The church described as a 'symbol of evil'

Hitler at the Garrison Church, Potsdam Image copyright ALAMY

Plans to rebuild a church in Germany that is linked to Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party have divided the country and sparked a row about how the nation deals with its past.

Buildings aren't just bricks and mortar - they have meaning and say something. If you doubt that, think of the controversy in the German city of Potsdam where a plan to rebuild a church has set factions against each other.

The dispute is, of course, not over just any old church but one of the most significant in German history. The Garrison Church, or Garnisonkirche, was the parish and regimental church of the Prussian royal family. Bach played the organ there and the kings of Prussia, including Frederick the Great, were buried there.

But this is not why it is controversial. It is also the church in which Hitler was legitimised in the eyes of Germany's upper class. On 23 March 1933, the Nazis orchestrated a propaganda performance which transformed Hitler from someone the elite saw as a vulgar little man into someone they respected. "The Day of Potsdam", as it became known, opened the way for him to take all power.

So it's no wonder that there's a row. The church was partially destroyed by the Royal Air Force in 1945 and then obliterated in 1968 by the official dynamiters of communist East Germany. But now the money's being raised for a full reconstruction. A foundation stone has already been laid.

"For me, this church is a symbol of evil," says Maximilian Dalichow who was brought up in Potsdam and opposes the building work.

"It's the place where the Third Reich was born. It's where it came into being."

There's no doubt that it was an infamous day. On the Day of Potsdam in 1933, Hitler, the leader of the biggest party in the newly-elected German parliament, bowed, apparently humbly, to the president of the country, Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazi leader, dressed in a civilian tail coat rather than a military uniform, shook Hindenburg's hand in a grand gesture of false humility which was filmed for mass distribution.

Hitler's rise to power

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Hitler is presented to President Hindenburg on the Day of Potsdam 1933
  • 1919 Hitler joins the right-wing German Workers' Party
  • 1921 Becomes party chairman of what had become the National Socialist German Workers' Party, known as the Nazi Party
  • 1923 Attempts unsuccessful coup d'etat known as the Beer Hall Putsch and receives five-year prison sentence - released in 1924
  • 1932 Nazis become largest party in German parliament, the Reichstag
  • 1933 Hitler appointed chancellor of coalition government and persuades President Hindenburg to grant him extraordinary powers after suspected arson attack at Reichstag; Day of Potsdam shows unity between Nazi party and old Prussian elite, represented by Hindenburg
  • 1934 Hindenburg dies - Hitler combines office of president and chancellor to become absolute leader

BBC History: Adolf Hitler

In a very modern way, the ceremony, complete with cheering crowds, was designed and orchestrated by the Nazi master of propaganda, Josef Goebbels. He ensured that the great act of trickery was broadcast in cinemas throughout the land. It transformed Hitler from the little man sneered at by those who thought they were his social betters into an acceptable leader they could follow.

Image copyright Flickr/colinfpickett
Image caption The Garrison Church in 1933

It is no wonder some say the site of such an infamous event should not be recreated.

Arrayed against them, in favour of rebuilding the church, are the great and good of Germany from Chancellor Merkel down.

"This is one of the most extraordinary church buildings from the baroque era, and it is at the same time the most controversial place. We are confronted with the ambiguities of German history here much more directly than in any other place in the country," says Prof Dr Wolfgang Huber, a former bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and president of the committee in charge of the reconstruction.

"It is for me a very important place for the work of peace and reconciliation," he says.

He wants the church to show how new, hopeful buildings can rise from the dust. Inside, there would be exhibitions about Germany's past.

When the final demolition of the ruins took place in 1968, the leader of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), Walter Ulbricht, felt the church didn't fit into the atheistic conception of the socialist utopia he thought he was building.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Scale model of the church

Today, Huber feels that rebuilding the church would be a victory over the destroyers: "To leave the place empty would mean to give a victory to Mr Goebbels who orchestrated the Day of Potsdam and to give a victory to Mr Ulbricht," he says.

The debate has layers of complexity. It is, of course, about whether a church where such an unholy act was perpetrated should be rebuilt. But it's also about class and money in the new Germany.

Potsdam was once a rather dowdy town in East Germany. Its baroque splendour - the domes and golden spires that shone beside the lake - were either destroyed or neglected, and there was no nostalgia to bring its royal glory back.

But with the fall of communism, it became a magnet for money, a chichi dormitory for the rich of Berlin. The villas on the lake which had been flats for ordinary people under communism were bought and re-converted back to the pre-war villas of the hyper-rich.

Some of the residents of the communist Potsdam mind this. They feel excluded. As Maximilian Dalichow puts it: "I don't want GDR back. It's just a feeling of being expelled, of having had taken away the right to live in an area which, under free-market conditions, obviously belongs to the upper 0.5%.

"Normal people used to live there, and now none of my friends who grew up there live there anymore. It's just an area for millionaires now."


Image copyright Getty Images
  • Capital city of German federal state of Brandenburg, directly borders Berlin and situated on the River Havel
  • Residence of Prussian kings, and after German unification, the Kaiser, until 1918
  • Palaces include Schloss Sanssouci (pictured), Germany's largest World Heritage Site, and the Cecilienhof, venue to the post-WW2 Potsdam conference

This is not an uncommon feeling in the east of Germany. There are few, if any, who want the GDR back, but there are people who don't completely feel at home in the new Germany - and the row over the Garrison Church touches this nerve.

Dalichow feels the controversy is over how Germany views its past. He thinks it's about recreating Germany as a country before the Nazis and communists destroyed it - recreating Potsdam as a pretty city for tourists and moneyed new-comers.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption The site where the Garrison Church stood - and may stand again

"The population gets the feeling that this project is given to them by people who think they have a better idea of what Potsdam should be. They see it as a scenic place where nothing was ever destroyed, basically pretending that the Second World War never happened. And I don't like that."

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