The shifting essence of Treptower Memorial, Berlin
by Vojtěch Jirásek
World War II left many scars on the landscape of Berlin and in its aftermath. Soviets enjoyed building big memorials that were hard not to notice. I’ve studied one of them, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. I was amazed by its monumentality, propaganda you can feel from every piece of the memorial, and the vast numbers of visitors.
World War II ended in Europe with the Battle of Berlin, during which more than 70 000 people died. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers were buried in mass graves, which the Soviet military administration ordered to build in the parks Tiergarten, Treptow and Schönholzer Heide in June 1946. Monumental memorials were built at these places to remind people of the Red Army’s absolute victory over Germany in the “Great Patriotic War.”
Between five and seven thousand Soviet soldiers rest in Treptower Park. The Memorial is the largest and the most monumental in Berlin. It was the largest Soviet memorial commemorating World War II until the Volgograd Memorial of the Battle of Stalingrad was built in 1967.
The authors included the architect Yakov Belopolsky, the sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich, the painter Alexander Gorbenko and the engineer Sarra Valerius. As Vuchetich was Stalin’s favorite sculptor, Stalin’s involvement in the project is highly probable. Red Army as well as around 1 200 German workers worked on the construction, which began in 1947 and was finished in May 1949.
The memorial was often used by the German governing Socialist Unity Party, East Germany’s National People’s Army, the Red Army and other state organizations during important anniversaries and events of the communist period.
After the fall of the Soviet block and the reunification, Germany took over the responsibility for the memorial together with all other Soviet graves and memorials on its territory, based on a 1992 agreement with the Russian Federation. The memorial’s poor condition in the 1990s required a full scale reconstruction, which took place in early 2000s.
Events commemorating the war, remembering the fallen, and reminding people of the fall of democracy and civilisation under the National Socialist regime take place by the memorial every year. The events and the memorial itself help people to understand German history. The memorial also represents the understanding and reconciliation between Germany, Russia and other post-Soviet republics.
The fascinating thing about the memorial is the symbolism in details. There are four statues at the memorial. The first one is the mother(land), traditionally dressed and weeping over the fallen children: Soviet citizens, soldiers, sons, daughters… She is surrounded by bent birches, as the birch is the Russian national tree, and their hanging branches symbolize crying over the dead. Two bronze statues of soldiers are kneeling, paying tribute to fallen comrades. The last statue, the most dominant one, is the Soviet soldier, towering on top of a broken swastika, 12 meters in length. In one hand he holds a lowered sword – a symbol of strength, victory and also humility – and in the other, a small girl – symbolizing the German nation liberated from Hitler by the USSR.
The gigantic statue stands on the kurgan, in which the deceased Soviet officers are supposedly buried. Kurgan is a typical East European tomb of ancient rulers, it apparently points at history, tradition and respect towards fallen heroes. Between the statue and the kurgan is a pedestal in which there is a small room reminding one of a chapel or a crypt. Its wall is decorated with a mosaic on golden background depicting Soviet citizens laying a wreath on the grave of the fallen. Young and old, intellectuals, soldiers and workers, men, women and children, even Central Asians are present – a symbol of Soviet people’s unity. In the middle of the room is a small plaque reminding one of an altar. With the golden background of the mosaic it is difficult not to think about the chapels of Orthodox churches. The ancient kurgan with orthodox chapel standing on it and statue of Soviet soldier on the top is putting aside the Soviet ideals and symbolism and, instead, stresses the greatness of Russian history culminating in absolute victory over dehumanised enemy in the brutal war.
There are 16 sarcophaguses at the memorial, each representing one Soviet Republic (the Karelo-Finnish SSR still existed when the memorial was built). Their reliefs depict the development of the war since 1941 till 1945.
The earliest scenes on the sarcophaguses depict airplanes bombing the Soviet countryside and cities, and people running from their homes to the woods and taking up weapons. In later scenes, as they are pressured by all the threats against them, they manage to mount a counterattack through collective force. The heroic defence of Moscow with Lenin in the back, the protection of Leningrad and the terrors of the Battle of Stalingrad are depicted as well. Great sacrifices are made, and many sons, brothers, fathers and friends fall, but victory over the invader is inevitable.
