Hitler’s Return – Nightmare or Daydream?

Michael Daxner


There are worse places to live in Germany. The old residential town of Potsdam became a city of oscillating political significance, a conservative center of Prussia, a reactionary hotbed of the Republic of Weimar, a city of Nazi self-representation, and a headquarter of Soviet and GDR state security, prisons and secret services. After the unification of Germany, in the last decade of the old and the two first decades of the new millennium, Potsdam has become a focus of many interests and projections. A world heritage spot for tourists within half-day excursion distance from the federal capital Berlin, a vibrant city of the arts and cultural events, a political stronghold of democratic parties within a region, where the neo-Nazi party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, Option for Germany) has some of its strongholds. A city deeply split politically and culturally. Yet, a growing population that imports upper middle-class attitudes brings more people who do not know much about the history of the city, and many don’t want to know much about it. The list of Potsdam’s particularities and idiosyncrasies is long and controversial.

Living conditions in Potsdam are almost perfect: a wealthy and dynamic place, close enough to be in the vicinity of the capital Berlin, far enough to be no longer a suburb, with a broad spectrum  of arts and off-culture, affluent majorities both in its electorate and economic activists…if only there were not the ghosts of the past.

When we moved to Potsdam some 15 years ago, the surface was intriguing and we were lucky to find an apartment close to the imperial gardens of Sanssouci, famous for its palaces and parks from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, rather early we realized that there is no need for digging deeply in order to become aware of the more recent finds of the past. My wife, who is director of culture in the city administration, very soon gained access to all kinds of actors in the arts and an interested public, thus at the link between politics and culture. Very soon, she coined the term city of scenery, i.e. of facades: several generations had built their stages for quite a number of performances, representing the power and the intentions, but also the illusions and projections of the ruling classes – palaces, churches, open spaces and carefully designed gardens, and the stage for the demonstrations of their might. Backstage, the reality is different; it always has been.

The socio-political and the cultural roles of Potsdam condense the German history since 1871 – the creation of the German Empire – in a nutshell. Historians and other experts and the interested public likewise know a lot about the Potsdam focus on these 150 years, yet, much of it is suppressed or deferred or distorted.

It is typical for Potsdam that buildings are telling the narratives of a rather controversial past; the Garrison Church is not the only one. Many people are neither ready nor willing to undergo a rigid contextualization of circumstances that make a specific building an entry point into the wonderland of history.

There is no revenant of Hitler on the horizon. The country and Potsdam are strong enough to ward off any attempts from the extreme right. But recently, the firewall becomes crumbling. I am writing the whole essay mainly as a warning that the reconstructed steeple of the Garrison Church may become a meeting point and pilgrimage for the extreme right and the ultra-nationalist revisionist. May I prove wrong.

The Day of Potsdam and the Potsdam Conference

21 March 1933: Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor, and Paul von Hindenburg, the President, shake hands in Potsdam. The entire ceremony was a meticulously planned demonstration of the real distribution of powers, only a few months after the beginning of Nazi-rule in January 1933. Among the many buildings that were used as part of the theatrical spectacle, the Garrison Church played a pivotal role[1].

The infamous handshake between Hindenburg and Hitler was incidentally fixed by a New York Times photographer, Theo Eisenhard, and became an icon. It was later rightly interpreted also as Hindenburg’s dismissal by Hitler[2].

Since then, at the latest, the church cannot be simply viewed as a fine example of feudal architecture. For me, this would not have been possible even before, since its function was distinct as “Court and Garrison Church” after 1871, the beginning of the imperial rule over Germany (and not just in Prussia).

This church will be my topic. It provides an apt aspect under which I am writing an alarmed article for the readers abroad, for those, who intend to be tourists in Potsdam, for those, who do not trust the peace in the West in a period, when non-democratic leaders govern most of the world.

Why then mention the Potsdam Conference? In summer 1945, after the defeat of Germany, the three “big” leaders of the victorious countries, Stalin, Churchill, later Attlee, and Truman, met in Potsdam to decide about Postwar Europe, mainly Germany and Poland[3]. The venue of the conference is more than typical: in the representative rooms of the Palace of Cecilienhof, the last castle built by the imperial family 1913-1917[4]  adds to the symbolic demands of such events.

Two buildings, the remnants of a church and the leftovers of an imperial palace; the church that has been damaged during the war and was finally blasted by the GDR regime in 1968, leaving just another façade; and the palace that serves as a tourist attraction and a part of the selected monuments of Potsdam’s history. The church shall be partially rebuilt. The palace will also host a hotel in the near future. While nobody is discussing the history of the palace[5], the church has become the most significant building in Potsdam that has the potential to split the city and divide the people beyond Potsdam, nation-wide and even further.

