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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten: Military Symbols in Need of Musealization


Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten: Military Symbols in Need of Musealization

The Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten pays tribute to the soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April 1945. It is the mark of power of a vanished regime, and currently reflects Russian narratives and ambitions.


The Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten is Well Worth a Visit.


The liberation of Germany in 1945 came at the cost of immense destruction and the death of hundreds of thousands of people, both civilian and military. Under the terms of the Yalta Conference, the country was divided into several zones of occupation, with the Soviet Union taking back the eastern territories and part of Berlin. The dead of the last great battle of the Second World War remained in Berlin, and were buried in a number of specially-built burial grounds.


The first of these is located in what remains of Tiergarten Park, which was completely ravaged by incendiary bombs. Work began in haste, in anticipation of the arrival of Allied troops in their sectors of occupation. In fact, the monument is located in British territory, right next to the Reichstag Palace. The pied-de-nez was obvious: the Soviets were marking their territory and heralding the start of the Cold War. As a cemetery, the Tiergarten monument is protected by international conventions on the preservation of foreign military graves.


After 1961, the Soviet memorial ironically became an enclave within the Western zone, enclosed by the Berlin Wall. It was covered with barricades to counter the frequent hostile demonstrations from the West. With the collapse of the USSR, the memorial became an extraterritorial of the Russian Federation. Yet the symbols of a bygone era persist, just a few yards from the German Parliament.

Overview of the Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten in Berlin.

A Very Martial Ensemble


The Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten is located along the Allee of the 17th of June 1953. Visible from the street, a handsome portico stands on a raised platform, creating an effect of grandeur. The monument is harmonious. The perfectly symmetrical colonnade is centered on the pillar supporting the statue of the liberating soldier. The inscriptions are in Cyrillic script, and the sickle and hammer seal dominates the scene. Only the names of generals and army corps are inscribed on the columns. The ordinary combatants remain anonymous. As such, the statue has the features of the Soviet military governor of the time.


On the sides are artillery pieces and two tanks which, according to the official story, were the first to enter Berlin at the end of the war. They have been renovated several times and look as good as new. At the rear of the portico, outdoor panels provide information on the forms and reasons for the various memorials erected by the Soviet Union in Berlin.


Finally, as you leave the built environment, you come to the burial ground where the remains of several thousand servicemen are interred. There are no flowers, just a long lawn crossed by a dirt path leading to the exit to the Reichstag Palace. No cenotaphs. Two monumental urns upstream are a vague reminder of the funerary dimension of a complex that is first and foremost political. The Red Army celebrates its victory, and tribute to the fallen takes a back seat.

Artillery guns at the Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten in Berlin.

A Bad Signal For the Present and the Future


The Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten in Berlin raises questions about the political utility and use of memorials to history. Indeed, it is a symbol of the past and of a vanished regime. But the complex is more than just a singular, cumbersome historical relic, in the image of the buildings erected by the former East Germany. Today, it is the property of the Russian Federation, which has full responsibility for it.


In 1945, the military spirit was justified by years of war and sacrifice, and the heroic forms of architecture were based on the codes of the Soviet Union. As such, it is a historical curiosity and not lacking in interest; all the more so as access is free and unrestricted. Despite the change of era, Russia has made no notable changes, and this is a conscious choice. What's the point of keeping the tanks and artillery? At best, immobility reflects ignorance and denial. In this case, it's more a question of ambition for power and might. The site is used for patriotic rallies orchestrated by Moscow. The public is well aware of this, and regularly organizes demonstrations in front of the memorial, depending on current events.


The memorial offers no space for catharsis or meditation. In 2024, it is a militaristic and bellicose symbol in the heart of the German capital, in plain sight. The instrumentalization of memory in its current form does absolutely nothing to bring the German and Russian peoples closer together. The Russian Federation should first museumize the military equipment, then rethink its message and finally change the form. It could draw inspiration from the Neue Wache: indeed, Berlin's war memorial has undergone several fundamental adaptations over the centuries, enabling it to keep pace with the times. Nevertheless, a similar process would require a profound paradigm shift in Russian memorial policy.


Pro

  • Free access

  • Relive the feeling of an era

  • Well-maintained complex

Contra

  • A place of power, not memory

  • An outdated and problematic message

  • The erasure of war victims

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