Potsdam is to Berlin what Versailles is to Paris and what Windsor is to London: close enough to the country’s capital city to preserve influence over it, but distant and distinct enough from it to provide retreat for its wealthy leaders. Famed for its numerous palaces, Potsdam was for centuries home to Prussian kings and later German Kaisers. Surrounded by forest and dissected by a vast system of interconnected lakes, the small capital of Brandenburg is both idyllic and stately.
Although some of the more extravagant Rococo palaces hint at overindulgence and monarchical folly, the small city retains a quaint, charming manner. Of all the cities in East Germany, Potsdam is the one with the fewest visible reminders of a communist past. Instead of communism, it is Enlightenment ideas which have clearly shaped and made their mark on Potsdam. Fredrick the Great – who so highly adhered to the thinking of the Enlightenment – promoted the construction of parks and gardens about Potsdam, whose planning and landscaping was to remind mankind of his relationship with nature and reason. This was a forward thinking 18th century city, and that still shows today.
Lying just 24 kilometres southwest of Berlin Mitte, Potsdam is separated from the capital only by the trees of the Grunewald and the water of the Wannsee. For much of the Cold War this was not the case. It was in Potsdam at the end of the Second World War where the three victorious Allies met, and set in motion the division of Germany. The division was intended to be administrative only, but the competing interests and contrasting ideologies of the communist East and capitalist West, quickly led to it becoming a highly militarised division. This was much to the detriment of Potsdam. For Potsdam was, for geographical reasons, always better connected with the western half of Berlin. With the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, travelling times to Berlin from Potsdam more than doubled. Potsdam, once an integral part of the Berlin urban conurbation, now took on a semi-isolated existence in the communist GDR.
The river Havel, spanned by the Glienicke Bridge, became the border between Potsdam and West Berlin. During the Cold War, the Glienicke Bridge became known globally as the ‘Bridge of Spies’, famous for being the only border crossing between the GDR and West Berlin that was patrolled by the Soviets, and not by the East Germans. It was used, therefore, by the Americans and Soviets to exchange spies caught in each of their blocs. The first prisoner transfer took place in 1962, a year after the Berlin Wall was built, and continued until as late as 1986.
The Glienicke Bridge border crossing though, was not the only location in Potsdam where Soviet troops were based. To the north of the city, situated by the pristine Krampnitzsee Lake, 5,000 Red Army troops of the 35th Guards Motor Rifle Division were stationed in an old Nazi military base called Krampnitz.
Krampnitz was built in 1937 during the period in which Hitler’s Germany was rapidly increasing its military capability, and doing so in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles. 50 buildings in total were constructed, most of them luxury living quarters for officers. Upon its completion, the Military Riding Institute, previously based in Hannover, was relocated to the new facilities in Krampnitz.
For eight short years – five of them occurring during the Second World War – Krampnitz was home to officers and soldiers of the Nazi Wehrmacht. They abandoned Krampnitz on the 26th of April, 1945, travelling north to help defend the Third Reich in the Battle of Berlin. The following day, while Berlin was under siege, the Soviets moved into the empty and abandoned Krampnitz barracks.
At Krampnitz, the Red Army quickly established themselves. Soviet paraphernalia and communist artwork spread across the site, while all evidence of the Nazi past was stripped away. All evidence of the Nazi past baring one notable exception, that is. In one of the grand buildings towards the front of Krampnitz is a mosaic of a Reichsadler, the imperial eagle and symbol of the Third Reich. The Reichsadler is set atop a large Iron Cross, and holds within its feet a Swastika. Located on a ceiling above a grand staircase, the mosaic is truly an imposing sight.
There is much debate regarding the origin of the eagle, with some believing it dates back to 1937 and the construction of the barracks. Others, though, argue that Hollywood used the abandoned military base as a film location, and that the mosaicked eagle was added then. The three films rumoured to have been filmed at Krampnitz are Resident Evil, Inglourious Basterds and Enemy at the Gates. Readers familiar with these films will have to decide for themselves if they recall seeing the mosaicked eagle in any of the aforementioned films.
The Red Army left Krampnitz in 1992, almost immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In its short history, Krampnitz had housed the armies of two totalitarian regimes. Both regimes had collapsed. Today the barracks remain abandoned having stood empty for nearly quarter of a century. It is likely, though, that in the next few years the old Nazi and Soviet Krampnitz barracks will be converted into residential properties. The buildings may require a lot of work to return them to conditions suitable for habitation. But, given the location of the barracks by the spectacular Krampnitzsee, and given the excellent infrastructure to the centre of Potsdam and Berlin that is already in place, there is a lot of interest from construction firms in acquiring the old military complex. For Krampnitz, a new chapter in its history may be about to begin.