Exploring history and World Heritage sites in Potsdam, Germany

German diplomats have designated 2019 as the "Year of German-American Friendship" in an effort to emphasize the close bonds shared between the United States and Germany. Through the Wunderbar Together project, officials seek to reveal the cultural affiliations that join individuals of German and American heritage together. Focused on creating dialogue and welcoming exchange between the two countries, it is fitting that American Airlines has recently launched non-stop flights from Philadelphia to Berlin, Germany, connecting two cities with UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Potsdam, Germany, which is located a short train ride from Berlin, is known for its parks and elegant architecture, with a landscape defined by several palaces and other royal residences. Many of these landmarks have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in recognition of their historicity. This article will examine two palaces in Potsdam: the Schloss Sans-Souci and the Palace Barberini, both of which have rich and fascinating pasts. 

The Schloss Sans-Souci

The Schloss Sans-Souci Potsdam, thought to be the most famous of the Prussian royal residences, owes its existence to its first occupant, Friedrich II (also known as Frederick the Great), King of Prussia.

Upon visiting the site in 1743, Friedrich II was thought to have been inspired by its natural beauty and he personally drew up plans for a palace and a park. Consisting of only one floor and twelve rooms, it was the smallest of his palaces and served as both his summer residence and a place of retreat in times of crisis. Providing pristine examples of Prussian rococo styling, the Schloss Sans-Souci set a standard of beauty that has evoked comparisons with the French palace of Versailles.

The process of historicization began with Friedrich’s successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II, who preserved Friedrich II’s bedroom. Later, Prussian monarchs continued this process of historicization and, in 1873, the Schloss was opened as a museum, one of Germany’s first public palace museums.

While the structure survived both the Second World War and the Cold War, its historicity nevertheless seemed to diminish While the past might be constant, what qualifies as historical fact is always changing. Once the GDR came into power, German Imperial history largely fell out of the curriculum, and Prussia was reduced to the progenitor of the Nazi regime. Having spoken with two Germans raised in the GDR, both recall that Prussia was spoken about in relation to its militarism, a policy which only began to change in the 1980’s. East German historiography, which sought to present Prussia as militaristic, had no place for the monarchs’ cultural accomplishments, especially Friedrich II, “the philosopher of Sanssouci.” Prussia’s reduced historical importance was reflected in the lack of significant restoration of the Schloss, as palace restoration was simply not a priority in the GDR. 

In the 1980s, Prussia's cultural achievements began to be acknowledged in schools and universities. This allowed for renewed interest in Sans-Souci, which stood intact, and, in 1989, the East German government applied to gain UNESCO World Heritage status for the site. UNESCO accepted this proposal in 1990 and recognized Sans-Souci for its architectural creations, “associated with the monarchic concept of power within Europe.” The palace's relationship to its previous owners made way for Friedrich II to finally be reinterred on the palace terrace in 1991. A grand event, the burial saw an estimated 80,000 attend, including then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The event brought increased visibility to Sans-Souci and provided a firm material tie with the monarch who built it.

Today, the Schloss remains a historic site because of two factors: its materiality and proximity to other phenomena that are deemed historical. The palace benefited from its close association with the deceased King, Friedrich II. Potsdam’s Schloss is still standing, well preserved, and has a materiality “that history needs to both explain and acknowledge.”1

Museum Barberini

Whereas Sans-Souci was connected to the 18th century, another of Friedrich II’s royal residences, the Palace Barberini, is associated with a more recent past. Commissioned in 1772, modeled after the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and expanded and reconstructed by Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the palace became a public center of culture, as well as the location of numerous concerts, readings, and art exhibitions. In 1910, a cinema opened in the mansion, placing it at the forefront of cultural life in the city.

Bought by the city of Potsdam in 1912, it came to be the home of government agencies before serving as a military office during the First World War. Nearly destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945, the building was left in ruins by the end of the war and the GDR eventually tore down the remainder of the Prussian cultural centre. The lot came to be the site of socialist rallies, and, in 1989, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany commissioned a civic theatre to be built on the site. Following a short stint by another theatre on the site, it fell into disuse by 2006. 

Given its past as a cultural site, the Palace Barberini became the preferred location for the art museum that Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP, wished to build. Acknowledging the site’s heritage, Hasso decided to fund the reconstruction of the Barberini Palace, at a cost of approximately 60 million Euro. Aware of the history of the East, Hasso, a philanthropist born in Berlin, felt the need to give back to the region. His promise to devote half his wealth to philanthropy, the museum is only one of Plattner’s projects in the city. Having funded part of the restoration of the City Hall, and having based his Hasso Plattner Institute in the city, his contributions have earned him the status of honorary citizen of Potsdam. Offering the Museum Barberini Potsdam as a gift to his city, he has described it as ”one of the most important things,” he has contributed in his lifetime. 

Having recreated the building’s baroque features, including vaulted ceilings and dome, the restoration won Verein Stadtbild Deutschland’s building of the year honor. Despite the Prussian stylings, the museum does not ignore the most immediate past, and uses the materiality of its paintings to ensure that the cultural achievements of East Germany are remembered. One of the first exhibits held was entitled, “Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR,” and the museum is home to a permanent exhibit of Hasso's collection of GDR artists. Featuring more than eighty works, it serves to challenge simplistic understandings of the East German regime. 

Receiving close to 550,000 visitors in its first year, the Barberini Palace, like Sans-Souci, is one of the most popular attractions in Potsdam. Despite its popularity, and fascinating past, it has not been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, it serves as an interesting cultural attraction and helps teach a lesson about the nature of history as the creation of and reflection of the contemporary milieu.   


Article written by Scott Blum-Woodland on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association


1 "Silencing the Past", author Michel-Rolph Trouillot