German Reburial Prompts Debate Over Military Past
Many say pomp surrounding Prussian kings could boost extremists
POTSDAM, GERMANY — AT long last, the wishes of Prussia's "benevolent despot" are to be granted.Prussia's greatest kings, Frederick I and Frederick the Great, are coming home after more than four decades of obscurity in southern Germany, where their remains were moved after World War II. But the decision to rebury the kings in Potsdam on Aug. 17 has sparked bitter debate over Germany's image abroad, two months after parliament voted to return the seat of German government to Berlin, Bismarck's (and Hitler's) capital. Germans who fret over a resurgence of Prussian dominance say that paying homage to the two 18th-century kings might create a new focal point in eastern Germany for ultra-nationalists attracted to the militaristic side of Prussia's history. They contend the ceremonies surrounding the event, which include a Bundeswehr honor guard, send the wrong signal to Germany's neighbors. Says Bjorn Engholm, leader of Germany's opposition Social Democrats: "There just shouldn't be any historical fuss over this. The world is watching us, and it could be misunderstood. We can't allow a second Bitburg." In 1985, controversy flared over a visit by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and US President Ronald Reagan to a cemetery in the town of Bitburg where some Nazi soldiers are buried. Undaunted, officials in Brandenburg state plan ceremonies that will give King Frederick Wilhelm I and Frederick the Great rather more than the burial "without show, without splendor and without pomp" that Frederick II requested in his will. About 1,500 police will handle crowds estimated in the tens of thousands jostling for a look at the coffins of the once-royal Hohenzollern family and the antique rail cars and horse-drawn carriages that will be used. Parts of the day-long ceremonies are to be broadcast live on television before Frederick the Great's coffin is laid to rest at midnight beside the rococo summer palace he had built and named Sans-Souci, French for "without cares." After his death more than 200 years ago, relatives ignored Frederick II's request for a simple burial on the grounds of his beloved summer palace in Potsdam. After an elaborate state funeral, he was buried next to the father he hated at Potsdam's garrison church in 1786. Both their remains were moved to a salt mine in Thuringia in 1945 as the Soviet Army advanced into Germany. Their coffins were later transferred to the Hohenzollern castle at Hechingen near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Frederick I is now to be buried 400 yards away in the royal mausoleum at the Friedenskirche, or Peace Church. Despite the wrangling, Mr. Kohl is among dozens of prominent German leaders scheduled to attend the ceremonies. However, Kohl's office says the chancellor, an ardent German history buff, plans to attend only as a private citizen and is not scheduled to speak. Golo Mann, a distinguished German historian, sharply criticized Kohl's decision to attend the ceremonies. "I have nothing against a modest ceremony attended by family members," says Mr. Mann. "But all this clamor with military honor guards and chancellor is really tasteless." He says the presence of Kohl and a military honor guard could cause concern abroad that "the wretched Prussian tradition of militarism is being moved back into the foreground." But Brandenburg state Governor Manfred Stolpe says the event is meant to encourage a "dignified and critical encounter with the history of our country." During four decades of communist rule in former East Germany, Prussian royalty was reviled as a decadent symbol of a militaristic past. But nearly a year after German unity, Brandenburg state officials say the lopsided communist version of Prussian history needs to be replaced by a more balanced and objective view. Still, many worry the ceremonies could attract increasingly violent nationalistic fringe groups that have sprung up in the economic ruin of former East Germany. The Friedenskirche, for example, has refused to allow broadcast of its services out of concern that too much publicity could have the wrong effect. Eginhart Schmiechen, dean of the Lutheran Church Council, says that "certain groups with nationalistic and chauvinistic thoughts could be attracted to this spot. It need not occur." The two kings ruled Prussia from 1713 to 1786, creating enmities that live on today in Germany as well as in neighboring countries. Frederick Wilhelm I was known as the Soldier King but didn't wage wars. His son Frederick II took over in 1740 and people started calling him Frederick the Great by 1745 as he conquered territories in what is Poland today. He believed that territorial expansion was "the first rule of government." His powerful personality strengthened German national consciousness at a time when German-speaking territory was divided into a score or more of contentious states. The goal of a broader German unity was realized in the Prussian-led German empire almost a century after Frederick II's death, but ended in defeat in World War I. Mr. Stolpe, Brandenburg's governor, says the two Fredericks represent "Prussia's virtues and vices." And he insists it would be wrong not to examine its contradictions. "For me Prussia stands for tolerance, a will to build, community spirit, and an efficient administration. Only those who always question the past, in its heights and depths, will overcome it and learn."