Berlin History

The Peacock Island… and sex in Arcadia

Frisky as a rabbit, Frederick William II (1744-1797) was called by some der Vielgeliebte (the much loved), and by others simply a man whore. His corpulence did not seem an impediment to his numerous marriages, left-handed or not, from which he had more than a dozen children. Nothing like love handles on a monarch.

Turning over in bed in his Potsdam Palace, he feels anything but insouciant after his lover, the Countess Wilhelmine, reamed him out. She’s tired of doing the walk of shame every morning down the corridors of Sans Souci. My darling Willy, can’t we just get away?

There’s that little island overrun by rabbits in the Havel River established as a breeding station.  What if we were to exterminate the rabbits, and import exotic plants and birds? Hundreds of peacocks! And we’d call it the Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel). We can build a Lustschloss (spicy in literal translation: palace of lust!), and employ that overrated master carpenter Johann Gottlieb Brendel to create a faux medieval castle (1797) that appears, close up, like something found at a fun fair. Add a ruined Gothic abbey, a temple, a menagerie of animals, an English garden, an aviary, a dairy… and our 18th-century remaking of the world is complete!  Plenty to keep us occupied between the orgasms.

The cries of the oversexed King have since died down behind the thin castle walls, more than two hundred years have passed, and you can now visit the sex island as a tourist. I was surprised by what I found.

Now I must admit I get prickly among aristocratic follies. Pfaueninsel is full of reasons why the People might wish to overthrow their rulers. Take, for example, the dairy––no doubt inspired by the recently beheaded Marie Antoinette’s Hameau––where the rulers can pretend to be farmers, take care of animals, and make butter, without really getting their hands dirty or having to deal with the squalor of real peasant life just on the other bank.

You might object: Joseph, you’re so far from understanding the beauty of the project! Pfaueninsel is a formal experiment in the Pastoral mode. From the epic world of kingship, you arrive in the ancient world remade. This is the genius of the Pfaueninsel. It appears organic, but it is in fact entirely a work of artifice: it’s only on close inspection that the human hand is made visible: in a garden folly where a fountain emerges from a ruin; among the herbaceous alien plants where the old Palmenhaus stood before the fire; with the rustle of the peacock feather where the path turns. Don’t you realise, it’s very much in the English tradition––with the ruined abbey, near the temple which suggests an even older time, where the shepherds of ancient Arcadia might have lounged, reeking of livestock.

No one is pretending it’s real or authentic (terrible word), dear Joseph. Haven’t you read Tom Stoppard? He was no doubt critical, but at least he understood the charm, the puzzle, of the concoction, unlike you:

BERNARD: Lovely. The real England.
English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the Grand Tour. Here, look — Capability Brown doing Claude, who was doing Virgil. Arcadia! And here, superimposed by Richard Noakes, untamed nature in the style of Salvator Rosa. It’s the Gothic novel expressed in landscape. Everything but vampires.

But, my dear critic, as I wander by the aviary on a day when it’s 36 C, I see the animals rustle lethargically against the bars. I don’t see any water in the cages. The sheep cower under the shade of a strange tree, shying from the electric fences. I glance at the underwhelming royal carpentry and cannot be transported by the artwork alone. I think all this creation of a new world is simply the exercise of illusive godly power by a self-indulgent King––an frivolous exercise in aesthetic terror.

I stand on the shore of Pfaueninsel, which is just inside the former boundary of West Berlin, and look East, thinking about what it was like to be here during the Cold War. Both Communism and the King are now gone, but I cannot help but feel a frisson as I begin to admire the original impulses––however misguided they eventually became in their Soviet form––under which Potsdam’s greater palaces were socialized.

Then I hesitate as see a boat cut along the Havel river, and imagine how a swimmer––fleeing from the East to the Island––might be caught on the barb wire. I imagine him, making it to shore, perhaps bleeding, stepping through the reeds in the middle of the night, into the new world beyond the Wall.

‘How strange West Berlin is!’ he might think: the unfamiliar leaves, the peacock feather on the trail, the call of unusual birds. Perhaps, in those indistinct hours before the sun rises, the swimmer too could ignore the West’s inequalities lurking just outside the gate, be fooled that he’d arrived in a second Eden––this world remade, the paradise of the West––and imagine that it’s entirely different from what we’ve seen before.


Getting there: You can reach Pfaueninsel by taking the S-Bahn to Wannsee and then bus 218 (11 minutes) to the bus launch to Pfaueninsel. The boat over and back costs 3 EUR which includes entrance to the island. The interiors of buildings on the island require separate tickets.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.