Since 2017, the Garrison Church in Potsdam, Germany has been in the process of being rebuilt and restored to its pre-1945 appearance.
The 18th century church was damaged during an allied bombing in April 1945, and was later demolished on the order of East German authorities in 1968.
But before those events, the church was the venue for a dark chapter in German history. It was there that, on March 21, 1933, the new Reichstag, the first in which the Nazis held an elected majority — one gained through coercion and a fear-mongering misinformation campaign — was inaugurated. That occasion, which culminated with a historic handshake between Hitler and then-German President Paul von Hindenburg, was a watershed moment in legitimating the Nazi leadership.
Now, an online petition spearheaded by architecture professor Philipp Oswalt and signed by over 700 art curators, collectors and academics is calling for a reevaluation of plans to restore the church in light of its role in history.
The petition, laid out in an open letter addressed to German President Frank Walter Steinmeier and Culture Minister Monika Grütters, asserts that the church is a “symbol of unity between the church, state and military” according to a translation by Frieze. Per a partial translation by The Art Newspaper, the letter asserted that plans for the church’s reconstruction have “not drawn a convincing line under the problematic traditions of this place.”
The church’s history predates the Nazi period, and the letter insists that the place of worship, constructed in the 1730s by King Frederick William I of Prussia, was also “where German colonial wars including the genocide against the Herero and Nama received their blessing.”
An English-language brochure for the church’s reconstruction appears to take concerns about the church’s history seriously, with sections named “Living Reconciliation” and “To learn the Lessons of History.”
“Numerous events, both good and bad, are connected with the Potsdam Garrison Church,” the brochure says. “The rebuilding… offers current and future generations the opportunity to examine critically the racist and inhumane ideology of the Nazis, as well as their successors in the SED [the ruling party of East Germany] dictatorship.”
The brochure also claims that the rebuilding of the church will “provoke conversations about how we wish to conduct ourselves in the future.” “Open and fair debate about our heritage, our present self-awareness and our aspirations for the future will help our civic community to develop and improve,” it argues.
As Oswalt and his supporters object, per the Art Newspaper’s translation, “This is intended to become a place of learning about German history… If that is the only intention, why do we need to reconstruct the Garrison Church in its original form?”
Oswalt’s letter calls for substantial changes in the plans for renovation, including a removal of images of weaponry that were part of the church’s original design.
The letter also claims that a reconstruction of the church’s original glockenspiel was donated to the church by an army officer described, per Art Newspaper’s translation, as a “right-wing extremist.” The artifact, according to the letter, also has “revisionist, radical right-wing and militaristic inscriptions.”
The Garrison Church Potsdam Foundation, in charge of the reconstruction, claimed that the letter was defamatory in a statement obtained by the Art Newspaper. The foundation added that it had discussed the nature of the reconstruction project “with a number of partners” from German civil society and that it had yet to make a decision about whether the reproduction of the original glockenspiel will be used or if a new version would be created.
The foundation’s brochure says that while the exterior of the church will be restored to its original design, “internally it will point to the future uses and needs of the church’s mission.”
“Special spaces are needed where we can hear the call for freedom, and accept our responsibility,” the brochure noted.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org