19 November 2014

Breaking the silence: Potsdam’s Garrison Church and the history of Brandenburg-Prussia

You may have noticed the cobwebs beginning to collect on this blog. That is mainly because I’ve moved to lovely Potsdam, capital of the German state of Brandenburg and former residence of the kings of Prussia (and later the Kaiser). Been busy with our new home and getting settled in. I have to say I love it here, because as you may have noticed, I have a thing for history, and Potsdam is loaded with it…or perhaps “burdened” is a better term. The following story is a good example of this.

Burdened by history and controversy

A major controversy is raging in Potsdam and has been for some years. It revolves around the old Prussian Garrison Church in the center of Potsdam. You can read up on that church and its overshadowed history at Wikipedia, but here some more thoughts about it. I would also highly recommend the book “Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia” by Christopher Clark (link to Amazon here).

The Church of Holy Paranoia

The Garrison Church was the parish church of the Prussian royal family, which of course later became the Imperial family headed by the Kaiser. You must understand that this church was intricately interwoven into Prussian history, and that history was one defined by paranoia fed by invasion and persecution from outside and within. (As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.)

Prussia — which began as the Mark of Brandenburg, the eastern march of the Holy Roman Empire — was a place of poor farmland (much of it swamp) and little natural resources. It also had practically no natural borders and thus was more or less defenseless. As a march or borderland it was constantly under threat of invasion or attack from the east, which in the early Middle Ages was still largely pagan and very hostile. That almost certainly shaped the Prussian mentality.

Later on during the Renaissance, Brandenburg was a major scene of the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, in which Swedish and Austrian troops swept back and forth plundering and destroying, regardless of whether the townsfolk who got in the way were themselves Protestant or Catholic. While the Thirty Years’ War was on the face of it a religious war, in reality it was just a war of conquest and plunder, and the people of Brandenburg bore the brunt of it. Whole towns were wiped off the map, entire cities like Magdeburg destroyed. That this was in the name of Jesus was all the more grotesque.

Add to this the peculiar path the Protestant Reformation took in Brandenburg. It went Lutheran fairly early on, and the great mass of the people remained so until the formation of the GDR. After the Augsburg Settlement in 1555 ending the War of the Schmalkaldic League (a settlement later reinforced by the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War), effectively only two churches were legal in Germany: Lutheran and Catholic. Technically after Augsburg it was now allowed to be Protestant, but only if you were Lutheran — Calvinists or Nonconformists need not apply. Meanwhile the treaties also stipulated that each local prince would determine his territory’s church as “summus episcopus” or “head of the church”, with only those two options on the table, Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Things went awry when the Elector and Markgrave of Brandenburg, Johann Sigismund, converted to Calvinism in 1613. From then on it was a constant source of conflict in Brandenburg and its successor Prussia, as the royal family stuck to Calvinism, while the people remained Lutheran (and largely High Church Lutherans at that).

Thus the Prussian royal family developed a paranoid streak a mile wide thanks to repeated invasion and desolation and also thanks to constant challenges to their faith from all directions, Lutheran and Catholic. Their response was on two fronts. The first was to develop and maintain a huge and efficient military to defend itself. Prussia was, as the adage went, not a country with an army, but an army with a country. There was a lot of truth to that, as Prussia became a thoroughly militarized society — while this was nothing unique for the time, Prussia was notable for being an extreme case. The second front was this: After many decades of constant trouble because of their insisting on staying with Calvinism and trying to convince their people and other princes to accept that, the royal family eventually came up with its own solution — forcing the Calvinist and Lutheran churches in Brandenburg-Prussia to merge into a single united Protestant Church in 1817. Thus the Prussian royal house and the church in Prussia were intricately linked, arguably far more so than in any other European state, with the monarch taking an extremely active role in shaping the religious life of his subjects.

The result was a potent — and ultimately fatal — mixture with the King of Prussia at the head of one of Europe’s premiere armies and also at the head of its United Church. The Garrison Church was thus the physical representation of that fusion of military and church as manifested in the Kingdom of Prussia. If any building was a symbol of Prussian religious militarism, that was it.

