Berlin’s German-Russian Museum

Marcel Krueger explores Karlshorst’s German-Russian Museum…

Image by Prof.Quatermass, courtesy of Wikicommons

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 Third Reich capital, the Axis and Allied powers 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 U.S. 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 at Tempelhof airfield.

From there they drove through Berlin in black cars along roads only recently cleared of rubble, directed 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 Berlin suburb of Karlshorst, where 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 leather boots, brown and grey uniforms walked up the stairs and into the building, the double door closing quietly behind them.

Image courtesy of the Karlshorst German-Russian Museum

A few decades later, I trudged through falling snow to the same building, which has since been transformed into a museum commemorating the war between Russia and Germany, 1941 to 1945. It’s fairly off the beaten track: a 45-minute S-Bahn ride from the tourist sights of Mitte plus a bus or 15-minute walk from one of the nearby stations.

After being used for various purposes by the Soviet military, a Soviet-run surrender museum opened in 1967 and existed until 1994 but the 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.

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, complete with graffiti from its former crew forever etched into its flank; an array of artillery and bigger tanks were arranged in a line behind the building.

Image courtesy of the Karlshorst German-Russian Museum

The interior of the museum is a strange mixture of  pompous Soviet murals (mostly depicting Stalin), a diorama of the storming of the Reichstag in 1945, and the main surrender hall, which is filled with commemorative plaques and red flags. What impressed me the most was the sober main exhibition, which covers German-Soviet relations from 1917 on, the ideological origins of the conflict, and the war between 1941–1945. Importantly, it shows the war from both the German and Soviet perspectives and in addition to texts, there are historical photos, everyday objects and written documents.

Indeed, it mostly covers the war of ordinary soldiers, tracing the lives and experiences of individuals via their war diaries and photos. In this way, the exhibition provides a creepy insight into the war of total annihilation advanced by political ideology but paid for by normal folk. I learned that the life expectancy of a Red Army soldier during the battle of Stalingrad 1942 was three days, while 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 both iconic and ironic sixty years later: The Red Army comes to help.

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. Thankfully, I could forego my military service and opt for civilian service when conscription came for me at the age of twenty. And with the paunch I have latterly developed, any sergeant worth their salt would refuse me, even for the reserves. On my way out, I mentally saluted my grandfather for making it through the war alive, as well as the museum for preserving its memory.

Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

This article was expanded from an original piece published over at Pocket Cultures.

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