German Protestants agree to help rebuild notorious Potsdam church

The Garrison Church in Potsdam, Germany, would seem an unlikely monument for present-day Christians to want to rebuild.

Located southwest of Berlin, it was the parish church of old-fashioned German militarism.

Built in 1735, the Garrison Church was where pre-war Germany’s Protestant kaisers, kings and generals went to pray for victory, entering amid military ornamentation and sitting among the captured flags of defeated armies. Prussia’s legendary King Fredrick the Great was buried there.

The church is notorious in modern German history as the place where Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, a former general resplendent in full uniform, medals and spiked helmet, symbolically handed over power to the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler on March 21, 1933.

Two days after their famous handshake, the Nazis and other right-wing parties in the Reichstag passed a law abolishing democracy. The Third Reich was born.

A British bombing raid in April 1945 destroyed the elegant baroque church. Left in ruins by the Communist rulers in East Germany, it was finally demolished in 1968.

Since then, peace and reconciliation have long been the mantra of all German religious groups that went through those dark years.

But a synod of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg has just agreed to help finance the reconstruction of the Potsdam landmark. After years of debate, it approved an interest-free loan of 3.25 million euros ($3.7 million) to get the project started.

The money came with strings attached. The synod meeting said it aimed “to support the peace and reconciliation work on the site of the destroyed Garrison Church and contribute to financing (the reconstruction) of the church tower.”

The private foundation driving the project had to drop from its charter a call for the “historically accurate and complete reconstruction” so the new church is not a carbon copy of the old.

For now, only the bell tower that once towered over the city will be rebuilt, without the swords, pistols and drums that were carved into the original facade. If a new nave is ever built, it will have to be in a modern style.

A temporary chapel on the church grounds housing a Cross of Nails, the symbol of post-war reconciliation launched by Britain’s Coventry Cathedral that was destroyed by German bombers, will be moved to the ground floor room at the base of the rebuilt tower.

“For me, the break with the past is visible in the fact that only the tower is built,” said Berlin-Brandenburg’s Bishop Markus Droege. “With the Cross of Nails and the design of the room, everyone will see that this is not just some historicized church.”

Rebuilding monuments in former East Germany that were destroyed in the war has been popular since the two parts of the post-war nation reunited 25 years ago.

The imposing Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in central Dresden was rebuilt from the remaining ruins and reopened in 2005. The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, the city residence of the kaisers that the communists also demolished, is nearing completion.

There’s a whiff of nostalgia around such projects, with critics claiming that the aim is to restore some of the glory of the Prussian kingdom that dominated Imperial Germany and was officially dissolved by the Allied powers after the war.

Some right-wing West German army officers collected funds in the 1980s and 1990s to resurrect the Garrison Church but failed to get planning permission. A group of mainstream leaders then launched the Potsdam Garrison Church Foundation in 2008.

This group argued the church was a jewel of German baroque architecture whose tarnished reputation made it an ideal place for today’s Germans to learn more about their history. The personalities involved, including the then local bishop and a former left-wing state governor, vouched for its serious intentions.

While they rounded up support and funds, opposition groups emerged. One called “For a Potsdam without the Garrison Church” collected 14,000 signatures on a petition. Another one, “Christians don’t need a Garrison Church,” linked it to current-day German army activity abroad.

“We have to ask ourselves what kind of signal we, as a church, want to send in a world where German soldiers are more and more active in wars,” said Hans Misselwitz, a theologian with the second group.

The foundation responded by saying that some army officers who led the failed 1944 assassination plot against Hitler were stationed in Potsdam and worshipped at the Garrison Church.

Unlike many Protestant churches, the Garrison Church did not keep a copy of Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” on its altar next to the Bible, a spokesman argued. During the war, its organist even played tunes by banned Jewish composers on the church’s famous carillon.

By providing the loan, the Berlin-Brandenburg church hierarchy assured itself a role in future planning. Renke Brahms, the head of peace projects for the nationwide Evangelical Church in Germany, will join the foundation’s board of trustees.

The Evangelical Church in Germany is considering making a contribution to the project, which will also get a hefty subsidy from the national government.

Many questions remain unanswered, including whether the foundation will be able to pay back the church loan, as planned, from entry fees for visitors. The issue of whether to build the church hall, even in a modern style, has been postponed while the tower project goes ahead.

Droege seems quite satisfied with that. “The reconciliation center in the Garrison Church will always be a place for debate,” he said.