Next to the three Soviet cities, one more specific place is depicted on the sarcophaguses. It is Prague. Prague represents the liberation of Europe by the Red Army. At first glimpse it is interesting that Prague was chosen, but when we look at it more closely it is obvious why this was so. If we look at the countries liberated (in all senses of the word, according to the Soviet dictionary) in Europe, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia were Hitler’s allies, and thus they were rather conquered than liberated, Yugoslavia more or less got liberated on its own, Poland’s tragedy surrounding the Warsaw Uprising does not allow for too many hurrahs over its liberation, and one would need a great deal of fantasy to claim that Berlin was liberated. After taking these factors into account, only Prague is left as an ideal (although speculative) symbol of the liberation of Nazi-controlled states by the Red Army.
Another interesting feature of the memorial is that Stalin’s quotations on it survived until today despite the great changes in the discourse about his personality since 1945. The reason for this might be that the statements are not considered to be all that traditionally Stalinist, or an unwillingness to encroach on the graves of thousands of dead people.
Literally everything at the memorial has a meaning. The stones used in the pylons in the shape of lowered Soviet flags are from Hitler’s Chancellery. All the dates on the memorial are “1941-1945”. Most of the wreaths are half laurel (a symbol of victory) and half oak (the German national tree). The trees on the sarcophaguses are also oaks.
The Usage of the Memorial
The mission of the Memorial is to remind people of the horrors of World War II, the millions of dead, and the destruction of both the cities and the countryside. During the times of the DDR this function might have been slightly played down by other political functions, but it is the main function that it bears today.
The second role of the memorial is political. A part of its political role is propaganda. The visitor is constantly barraged by red stars, sickles and hammers. The message is clear: it was the Soviets who defeated Nazism, it was the Red Army who conquered the capital of the Third Reich, and it was Soviet blood which paid for Hitler’s defeat. The suffering of the Soviet people and its absolute victory are apparent from the tableaus and Stalin’s quotations on the sarcophaguses. There is not a word about Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the war begins in 1941.
The Soviet victory is maximally highlighted. Germany’s loss, on the other hand, is barely mentioned. In Stalin’s quotations it is always “Hitler’s Germany”, the “national fascist regime”, “Hitler’s criminals”, etc. The tableaus on the sarcophaguses also present detailed pictures of Soviet soldiers and citizens: the uniforms, the weapons, the traditional folk clothing, the looks on their faces and even the buildings and trees are as realistic as possible. The enemy, in contrast, is depicted rarely, always anonymous – in the form of planes, a tank or a gun barrel shooting out of a bush.
This gets us to the other political role the memorial had: rebuilding the positive relations between the Soviet Union and (East) Germany, ravaged by the war. The memorial is thus very flexible in its symbolism. While a (post-)Soviet visitor gets pictures of horrible wartime suffering and the grandiose victory of his/her country, a German visitor is not forced into a position of loss, conquest, or condemnation. Germany is depicted as being liberated and saved from Hitler’s terror and oppression by its great Soviet brother.
The memorial used to be a place of many almost ritualized events associated with various different anniversaries, where Soviet and DDR armies marched side by side and the political and military leaders of both countries proclaimed their never ending brotherhood and friendship. The speeches of the two sides were, however, significantly different, as they were based on the mentioned model: while Soviet generals stressed the Soviet suffering and their country’s great victory, the German political leaders thanked the Soviets for saving their country from Hitler’s oppression.
The Treptower Memorial, however, did not lose its political function with the fall of the communist regime in the DDR. Even today the site is being used by many politicians as a place of remembrance of World War II as well as a means of demonstrating their political views. For example, the memorial was visited in June 2000 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who laid a wreath in the crypt under the statue. The site starts to be especially popular with the rise of extreme nationalism in Russia – the 71st anniversary of the end of the war was celebrated here by mixture of Night Wolves members, children in Soviet uniforms, Soviet veterans and hundreds of other people.