Numerous articles in many news media[6], mainly in Western countries, have directed their attention to the Potsdam events, some of them conscious of history, others more accurately pointing at the new right-wing movements in Germany. Not all of them are accurate, but most of them point at the decisive aspect of a history that is not yet past. This is also true for the many scholarly and popular texts about the issue: they become more numerous as the split in the urban society lets attention increase. All reference to the Garrison Church can be ordered in four categories: direct support of the rebuilding concepts; direct apprehension of the rebuilding plan; conciliatory compromise in an imaginary discourse; broader, mainly scientific, insight into the problems. Only the latter allow an adequate understanding. There is enough opinionated politics around, and there will be more by the day. Meanwhile, the bell tower is growing day by day.

No trivial issue

For quite a long time, the tower of the Garrison Church was a landmark in the silhouette of Potsdam. It was not the church as a house of worship or the nave as a meeting place for the congregation, but it was its exterior, its significance in a profile that would fit perfectly in the classification as a city of scenery. With so many buildings destroyed in World War II and afterwards, during the GDR regime – although less obvious and significant – the tower was a symbol for something altogether different than an apprehended or revered period in cultural history. It was and still is the symbol for another Germany, if you will: it is the landmark of a revisionist history, where a certain tradition should become reanimated. This church – unlike any other church in Potsdam, probably in Germany, enshrined all elements of feudal, colonialist, imperialist and fascist qualities of Germany since 1871.  This history has been meticulously researched, though only recently. And everybody could know about the history of the building, but too many do not want to know[7].

But there is another history that had gained acceptance and appreciation after 1989. The fact that the church was almost completely destroyed was set into the dark subtext of historiography, while the idea gained support that a reconstruction of the church would also reanimate the tradition and the spirit of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the grandeur of the German empire, if not as a political power, then as a cultural symbol overarching the dark days of National Socialism. It seems to be an exaggeration, given the much worse crimes and distortions by the Nazi regime and the ambiguities of post-war. But incidentally, the Hohenzollern family raises its voice to ask for an enormous restitution of disowned property, claiming innocence in the case of the rise of the Nazis and irrelevance of their own roles under any political system[8]. This may be seen as a side-kick, but it is significant for the present split in the German society regarding recent history (i.e. after World War I, and not only after World War II: this would be an interesting point of my research, alas! Not here):  the right-wing attempts to rewrite history are often met with helplessness or even a weak antifascist argument by those who want to let disappear the GDR history with the church. Sometimes, the double-faced antifascism of the GDR is involuntarily helping the weakness to remain weak. The main aspect, however, is the indelible footprint of the Nazis. In citing the German grandeur, this fact is tried to become less visible and less important compared to the cultural and sentimental importance of the apparent monument.

And, of course, a reconstruction of the steeple would help to further marginalize the policies of the GDR on history, religion and coping with the Nazi era. In a short cut one can say that the first attempts to rebuild the church were not only revisionist, but born by a neo-nationalist, right wing revisionism in a field that would have deserved a better approach after the peaceful unification of 1989. These first attempts to restore the church and the nave were replaced by a seemingly more moderate and balanced approach that proved to be rather successful: the present “Foundation Garrison Church”[9] has found substantial support for its vision of a reconstructed bell tower (first) and the entire church (later), and is getting much financial help and advertising support by the top levels of German cultural policy and protestant church administration including its prominent representatives.

Digging just an inch under the surface will reveal the very particular relationship between the Protestant Church and the Prussian monarchy, between the church and the Weimar Republic, between the church and the Nazis, and, in a partially very different way, between the church and the communist regime of the GDR. In all but the last periods, hegemonial religion was part of a trinity that was bound into the formula “For Emperor, God and Fatherland”. Fatherland was linked inseparably to the military and the colonial, imperialistic and nationalistic ideologies; after 1918, the sublimation of the defeat adds to the reactionary wish gaining new strength from a glorified, if not glorious past. And the Garrison Church served this aim better than any other building.

One very important parenthesis is needed: despite much  well-deserved criticism of the GDR policies towards history, nationalism and the respective relationship between state and church, neither the ambiguous policy of the GDR nor the present position of the successor of the GDR ruling party SED, the “Linke” (the Left) should be purposefully equated with the rightwing policies before 1945; which is often done by the supporters of the reconstruction in order to demonstrate their position in the middle of the political spectrum[10].

Potsdam was a residential town, it was a pretty place, it was a fortified city with quite many barracks. The capital of a better past was an accessible resort within easy reach from Berlin. The church always has been a center for nostalgia, so it is no wonder that until today it is associated with the Day of Potsdam, 21 March 1933[11] . The handshake between the old President and the new Chancellor was often described as the „marriage of the old grandeur and new power“. It was a well-staged ceremony to demonstrate in how short a time span the Nazi government could appear as solidified and recognized.  The symbolic legitimacy of the new era allowed to consequently continuing the aggressive nationalistic abuse of the church, with many of the protestant church-leaders embracing the new regime, among them Otto Dibelius, who later changed sides to the opposition and became an important church leader in the West after the war.

