William Cook

From Prussia with love

Germany is rediscovering a once-taboo part of its heritage

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In a baroque palace in Potsdam, on the leafy outskirts of Berlin, those industrious Germans are throwing a spectacular birthday party. The Neues Palais is a flamboyant folly, built by Frederick the Great to celebrate Prussia’s victory in the Seven Years War, and this summer it’s become the forum for a huge exhibition celebrating the 300th birthday of Prussia’s greatest monarch. But this lush retrospective isn’t just a slice of historical nostalgia. It signals a change in that complex creature the German psyche. For the first time since 1945, when Prussia was erased from the map, Germans are becoming proud of being Prussians once again.

Throughout the Cold War, Prussia was a dirty word on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In western and eastern Europe, it became a byword for German militarism, Nazism by another name. This was hardly surprising. Frederick the Great built his Prussian empire on invasion and conquest; Bismarck united Germany under a Prussian emperor. Hitler portrayed himself as Frederick and Bismarck’s heir. No wonder East and West Germans were both taught that Prussia was Europe’s bogeyman. Yet in today’s reunited Germany, Prussia has been enjoying a discreet renaissance. The word Prussian is re-emerging in the names of new museums. Imperial palaces in Berlin and Potsdam have been restored, even rebuilt from scratch. The spiked Pickelhaube helmet is now a kitsch souvenir, not a warlike icon. The defunct Prussian flag now flutters (unofficially) above some private buildings — something virtually inconceivable 20 years ago.

Frederick’s birthday bash echoes this recent rapprochement, and in Old Fritz the new Prussians have found the perfect poster boy. An amateur philosopher and dilettante of ambiguous sexuality (he married but had no children, and lived apart from his wife), Frederick led his troops into battle (with mixed success) but he also played the flute and hung out with Goethe and Voltaire. Friederisiko (at Potsdam’s Neues Palais until 28 October) emphasises his highbrow hobbies rather than his penchant for invading Poland. The main focus is on his creative and intellectual pastimes — writing plays and poetry, hobnobbing with great thinkers. His religious tolerance is highlighted — his ecumenicalism, his philo-Semitism. ‘All religions are equal,’ he proclaimed. ‘Everyone must find salvation in their own way.’ Here, he’s an enlightened despot rather than a military man. So is this celebratory show a whitewash? No, but the ambience is unashamedly upbeat. It portrays Old Fritz as a shrewd but amiable eccentric, an avuncular figure. In Britain, a show like this would be nothing out of the ordinary. In Deutschland, a land shorn of heroes, it represents a dramatic break with the soul-searching of the 1990s. Here, the past is usually a grave affair. Friederisiko is an entertainment, not a lecture. For anyone who knows Germany, this feels like something new.

All great exhibitions chime with the spirit of their times, and in Friederisiko the Germans have found an unlikely figurehead for their current campaign to save the euro. With Europe feeling the pinch (and Germany footing the bill), Frederick’s spartan image matches the grim austerity of Frau Merkel’s economic programme. He may have lived in a palace, but Frederick was diligent and thrifty. With his plain clothes and regular hours (he rose at 5.30 a.m., stuck to a rigid, productive timetable, and went to bed at 9.30 p.m. without any supper), he feels like a fitting symbol for these straitened times. Never mind that he lived and died before Germany became a nation, or that he conversed and corresponded almost entirely in French. ‘I am a mirror,’ he observed, and as Germany reclaims its national identity after the traumas of the last century, he’s become a mirror for the way Germany sees itself today.

Frederick is buried a short walk away from the Neues Palais, beside his beloved dogs, outside his favourite palace, the more modest Sanssouci (‘without cares’). His gravestone is sparse and simple. Well-wishers have placed potatoes on it, instead of flowers. This is partly because Frederick helped to introduce potatoes to his native Brandenburg — the sole surviving rump of a Prussian empire that once stretched from Lithuania to Lorraine — but somehow, the humble spud also symbolises his much cherished Prussian values: stoicism, integrity, self-improvement, hard work. What better values for charting a safe course through the hard times to come?

The venue for this show is positively dripping with historic resonance. Park Sanssouci was Frederick’s home, the birthplace of modern Prussia. Barely a mile away is Schloss Cecilienhof, the mock-Tudor mansion where Stalin, Truman and Churchill signed Prussia’s death warrant. Cecilienhof overlooks the Glienecker Brücke, the old border-crossing between West Berlin and the German ‘Democratic’ Republic, where Cold War spies were traded, tit for tat, and where the two Germanies came together again in 1989.

It still feels strange to walk across this bridge, from one Germany to another. A generation after reunification, you can feel these old boundaries begin to shift again beneath your feet. Germany’s new Prussian enlightenment doesn’t presage a revival of German militarism, but it does signify a new sense of self-belief. As movies like Downfall and The Lives of The Others have shown, German filmmakers now feel confident enough to reclaim the darker chapters of their own history, rather than deferring to the nations that defeated them in 1945. After submerging its national identity in the EEC and EU, Germany is finally a proper nation state again.

Before I left for home I dropped into Potsdam’s Film Museum, housed in the old stables of Frederick’s winter palace. The permanent display chronicles the ups and downs of nearby Babelsberg — the world’s oldest film studios — from silent meisterwerken like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to modern classics like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Throughout this year, this charming museum also houses a special exhibition, devoted to the numerous depictions of Frederick on film. Incredibly, Frederick Der Grosse has been the subject of more than 40 movies, most ominously Der Große König, a Nazi propaganda film made in 1942 to boost German morale after the defeat at Stalingrad. Aptly, this show is called Der Falsche Fritz (the false Fred). An enigma in his lifetime, even more so since his death, Frederick the Great has been all things to all manner of Germans. ‘Alles oder nichts’ (all or nothing) was his battle cry, and the Führer’s thereafter, but I prefer his gentler, geriatric musings. ‘At my age, books, conversation and a comfortable armchair are all that I have left to me,’ he reflected in his dotage. As the Germans rediscover their Old Fritz, and the Prussian empire he founded, thankfully it’s the philosopher king, not the warrior king, who now seems closest to their hearts.