Potsdam has several claims to national and international notability. In Germany, it had the status that Windsor has in Britain: it was the residence of the Prussian kings and German Kaisers, until 1918. Around the city there are a series of interconnected lakes and unique cultural landmarks, in particular the parks and palaces of Sanssouci, the largest World Heritage Site in Germany. The Potsdam Conference, the major post-World War II conference between the victorious Allies, was held at another palace in the area, the Cecilienhof.
Babelsberg, in the south-eastern part of Potsdam, was a major film production studio before the war and has enjoyed increased success as a major centre of European film production since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Filmstudio Babelsberg is the oldest large-scale film studio in the world.
Potsdam developed into a centre of science in Germany from the 19th century. Today, there are three public colleges and more than 30 research institutes in the city.
The area around Potsdam shows occupancy since the Bronze Age and was part of Magna Germania as described by Tacitus. After the migrations, Slavs moved in and Potsdam was probably founded after the 7th century as a settlement of the Heveller centred on a castle. It was first mentioned in a document in 993AD as Poztupimi, when Emperor Otto III gifted the territory to the Quedlinburg Abbey, then led by his aunt Matilda. By 1317, it was mentioned as a small town. It gained its town charter in 1345. In 1573, it was still a small market town of 2,000 inhabitants. Potsdam lost nearly half of its population due to the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648).
A continuous Hohenzollern possession since 1415, Potsdam became prominent, when it was chosen in 1660 as the hunting residence of Frederick William I, Elector of Brandenburg, the core of the powerful state that later became the Kingdom of Prussia. It also housed Prussian barracks.
After the Edict of Potsdam in 1685, Potsdam became a centre of European immigration. Its religious freedom attracted people from France (Huguenots), Russia, the Netherlands and Bohemia. The edict accelerated population growth and economic recovery.
Later, the city became a full residence of the Prussian royal family. The majestic buildings of the royal residences were built mainly during the reign of Frederick the Great. One of these is the Sanssouci Palace (French: "without cares", by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, 1744), famed for its formal gardens and Rococo interiors. Other royal residences include the New Palace and the Orangery.
In 1815, at the formation of the Province of Brandenburg, Potsdam became the provincial capital until 1918, however, interrupted and succeeded by Berlin as provincial capital between 1827 and 1843, and after 1918. The province comprised two governorates named after their capitals Potsdam and Frankfurt (Oder).
Governorate of Potsdam
Between 1815 and 1945 the city of Potsdam served as capital of the governorate of Potsdam. The Regierungsbezirk encompassed the former districts of Uckermark, the Mark of Priegnitz, and the greater part of the Middle March. It was situated between Mecklenburg and the Province of Pomerania on the north, and the Province of Saxony on the south and west (Berlin, with a small surrounding district, was an urban governorate and enclave within the governorate of Potsdam between 1815 and 1822, then it merged as urban district into the governorate only to be disentangled again from Potsdam governorate in 1875, becoming an own distinct province-like entity on 1 April 1881). Towards the north west the governorate was bounded by the rivers Elbe and the Havel, and on the north east by the Oder. The southeastern boundary was to the neighbouring governorate of Frankfurt (Oder). About 500,000 inhabitants lived in the Potsdam governorate, which covered an area of about 20,700 square kilometres, divided into thirteen rural districts, named after their capitals:
The traditional towns in the governorate were small, however, in the course of the industrial labour migration some reached the rank as urban districts. The principal towns were Brandenburg upon Havel, Köpenick, Potsdam, Prenzlau, Spandau and Ruppin. Until 1875 also Berlin was a town within the governorate. After its disentanglement a number of its suburbs outside Berlin's municipal borders grew to cities, many forming urban within the governorate of Potsdam such as Charlottenburg, Lichtenberg, Rixdorf (after 1912 Neukölln), and Schöneberg (all of which, as well as Köpenick and Spandau, incorporated into Greater Berlin in 1920). The urban districts were (years indicating the elevation to rank of urban district or affiliation with Potsdam governorate, respectively):
Potsdam in the 20th century
Berlin was the official capital of Prussia and later of the German Empire, but the court remained in Potsdam, where many government officials settled. In 1914, the Emperor Wilhelm II signed the Declaration of War in the Neues Palais. The city lost its status as a second capital in 1918, when Wilhelm II abdicated at the end of World War I.
At the start of the Third Reich in 1933 there was a ceremonial handshake between President Paul von Hindenburg and the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler on 21 March 1933 in Potsdam's Garrison Church in what became known as the "Day of Potsdam". This symbolised a coalition of the military (Reichswehr) and Nazism. Potsdam was severely damaged in bombing raids during World War II.
When in 1946 the remainder of the Province of Brandenburg west of the Oder-Neiße line was constituted as the state of Brandenburg, Potsdam became its capital. In 1952 the GDR disestablished its federative states and replaced them by smaller new East German administrative districts. Potsdam became the capital of the new Bezirk Potsdam until 1990.
Potsdam, south-west of Berlin, lay just outside West Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall. The walling off of West Berlin not only isolated Potsdam from West Berlin, but also doubled commuting times to East Berlin. The Glienicke Bridge across the Havel connected the city to West Berlin and was the scene of some Cold War exchanges of spies.
After German reunification, Potsdam became the capital of the newly re-established state of Brandenburg. There are many ideas and efforts to reconstruct the original appearance of the city, most remarkably the Potsdam City Palace and the Garrison Church.
When researching FHL records you may come across the word Regierungsbezirk (see Wikipedia:Regierungsbezirk)