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8 December 2021updated 05 May 2022 11:59am

Letter from Germany: A train journey through Prussia’s heartlands

The not-quite vanished state is central to the history of Europe. Riding the RE1 train from Brandenburg to the Polish border, I find its ghosts linger on.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The modern world is haunted by spectral, vanished entities: the Republic of Texas, Greater Colombia, Austria-Hungary, the United Arab Republic, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, to name just a few. But surely no state so important to global history has been dismantled so thoroughly as Prussia.

Having risen fast in the 18th and 19th centuries to become one of Europe’s mightiest powers and the state around which Germany was finally unified in 1871, Prussia enjoyed a brief Wilhelmine zenith before the collapse of its Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918, the erasure of its institutions under the Nazis, its territorial dissection at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 and its formal abolition by the Allies in 1947. The Cold War, during which former Prussian territory was split between West Germany, East Germany, Poland and the USSR, and even Berlin itself was sundered, seemingly ensured the old state was well and truly dead.

Historians such as AJP Taylor blamed German expansionist excesses on reactionary Prussian militarism. Gospel to leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and some in Germany itself, these concerns ensured that Prussia made no comeback when the country was reunified in 1990. Its institutions, culture and indeed name remained suppressed as the new republic took shape. When in 2002 a German regional politician suggested merging the new federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg into a new state called “Prussia”, it provoked outrage.

Yet somehow Prussia lives on. The renovation of Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the processional boulevard from the Brandenburg Gate to the site of the old Hohenzollern royal palace, was completed this year. In July a controversial reconstruction of that palace to house parts of the former royal art and antiquities collections opened to the public.

[See also: How a fourth Covid wave is crashing over Europe]

Meanwhile the modern-day Hohenzollerns are fighting an ongoing media and legal battle to reclaim some of the properties and treasures confiscated in 1945. Both the palace and the family’s restitution claims have sparked debates about Prussia’s legacy. A state gone from the map lives on architecturally, culturally and in the history wars.

So when the editor of the New Statesman suggested I undertake a European travelogue, I hatched a plan: to ride the RE1 train, the Prussia Express, from its origin to its destination in search of traces of that not-entirely-lost kingdom.

To be clear, the RE1 is an otherwise unremarkable commuter service. It starts at Brandenburg an der Havel, west of Berlin, travels through the German capital and out to Frankfurt an der Oder, on the Polish border (not to be mistaken with the better-known banking capital, Frankfurt am Main, in the west). It runs every 30 minutes, traverses 152km (94 miles) in two hours, stops at 25 stations and costs €15.50 for a single ticket. It also covers more European history in a shorter distance than any other rail journey on the continent and encompasses the heartland of what was once Prussia. So with the winter and new Covid-19 lockdowns closing in, I set out to travel the whole route, over three days, in pursuit of the question: what remains of Prussia, the most comprehensively eradicated of the world’s most historically significant former states?

My trips starts on a freezing late-November morning in Brandenburg an der Havel, on one of the last days before the snow comes. Trams clank across the bridges over the waterways that encircle and criss-cross the old town. Bells ring out from St Gotthard’s, St Catherine’s and Brandenburg Cathedral – an ecclesiastical abundance inherited from the town’s status as capital, until 1417, of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the kernel of the future Prussian state. In the centre, lights glow from cafés and pubs on to the cobbled streets.

But at the railway station, built in 1846 when the line from Berlin to Brandenburg first opened, there is no such shelter. Chill winds whip off the flat north German plain. The tracks stretch into the distance in both directions: west towards Magdeburg and the Rhineland far beyond; east towards Berlin and the lost territories across the Polish border. Prussia’s difficult geography was long summed up in the term Mittellage, or middle position. Wedged between the major European powers – France, Sweden, Austria, Russia – with poor, sandy soil and no fixed natural borders, it spent much of its history as a battlefield. The Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars in particular are cited as reasons for Prussia’s insecurity and militarism (“an army with a state attached”, as Voltaire put it).

At the station I board the double-decker RE1 and climb the stairs to the upper floor. The train contains a mix of commuters, students and the hard-to-place. A 50-something across from me has a kick scooter and a satchel, balances his glasses on the tip of his nose and is wearing cannabis-leaf socks and a fleece with a patch bearing the emblem of the Nationale Volksarmee, the East German armed forces. The train glides across fields criss-crossed by drainage ditches, past the windmill and orchards of Werder, across the Zernsee lake and on to Potsdam, the former court city of the Hohenzollerns.

