A Return Trip To The Crypt

Throughout their forced march to reunification, Germans discounted all talk of a Fourth Reich. They avowed sensitivity to the special burdens of their history. Then the Bundestag voted to move the capital from modest Bonn to imperial Berlin. What could raise more eyebrows than that? Try a Prussian jubilee, starring the remains of Frederick II (the Great), the imperial train of the last kaiser and cheering thousands led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Germany is bringing a founding father home. In the final days of World War II, as Soviet tanks rolled toward Berlin, German officers entered the royal vault at Potsdam, in what would become East Germany, and spirited the coffins of Frederick II and his father, Frederick William I, away to a Hohenzollern castle in southern Germany. Next week an antique train used by Kaiser William II will make the return trip with both casks aboard. In Potsdam, horsedrawn carriages will bear Frederick's remains to the palace of Sanssouci. There, at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 17, the 205th anniversary of his death, they will be reinterred. Kohl and 200 other dignitaries will attend, and national television will carry the entire spectacle live.

The royal "replanting," as chancellery cynics call it, seems almost deliberately provocative. Frederick the Great, who ruled from 1740 to 1786, was no archetypal Prussian of "blood and steel." He wrote verse (in French) and corresponded with Voltaire. But he ranks as one of history's most innovative military strategists. He seized and secured Silesia, laying the foundations of modern united Germany. Many Germans fear that a "state funeral" celebrating that legacy will evoke the ghosts of German militarism. "It's just the sort of thing that raises questions about our intentions," says Angelika Volle at Bonn's Institute for Foreign Affairs. Der Spiegel has been downright caustic. Learning that Chancellor Kohl plans a courtly bow before the emperor's sarcophagus, the news magazine recently likened the event to "Potsdam 1933," when Hitler stood at Frederick's grave to proclaim his new Third Reich.

The tribute to the old kaiser is only one recent reminder of Germany's violent history. Restorers last month completed work on Berlin's "Quadriga of Victory," a statue of a chariot drawn by four horses that crowns the famed Brandenburg Gate. Damaged during riotous celebrations after the opening of the Berlin wall, the sculpture was restored with a fanfare that some critics found all too conspicuous. The Prussian iron cross and eagle, removed from the sculpture during East Germany's period of communist rule, were back. Recently, a nasty fight also broke out over the construction of a new supermarket next to the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where some 90,000 prisoners died during World War II. When international outrage halted the planned opening, local citizens marched in protest. Said one: "We don't want a ghost town here."

It all makes for good political theater, but probably nothing more ominous. There are few real signs of resurgent German nationalism. Many dismiss the upcoming festivities as "Kohl's folly," an embattled chancellor's effort to woo right-wing voters. "It will almost surely backfire," says Thomas Kielinger, editor of Bonn's Rheinischer Merkur. "After all, what politician in his right mind wants to be identified with Prussia?" Frederick himself might be aghast at the fuss. "I lived as a philosophe," he wrote in his will, "and want to be buried without pomp, circumstance or the slightest ceremony." If only Germany's present leaders shared the emperor's modesty.