And now, the steeple is under reconstruction. Much money from the federal government and the Protestant Church as well as private money has been provided for the project that is officially purged from neo-Nazi and reactionary program but contains all ingredients of the old ideology.[12] As I said, the city is deeply divided over the issue. There are roughly speaking, only two sides in the conflict, but I shall demonstrate that within the two camps there are quite a few controversial sub-camps, which makes the whole situation a mess – and more than that: it is a significant shift in the hopeful German continuation of a democratic and open policy on all cultural fields. For a moment one muses, if the present is not a reconstruction of old grandeur without apparent new powers…

The two camps

The basic question is: Shall the Garrison Church in its entirety, or at least the steeple, be re-erected, and if so, why? Or, shall this church remain as it is, i.e. with a front façade in the background, and give place to a social or cultural center, and if the steeple will be built, what shall become of the rest of the place?

In formal language, one would describe the various options within the two extreme positions as the dependent variable, while the political, cultural, historical, religious conditions for either solution would be the independent variables. This is difficult enough, but to make it more complicated: there is the intervening variable of the so called Rechenzentrum (RZ)  (Computation Center, a major building from the GDR urban development period). This building is more than a functional representative of the modernization policy of the socialist regime. It is a symbol of modernity that has its equivalents also in the West, but of course, under rather different premises. And it also contributes to the splitting of Potsdam’s citizens. I shall come later to the brisance of this building, occupying a few square meters of the former Garrison Church nave; meanwhile, it is a center of resistance against the reconstruction of the church and a hot-spot for creative arts and politics likewise.

I shall name the first program revisionist, the second resilient. There will be quite a few varieties in each camp, and the question of the RZ will make things even more complex. But there is also one thing very clear: the status quo at present has already lost some chances of a peaceful compromise or mutual understanding and made the rift in the Potsdam society even deeper. This status quo is that the steeple is already under reconstruction by a tour de force of the foundation representing the rebuilders’ camp, and with a lot of money from federal and church funds, apart from some private sponsors. Real dialogue was not sought from the builders’ camp. At least until now, when the problems have become more obvious to the citizens of Potsdam.

The revisionist camp seeks to rebuild the Garrison Church, or at least the steeple as a first step towards full reconstruction. The frame of this endeavor has been set from the beginning by evoking an impactful tradition that should add to the self-esteem of the city and its inhabitants: one of the implicit meanings is that the church belongs to Potsdam as part of an overarching and positive element of its history and importance. In the subtexts of this concept, two different aspects prevail. One is that the history of the church after 1871 is representative for a national expression of strength and tradition that should not be sacrificed to a critical or even negative judgment of the Hohenzollern dynasty’s and later periods politics that are sort of deviations from the glorious German way[13]. This traditionalist, or revisionist, strategy can play on various instruments: foremost the nationalist, but also the religious and the cultural. Religion plays a big role in all this, because of the protestant state church in its alliance with the throne had given way to the fact that the Garrison Church was de facto a church owned by the state and not the congregational administration[14]. But also, the cultural framing of the atrocities and indoctrinations by the colonialist and fascist users of the church plays a role, in a way diminishing the terrible practices linked to the pretense of pious exercises. Of course, this was only possible in times, when either this practice by the national politics had enough support by the citizens – which it had; or, when a hoax of pious mainstream was able to hide other, critical or subversive, tendencies. In the period of post-war division of Germany, this argument was not very effectively uttered in either part of the country. The Garrison Church was part of the GDR, the East, and did not play a pivotal role in the FRG, the West; however, it did play a volatile and unstable role in the communist era, which led to its destruction. Immediately after unification in 1990, the fate of the church became a hot issue for the revisionist forces in the new society, claiming that the GDR policy – atheistic, anti-German(ic), revanchist etc. – had defiled both history and tradition, and the idea was to reconstruct both by rebuilding the church. Now, not the real history of the church, but the destructive impact of the GDR were the perpetrators who had to be overcome by a new policy of reconstruction. Another argument was a ‘cultural’ one, claiming that the church was a monument of exceptional quality and importance, and with its reconstruction the scars of the past would be healed. Thus, the use and abuse of the monument became embedded in a different narrative, i.e. one of correct historical consciousness. It is often used in combination with the second aspect mentioned above, i.e. that the destruction of the ruin in 1968 was the ultimate failure of any of the GDR credible positions towards the church. We can find this argument with those who were dissenters or antagonists to the GDR, without being right wing and the successors of the Nazi ideology. It is difficult to discuss with them, because, of course, I and many others side with them regarding the GDR (but this has nothing to do with the Garrison Church…).