Nowhere is Prussia’s part-survival as evident as in Potsdam; not the absolutist ogre of Anglophone caricature but an enlightened, refined state. Friedrich the Great built his French-inspired palace Sanssouci here between 1745 and 1747. And here it remains, a rococo gem perched on the brow of a hill above a geometrically terraced vineyard; the residence where Old Fritz laid on music, theatre and erudite dinners with the likes of Voltaire on long summer evenings.

But my real destination in Potsdam is the Cecilienhof. Nestled in a lakeside park, this faux-Tudor complex could be some particularly extravagant Lutyens pile somewhere in the English Home Counties. It was completed in 1914 under the orders of Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Cecilie, for whom it was named, an architectural last hurrah for the Hohenzollern monarchy.

[See also: The Fateful Chancellor: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world]

Today Georg Friedrich of Prussia, the last kaiser’s great-grandson, is claiming residency rights for the family, a bid complicated by the enthusiastic welcome received by one house guest in the mid-1930s: Adolf Hitler. But I have come here primarily not to see how Prussia lived, but how it died, for the house’s real significance is that it was the venue of the Potsdam Conference of July 1945.

It sends a shiver down the spine to stand in the negotiating room – a double-height, wood-panelled hall with a towering bay window – before the very table at which Stalin, Truman and Churchill (followed by Attlee) sketched the blueprint for the postwar world. It was in this network of rooms where the Hohenzollerns had spent their last regal years – “All over the house were signs of recent family life,” recalled Joy Milward, Churchill’s secretary – that Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, that Stalin secured his claim to eastern Europe and that the Allies agreed to carve up Prussia itself. With the brutal justice of the righteous victors, they granted Silesia and most of Pomerania to Poland, and split East Prussia between Poland and the USSR, transforming as many as 14 million ethnic Germans into refugees.

“Potsdam, shrine of Prussian militarism, can mean the end of that system which has terrorised Europe for more than 100 years,” runs a Daily Mail editorial from July 1945, stencilled on to an exhibition wall along with other international headlines. There is a certain irony in its juxtaposition, at just a few rooms’ remove, with the wealth of Prussia memorabilia in the Cecilienhof gift shop: from the kitsch (Prussian eagle fridge magnets, a Friedrich the Great bath duck) to the poignant (a nostalgic book on “East Prussia: Forgotten Homeland” with photos and postcards of late-19th century life in the lost territories).

Onwards: back to the station and the RE1. The train pulls out of Potsdam, passes Babelsberg – the Hollywood of Europe in the 1920s, cinematic home to the likes of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich – and then a few minutes later a much darker site. As the light starts to fail, the train pulls into the station at Wannsee, just across dark water from the grand villa where senior Nazis conceived the final stage of the Holocaust in 1942. Then it speeds off into the Grunewald forest and on towards central Berlin.

I rejoin the route in Charlottenburg, a well-off Berlin district named after its baroque Hohenzollern palace. Yet a walk around its streets reveals a broader truth about the German capital: just as London, for all its many layers of history, is essentially a Victorian city, so too the fabric of Berlin, for all the traumas of the city’s 20th century, is fundamentally Prussian.

Charlottenburg is part of the so-called Wilhelmine ring, a doughnut of residential districts that grew up around Berlin in the second half of the 19th century, dominated by the city’s definitive form of housing: five-storey blocks of flats built around courtyards. Many streets still bear the names of Prussian generals (the Napoleonic war heroes Von Grolman and Von dem Knesebeck) and leaders (Kaiser Friedrich, Otto von Bismarck). Wilhelmine architecture defines the schools, hospitals and swimming pools established under Bismarck’s welfare state, and civic monuments such as the historicist Charlottenburg Town Hall, completed in 1905. Social democrats, Nazis, communists, bombs, occupation, division and postwar city planners all left their mark on Berlin, but the old kingdom’s martial and administrative pride lives on in bricks and mortar.

