POTSDAM, Germany — Last month a leading Armenian association made headlines in Germany, after it was formally announced that Armenian philanthropist Noubar Afeyan was donating 200,000 euros from the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative to a project to reconstruct a historical church now lying in ruins. The Court and Garrison Church in Potsdam, as its name betrays, is a church constructed originally for members of the royal court and military to worship. It was built by architect Philipp Gerlach from 1730 to 1735, on orders of Friedrich Wilhelm I, who was known as the soldier-king. He and his son, Friedrich the Great, were buried there.
In its long and checkered history, it has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once, the architectural victim of shifting political fortunes. At the end of World War II, on April 14, 1945 it was bombed by the British and the nave and bell tower went up in flames, leaving only the external walls intact. With repairs, it was renamed as Holy Cross Chapel in 1949, and was used for services and other parish activities for almost 20 years.
In 1966, the East German Communist regime targeted the building for destruction. Walter Ulbricht, leader of the SED Socialist Unity Party, is quoted as having asked, “What business the ruins had to be there,” and called for it to be removed. He considered it a blemish on the socialist image of the city. Despite protests by citizens, architects, churchmen and cultural historians, the city authorities decreed the elimination of the church by explosion. This took place in summer 1968 and right next to the site they built a Computing Center 1971, which stood as an example of socialist architecture.
The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the regime followed. Soon thereafter Germany was reunified and a long process of rebuilding — political as well as cultural — began. What was to become of the historical buildings still standing? And how should one deal with the monuments to the socialist domination in former East Germany? The church of the Hohenzollern dynasty represented a special challenge.
In 2008, the Potsdam Garrison Church Foundation was inaugurated and joined forces with the Society for the Promotion of the Reconstruction of the Potsdam Garrison Church (FWG), founded in 2004 by citizens of Berlin and Potsdam with the support of church and political authorities. Last June 24, fifty years after the church had been blown up, FWG chairman Matthias Dombert presided over a commemorative service and among those attending was Harout Chitilian, representing Aurora.
The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative was established by three prominent Armenians whose forefathers were among the fortunate few to survive the genocide (https://auroraprize.com/en/prize/detail/about). Over the past few years it has become well known in Armenia for its annual Prize for Awakening Humanity, which honors an individual whose single actions have contributing to preserving lives, along with institutions that have helped make that individual effort possible. To express “gratitude in action,” Aurora has launched several projects, including scholarships to help refugees, children and victims of conflict and poverty.