“The homeland will not forget its heroes” reads the dedication at the Soviet Memorial within Treptower Park in Berlin to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin and the 5000 that are buried there.
Though there are three such Soviet war memorials in Berlin, this one in particular has long been on our minds as somewhere to return to ever since our first visit there together in 2010; and in keeping with that visit the sky were as grey as they were that day, and chilly too.
Whilst one of the largest reasons we wanted to return to Treptower Park was to see and document this incredibly particular dedication to anti-fascism and the 1945 liberation of Berlin from the tyranny of an evil dictatorship, we were also keen to piece together our thoughts on some controversies around the site and the legacy it represents.
The Sowjetisches Ehrenma (Soviet War Memorial)
On the ground of a former sports field, the ‘Soviet War Memorial for the war dead of the Battle of Berlin‘ is the result of a combined effort between notable sculptors and architects of the time – who were originally in competition against each other – to design one of the three memorial sites that were designated to be constructed in the boundaries of the city.
As the city was beginning to see the divide develop that would eventually become the East and West Germany split, the Soviet occupying forces were looking to make their mark on the city which – in their eyes – symbolised the fascist government that they’d fought and died trying to repel from their own borders. Their aim with these three sites and the competition to design them was an attempt at communicating the message that fascism was over, and that the free communist people of the Soviet Homeland were there to stay.
They’d seen defeat and the loss of millions of lives when Nazi Germany first made its push towards Moscow and now that they’d successfully pushed them back and defeated them, they wanted those lives lost to be represented for their martyrdom.
Remembering The Dead
Across 100,000 square feet of open space the war memorial is a combination of a large variety of Soviet symbols, starting with a stone representation of Mother Homeland (or more classically, ‘Mother Russia‘). She stands at the entrance way looking towards her fallen sons. As you follow her line of sight there are two large red granite structures that dominate the view that are modelled after two Soviet Russian flags at half mast for the fallen dead. Opposite each other and beneath the red granite etched with the hammer and sickle are two soldiers kneeling upon one knee in respect with their machine gun in hand.
As you crane your neck up to see them and take in their detail, it’s quite something to see the purposeful choices made to show the soldiers as both humble, yet strong, with powerful features on their faces, and medals won across their chests.
Heading further forward the space again opens up with the hill and statue above it straight ahead drawing in your eye. In the center are five square grass spaces with a bronze wreath for each thousand of the dead buried here. Running along the flanks of these grass covered spaces and the stone path that splits them are sixteen stone sarcophagi complete with a storyboard depiction of the fight against fascism that led so many millions to their death, and for some, their final resting place here at the war memorial.
On both sets of sarcophagi the words of Joseph Stalin are written and embossed with gold paint, with the text in Russian on the eight sarcophagi on the left flank, and in German on the right. Again there are several other symbols of communism, with the depiction of Lenin’s face above a marching Red Army being the most powerful amongst them.
Over The Broken Swastika
At the furthest end from the mother who weeps for her son who will never return home stands the Vuchetich statue. Atop of the stone pedestal that sits on the mount of the hill under which the 5000 fallen Russians are burid is the 12 meter tall bronze statue by the sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich. Depicting a strong Soviet man carrying a German child upon one arm and a large sword in the other which slices through the destroyed swastika on which he stands triumphant, it’s admittedly a stirring sight.
It makes for an incredibly powerful image and matches with many of the Soviet sculptures and depictions in art that we’ve seen during our time travelling in Central and Eastern Europe. Strong figures striding forth that look like ordinary people, that look like you and I. Strong people who are against oppression and are together united. It’s really something to see these great works of propaganda displayed in all of their might in full understanding of both the tragic loss of life in which they represent, but also the knowledge that the occupying Soviet force wasn’t afraid to use it as an opportunity to convince those who’d survived that they were the liberators Germany needed, and not the feared, secretive and restrictive governing body that they would become.
Feelings Post Reunification
In the well documented years that followed the rise and eventually fall of the Berlin Wall (which we were lucky to see remembered on the 25th anniversary), feeling towards Soviet Russian rule and the GDR government that followed it has been full of much anguish and sorrow, leading to political and city wide debate on what lasting impression the former rulers and their monuments should have in the city.
Whilst the final agreement set has been that monuments like the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park will stay and remain the property of the current Russian Federation, the war memorials and monuments will continue to be maintained by the now reunified government of Germany; yet whilst generally the feeling and position of many has been that we should of course commiserate the lives lost in the fight against fascism, there has in recent years been a more grouped and vocal attention being drawn to the darker side of the Soviet occupation forces.
Rogue Red Army
Much of the more recent outcry in opposition to remembering the Red Army and its activities as an occupying martial force has been the coming forward of hundreds of women who were for too long scared to speak out, but are now recounting the terrible ordeals that encountered at the hands of the very people who they – at one stage – hoped would free them from the oppression through fear that the Nazi party had used to convince an entire nation to support them.
Rather than welcoming them with open arms, women both old, young, and far too young were repeatedly exploited by Soviet soldiers who, after so many years of fighting were now taking advantage of their situation and power to enact revenge for the brutal attacks people from their own countries had seen.
With the fear of the gun always in their mind, women across the eastern states of Germany were “victims of the victors”, a phrase that has been used through the millennia to describe the rape, abuse and murder that typically occurs when a gathering army finally vanquishes its foe; and whilst the Allied forces used the threat of imprisonment in an effort to stamp out these occurrences, they still happened, yet not to the the extent of the estimated two million victims of rape in the Eastern States.
Two million victims across a number of age groups, some of which were part of an estimated 200,000 undocumented and illegal abortions, and others who bore the offspring of these encounters and hid their shame until they felt it was safe to tell their children their true mixed lineage.
As more accounts of the singular and repeated rapes of women across Eastern Germany are made public, the more people are questioning the need for these memorials and neither of us feel that anyone should stand in the way of their willingness to paint the true picture of their “liberators“.
How can we read about the silence being broken over Red Army rapes through testimonies and the publication of diaries and still have the desire to see the war memorial in Treptower Park?
We remember the bad and the good, the worst and the best, so that we don’t repeat ourselves and see others suffer again in the future.
The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park should be a place to remember it all, to remember every unfortunate step that led Germany to its current state of regeneration twenty-five years after the fall of the wall. We should use it to remember the many victims of rape who went to the grave without being able to speak out against the barbarity. Let us use the memorial to remember the victims of so many regime changes in Europe who lost their lives because they were different, because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or were targets of a horrendous attitude of “an eye for an eye“.
On the subject of “and eye for an eye“, Ruth Schumacher, a victim of the recently uncovered culture of rape said, “…one should never pay back in the same currency, right?” and there’s no disagreeing with her.
Let’s not seek payback, let us learn instead.
Should the memorial remain?