The second aspect is one of seemingly innocent urbanism and the esthetic reconstruction of a city’s views – the imaginary mapping of a beauty to be repaired. In a place with hundreds of thousand tourists and a prominent place in the catalogue of UNESCO heritage, this is not a minor argument. Very often, the restored silhouette is recalled that simply needs the steeple in its perspectives[15]. If only it were so easy…The esthetic criticism is also part of another revisionism that often is oversimplified called ostalgia (nostalgia for the East); it means that it is obviously easier to make all kinds of buildings from the old GDR disappear than, for example, buildings from the  Nazi-time or Western post-war ugliness. Others do not estimate the architectural importance and dignity of the church so important as the renovators.

Both aspects are highly negligent about one central fact. The church represents many generations of perpetrators who have found in it the place to be represented. The victims of German imperialism, the victims of the Nazi period, the victims of societal humiliation and seclusion – they do not play a role in the arguments for reconstructing a building that is a monument for the culprits. I publicly call this the site of the Hitler-Hindenburg pilgrimage, one could add the Hohenzollern dynasty as an additional destination for pilgrims. This not my private endeavor or spleen, as I am surrounded by many well-meaning actors ready for compromise. I am feeling attacked and humiliated by the fact that so many actors in the game consider the quarrel about the Garrison Church as part of a discourse in which positions can be changed and moved according to opportune situations. But there is more to it, as we shall see in a moment.

Let us first turn to the resilients. One could say that their plans have already failed, since the steeple is under halfway reconstruction, some 15 meters high. But this is not entirely true. It is not yet clear whether the funding will allow a completion of this very high and sophisticated tower, and it is all but certain whether the completion will take more time due to other retarding facts. Opposition against the reconstruction of the Garrison Church has turned into an opposition against a state-sponsored revisionism, and it is uniting a formerly heterogeneous opposition into a faction, almost a camp.

In the beginning, adversaries to the reconstruction shared two basic opinions: one was the basic distrust against any glorification of Nazism and the nationalist past of Germany, as expressed and represented by the church. The other one, steadily growing until today, was the opposition of wasting money for an unworthy goal. The first one has been and still is supported by the left-wing party Die Linke and another, more undogmatic, local party, The Others, an early spin-off from the Green Party.  It is amalgamated in various forms with the second argument, supporting the conviction that any public money or church funds (from the Protestant Church in the state of Brandenburg) is wrongly or perversely allocated and would be better spent for social or critical cultural agendas. If it were so easy that only these two factions form the opposition, the issue could, perhaps, become subject of mediation and negotiation.  There have been attempts in this direction, but only after the steeple‘s reconstruction had already begun, and this is a third and massive argument for opposing the undertaking. The cause becomes even more complex, as many persons from the old left, i.e. the GDR ruling class, are also opposing the reconstruction, following more or less the old and narrow narrative of a fundamentally anti-fascist system that is being betrayed even after the change of societal and political structures after 1989. There is a controversy between opposing local congregations within the protestant church (one is patronizing the reconstruction under a formally moderate program, which I will try to deconstruct later; the other is a reformed chapter using theological and financial arguments likewise). And there are individual voices rendering independent from the organized political opponents and acting as scholarly or cultural adversaries to the reconstruction. I have raised my voice on a specific Jewish ground and pointed at the flaws in the reconstruction team’s inconsistencies; others come from an esthetic and urbanistic angle. And finally, we have the problem of the Rechenzentrum, built 1971 in the immediate vicinity of the Garrison Church, partially on the church-owned land (See pp. 1 and 7). This building has become a creative center, used by over 400 artists and intellectuals, since a few years –  most of its tenants are understandably opponents to the reconstruction of the church and long rather for a renovation of their building, instead of being afraid of being displaced and relocated into another creative quarter nearby. From here, quite a few initiatives sprout that are joining all kinds of opposing  activities. Moreover, the building of the Rechenzentrum itself  is in a hefty debate about preserving some of its architectural features, including a GDR-related mosaic series (“Man conquers space”) from  1972 that cuts into another controversy about the value and dignity of the cultural leftovers of the GDR[16].

As I said, the population of the city and the municipal authorities (City Council, administration) are deeply split over the issue, and those who have tried to take a mediating position are not very stable in their endeavor, because pressure from the reconstructionist camp and their financial resources is much heavier than the arguments from the protesters. On the other side, too much opposition and a broader diffusion of the protest might also harm tourism and the reputation of Potsdam as a city of peace and early humanitarianism[17].

Much ado about nothing?

Who might be interested in this conflict about a church, an urban prospect, an ideological rift between two rather heterogeneous factions in a city’s society, a question how to deal with a past that is dealt with permanently in Germany, and in other countries? Is it just one example among many?

