Unveiling the Shifting Sands of History: Lessons from Frederick the Great's Statue in Berlin

The Politics of Memory

You may remember the discussions and controversies that arose during the removal of Confederate monuments in the southern states of the USA in the early 2020s. Some people who were against the removals argued that it amounted to erasing history. Their viewpoint implied that by removing these monuments, one was trying to modify or eliminate historical records and indeed the past itself.

To me, this argument is weak, but it's not original. You can see these debates being played out on the streets of Berlin, past and present, as well. Looking at another country's experiences might help shed light on the whole question. It certainly works that way for me.

Take the famous equestrian statue of Frederick the Great located on the Unter den Linden in the heart of the old imperial capital's main street. By the end of World War II, this bit of the city found itself right in the middle of the Soviet zone of occupation (and after 1949, the DDR) and it wouldn't do to have such an obviously imperial figure taking pride of place in the center of the new People's Republic. So, the statue was unceremoniously bundled off to a remote location in Potsdam, near to Fredierick's favourite palace, where it was, by dint of its move, now no longer a symbol of current identity but a feeble historical artefact, a reminder of the bad old days. The past was made toothless.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, and the Communist government under Erich Honnecker suddenly shifted its position on how the past should be remembered. The pride and the power of the old German Empire, if not its capitalist or imperialist sides, was officially rehabilitated and old Prussia once again held up as something of a role model, at least in terms of prestige and power. The DDR duly moved Frederick back from Potsdam and put him back in his (nearly) original position, to claim something of his prestige.

When the DDR fell, Frederick was fully, rather than partially, rehabilitated, moved back to his exact original position, and completely restored.

Germany, via Frederick, was back and could shrug off the failed experiment that was communism.

So from 1945 until today, the treatment of Frederick tells us something interesting. It's not the actual history of his life that is being remembered or forgotten. It's how his memory is viewed in any given era that matters. Frederick may have been a royal, but the historical interpretation is king. You can't change the past, but you can often change the reception of the past.

As so often, Berlin provides us with the opportunity to reflect and engage with our assumptions and views on the past.
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