Marcel Krueger heads to the German-Russian Museum at Berlin-Karlshorst to explore some memories of wartime…
Berlin lay in ruins as the planes landed. From all over Europe, the vanquishers and the vanquished of World War Two came. Nine days after Adolf Hitler had shot himself and the Red Army defeated the last defenders of the capital of the Third Reich, Axis and Allies converged here to accept the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy and the authorized British representative of the Western Headquarters; General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the US air force in Europe; the Soviet deputy foreign minister Andrei Vyshinsky; and Field Marshal Keitel, the highest ranking officer left in the Wehrmacht – all landed on Tempelhof airfield.
From there they drove through Berlin in black staff cars along roads only recently cleared of rubble, directed along by female Red Army traffic controllers with Kalashnikov sub-machine guns slung across their backs.
They drove to a pioneer school of the Wehrmacht in the suburb of Karlshorst, were the main mess hall had been transformed into a surrender room draped with the flags of the four Allies. The cars stopped in front of the pillared entrance and men in polished boots and jackboots and olive, brown and field grey uniforms walked up the stairs and into the building, the double door closing behind them.
67 years later, I trudged through falling snow and minus 21 degrees to the same Karlshorst building. Since the significant meeting described above, it has been transformed into a museum commemorating the war between Russia and Germany 1941 to 1945.
I have a personal interest in this part of World War Two. My grandfather served as a sapper in the German army during the cold winters and intense summers of the Eastern front from 1941 on. The museum is located at the historic site of the surrender of the German Armed Forces on 8 May 1945 in Berlin, in the former officers’ mess of a pioneer school of the Wehrmacht that also served as the seat of the Soviet military administration in Germany from 1945 to 1949.
After being used for various purposes by the Soviet military, a Soviet surrender museum opened in 1967 and existed until 1994, and the whole place is now run by German and Russian authorities as a bilateral institution. It’s the only museum in Germany with a permanent exhibition recalling the Nazi war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. And it’s fairly off the beaten track: the location in the Karlshorst suburb is a 45-minute S-Bahn ride from the tourist sights of Mitte and only served by bus or a 15-minute walk from the nearest S-Bahn-station.
The grey and square building itself is not very impressive; the assortment of heavy Soviet ordinance in the park around it very much so. As I had expected from a former Soviet-army-run establishment, it had an air of pompousness with a T 34 tank on a pedestal, war-graffiti of the former crew forever etched into its flank; and an array of artillery and bigger tanks lined up behind the building. I only spent a few minutes among the artillery though. The Berlin frost drove me inside.
The interior of the museum is a strange mixture of even more pompous Soviet murals depicting Stalin, a diorama of the storming of the Reichstag in 1945 and the main surrender hall filled with commemorative plaques and red flags. What impressed me the most was the sober main exhibition, covering German-Soviet relations from 1917 on, the ideological origins of the conflict and the war 1941 – 1945 itself.
This part of the exhibition provides an overview of the course of the war with maps and animations, but mostly covers the war of the ‘little man’ by the examples of single soldiers, displaying their war diaries or following their way through the fighting and single battles with the help of photos taken by the soldiers and maps showing their positions.
The exhibition thereby provides a creepy insight into a war of total annihilation advanced by two ideologies and its politicians, and paid for dearly by individuals. For example, life expectancy of a Red Army soldier during the battle of Stalingrad 1942 was three days, and a German tank crew could expect to survive three weeks on the front during the tank battles of 1943.
Exhibits include many personal objects from civilians, such as a little sleigh that the inhabitants of besieged Leningrad used to transport food and fire wood, as well as their dead. The exhibition also continues to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Germany and Soviet-German relations after 1945, both with the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and West Germany, displaying propaganda posters that look almost ironic sixty years later: The Red Army comes to help; our gratitude is work and build-up.
I never was a soldier. Thankfully, I was in a position to forego my military service and opt for civilian service when it was my time to get conscripted at twenty. And with the paunch I have latterly developed, any sergeant worth their salt would refuse me for even for the reserves. When I trotted back from the museum to the bus that would take me to my apartment with Wi-Fi and a dishwasher, I therefore wondered if somebody like me could ever truly emulate the experiences of a World War Two serviceman. But I also mentally saluted both my grandfather for making it through that war alive and the museum for preserving its memory.
This article was expanded from an original piece published over at Pocket Cultures.