Of course, these questions are purely rhetoric. The quarrel   the Garrison Church has long left Potsdam and the historical and political environment of Berlin. Whatever will happen, the scene will not be becalmed.

It might be selfish to briefly describe how I came to be involved in the conflict. After more than 10 years in Potsdam, where I was engaged in many political affairs, mainly in Berlin and mainly about Jewish or international conflicts and problems, the Garrison Church entered my attention through a backdoor. Of course, it was impossible to ignore the conflict, but for a long time I thought there were enough persons who were already on stage. Then, all at once, I realized who supported and sponsored the reconstruction – honorable politicians and persons with a questionable reputation concerning the past; even a few Jewish donors and sponsors appeared in public; the conflict within the congregations became obvious; Matthias Grünzig’s book came to my attention, and what I already knew became supported and more differentiated. But I really got active when I read the program of the Foundation Garrison Church Potsdam (Stiftung Garnisonkirche Potsdam)[18] that has taken over the lead of the reconstruction process. From that very moment onwards, I raised my voice, and, within the limitations of such an issue, began to play a role.

The agenda of the Foundation condenses its task in a threefold program:

  • Geschichte erinnern – Remember history
  • Verantwortung lernen – Learn to take responsibility
  • Versöhnung leben – Live reconciliation

Neither the order nor the meaning of each call is trivial. The list has become a publicly displayed emblem of the construction site.

Remember history? Even the order of the demands is questionable. It would and should be appropriate to learn history and to evaluate critically what really had happened and what is happening now. How can you remember without studying the sources and narrations, as so many of them are concealed, distorted, excluded from common knowledge? How can you deal with history without uncovering the recollection of events and background in the cultural and collective memories?[19]

By rebuilding the church, a monument is restored that represents a different history than the one that really had happened and choose this very place to appear: the colonialist, imperialist, fascist reality of a tradition for over 100 years that did conquer (after 1918) the democratic and republican antagonist of the new Germanies (after 1945) or attacked the widely successful unified nation (after 1989). The collective memory that is being evoked is a fake, but an impactful one; and as we see in the support of the reconstruction by the neo-Nazi party AfD, this memory is a narrative widely accepted (at least by 20% of the electorate).

Another point of view is linking the history of the church to the holocaust. The protestant sponsors of the reconstruction say that they will use history as a learning turf, but what they do is withholding an important aspect: the absence of God in the Shoah, but His very presence in all the decades of celebrating the divine patron of the German Empire, the fascist opposition to democracy in the Weimar Republic, and the upcoming Nazi Reich. They ignore the religious framework of the Day of Potsdam, and the role high ranking clergy played throughout the decades, without much opposition from within the church. Who shall remember this? The victims, whose graves are in the air[20]? The perpetrators, who are not ready to be reminded? Probably it is we, the later born ones, not necessarily related to either the victims or the killers; but if we are the heirs of the victims, memory has a special function for those who want to escape survivors’ guilt.

Auschwitz, the holocaust, has also gained one of its roots in Potsdam. This is commonly known, but is it present to those who are rebuilding the church? It would be good if everyone would learn history and from history. But the steeple is already halfway. The fact that the rebuilding has started before history has been given a chance to be learned, is a challenge that cannot be reduced.

Aron R. Bodenheimer was a close friend of mine: a renowned psychoanalyst and Jewish-Swiss author. Together we developed the twin sentence: only those who want to forget, will be allowed to remember. Why should the victims and their successors want to remember hell? And for the perpetrators, the dead are more comfortable than the living, but they do not want to be reminded of their crimes. This is trivial and does not need much psychology. But because one cannot forget what is still unburied and decomposing permanently, one must remember, even if one had not gone through those times. That means there are two different kinds of memory: a redeeming one, and a painful one. Learn (from) history.

Learn responsibility? The rebuilding association loads responsibility on our shoulders; we must bear what they cause. Who had been responsible for what deeds? Who had known what, and who had remembered or forgotten what? Who had repressed the memories? To really bear responsibility means to be liable for what had happened. This is not about education. (In a church, people may ask: was this God, who’s done it?). If not He, who else – divine purpose, fate, Hitler’s predestination…?

