Potsdam and its destruction 75 years ago

An old painting, depicting Potsdam in 1871, when Germany was united under Bismarck

75 years ago, on the 14th of April 1945, the German city of Potsdam became one of the last targets of the very controversial British bombing strategy devised by Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since May 1940, and Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of the British Bomber Command since February 1942, and appropriately nicknamed “Bomber Harris”. Its purpose wasn’t only to destroy Germany’s industry and infrastructure, but also to slowly break the morale of the German people. While industrial production nevertheless reached a peak in 1944, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and countless buildings of unique architectural value disappeared forever. Notorious examples are the destruction of treasures like Nuremberg, Dresden and Würzburg in January, February and March 1945, but the list is sheer endless.

Located at the gates of Berlin to the southwest and first mentioned in 993, Potsdam became a garrison during the reign of Frederick William I, known as the «Soldier King«, in 1713. His son Frederick the Great, personal friend of French philosopher Voltaire, turned it into a residential city as well as a center of the arts and the Enlightenment. From 1815, with only a short interruption, and until the end of World War I in 1918, it was the capital of the newly founded Province of Brandenburg. The Day of Potsdam, celebrated in the local Garrison Church in March 1933, marked Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power.

Until about three weeks before World War II ended in Europe, its roughly 100,000 inhabitants had been spared those mayor attacks that had slowly devastated neighboring Berlin. Potsdam finally run out of luck during Operation Crayfish: in just 37 minutes a total of 724 British planes under orders of Lieutenant Coronel Hugh Le Good dropped 1700 tons of bombs that destroyed almost 1000 buildings, damaging 97 % of the old town. Officially 1593 inhabitants were killed, and about 60.000 lost their homes. As Potsdam was declared a fortress, heavy fighting between the 24th and 30th of April did further damage. The ruins of the city palace were removed by the German communists in 1952, but a partial reconstruction, with historic facades and a modern interior, was completed in late 2013. According to some observes, the Royal Air Force specifically targeted the historic center to exorcise the demon of Prussian militarism, an essential part of the obnoxious Anti-German propaganda that originated in World War I. Before Prussia was formally abolished by the Allies in February of 1947, the vast majority of all Prussian military files burned to ashes when the central German archive was badly damaged that day.

Potsdam, which since the beginning of their rule also hold symbolic meaning for the Nacional Socialists, possibly couldn’t have been spared in the highly touted fight between absolute Good and Evil.

Only its parks and structures in the surroundings, like Sans-Souci Palace, escaped almost unharmed. Ironically, the foundation stone for Potsdam’s most famous location, which in December 1990 became part of the UNESCO World Heritage, was also laid on a 14th of April, 275 years ago.

By all means, the city’s name will always be associated to the Potsdam Conference, which was hold at Cecilienhof Palace, from the 17th of July to the 2nd of August 1945. It was attended by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who replaced Churchill on the 26th of July after winning the elections, and US-President Harry S. Truman, who had just succeeded late Franklin D. Roosevelt in April.

One of the most controversial matters then addressed dealt with the revision of the German-Polish border and the expulsion after the conflict of several million Germans from East Germany and other settlement areas, like the Sudetenland in former Czechoslovakia. First went the cities, and then whole provinces…


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