Marcel Krueger on a project that documents the Red Army’s time in East Germany…
In 2014, Italian photographers Stefano Corso and Dario-Jacopo Laganá travelled more than 8,000 km by car, took 10,000 photos and visited more than 200 former military locations, all with one goal: to document the physical traces of the Red Army in Germany.
“Myself and Stefano have always liked history and how society changes in relation to historical events,” explains Dario, who is also the founder of the historically-minded Elephant in Berlin blog. “When I first came to live in Berlin, I quickly discovered the huge Soviet memorial in Treptower park. I realised that, although it was well known, it was not quite famous and certainly not overcrowded. This got me thinking about the topic of the Russians here in Germany and in a way was the starting point for the project.”
The project’s appeal indeed stems from the way it documents a part of German history that, up until now, hasn’t had much mainstream attention. The Red Army effectively occupied East Germany from May 8th, 1945, when the dust was still settling over a destroyed Berlin and German forces had unconditionally surrendered, creating the so-called Soviet Occupation Zone (Sowjetische Besatzungszone or SBZ in German).
Assigned official responsibility for the eastern part of Germany through the Potsdam Treaty, the zone was divided, in 1947, into the newly-created German federal states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt und Thuringia. On the 7 October 1949, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Soviet involvement in the administrative responsibilities and politics of this new state theoretically ended. The Red Army, however, stayed.
Since the GDR marked the official frontline of the Cold War and the fledgling Republic did not have a standing army until 1956, the Russian military were assigned the task of enforcing the regulations of the Potsdam treaty; for example, Allied military personnel passing from West Berlin along the corridors through the GDR and into West Germany could only be inspected by Red Army troops.
In 1957 a treaty between the governments of the Soviet Union and the GDR about the arrangements of Soviet armed forces on the territory of the GDR was signed, specifying that the Soviet armed forces were not to interfere into the internal affairs of the GDR (as they had done during the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany).
Although this mean that Red Army troops more or less disappeared from public view, they again did not leave. In fact, Soviet troops would erect and occupy a total of 777 buildings at 276 locations in Germany, including 47 airfields, which were set up to operate independently and catered for soldiers and their families complete with shops, gyms, prisons, schools, swimming pools and cinemas.
At the beginning of 1991, a year after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the GDR, there were still about 338,000 Red Army soldiers stationed in Germany, along with 208,000 families and civil employees with about 90,000 children. Following the 2+4 talks it was agreed that both sides of the Cold War would withdraw their troops from German soil, and the massive Russian presence began finally moving out, marking the largest peacetime troop transfers in military history.
The return of the troops and material took place mainly by sea via the Baltic to Leningrad and beyond. The Russian Ground Forces finally left Germany on 25 June 1994 with a military parade in Berlin, while a parting ceremony in Treptow Park on 31 August 1994 marked the end of the Russian military presence in Germany. Some of their camps and installations were re-utilised by the Germany army, the Bundeswehr, or civil authorities, some fell into neglect and disrepair.
This is why, at first glance, Stefano and Dario’s We Will Forget Soon project looks like a typical exploration of abandoned places, but a closer inspection reveals it is much more than that. “We are both interested in history and abandoned places, but our project aims to document the actual situation of almost all places that used to be under Soviet control,” says Dario.
“We started with the abandoned places, but soon discovered that there were other places that were either completely gone or had been completely refurbished,” says Dario. “We realised there was virtually no trace left of this immense Red Army presence that had been here for decades. So we started to document these completely vanished places as well. You could think of it as a photographical survey of barracks, hospitals, gyms and also the memorials scattered around the territory of East Germany.”
For example, the duo took pictures in an abandoned building of the Beelitz Heilstätten, but then discovered a renovated and overhauled building nearby, that was in use as a hospital again. Since both buildings have the exact same layout, they could make a direct comparison between the neglected and the renovated versions.
“The most interesting part of this project has always been trying to verify our research. We often started from a map, or websites or books, searching for relevant buildings or statues and then visiting the sites and hoping that things were still there. Sometimes we’ve had only photos made by the soldiers to go on, and we have to try and match the place now to how it was then. Many times we found no traces at all, but other times we were lucky, discovering an abandoned statue in a forest…that was our reward.”
While the project is ostensibly about places rather than people, the two found invaluable help through veterans of the Red Army. “Along with our own historical documentation, we visited lots of Red Army online forums in Russia for some background information and individual impressions. For some of the veterans, their time in East Germany this was the trip of a lifetime, especially if their were coming from the more remote parts of the Soviet Union. But still there was often some detachment, especially since these men were often transported in by plane, dropped in the middle of the forest for two years and then flown back. But we discovered lots of lost details about our locations from them; for example how a concrete platform we had found featured a tank installation and so on.”
Stefano and Dario worked hard to find some official support through the Italian Cultural Institute and the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, the federal German foundation for examination of the SED-dictatorship. This facilitated their project hugely in terms of access: “Many places we visited were closed to visitors,” explains Dario, “because they belong to private or to companies that are often trying to sell them. Having some official support meant that these owners were much more open to letting us access their properties; they gave the project a kind of official stamp of approval.”
Thanks also to these foundations, the pair have been able to create a book about the project, which will feature an introduction by historian Silke Satjukow, an expert on the subject. “Satjukow’s book, in my personal opinion, is the most complete book on this topic,” says Dario. “It’s a book on history, economy and society but contains also many small and interesting personal stories. After reading it, I decided to contact her, show her our project and ask for some suggestions. I met her in Magdeburg and took a copy of her book with me for an autograph. She decided to help us and offered to write the historical introduction of the book.”
Alongside the book, We Will Forget Soon is also a travelling exhibition, which will pass through various parts of East Germany between 2015-2016 . “We are really happy that we have some exhibitions in locations related to the Red Army and the Cold War,” says Dario, “like the Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing, which is now a memorial or the Gedenkstätte Roter Ochse in Halle, a former prison used by both the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, and the GDR.”