My Jewish understanding is directed towards a priority of caring for the living and bearing responsibility for the survivors. This is one of the sources of the peace movement and societal empathy. Bear responsibility. The pseudo-religious idiom of the rebuilders seriously speaks of human “placeholders of God’s son”. They bring the cityscape in context with this absurd super-elevation. For me it is more blasphemous than sarcastic or weird. There will be an effect of the rebuilders‘ arguments on many other people, who do not know the facts. It is a policy of half-truths, of half-historization, and of a new, or old? kind of revisionism.  That is why I call the reconstruction efforts as the building of a Hitler-Hindenburg Pilgrimage, one could add the Kings of Prussia…

Live reconciliation. This is the worst for me. The heirs of the perpetrators want to reconcile themselves with themselves. Which is, of course, a grim paradox.  Reconciliation is, according to Hannah Arendt, the most difficult of exercises, far beyond forgiveness, actively or receiving. Reconciliation is central to her arguments in Eichmann in Jerusalem “The truly radical judgment in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1965) is Arendt’s insistence that the question for the Israeli Court was one of reconciliation versus non-reconciliation rather than punishment, and thus her argument that the Israeli judges should have dared to judge politically rather than legally” (Berkowits 2011). He concludes her arguments: “Eichmann must hang, Arendt argues, neither because he broke the law, nor merely as a setting right of the scales of justice through revenge. He must hang, instead, because no human being must be expected to share the earth with him. He must hang, in other words, because what he did was so horrific that it must simply be rejected, eradicated, and said no to. This does not mean it should be forgotten, not at all. Rather, the world in which Eichmann’s crimes could and did happen must simply be said no to. In short, Eichmann must hang because his crimes are irreconcilable with a civilized world.“ And this is my point: reconciliation belongs to a civilization, where all sides in the discourse should respect and follow certain civilized rules; rules that are rather political than juridical.

In earlier statements, I had a slightly different view on the aspects of reconciliation. But I maintain the position that reconciliation is only possible, if all sides of a conflict agree on a common ground for further proceeding; this is different from all kinds of pardoning or forgiveness. Moreover, there is a certain need of power to forgive another person. Reconciliation is difficult, since the bell tower is already under construction and will soon be completed.  There was obviously no time by the Foundation to seek dialogue. There will be no reconciliation.

Three post-scripts

P.S. 1: The rebuilders’ foundation recently uses the anti-Nazi resistance movement with its Potsdam roots as an argument for their noble attempt to clear their intention from accusations of serving a revisionist ideology. This is so absurd and infamous that it is difficult to react rationally; the attempt tries to integrate resistance into an apology of those who were the cause for opposition. The public was also stunned, when the Nazi-party AfD[21] supported the reconstruction plans, but the opponents thought it would be better not to react because that would have strengthened the victim’s image of the AfD. The Nazi-party is rather active in splitting public opinions by self-styling itself as the guardians of a “true” German tradition. My wording, “Nazi-party”, has been occasionally contested as being too extreme, but I hold that the AfD is very similar to the pre1933 Nazis, and the common term, “far-right populist”, is a trivialization. This argument is supported by the events in Thuringia, when a Prime Minister was elected with the vote of the AfD on 4th February 2020: he is member of the Liberal Party FDP; by now (8th February) he has resigned, after a hefty public turmoil occurred. But the damage for the democratic has been done, it is irrevocable.  And many democratic opponents to the Thuringia arrangement between three parties draw the line from the Day of Potsdam and the breach of democratic consensus now; most prominently, Gerhard Baum, former Minister of the Interior, brought up the analogy.

P.S. 2: The immediate vicinity of the Rechenzentrum and its own ambiguous role in the city’s development and historical reappraisal is worth another, related story and will not be unfolded in these lines. But there is another topical effect on the splitting of urban policy and public attention. There are quite a few activities and programs in this “Creative Center”, where many different individuals and groups try out new ways of a progressive urban policy including an open and critical view on history, beyond the issue of the Garrison Church. This also implies a very complex confrontation with the culture policy of the GDR and the continuation and rift in the united Germany. There is an embittered discourse about the divisive retrospective on the two German systems, internally and from the respective other side. Only recently, things seem to be moving towards a more reconciliatory dialogue on behalf of the nave of church and future functions of both the church and the RZ. This is another chapter and it is too early to conclude[22]. It is interesting to follow the debates in the city council’s committee on culture, and, for me at least,  it is central to participate in a debate within the Green Party in Potsdam: here, we had been far from united in the beginning of a discussion that had all but easy front-lines. Generation gaps, experiences in the East, both as dissenters and observers, the angle from the West, the inclusion of the Jewish aspect, the coincidences with the development of the RZ…all this had create a rather controversial debate. It did not, however, split the local party, instead, it created a learning process, which, of course, left alone those who would not even accept the reconstruction of the steeple – there is no solution to this fait accompli

P.S.3: I have spent a lot of time to complement the historical, cultural and religious controversies by adding a Jewish component to the debates. This is not so easy as it seems, because there are Jews on both sides of the aisle, and the problems go deeper than the occasion. Keeping distance to some of the opponents, seeking a reasonable dialogue with some of the rebuilders, and developing a concept that goes beyond the local scope of Potsdam is one of the reasons why I am engaging in the case. Another one is still that I cannot bear the idea that the perpetrators reconcile with themselves. I am not a traditional observant, but the context of religious controversy is a highly sensitive issue beyond any cool neutrality. However, after so much controversial insistence against any attempt to rebuild the Hitler-Hindenburg-Pilgrimage, I concede that the opposition has, at least, brought a critical dynamic into the issue that will not let the revisionists win a war.

