Travel: Potsdam Witnessed the Making of Modern History

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visit to Potsdam
Potsdam is a city of much historical interest.

In Oppenheimer Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded biopic on ‘Atom Bomb man’ J. Robert Oppenheimer, one can hear Leslie ‘Dick’ Groves (Matt Damon), lieutenant general in the US Army who worked together on the secret  Manhattan Project  urging the scientists, physicist Oppenheimer specifically, that the bomb had to be ready before the Potsdam Conference in Germany. The Second World War was just over. Hitler and his Nazi Germany were brought to their knees by the Allied forces. Now was time to plan for post-war  Europe– to chalk out the modalities of governance among the member countries of the winning team. 

It necessitated a meeting to iron out the specifics. The Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945) was the last of the World War II meetings held by the “Big Three” heads of state: American President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (and his successor, Clement Attlee) and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to finalize a post-war settlement and put into action all the matters agreed at the earlier Yalta conference. The leaders also issued a declaration demanding “unconditional surrender” of Japan which was still holding out. Truman needed an upper hand on the negotiating table with the Soviet Union and banked on the success of the atom bomb. The first successful test of the bomb code named ‘Trinity’ took place in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, a day before the conference started. 

Cecilienhof Palace site of Potsdam Conference
Cecilienhof Palace where the Potsdam Conference was held.

During the Allied deliberations, on July 24 Truman approached Stalin without an interpreter and casually told him that the US had a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.”  Stalin showed little interest, replying only that he hoped the country would make “good use of it against the Japanese.” It later turned out that through Russian spies he was already aware of the programme. The Potsdam Agreement was signed on 1 August 1945. Five days later on 6 August, America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima followed by a second one on 9 August on Nagasaki. 

Potsdam is about 35 km from Berlin. As I took the train for the half hour ride, I pondered on how history changes course from time to time. Had I wanted to visit Potsdam before the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, perhaps I would have had to apply for a separate visa because it was in erstwhile East Germany. 

From the railway station I walked to the bus stop at Platz der Einheit/West to take Bus 603 to Cecilienhof Palace where the historical conference took place. Not a soul was in sight as I got down from the bus; quiet and pretty cottages lined the road. Was I at the wrong place? Then a cyclist appeared and gave me directions.

The three statesmen at Potsdam Conference
The three statesmen at the Potsdam Conference.

The Cecilienhof Palace was built between 1913 and 1917 as an English country house. The last German crown couple William and Cecile of Prussia resided here until 1945. It is now a museum built around the Potsdam Conference. In 2012, Matthias Simmich, the curator of the museum, managed to locate a living witness to the Conference – Margaret Joy Hunter (then 87), in London, who was Churchill’s assistant. Although private notes during the conference were strictly forbidden, the then 19-year old turned a photo album into a diary which helped the archive to build. 

The audio guide for the museum tour reveals quite a few gems. Of how Stalin was compact, was well-prepared about what to say and demand from his allies. He was obsessed with security and came in  an armored car with 15,000 soldiers in attendance. His entourage demanded that the furniture were austere. So all the luxurious palace furniture in his  room was changed to simple solid oak furniture. Churchill prepared the negotiating speech to the T with the right phrases and nuances and made the interpreter sweat to find the right inflection. 

At the heart of the city is the Old Market square with the Potsdam museum. Here, the building facades look definitely Italian. Prussian Prince Frederick II (the Great) yearned to go on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe but his dictatorial father, the King, never allowed him to. So he had the square built by Italian architects.

Venue of the conference at Potsdam Museum
Venue of the conference preserved at Cecilienhof Palace .

Inside the pretty palace rooms and the beautifully laid out garden outside basking under the sun it was hard to believe that such momentous decisions were made here to set the course of the modern history of Europe and America. Historians say that even as the negotiations were going on, it was also the beginning of the Cold War which would affect not only Europe, but the world in the next few decades. The museum had grand plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Conference in 2020 but alas, the pandemic intervened.  

For Berliners, Potsdam is a place for relaxation on a day trip. With its leafy avenues and the Havel river meandering through the landscape where the Olympic canoeing team practise, it has the right ambience indeed. There is plenty of history in the place too for aficionados. Historical buildings and palaces were bombed out during the war but are completely restored now. 

Potsdam Museum
Potsdam Museum in the Old Market.

At the heart of the city is the Old Market square with the Potsdam museum. Here, the building facades look definitely Italian. Prussian Prince Frederick II (the Great) yearned to go on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe but his dictatorial father, the King, never allowed him to. So he had the square built by Italian architects.

A little walk up and you come across the Dutch quarter, one of the best preserved outside the Netherlands with its red brick houses with gabled roofs. Frederick invited Dutch craftsmen to settle down offering them free housing and incentives; but sometimes even the best of plans fall through. By that time the Dutch were getting very rich trading in spice from its colony in the East Indies (Indonesia). So out of the 100 invited only 30 families turned up. 

Dutch quarters at Potsdam
Dutch quarters.

Coming to Potsdam I couldn’t leave before visiting the famous Sanssouci palace in Rococo style, once the summer home of King Frederick, a UNESCO World Heritage site now. The yellow exterior of the enormous palace came into view long ahead of the bus stop. Near the entrance is a quaint Dutch windmill, originally built in the 18th century and rebuilt when fire destroyed it. Interestingly, corn is milled here to this day using wind power. 

Inside the palace, the ornate Chinese House, Picture Gallery, etc. are a treasure trove of memorabilia. The huge park grounds are equally striking. 

Satisfied with a well-spent visit to Potsdam, I headed back to Berlin.

All photos are by the author.

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