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Potsdam in the 1990s: Squats, industry and ruins

Potsdam is known today for its palaces, but what was the city was like in the years following reunification?

Squatters occupied many abandoned buildings in 1990s Potsdam. Photo: imago/Seeliger

Nowadays, we know Potsdam as a prestigious and historic city that attracts tourism from around the world. But the Brandenburg capital wasn’t always quite so glamorous. 

Just a few decades ago, Potsdam was struggling to recover from the DDR. The old town was grey and dilapidated, industrial facilities were falling apart, and squatting became one of the city’s favourite pastimes. 

Curious about what that looked like? So were we. Here are 12 photos showing what Potsdam was like in the 90s. 

Glienicker Brücke

Glienicker Brücke: Former border crossing to the DDR. Photo: Imago/Rüttimann

In the middle ages, this spot on the Havel river was the site of an old wooden bridge known as the Holzweg, used by nobility to cross from Potsdam to the hunting grounds in Grunewald. By the early 1800s, it was replaced to accommodate increased traffic between Berlin and Potsdam – formerly the Prussian capital and the residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty, respectively. 

But Glienicker Brücke didn’t really make history until the Cold War. Given that this stretch of the Havel river formed the border between East and West Germany, the two factions met at the bridge to exchange captured enemy agents, earning it a notorious nickname: The ‘Bridge of Spies.’

Gaststätte zur Ratswaage

Trabis and Wartburgs in front of Gaststätte zur Ratswaage in Potsdam, April 1990. Photo: Imago/Dieter Matthes

This restaurant is actually open today, serving innovative dishes pitched as ‘new Prussian cooking.’ But it looked quite a bit different back in the 90s: The historic 18th-century building was falling apart, its front door was kicked in, and its windows were covered in graffiti. Eating there now, you’d never even know – it’s just too bad the Trabis and Wartburgs out front had to go, too. 

Barracks of East German Broadcasting Brandenburg

Barracks of East German Broadcasting Brandenburg, November 1991. Photo: Imago/Gueffroy

East German Broadcasting Brandenburg was founded in October 1991, headquartered in Potsdam. This photo from November of the same year shows the barracks – and bizarrely antique props stacked in front of them. The company continued broadcasting both radio and television until it merged with the state broadcasting corporation RBB in 2003.

Dutch Quarter in Potsdam

Construction underway in Potsdam’s Dutch Quarter, February 1993. Photo: Imago/Detlev Konnerth

As part of an expansion of the Prussian residential city in the mid-18th century, Dutch architect Jan Bouman designed Potsdam’s picturesque Dutch Quarter. Now, it’s one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and it’s even served as the set for film and television series like Homeland and Jerks

Alexandrovka Colony

Half-timbered houses in the Alexandrowka Colony, July 1994. Photo: Imago/Herb Hardt

But the Dutch Quarter isn’t the only international enclave in Potsdam. The Russian-inspired Alexandrovka Colony was built by order of Friedrich Wilhelm III to house members of a soldiers’ choir. 

For some time, its 12 half-timbered houses remained home to the original owners and their families, though they were owned by the Hohenzollern dynasty until 1926 before being taken over by the military. Since reunification, they’ve been under private ownership. 

Plattenbauten on Breite Straße

An 18th-century obelisk surrounded by Plattenbauten on Breite Straße, July 1995. Photo: Imago/Teutopress

Next to Sanssouci, Prussian pomp, and middle-class comforts, traces of a socialist past can still be found in Potsdam. A number of Plattenbauten were built on Breite Straße, the quintessential building style of the DDR. 

At the centre of these Modernist buildings, however, is an obelisk that dates all the way back to 1753, built by esteemed Prussian architect Georg von Knobelsdorff. It’s the only surviving remnant of the Neustädter Tor, which was destroyed during the Second World War. 

Nikolaikirche at the Old Marketplace

Nikolaikirche in the Old Marketplace in Potsdam, 1995. Photo: Imago/Werner Otto

Officially dubbed the Church of St. Nikolai, this neoclassical house of worship has been the defining feature of central Potsdam since 1830, but it was destroyed by Soviet artillery in the last days of WW2. 

Though reconstruction began in the 50s, it wasn’t until 1981 that the church was finished. However, that state of completion was relatively short-lived, because ten years after reunification, the building had to undergo yet more renovations. 

Nauener Tor Potsdam Old Town

A street in Potsdam’s Old Town with the Nauener Tor in the distance. Photo: Imago/Hanke

Between the Landtag, city hall, the Old Marketplace, and Nauener Tor, Potsdam is full of historic landmarks. This photo shows Old Potsdam in the late 90s, the two towers of the Nauener Tor overlooking the nearly-empty street. 

Dilapidated industrial facilities

A dilapidated industrial plant by the Havel, 1997. Photo: Imago/Lem

The Berlin Wall wasn’t the only thing that collapsed during reunification. DDR-industry was on its last legs, with many factories being economically unviable and even large businesses filing for bankruptcy. 

But it left behind old plants, huge plots of land, and spectacular architecture that were to be either modernised or repurposed. The above photo shows one such industrial facility on the shores of the Havel. 

North Potsdam

Houses in North Potsdam, 1999. Photo: Imago/Hanke

If you look past the stately Old Town, famous castles, and palatial gardens, Potsdam is full of quiet corners that are just as worth seeing. In North Potsdam, for example, there are pockets of village-like tranquillity, with idyllic little houses and old cobblestone roads that have survived the city’s widespread modernisation projects. 

Neues Palais

The Neues Palais under construction in the early 90s. Photo: Imago/Herb Hardt

Remember that Prussian pomp we talked about? This is what we meant: The Neues Palais was basically the Prussian Versailles, and its centuries-old trees, alleys, and pavilions make it a popular tourist destination even among those staying in Berlin. The above photo shows the UNESCO world heritage site undergoing renovations in the Summer of 1990. 

Squat city

The so-called Haus Villa in Potsdam, 1993. Photo: imago/Seeliger

Just as East Berlin squatters occupied countless homes in Friedrichshain, Mitte, and Prenzlauer Berg, Potsdam saw its fair share of leftist action itself in the 90s, earning it the unofficial title of the squatting capital of Germany. 

After all, plenty of perfectly good buildings were left empty post-reunification, making them the perfect place for artists, activists, and good old-fashioned hedonists to live in and maintain. While up to 70 houses in Potsdam were occupied at a time, the most famous project was Haus Villa, shown in the photo above. 

This article has been adapted from the German by Seraina Birdsey.