Michael Daxner, born 1947 in Vienna, is social scientist. He became Professor for University didactics at University of Osnabrück in 1974 and was the president of the University  of Oldenburg 1986 – 1998, followed by a professorship for sociology and jewish studies. 2000 – 2002 he was engaged at United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), followed by research and advisory acticities in Afghanistan 2003 – 2018. He was also professor at the Free University Berlin 2009 – 2011 (SFB 700). He is director of research at the Global Citizenship Alliance and co-chair of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Brandenburg.

The text was written in February 2020.

Sources and Notes

All electronic articles have been checked on 13 November 2019 and again on 10 February 2020, unless otherwise marked.

[1] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tag_von_Potsdam#Vorgeschichte
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrison_Church_(Potsdam) with a short chapter “Reconstruction”, reporting on the history of rebuilding efforts after unification.
[3] cf. https://www.history .com/topics/world-war-ii/potsdam-conference; Judt, T. (2006). Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. New York, Penguin. 
[4] https://www.spsg.de/en/palaces-gardens/object/cecilienhof-palace/
[5] This is not entirely true. Encouraged by the trend towards revision of historical facts, the last offspring of the imperial dynasty of Hohenzollern is trying to get restituted inter alia the palace of Cecilienhof, wishing to live there… https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=hohenzollern+restitutionsw%C3%BCnsche+cecilienhof ; https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/streit-um-kunstwerke-und-schloesser-hohenzollern-geben-beimwohnrecht-nach/24697582.html ; https://www.pnn.de/potsdam/streit-um-eigentumsrechte-stiftungschef-gegen-hohenzollern-einzug-in-cecilienhof/24672680.html (2020/2/6)
[6] Cf. “Querelle de clocher à Potsdam. Le Monde, 9 January 2018; is a good example for the international attention, which was immediately commented by the local media.
[7] During the recent years, much of the church’s past has been investigated and commented. The best and most comprehensive book is Matthias Grünzig’s profound study about the Garrison Church in the 20th century: Grünzig, M. (2017). Für Deutschtum und Vaterland. Berlin, Metropol. The bibliography and the documentation in archives and libraries is impressive, and so is the reconstruction of the church in the media. Almost a third of the book is dedicated to the history of the church after 1945. Grünzig received an impressive number of mainly positive reviews, even from abroad abroad, cf. Bergen, D. (2018). „Review of Matthias Grünzig, Für Deutschtum und Vaterland. .“ Contemporary Church History Quarterly 24(2).
[8] Cf. also footnote # 5. Numerous serious articles and expert opinions respond to this claim. Most recently: Betina Musall and Katharina Schnurr: „Der Kronprinz ging mit jedem Gegner der Weimarer Republik ins Bett“ (The crown prince slept with every adversary of the Weimar Republic).: https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/hohenzollern-streit-historikerin-karina-urbach-ueber-kronprinz-nazis-geld-a-1298129.html (30/11/2019); An overview of expertise statements is given in http://hohenzollern.lol/ (30/11/2019): almost all of them (i.a. Profs. Clarke, Brandt, Malinowski) attest the pro-Nazi stance of the imperial family and representatives, only one (Prof. Pyta) disburdens the Hohenzollern. The role of the German aristocracy in the rise and stabilization of the Nazis, and the few resisters, is best documented in Malinowski, S. (2003). Vom König zum Führer. Sozialer Niedergang und politische Radikalisierung im deutschen Adel zwischen Kaiserreich und NS-Staat. Berlin.
[9] German and English versions https://garnisonkirche-potsdam.de/en/about-us/stiftung-garnisonkirche-potsdam/
[10] This short remark is necessary to comment the problems shown by the catastrophic cooperation between CDU and FDP in Thuringia, when a new Prime Minister has been elected with the support of the AfD. The CDU position before had been that it would neither cooperate with the extreme right (AfD)  or left (Linke), which is nonsense, but after 5 February 2020 has moved the radical right towards the center. The Thuringia error has been corrected meanwhile, but the taste of the event is still hurting.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_Potsdam
[12] I had analyzed much of this new program and its implications in a few public lectures and discussions: Veranstaltung zum Tag von Potsdam: Diese Art von Versöhnung lehne ich ab. I reject this kind of reconciliation, Old City Hall, 22 March 2018 ); “Ablehnung des Aufbaus des Garnisonkirchenturms in Potsdam”, Rejection of the reconstruction of the Garrison Church Steeple. Kolloquium „Geist von Weimar – Geist von Potsdam;, RZ Potsdam 9 February, 2019. Many more titles in the bibliography of this essay.
