Magazine article The Spectator

From Prussia with Love

Magazine article The Spectator

From Prussia with Love

Article excerpt

In a baroque palace in Potsdam, on the leafy outskirts of Berlin, those industrious Germans are throwing a spectacular birthday party. The Neues Palais is a flamboyant folly, built by Frederick the Great to celebrate Prussia's victory in the Seven Years War, and this summer it's become the forum for a huge exhibition celebrating the 300th birthday of Prussia's greatest monarch. But this lush retrospective isn't just a slice of historical nostalgia. It signals a change in that complex creature the German psyche. For the first time since 1945, when Prussia was erased from the map, Germans are becoming proud of being Prussians once again.

Throughout the Cold War, Prussia was a dirty word on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In western and eastern Europe, it became a byword for German militarism, Nazism by another name. This was hardly surprising. Frederick the Great built his Prussian empire on invasion and conquest; Bismarck united Germany under a Prussian emperor. Hitler portrayed himself as Frederick and Bismarck's heir. No wonder East and West Germans were both taught that Prussia was Europe's bogeyman. Yet in today's reunited Germany, Prussia has been enjoying a discreet renaissance. The word Prussian is re-emerging in the names of new museums. Imperial palaces in Berlin and Potsdam have been restored, even rebuilt from scratch. The spiked Pickelhaube helmet is now a kitsch souvenir, not a warlike icon. The defunct Prussian flag now flutters (unofficially) above some private buildings - something virtually inconceivable 20 years ago.

Frederick's birthday bash echoes this recent rapprochement, and in Old Fritz the new Prussians have found the perfect poster boy. An amateur philosopher and dilettante of ambiguous sexuality (he married but had no children, and lived apart from his wife), Frederick led his troops into battle (with mixed success) but he also played the flute and hung out with Goethe and Voltaire.

Friederisiko (at Potsdam's Neues Palais until 28 October) emphasises his highbrow hobbies rather than his penchant for invading Poland.

The main focus is on his creative and intellectual pastimes - writing plays and poetry, hobnobbing with great thinkers. His religious tolerance is highlighted - his ecumenicalism, his philo-Semitism. 'All religions are equal, ' he proclaimed. 'Everyone must find salvation in their own way.' Here, he's an enlightened despot rather than a military man. So is this celebratory show a whitewash? No, but the ambience is unashamedly upbeat. It portrays Old Fritz as a shrewd but amiable eccentric, an avuncular figure. In Britain, a show like this would be nothing out of the ordinary. In Deutschland, a land shorn of heroes, it represents a dramatic break with the soul-searching of the 1990s. Here, the past is usually a grave affair. Friederisiko is an entertainment, not a lecture. For anyone who knows Germany, this feels like something new.

All great exhibitions chime with the spirit of their times, and in Friederisiko the Germans have found an unlikely figurehead for their current campaign to save the euro. With Europe feeling the pinch (and Germany footing the bill), Frederick's spartan image matches the grim austerity of Frau Merkel's economic programme. He may have lived in a palace, but Frederick was diligent and thrifty.

With his plain clothes and regular hours (he rose at 5.30 a. m. , stuck to a rigid, productive timetable, and went to bed at 9.30 p. m. without any supper), he feels like a fitting symbol for these straitened times. …

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