The Axis of Power

At the entrance of the Sanssouci Park that is close to the city center, an obelisk rises towards the skies. It is with this obelisk that the longest pathway of the Sanssouci park begins. Going from East to West, it symbolizes an Axis of Power.

The architecture of the park has been meticulously planned and the rotaries and sculptures are like coded messages. The park was commissioned by the Prussian King Friedrich the Great and it should be viewed as the showcase of his own view of the world. Friedrich even sketched design suggestions for his architects and landscapers.

Obelisk Park Sanssouci
The obelisk at the entrance of Sanssouci Park (Photo: Jens Cederskjold Wikimedia Commons)

The Obelisk is decorated with signs that look like hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt. They are actually meaningless. The sculptor made them all up. The Obelisk is rather a symbol for the origin of civilization, the Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. Walking down the pathway away to the West, you encounter a gate with columns ornamented with vases and nymphs. Then you see twelve Roman busts, bought in 1742 by Friedrich the Great from the French diplomat Melchior de Polignac. The Egyptian and Roman empires can be here interpreted as the first steps leading to Prussian civilisation.

The first rotary that appears after the gate has a particular significance for our tour. Two Roman figures are watched by four representations of Black people. We know that the Romans represent the emperor Titus and the philosopher Marcus Aurelius. But the four Africans are unknown. Their origin is also still unclear. There were either bought from Melchior de Polignac’s collection, or commissioned by one of Friedrich’s relatives, the Count of of Nassau-Siegen. This aristocrat had been governor of a colonial province in Brazil in the 17th century. This would link those statues to the history of the slave trade.

As part of this Axis of Power, this rotary is different than the other ones: the Roman leaders are positioned in the center and stand a tiny bit taller than their neighboring sculptures. The Black figures also function as symbols, they are exotic representations of the African continent. The white Prussians viewed this part of the world as primitive. They viewed African people either as inferior, but also fascinating and exotic.

This rotary displays the civilizing mission of colonial empires. In the mid-18th century, at the time when the park was built, European aristocrats used the Transatlantic slave trade to buy and exchange Africans. They would be forcibly baptized and employed at court as servants. Even though they were paid modest sums for their work, employ is not quite the right word here. Those exotic servants indeed had no freedom of movement and almost no citizen rights. European society was also full of unfounded beliefs and negative stereotypes towards Africans. Those servants were probably marginalized in a society that had as much fascination as hostility for them.

M-Rondell Park Sanssouci
The M-rotary (Photo: Elisabeth Nechutnys)

The next rotary on this Axis of Power features members of the Dutch House of Orange. Not only were members of this royal family relatives to the Prussian aristocrats, they were also a model for them. They had a powerful navy and a large colonial empire This is another proof of Friedrich’s fascination for empires.

Several rotaries follow and lead to the climactic end of the axis: Friedrich’s New Palace and its Triumphal Arch, symbols of Prussian modernity and supremacy. From the Obelisk to the Palace, Friedrich the Great placed steps on a line of progress. It displays his view of the world and proposes a model of civilization shaped by the history of European empires and conquest. Unnamed statues of Africans remain at the margins and are used props to magnify European culture and taste.

Triumphbogen am Neuen Palais
The arch of triumph at the New Palace (Photo: Elisabeth Nechutnys)
Text: Anna von Rath / English translation: Yann Le Gall

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  1. Pingback: Rotary with Black statues and the debate on renaming - Postcolonial Potsdam

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