Architectural and Website Note: “Lernort Garnisonkirche” (“Potsdam Garrison Church Site of Learning”)
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2021)
Architectural and Website Note: “Lernort Garnisonkirche” (“Potsdam Garrison Church Site of Learning”)
By Philipp Oswalt, Universität Kassel; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University
The tower of the Potsdam Garrison Church, which was badly damaged in April 1945 and demolished in 1968, has been under reconstruction since 2017 under the patronage of German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. As is customary in Germany today, this reconstruction is taking place in a photo-realistic form, i.e. its external appearance should correspond to the former photographic image. In this place, however, this is a particularly explosive idea, because the building has always been a symbol of the synthesis of state power, the military, and the Protestant church. This made it a central national symbol of Prussian-German rule by the 19th century, at the latest, and thus the church also became a central symbol for militaristic, anti-democratic, and ethno-racist circles. During the Imperial era, the colonial wars were celebrated here, including the genocide of the Hereros and Nama. During the Weimar period, right-wing groups from the Stahlhelm and the Kyffhäuserbund to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) gathered here. After the “Day of Potsdam” on March 21, 1933, the building was an important place of tradition for the Nazi regime. Its silhouette was imprinted 75 million times together with swastikas in coins. Its carillon served as the interval signal between broadcasts on Goebbels’ Reich radio network.
It was, of all things, an increasingly right-wing extremist Bundeswehr officer with his “Potsdam Glockenspiel Tradition Society” who initiated the reconstruction project and pushed it forward for over 20 years with increasing support from Potsdam politicians. Since 2001, the Protestant Church has taken on the project and in 2008 it set up a church foundation for this purpose. An architectural break, visible from outside, was originally planned but was soon abandoned, however, under pressure from right-wing donors, even if their attempted influence on the content of church services in the planned church was rejected. Because of this dispute, the right-wing extremist circles did not hand their funds over directly to the reconstruction project, but rather donated them to other church building projects in what was once Prussia.
As a result, since that time, the Garrison Church project has been financed mainly from public funds. In addition to the theme of Christian reconciliation (“The Community of the Cross of Nails”) picked up from Coventry (UK), part of the usage concept is to create a historical site of learning. This aspiration was not fulfilled. On the contrary, so far the instigators of the reconstruction have been engaged in revising history. Until recently, they stylized the church, in which violence and war crimes have been religiously legitimized and sanctioned for centuries, as itself a victim of history. The “Call from Potsdam” on which the reconstruction project is based declares the church a victim of National Socialism, the bomber war, and the GDR dictatorship. But contrary to claims, the Garrison Church was not abused against the will of the Prussian Church on the “Day of Potsdam,” but rather it was high-ranking church representatives like General Superintendent Otto Dibelius who helped to make the symbolically important ceremony possible at this location. The bombing by the British Royal Air Force was not a symbolic act of punishment, but a military operation in support of the Red Army’s final attack on Berlin and took place because the Germans were not ready to surrender, despite their hopeless situation. The orchestrators of the reconstruction have not only falsified the historical facts for many years, but have also failed to problematize and critically research the theological tradition of national Protestantism associated with this place. This, even though völkisch, anti-democratic, nationalistic, anti-Polish, anti-French and bellicose-war-glorifying ideas have been preached here since the crushing of the 1848 Revolution, if not earlier.
The project has been controversial in Potsdam society from the beginning, but, unlike the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, it received little national attention, despite federal funding and the patronage of the Federal President. In the summer of 2019, an array of well-known scientists, artists, architects and church representatives gathered to publish a critical open letter against the project.  As a result of this letter, the Potsdam carillon, which had been remade by the right-wing ex-Bundeswehr officer and his colleagues, was switched off after it had been in operation for 18 years. In September 2019, the initiators of the open letter announced the creation of a critical Garrison Church “site of learning,” in order to correct the historical image of this location—which had been sugarcoated and falsified by the advocates of rebuilding—and to explain its history.
