute sonatas and military marches. One of his court musicians was C. P. E. Bach and when C.P.E's father, J.S, came to visit Frederick asked him to improvise a three-part fugue on one of the new fortepianos he was collecting. Frederick was so impressed that he then played to Bach a very complicated theme and challenged him to improvise a six-part fugue. Bach demurred but said he would write it later – and it became The Musical Offering. Schoenberg's view was that C.P.E. had written the theme at Frederick's request “as a well-prepared trap to embarrass J S Bach” Though an autocratic ruler, Frederick was nevertheless extraordinarily enlightened: he thought of himself as a philosopher-king. He made the state bureaucracy efficient and reformed the judiciary: now men who were not from the aristocracy could enter these professions. There was freedom of the press and he encouraged the arts and philosophy. Religious difference was tolerated (except for Roman Catholics in West Prussia) and he actively sought foreign immigration to Prussia – and 300,000 came: he called it Peuplierungspolitik ('population policy'). The Jews he allowed to build a synagogue in Potsdam (destroyed by the Nazis) and, for the Dutch immigrants, he had a Dutch architect build a Dutch-style quarter of Potsdam in brick (which still exists). This drive to encourage immigration was closely connected with Frederick's strategy for land development. He drained swamps and opened new land for the immigrants to farm. As he said to Voltaire (who lived with him for a while), "Whoever improves the soil, cultivates land lying waste and drains swamps, is making conquests from barbarism". In all respects, Frederick was, as he put it, "the first servant of the state" and was admired all over Germany – not least by Goethe: “when we looked towards the north, from there shone Frederick, the Pole Star, around whom Germany, Europe, even the world seemed to turn”. You can see the subtlety of his mind at work in Sanssouci Park. This was his playground – a collection of small buildings of single story height (until the Neue Palace was built as a triumphal monument to victory in the Seven Years War), including the Palace of Sanssouci itself. Frederick wanted a place where he could escape the Court in Berlin and live 'without worries' – an ambition that may have a hidden meaning.



He wanted somewhere for himself and his private guests and Sanssouci has only 10 main rooms. He drew the design himself – in a style known as Frederician Rococo and called the palace "mein Weinberghäuschen" ("my vineyard cottage"), built as it was at the top of a vineyard slope. Hitler was a huge fan of Frederick the Great. And there is a wonderful irony in this because Frederick was homosexual. After a dispiriting defeat on the battlefield, Frederick wrote: "Fortune has it in for me; she is a woman, and I am not that way inclined." His first recorded lover was one of his father's page-boys; it was an affair which hardly fitted the uber-masculine ethos of the Court, and it was ended by his father sending the page off to a distant regiment. The story of his second lover is more tragic: he was Frederick's tutor and Frederick's father had him executed and made Frederick stand and watch. His circle of friends at Sanssouci were exclusively male: in The Private Life of the King of Prussia, Voltaire wrote in detail of Frederick's homosexuality and one of Hogarth's cartoons suggests the same. Perhaps it was this one particular version of life without cares - sexual freedom - that was the point of Sanssouci. Here is a guided tour of Sanssouci: https://youtu.be/1zej_NnKWkw And here is a sanssouci song sung by Bob Marley: https://youtu.be/wIm-tMAktTo

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