It also persists in the quotidian. Native Berliners speak a version of German rooted in the Prussian past: a Brandenburg dialect overlaid with influences from French Huguenots (admitted by the Hohenzollerns from the late 17th century), Yiddish, and Slavic languages from Prussia’s eastern borderlands. The popular culture of Wilhelmine Berlin lives on in the city’s two main football clubs, Hertha and Union, in local beer brands such as Berliner Kindl, and in the institution of the Eckkneipe, or corner pub. Old-school Berlin cooking is Prussian, not “German”. Restaurants such as Marjellchen, a Charlottenburg establishment with lithographs of Prussian cities on its walls, serve Königsberg meatballs from what is now Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave, Masurian pot roast from what is now north-eastern Poland, and Silesian pork with dried fruit from what is now southern Poland.

From Charlottenburg the RE1 follows another legacy of Prussian Berlin. The Stadtbahn, or “city railway”, a 12km stretch of tracks raised above the streets on viaducts, runs directly through Berlin’s centre. Completed in 1882, it was a typically Prussian fusion of industry and the military, administrative ingenuity and geopolitical vulnerability: to keep the booming metropolis supplied with coal and food but also, soon after the Franco-Prussian War, to enable swifter troop movements between Prussia’s far-flung eastern and western frontiers.

[See also: How history haunts the present]

Today the railway line provides a magnificent panorama of the city: past the zoo (opened in 1844 as an offshoot of the Hohenzollerns’ private menagerie); sweeping around the Tiergarten park, where the victory column (built in 1873, marking Prussia’s whirlwind victories over the Danes, Austrians and French) rises from the trees; and into the city’s cavernous, modern main station, with its views of the new federal chancellery and, beyond, the Reichstag building under Norman Foster’s glass dome. It was here that the Red Army launched the final assault of the Battle of Berlin and here that the Berlin Wall subsequently divided the city from 1961 to 1989.

Yet even in the shiny new government district, the old institutions can still be found. Berlin’s city legislature meets in the palatial building that housed the Prussian parliament until its abolition by the Nazis in 1934. Germany’s federal upper house, the Bundesrat, sits in the old Prussian house of lords. Berlin’s Academy of Arts occupies the site of its disbanded predecessor, the Prussian Academy of Arts. There is also the bombastic cathedral with its copper dome, Gendarmenmarkt square, the Prussian museums complex and the Brandenburg Gate. Visiting Berlin soon after the Wall fell, the writer Jan Morris observed: “The longer I wandered the more it seemed to me that both the Communist and Nazi experiences were hardly more than terrible aberrations, and that the city’s presiding era remained the time of the Prussian monarchy.”

To understand the lasting depth and authenticity of Prussian Berlin is to understand the oddity of the reconstructed palace. The Berlin “Schloss” was the centre of Hohenzollern power for centuries. Damaged in the war, it was torn down by the East German government, which built its 1970s parliament building on that spot. Reunification then brought intense debates about what to do: keep the asbestos-ridden “Palace of the People”, build something new or reconstruct the old palace.

The third option won – despite concerns about reviving the expansionist Prussian spirit – and the new palace opened in July as the Humboldt Forum, to house the state’s non-European art collections. The academic Jan-Werner Müller has called the building “Prussian Disneyland”. On three sides its façades are somehow too pristinely recreated, while bizarrely, the fourth side is an ahistorical concrete grid with an unfortunate resemblance to Mussolini’s fascist Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome.

Still, I resolve to visit the palace with an open mind. I have a ticket to Berlin Global, a blockbuster inaugural exhibition promising to show how “the city and its people are connected with the world”. But it disappoints. Moments from Berlin’s past are clustered under broad themes (war, revolution, fashion, “interconnection”), with a dusting of vaguely right-on hectoring (“How can the fashion industry run more fairly?” asks the section on fashion) and techno-gimmickry (visitors get a digital watch that surveils their movements and offers a sort of personality analysis at the end).

It all amounts to a 4,000 square metre self-conscious cringe at the building’s associations, an attempt to atone for the old militarism and monarchy with a perfunctory dollop of wokeness. This is a missed opportunity. In times of culture and history wars, the reconstruction of a building symbolising the might of an ex-state, Prussia, could be a chance for a genuinely original, serious and candid debate about the complexities of national identity, historical narrative and the fraught interplay of light and dark in human societies. Still, perhaps this unlovable palace will one day play venue to such a reckoning.