The last but not least of its political functions is that the Treptower Memorial works as a mark of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The USSR left behind in places which were under its direct or indirect control a series of memorials, showing who liberated or conquered the given piece of land, who is the strong one. A great example of such is the memorial in Tiergarten, Berlin, more specifically, in the former British sector/Western Berlin, which was built right after the war. It is much more militarized than Treptower, and it was built to show the Soviet muscles to the West: it depicts a soldier ready to fight with two cannons and two tanks by his side instead of a weeping mother. It sent out a clear message about who was the master in Berlin.
The Cult of the Soviet War Dead in Treptow
The origin of the Cult of Soviet War Dead lies in World War II, but it was made more specific during Brezhnev’s era. The cult is basically ritualized praise of Soviet fallen soldiers. It is rooted in the huge losses the Soviet Union and the Red Army suffered during the war, which were always stressed and are a part of the Russian discourse of war even today. Many memorials of all sizes served the cult until the present in a similar way as that in which crosses, chapels, churches and cathedrals served Christianity in earlier times.
The phenomenon of statues and memorials to fallen Soviet soldiers is a subset to the statues of Unknown Soldier. As Anderson writes in his “Imagined Communities”, it is the most ideal memorial to the nationalism or other ideology. Dead Unknown Soviet Soldier is the ideal symbol to praise: no-one can question his patriotism, ideal cadre profile and absolute confidence with whatever else state wants him to be – because he is dead (and cannot complain about it) and unknown (so we cannot find out the probably more controversial truth). The main difference between Soviet Unknown Soldier and Unknown Soldier of other nationalisms is the significantly higher number of Soviet unknown fallen soldiers and the emphasis put on them by Soviet state – and the Soviet state’s obsession with dead, tragedy and sorrow the Soviet Union went through during the Great Patriotic War.
Brezhnev’s conservation of the system put stress on remembering and reminding people of the greatest success of the USSR in World War II. Under Brezhnev, a series of new memorials was being built, including the Volga Memorial, the cult’s greatest dome. Remembering the great losses and suffering of the USSR during the war was also highlighted under Brezhnev.
In the eyes on this cult the Treptower Memorial gained another purpose: it became the second largest temple of the Cult of the Soviet War Dead in the capital of the USSR’s former enemy. Paul Strangl, in his article “The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow, Berlin“, even works with the idea that the slowly emerging cult shaped the design of the memorial already when it was being built. While it was allowed to depict the great suffering of the Soviet Union with its many fallen, it would be a blasphemy against the cult to depict Germans/”fascists”, the arch-enemy, as people who are being liberated. On the other hand, from a political point of view it was not acceptable to depict Germans as evil. Thus the Germans were anonymized as much as possible and separated from “Hitler’s villains”, and the free interpretation of the memorial was allowed.
Today, Treptower War Memorial lies in one of many Berlin’s parks, partly forgotten, visited by Berliners of all ages and cultures for leisure. Tourists from counties never touched by social realism come here to see at least a shadow of Eastern Europe’s Soviet past. The memorial’s former purpose disappears in the smoke from grills, under wheals of skateboards. With war over for more than half century and five-point stars slowly losing their political meaning, the memorial looks as great place for peaceful relax in sunny Sunday afternoon. But the shadow of the Soviet soldier won’t disappear for a long time.
Vojtěch Jirásek is studying International Areal Studies at Charles University in Prague and is currently an intern at IIR.
Kremlin.ru (2000), ‘President Vladimir Putin Laid a Wreath to the Monument to the Soviet Liberator Soldier in Treptow Park’, 16/06/2000, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/38629.
Stangl, Paul (2003), ‘The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow, Berlin’, Geographical Review, 93(2): 213-236.
Wheeler, Alex (2016), ‘Ultranationalist Russian Biker Gang Night Wolves Celebrate Victory Day in Berlin’, International Business Times, 09/05/2016. Available at http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ultranationalist-russian-biker-gang-night-wolves-celebrate-victory-day-berlin-1559089.
Yegorov, Oleg (2016), ‘“Night Wolves” Heading for Berlin Again on WWII Motorbike Rally’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 29/04/2016. Available at http://rbth.com/politics_and_society/2016/04/29/night-wolves-heading-for-berlin-again-on-wwii-motorbike-rally_589429.
Anderson, Benedict (1996), Imagined Communities, New York: Verso.