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On the traces of History

The city Potsdam is known especially as having once been the favorite residence of the Prussian kings in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the eventful history of this place is much older. Traces of human life have been found from times as old as the beginning of the Stone Age 12,000 years ago. The Roman Entrenchment near Sacrow was built in the Bronze Age about 3 000 years ago and is one of Europe's oldest military constructions.

Potsdam was first mentioned in a document from July 3, 993, when the 13-year old King Otto III presented Poztupimi as a gift to his aunt, the Abbot Mathilde of Quedlinburg.  At this time Potsdam consisted of a Slav castle and three Slav villages along the Havel River.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Germans occupied and settled in the region between Elbe and Oder rivers. At the end of the 12th century, the German Potsdam is thought to have been built by Magdeburg rulers as a military settlement. A square castle tower built of stone close to a Havel river ford became the center of that settlement, located near today's "Lange Brücke" bridge. It wasn't until 1317 that a second document makes reference to Potsdam, this time referring to a small medieval town with a central market place with a church and cemetery, surrounded by some houses.

Outside that small town - in what is today Burgstrasse - small community of fishermen developed. In fact, for most of the next three centuries, most of Potsdam's residents were fishermen along with craftsmen like bakers, butchers, shoemakers, linen weavers and tailors. A castle, mentioned in old documents for the first time in 1375, was probably enlarged as early as in the 14th century and again during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Potsdam first became important in the 17th century when Prince Frederick William (the Great Prince Elector) decided that the city of Berlin did not provide sufficient scope for his desired level of prestige. In Potsdam, he saw a remarkably fine location with wide-branching, usable waterways surrounded by rolling, arable land. Not least of all, the sovereign had access to rich hunting-grounds here.

Therefore, he began consolidating his property in Potsdam from 1657, as the basis for building a second royal seat alongside the traditional court in Berlin. In 1660, construction started to convert the old medieval castle into a palace. In 1685, Frederick William issued the "Edict of Potsdam" by which he opened his country to the Huguenots, who had been expelled from France. The population expanded, the Havel crossing was reconstructed, and the town grew.

In 1713, the "Soldier King" Frederick William I, launched a new era for Potsdam when he further increased the population by bringing military battalions into the town. At that time, it was not common practice to lodge soldiers in garrisons. Therefore, the king had medieval Potsdam pulled down and, from 1721 to 1730, built a new residential district around Brandenburg Street, where each family was required to house from 2-6 soldiers in attic rooms.

Much of Potsdam was then swampland, and the king sought experts in construction on boggy soil - the Dutch. With the construction of the famous Dutch Quarter in 1732, he hoped to attract Dutch immigrants, a task that was only partially successful.

During this time of expansion, a town wall was built along with several gates. Unlike medieval walls, this was not for protection but rather to prevent desertions and to ease the collection of taxes. Several gates and a few short sections of the wall still stand.

When Frederick II (known to history as Frederick the Great) assumed the throne in 1740, he started a centuries-long transformation of the Potsdam landscape. From 1745 to 1747, Frederick built Sanssouci Palace as a refuge from the battlefield. The old Orangerie, used as the Royal Stables since 1714, was enlarged in 1746. After the Seven Year War, from 1763 to 1769, Frederick the Great built the largest of Potsdam's palaces, the New Palace, in Sanssouci Park as a sign of strength and confidence.

After nearly 50 years as king, Frederick the Great was succeeded in 1786 by Frederick William II, who wanted to make his own impression on the city. He immediately commissioned the New Garden with the Marble Palace on the banks of the Heiliger See lake.

After the Prussian defeat to Napoleon in 1806, Potsdam went through a brief period of stagnancy. King Frederick William III started a new construction "boom" with the building of Charlottenhof Palace in 1826. From 1830 to 1837, the Nikolai Church, which had burned in 1795, was re-built in classical style. In 1838 Potsdam was connected to Berlin by the first Prussian railway line.

Starting in 1840, Frederick William IV tried to transform Potsdam into a landscape of architecture and parks according to Italian models. During his reign, he built the Peace Church (1844-54), the Belvedere on the Pfingstberg mountain (1849-63) and the Orangerie in Park Sanssouci (1851-60). He also completed the Babelsberg Castle that was started in 1834, adding two further stages in English Revival architecture style.

The in the 19th century, renowned landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné unified the palaces and gardens into the harmonious landscape of palaces and gardens that UNESCO placed on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1990. Lenné used areas of created landscape and the unique topography to unite the town and adjoining royal palaces. Despite the urban development of the 20th century this landscape still exists and can still be seen. From the European perspective the Potsdam cultural landscape is an unique example for the creation of an landscape against the intellectual background of the monarchical idea of state.

Cecilienhof Palace in the New Garden was the last Hohenzollern palace, built for the crown prince during the years 1913-1917. The end of monarchy in 1918 was another hard blow for the town, which so far was shaped by the Royal Court, garrison and administration.

During the night of April 14, 1945, a British air raid destroyed large parts of the inner city of Potsdam. Battles against Soviet military units during the last days of April 1945 caused still more and heavy damages. The parks and their palaces remained almost unscathed.

After the war ended, from the end of July until the beginning of August 1945, the Potsdam Agreement was negotiated and signed between Churchill, Truman and Stalin in Cecilienhof Palace.

In 1990, Potsdam became the capital of the newly founded State of Brandenburg. Potsdam University was established in 1991. From its founding in 1920 until the present day, the Film City of Potsdam-Babelsberg very much took advantage of the capabilities of great international film stars and of the services of foreign filmmakers and producers.

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Did you know?

Behind the Bars:
The Stories of a Former KGB Prison

For decades, Potsdam, part of Eastern Germany until the re-unification, was like a "forbidden city" and was primarily occupied by military and the KGB. One building there - that was from 1945 to 1989, the central KGB prison of counterintelligence/espionage in Eastern Germany -- has been kept in its original state to help historical researchers learn more about the people affected by it.

European History

It was at the “Schloss Cecilienhof” (Cecilienhof Palace) that the victorious powers of World War II met from June 17 to August 2, 1945, for the Potsdam Conference.