Thing is, the Prussian nobility kept its distance from the Nazis in the interwar period. While the former Kaiser and his supporters certainly liked the idea of Germany rising again and were in theory allies of the Nazi’s revanchist and irredentist nationalism, the nobility and Prussian military officers viewed the Nazis with a great deal of disdain (and in some cases outright worry…but all too few). In the end, however, Hitler and the Nazis convinced a number of old Prussian nobility to join forces with them, and that team-up was celebrated in the so-called “Day of Potsdam” at the Garrison Church — where, ironically enough, many old Prussian noble and military families worshipped, whose members formed the backbone of the Stauffenberg conspiracy that would later try to assassinate Hitler.

The end of the church — against the people’s will

Fast forward to 1968 and East Germany. Potsdam was mostly spared from the war, and the Garrison Church was still intact. It still had a parish using it. However, the GDR leadership was determined to wipe out any traces of Prussian militarism and drive home their view that East Germany was a “New Germany” freed from the chains of its past. So the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, decreed that the church must go — over the very vocal opposition of the people of Potsdam. And it was torn down, replaced by a (rather ugly) computer center in the typical Commie style.

Fast forward again to today, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moves have been afoot for some time to rebuild the church as a true copy of the original. The EKD, Germany’s mainline Protestant church (to which the successor to the Prussian United Church belongs), and various — in some cases quite nationalistic — groups have joined forces to do so. Yet this has been extremely controversial, precisely because of the church’s powerful symbolism and attachment to the Prussian military regime. What’s more, many people in Potsdam simply don’t want the church back for a lot of reasons — besides the problematic symbolism and worries about a rebirth of nationalism, there is also the point that many other churches around Potsdam are falling apart and in dire need of cash, so the money could surely be better spent there, saving what still exists rather than making a copy.

The rebirth of the church — against the people’s will?

One argument supporters in the EKD make is that the new copy would (if they have their way) be dedicated as a “church of peace and reconciliation” to try and atone for the Day of Potsdam and all that resulted from it. They have enlisted various politicians to support their cause, such as Sigmar Gabriel from the Social Democrats. There is definitely a great deal of national interest in this church being rebuilt, and lots of donors across Germany have given substantial funds for it to be done.

Yet the level of opposition in Potsdam itself is intense, and from what I gather, it is growing. Earlier this year, opponents of rebuilding the church succeeded in collecting over 10,000 signatures from Potsdam residents on a petition to block the project, and in a city-wide plebiscite about the city budget, Potsdam residents also overwhelmingly called for blocking funding of the project, well ahead of all other budget propositions on the ballot.

Thing is, I am a big fan of historical buildings and love Potsdam for its wealth of them. (Some sneer at it and call it Prussian Disneyland. Oh well.) When there is a groundswell of broad support, rebuilding landmarks can go a long way to supporting reconciliation — like the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was supported by Coventry, whose cathedral was also destroyed in the war. However, in this case something seems seriously wrong — a great mass, possibly a majority, of the local people absolutely don’t want it, and it seems to be a bad joke that a “church of reconciliation” can’t reconcile with its opponents and just keeps steaming ahead regardless of any opposition. That the church was torn down over the objections of its parishioners and the townspeople was a crime in and of itself, but why compound it by stomping all over local feelings a second time?

Reconcile, not divide

This is not to say I am myself totally against rebuilding it (though I do think the money could be better used elsewhere). If I were calling the shots in the city and state governments, I’d probably build it while making sure it is used to instruct and warn about its dark past. But I do think the rebuilding campaign needs to do far, far more to try and get more people on board, especially if they are serious about the church’s mission to be a place of reconciliation. Simply shrugging off criticism and blaming opponents for not being reasonable is not the answer. If they fail in that attempt at reconciliation, then frankly I think the whole project deserves to fail. There is no point to a place of reconciliation that is itself divisive.