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Postscript : Coming Home to Rest After 205 Years, 6 Stops : Frederick the Great wanted to be buried in the garden of his summer palace. Now, he's about to get his wish.

August 13, 1991|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POTSDAM, Germany — In his last will and testament, Frederick the Great asked to be buried "quite plainly" in the garden of his Potsdam summer palace, alongside the remains of his beloved greyhounds.

"I have lived as a philosopher, and I want to be buried as such," he wrote, "without pomp, without ostentation, and without the least ceremony."

After 205 years and six stopovers, the Prussian king is finally coming home to rest. But the quiet, midnight funeral he demanded is turning into a grand spectacle, fueling an emotional national debate over the proper image for newly united Germany.

The remains of "Old Fritz" and the father he detested, Frederick William (Friedrich Wilhelm) I, are to arrive aboard a restored royal train on Saturday, accompanied by a German army honor guard and serenaded by a military choir. Chancellor Helmut Kohl plans to interrupt his Austrian vacation to attend the ceremony and "pay my respects."

Spectators are expected to number about 100,000, and German television plans live coverage of the controversial reburials on the grounds of the Sans Souci palace.

The event is the latest in a summer of Sturm und Drang over decisions that conjure ghosts of Germany's darkest past. From the highest point atop Brandenburg Gate to the depths of the grave being dug at Sans Souci, Germans--and the world--are uneasily confronting Prussia, and questioning, just 43 years after its abolishment, what it really meant.

The debate began in earnest on the cusp of German unification, when Kohl stalled over Poland's demand that Germany formally recognize its borders. Critics quickly seized this as evidence that German expansionism--a Prussian legacy--had not been snuffed out with Hitler's defeat in World War II. Kohl eventually acceded to Poland's request, and the two countries signed a historic friendship treaty in June.

But scarcely a week later, the Prussian monster reared its head again. This time, the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, voted by a narrow margin to move the country's capital from Bonn to Berlin, over the objections of deputies who worried about using the old Prussian--and Nazi--capital to represent democratic Germany.

The crowning blow to Prussiaphobes came last week, when Berlin celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Brandenburg Gate, topped by a restored Prussian eagle and Iron Cross.

And now, with the pomp and circumstance that Frederick the Great himself never wanted, the debate has reached a passionate pitch.

Clergymen, liberal commentators, several conservative historians and left-wing politicians decry the "state funeral" for the father of German militarism, while others, including Kohl, feel such arguments are "irrelevant" in contemporary Germany.

"As with many great historical figures, the light and dark sides of Frederick lie close together," Kohl said in a statement released from his vacation quarters in Austria recently.

Kohl has said he will attend the reburial as a friend of the house of Hohenzollern, whose 83-year-old head, Prince Louis Ferdinand, invited the chancellor.

According to the German chancellor, Frederick was more than an absolutist monarch who waged war to expand Prussia's power and territory. "Frederick's name also invokes the beginnings of a rule by law and modern state administration that pointed the way to the future," Kohl said. "He made dedication to duty, personal disinterest and efficiency guidelines for state administration . . . His Prussia respected the principle of tolerance and freedom of conscience."

Frederick the Great came to power in 1740, upon the death of his father, Frederick William I, the "soldier king" who once ordered a friend of his teen-age son's beheaded for desertion. Frederick, too, had tried to flee to England with the friend, and was forced to watch the execution from his own prison cell. His father then pardoned him.

Despite contempt for his father's rule, Frederick the Great became one of history's most brilliant generals, molding Prussia through three wars into Europe's dominant power. At the same time, though, the Prussian king was seen in the "Age of Enlightenment and Reason" as a liberal force--a musician and philosopher who hosted Voltaire in his court for three years, a despot who nonetheless gave sanctuary to religious refugees and abolished torture.

Although Prussia ceased to be a separate country in 1871, it was the dominant German state until the World War II allies abolished it in 1947, decreeing Prussia was "the purveyor of militarism and reaction from time immemorial."

When he died on Aug. 17, 1786, Frederick the Great was entombed alongside his father in the Garrison Church of Potsdam. His successor thought it too undignified--despite Frederick's wishes--to bury the king alongside his dogs.

Six weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power, on March 21, 1933, the Nazi leader celebrated his election in the Garrison Church.

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