I haven’t written a new blog in ages. Working on a book has kept me close to home this past year.
But I took an afternoon away from my desk last week to check out an exhibit on the painter Max Beckmann at Potsdam’s Barberini museum.
I was interested in Beckmann because of his influence on Die Brücke, that group of German Expressionist painters whose bold lines and strange colours remind me of Baltic Coast freedom, and of the creativity that flourished in Berlin between the wars.
I wanted to see Beckmann’s paintings of the Berlin street, but this exhibit focused on circus, theatre, and The World as a Stage, and despite the quality of the work, it left me feeling a bit flat.
I remedied this by wandering to a new part of Potsdam, an area I hadn’t been to before. We’d brought our bicycles down on the train, and with them the implicit promise of freedom symbolized by two wheels and a sunny day.
Potsdam is filled with palaces, built by the Prussian monarchy between 1730 and 1916. The best known and most heavily visited — like Frederick II’s Sans Soucci — sit in the west of the town, and I have written about them in a previous blog.
But there are several more palaces in the Neuer Garten, to the east of the town centre, and one of them played host to an event that shaped the world we live in today.
The Cecilienhof was the last palace built by the House of Hohenzollern. It was designed in the style of an English Tudor manor house, and lived in by Cecilie, last Crown Princess of Prussia. But we remember this place today for very different reasons.
The Cecileinhof was the site of the Potsdam Conference, held in July of 1945, shortly after victory had been declared in Europe. The historic meeting was hosted by the Soviets, in whose sector of control Potsdam fell, because Berlin had been so badly damaged by Allied bombing and street-to-street fighting. Besides, the Cecilienhof was the ideal location, hidden in a leafy park, isolated and easy to guard.
It was here that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (and later Clement Attlee), US President Harry Truman, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin agreed on how to administer the defeated remains of Nazi Germany, who to try for war crimes, what the terms of the peace treaty would be, and how exactly to form a postwar world order.
It was clear to Winston Churchill that the seeds of coming Cold War had already been sown.
We biked through the peaceful park in late afternoon sun, and I sat on a bench outside the Cecilienhof, looking at a photo of the Potsdam Conference meeting room, and at the massive round table that I would have seen if only we’d arrived an hour earlier.
We did manage to slip inside the courtyard with a private tour group, but that was as far as we got. Historical imagination and extensive reading filled in the rest.
Beyond the immediate palace grounds, naked bathers soaked up sun on green lawns, rousing themselves from their stupor just long enough for the occasional cooling dip in the Heiliger See.
Around the edge of the lake and across a small suburb of gated manor houses, we found another post war relic in the form of a bridge that spans the Havel River.
The Glienicker Brücke has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the years. The current bridge dates to 1907 and is the fourth on the site, though it was badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War.
During the Cold War, this bridge sat on the border between West Berlin and East Germany.
Most of the checkpoints between East and West Berlin, or between West Berlin and the GDR, were under East German control. But the crossing at the Glienicker Bridge was the only one under full Soviet control.
Its isolation made it the perfect place to exchange captured spies.
The first prisoner transfer took place on February 10, 1962 when the Americans swapped the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for the downed U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers.
There was another exchange on June 12, 1985: this time 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe were swapped for Polish agent Marian Zacharski and 3 other Soviet spies who had been arrested in the West.
The last exchange took place on February 11, 1986, when the political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and 3 Western agents were swapped for Karl Koecher and 4 Eastern agents.
Reporters called Glienicker Brücke the “Bridge of Spies”, a play on Venice’s “bridge of sighs.” It was used as a setting in so many Cold War novels, films and television shows, from an episode of MacGyver to a recent Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks.
But today Glienicker Bridge is just a busy crossing over a busy river, with only a ceramic plaque to commemorate the events that had happened there so long ago.
After pausing to picture the scene, with its barbed wire barriers, sentries and billboard warnings, we zipped across it on our bikes. No one fired warning shots or demanded to see our papers. but I ducked into the forest anyway, partly to escape the traffic of the bridge road, but mostly because the trail was smooth, and the woods were so green and inviting.
The path led to a biergarten where the pilsner was cold and foamy, and where giant stalks of fresh white asparagus were still in season, drenched in butter and sprinkled with salt.
It was the perfect break away from the city, and away from the Mediterranean island world of my writing desk.
But the light was already fading from the evening, and we still had a long forest trail to ride… all the way back to the octagonal S-bahn station at Wannsee and our train home.