European Times: Berlin - Old Fritz marches into a battle over the company he keeps

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The Independent Online
THIS CITY is growing before our very eyes. Upwards at a vertiginous pace in its hollow centre, outwards spilling into villages to accommodate new arrivals from pastoral Bonn, and together along the fault lines of history. This much is taken for granted, and you will hear barely a murmur about the clashing styles that modern architecture is inflicting upon the new Berlin.

But there is another development, a kind of mental archaeology that strips away layers of the past, bringing to the surface what was once considered lost. Not everybody rejoices at this undertaking. There are too many ghosts for a country striving to forget.

Take a walk down Unter den Linden - Berlin's Champs- Elysees without the shops - and you will find an empty plinth near its eastern end. A bronze statue of Frederick the Great on horseback normally sits on it. Frederick, affectionately known to locals as "Old Fritz", was plucked away for renovation a year ago and is due to return before the end of the year.

That should put an end to his meanderings, banished as he had been by East Germany to Potsdam for the double crime of having been a royal and a Prussian to boot. The Communists rehabilitated him in 1980 and put him back on his pedestal, which had been moved 14 metres to the east because heating pipes had invaded his spot in his absence.

Now the plinth is to go back those 14 metres, so that the philosopher king, a friend of Voltaire's and an accomplished flute player, can return to his rightful home. But he might not make it. For Frederick threatens to march back in the company of five Prussian generals, to the consternation of relatives of a pacifist sculptor and the post-Communist politicians in charge of this part of town.

This is, after all, hallowed ground, venerated first by the Nazis, then by the Communists and finally turned into a peace shrine by Helmut Kohl's government after reunification.

Three of the generals, Prussians though they might be, are not a problem. They are already near by, tucked away in a side street by the Communists. Their names - Blucher, Yorck and Gneisenau - conjure up memories of when Prussia fought alongside Britain against Napoleon. The picture of Blucher embracing Wellington on the blood-soaked fields of Waterloo is as evocative and conclusive as the image of Soviet soldiers raising the red flag on the roof of the Reichstag.

But what of the other two generals, whose statues disappeared upon the Communist takeover, and are now languishing in some vault? They are, on the face of it, no more discredited representatives of "Prussian militarism" than their long-forgiven colleagues. Yet Generals von Bulow and Scharnhorst, also of Napoleonic wars fame, pose the biggest obstacle to the grand Prussian reunion on Berlin's faded thoroughfare. Some fear their return would delve into a layer of history best left untouched.

Von Bulow and Scharnhorst used to stand on columns flanking the Neue Wache, a neo-classical building that came to be dedicated to Germans who fell in the First World War. The Nazis brought their colourful pageantry here. Unwittingly, the two generals became the pictorial frame of Germany's military revival and thirst for vengeance. Off they went in 1945, as the Neue Wache stood abandoned, before its eventual renovation and reopening in 1960 as the "memorial to the victims of fascism and militarism". When that was over, the Kohl government ordered a revamp, installing an enlarged reproduction of Mother With Her Dead Child by the pacifist sculptress Kathe Kollwitz.

Kollwitz died in 1945, but her heirs insisted that the generals should never return. Those who run Berlin have different ideas. "We would like to recreate the authentic historical setting of the area, and would therefore like to bring all five generals back," says Frank Hesse of the city's office for the preservation of monuments.

This endeavour is supported by the regional government, but not by the local council, which happens to be run by the ex-Communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism. They say they will never sanction the re-creation of Prussia's via triumphalis in the heart of the city. Frederick can come, but not all the generals. In the absence of an agreement, they threaten to block all plans to restore Unter den Linden to its former glory.

Thus has "Old Fritz" become part of a package deal, while beneath his vacant plinth all layers of Germany's recent history converge.