From the main station the RE1 continues over the viaducts of the city centre, through the old west-east border station at Friedrichstrasse, between the 19th-century Pergamon and Bode museums to Alexanderplatz – the windswept concrete plaza at the heart of East Berlin – and thence out through the city’s eastern districts. All the way the Prussian past is visible: the red-brick pump works of the Wilhelmine sewer system, the turret-like water tower at Ostkreuz station, the AEG electrical transformer works by the Spree. Then the train passes deep forests, towns such as Erkner and Fürstenwalde whose making was the arrival of the eastbound railway from Berlin in 1847, and the north European plain, with its wind turbines turning stoically under heavy November clouds.

Frankfurt an der Oder is one of those places in Europe, like Trieste, Danzig or Strasbourg, that is shaped by borders moving around it. For centuries this university city and Hanseatic river port was deep in the Prussian heartland, until the Potsdam Conference suddenly cut it off at the River Oder and made it a border post. That much is clear from the train station: signs are bilingual German/Polish (“Zu den Zügen/Do Pociągów”, or “To the trains”) and the timetables heavy with eastern destinations reachable along the old Prussian rail routes (Poznań, Wrocław, Gdańsk). I note from the local press that Georg Friedrich of Prussia, the Kaiser’s great-grandson now prosecuting the case for restitution, was recently in town to address a public event on “protecting Europe’s cultural artefacts”.

Surprisingly for a city largely burned down by the Red Army in 1945, Frankfurt’s restored churches, city hall and neo-gothic Wilhelmine post office all evoke Brandenburg an der Havel. But that all ends abruptly at the Oder’s western bank, with various monuments to peace and brotherhood erected by the East German authorities in the 1950s, and then the bridge across the river to Poland. On the day of my visit the travel restrictions imposed during the early part of the Covid pandemic are long gone and traffic flows smoothly between Frankfurt and Słubice, the Polish town forged from Frankfurt’s own former eastern districts. Polish and EU flags fly on the eastern bank in front of a gloomy parade of shops hawking cheap cigarettes and currency exchange.

[See also: The return of the West: can the G7 nations rebuild a global alliance?]

Back on the German side, I head for the Heinrich von Kleist Museum. This romantic poet and dramatist was born in Frankfurt in 1777, in a house destroyed in the fires of 1945. The museum occupies another house from his era, and provides an elegant exposition of the writer’s life and works.

Kleist’s was a very Prussian story: hailing from an aristocratic family from Pomerania, he entered the military as a cadet officer at 14, fought against Napoleonic France, graduated from the garrison at Potsdam, but, on reading Rousseau, was inspired to return to Frankfurt to study philosophy. He subsequently worked as a civil servant in Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, spent a spell under arrest in Paris and returned to Berlin, where he moved in liberal nationalist circles before dying in Wannsee at 34 in a murder-suicide alongside his terminally ill lover Henriette Vogel. In one part of the small museum, the lights low, visitors walk between dark, slender columns across an undulating floor as voices hauntingly emerge from the ether reading passages from his texts on four main themes: fate, justice, violence and identity.

The Kleist Museum succeeds in a small space where the disjointed, ahistorical, cringing expanses of the Berlin Palace fail. Kleist lived a short, frenetically eventful and ambitious life; once deeming it, in true Prussian fashion, “incomprehensible how a human being can live without a life plan”. His biography captures so much about Prussia itself: the contrasts of enlightened progress and roiling, atavistic furies; of culture and violence; of bureaucratic pomp and martial insecurity; of power and fragility; of transience and endurance. But the museum offers more than that. It provides an unpretentious reflection on the debates that the question of Prussia throws up: on time and belonging; on the obligations of respect, critique and justice that one generation owes to past and future generations; on the voices from the past, the ghosts in our midst.

A near-frozen Nieselregen, or drizzle, is closing in outside as I collect my bag to head home to Berlin. The weather and the new Covid restrictions mean that, as at the Cecilienhof, I have had the place to myself. A 19th-century clock ticks in the corner. Behind the ticket desk a map of Prussia in 1867, shortly before German unification, hangs on the wall: a streak of deep blue across northern Europe, somewhere between pathos and defiance. Through the windows, lights, trees and the forms of the buildings are dissolving in the fine rain. The wind is transforming the Oder, the border river, into a sheet of quivering ripples.

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special