[13] This kind of argument reminds me of the Nazi-party AfD’s speaker in the parliament, who calls the twelve years under Hitler as a Vogelschiss (bird’s crap) of history, compared to the centuries of glorious past (and post-war present?). Cf. https://www.afdbundestag.de/wortlaut-der-umstrittenen-passage-der-rede-von-alexander-gauland/ (2019/11/04). In this context, Gauland praises the Jewish contributions to Germany’s grandeur that Hitler wanted to destroy. It is exactly this tactics that is so attractive to populist followers: provoke and revert the facts at the same time. “Jewish” for Gauland means in the sense of adding to the grandeur-paradigm, which normally is attributed to the Aryan or Germanic supremacy.
[14] To be precise: The church was originally owned by the Hohenzollern, and after 1918 it became property of    the state. It was considered as the church of the military. Until 1918, up to 4000 soldiers were regularly ordered to attend worship services.
[15] This needs a side step into the city of Potsdam several layers of development, growth, destruction, reconstruction and its post-war features that came under general transformation after unification. Some speak of deformation, others apply the images of a city of sceneries. Cf. Seemann, B.-K. (2017). Potsdam – Die schöne Unsichtbare. Schattenorte. S. E. u. M. Sabrow. Göttingen, Wallstein: 172-183.
One must not forget that some buildings have been rebuilt as trompe l’oeil like the old city palace, now serving as the state’s parliament, which is a prefab ornated with the ancient looking outside decoration.
[16] It may be typical and significant that the tenants of the Rechenzentrum are successfully organizing an expert conference in early 2020 on behalf of the restoration and preservation of the mosaic in context with the building and the architectural environment. This is not just the maintenance of an object of art, but a statement of a comprehensive view. The organizers are not primarily interested in fueling the conflict about the Garrison Church, but it is inevitable that this monument will also play a role related to the mosaic.
[17] Most famous is the  Toleranzedikt (Edict of Toleration) of 1685, issued by the Prince Friedrich Wilhelm in order to integrate and privilege the reformed protestant French immigrants in Brandenburg (http://www.reformiert-potsdam.de/FrP-Geschichte%20Potsdam-Edikt%20von%20Potsdam% 20PNN.htm);  there is even an attempt to public a “New Potsdam Edict of Toleration” 2008 under the patronage of the Mayor of Potsdam. A similar act of politically motivated reception of protestant dissenters from Salzburg (then not Austria) happened  1731 (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salzburger Exulanten); of course, the Conference of Potsdam is still remembered, and there are many other element of a culture of memory, which is a special concern of both the city administration and the historical research institutions in Potsdam.
[18] https://garnisonkirche-potsdam.de/ueber-uns/stiftung-garnisonkirche-potsdam/ The Foundation is proud of a Board with many prominent members (intellectuals and former politicians). Cf. Footnote 9
[19] Aleida Assmann has devoted many recent considerations to this problem. Her ideas are magisterial in overcoming the useless conflict between structural and event-based memories Geulen, C. (1998). Die Metamorphose der Identität. Zur ‚Langlebigkeit‘ des Nationalismus. Identitäten. A. Assmann and H. Friese. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp: 346-373, Assmann, A. (2012). „Weltmeister im Erinnern?“ Vorgänge 51(2): 24-32.And many more.  
[20] Account to the most famous poem by Paul Celan Deathfugue, 1948: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todesfuge The most common English translation is “grave in the sky”.
[21] https://afd-fraktion-brandenburg.de/afd-fraktion-wiederaufbau-der-potsdamer-garnisonkirche-muss-gesichert-werden/ This is rather complex again, because the Nazis argue that the opponents, explicitly the LINKE party (Leftist Party, successor to the old GDR ruling party) would resume the policy of this old party. What the AfD does not say is that it gains continuously votes from this party…The AfD mainly argues with tradition and not with the political history of the church.  A similar dispute aroused about the termination of a traditional carillon because of its questionable melodies – a side stage, certainly, but significant: https://www.pnn.de/potsdam/garnisonkirche-in-potsdam-kontroverse-um-glockenspiel-geht-weiter/25007480.html
[22] Cf. A new idea to realize a concept including the steeple, a new creative center instead of the RZ and another building in the vicinity, and a new concept for a building instead of nave. https://www.pnn.de/potsdam/gastbeitrag-saskia-hueneke-plaedoyer-fuer-ein-neues-rechenzentrum/25518134.html (2020/02/08). This is a clear sign that the confrontation has passed its peak; and since nobody will be able to stop the construction of the steeple, all energy is concentrated on the rest of the problem.

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