As a first step towards a critical public view, various events were held, for example, a controversial panel discussion at the Berlin Academy of Arts in December 2019 and several lecture evenings on the history of Protestantism at the Potsdam Museum. A scholarly advisory board was founded, which advises the critical project and itself actively contributes to the content-related work of the “Lernort Garnisonkirche” website. The advisory board includes: Educational scholar Prof. Dr. Micha Brumlik, the social scientist Prof. Dr. Michael Daxner, the art historian Prof. Dr. Gabriele Dolff-Bonekämper, the historians Prof. Dr. Geoff Eley, Prof. Dr. Manfred Gailus, Dr. Matthias Grünzig, Dr. Linda von Keyserlingk-Rehbein, Dr. Annette Leo, the professor of Jewish studies Dr. Susannah Heschel, the religious scholar Prof. Dr. Horst Junginger, the theologian Prof. Dr. Andreas Pangritz, the cultural historian Dr. Agnieszka Pufelska, and the military historian Prof. Dr. Wolfram Wette. The institutional sponsor of the critical site of learning is the Martin Niemöller Foundation, in cooperation with the University of Kassel (Department of Architectural Theory and Design).
In June 2020, the internet platform http://lernort-garnisonkirche.de/ went online, and has published 60 articles about the history of the site, the reconstruction project, and the related debates. New articles are published here regularly. In September 2020, the Lernort initiative opened an exhibition at the site of the former Garrison Church. It is held in the Kunst- und Kreativhaus Rechenzentrum, in a building constructed in 1971, during the period of the GDR, which is now used as an art and creative centre. The exhibition focuses on the genesis of the reconstruction plan and the influences of right-wing radical groups on the church project. This presentation is based on several years of research in numerous archives, the explosive results of which will appear in the renowned scholarly journal Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (Munich) in the summer of 2022.
In 2021 the site of learning addressed the tradition of Prussian-German national Protestantism. On the basis of extensive source research of sermon texts in archives and libraries, the scholars at Lernort Garnisonkirche initiated research on individual military pastors in the Potsdam Garrison Church. In October 2021, a two-day conference with a dozen presentations on this topic took place at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer House in Berlin. The contributions from this event will be published in 2022. Also in October 2021, the Leipzig religious scholar Horst Junginger published his book on this topic: Der preußische Adler in der deutschen Herrschaftsgeschichte: Eine Vogelkunde aus religionspolitischer Sicht (“The Prussian Eagle in the History of German Rule: An Ornithology from a Religious-Political Point of View“), which critiqued the symbiotic relationship between the Protestant church and the Prussian-German state over the past three centuries.
Through the activities of the Lernort initiative, it has been possible to influence the development of the reconstruction project. This not only applies to the use of the replica carillon and its right-wing-leaning dedications of the bells. In the spring of 2020, the scholarly advisory board of the Garrison Church Foundation, i.e. the re-builders, presented a concept for a future exhibition in the new church tower, which for the first time takes up the issues raised by the Lernort scholars and comprehensively integrates them. The City of Potsdam, for its part, has initiated a process to clarify the future design of the controversial location in the area of the former nave in terms of content and design. They have decided not to leave this question to the church or the church foundation alone, but to take on a central role in the matter. In the discussion and negotiations surrounding this, the Lernort Garnisonkirche has representation on the team of the Kunst- und Kreativhaus Rechenzentrum. In this respect, there is now hope that, through critical historical research and education, we will ultimately be able to deal responsibly with this site of remembrance of German and European history.
The current proposal suggests that the site of the former church nave is returned to the City of Potsdam, which intends to build a “house of democracy” there, including an assembly hall for Potsdam’s city council. The plans to demolish the neighbouring GDR-era Rechenzentrum are supposed to be cancelled; instead, the modernist building from 1971 should become part of an intentionally heterogenous architectural ensemble.
 Signatories included Monica Bonvicini, Micha Brumlik, Thomas Demand, Maria Eichhorn, Hans Haacke, Katharina Hacker, Thomas Heise, Kasper König, Peter Kulka, Olaf Nicolai, Tobias Rehberger, Matthias Sauerbruch, Gregor Schneider, Friedrich Schorlemmer, Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, Klaus Staeck, Sybille Steinbacher, Robert Jan van Pelt, and Wolfram Wette.