The other day I assisted Elsa (my girlfriend’s Russian friend) with a tour of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, which lies within the Alt Treptow district of Berlin. A portion of Treptower Park was dedicated as a Soviet Military Memorial and Cemetery on May 8, 1949. The date is significant for the WWII unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945. Over 7,000 Red Army soldiers, who died during the WWII Battle of Berlin, are buried at the memorial site. This battle led to the end of hostilities in Europe. Over 70,000 people were killed during the Battle for Berlin. 22,000 Soviet soldiers died during the fighting, along with 20,000 German soldiers, and 30,000 civilians.
The park was part of East Berlin located in the Soviet sector. In my 1981 Berlin Brigade soldier’s orientation tour of the East we were ushered through the park for a brief visit. That visit did not convey the true scope of the solemn burial ground that I have since come to appreciate.
The recent trip to the site was made easy by the connections of the Berlin S-Bahn system. There is a Treptower Park stop on the Ring lines S41, or S42 (according to the direction you are coming from). Once there, exit the S-Bahn and look for the sign post to the “Sowjetische Ehrenmal “. This leads through a portion of the park parallel to the Spree River. A few vandalized signs left me questioning if we were going the right way, but we arrived safely at the entrance within a few hundred meters of the S-Bahn. This entrance was closed for renovations. Although the closure led us on a round about search for the other entrance, I was glad to see that Berlin was fulfilling their agreement to maintain the foreign military monuments after the fall of the Wall.
We found the other entrance and proceeded through the memorial. The entrance is guarded by a large arch that extolls the Soviet’s victory over Fascism by the Soviet Army. A statue of a grieving mother welcomes you into a lane flanked with Weeping Birch trees. From there, two large triangular edifices with soldiers kneeling in respect welcome you into the mass burial sites. Each triangle represents a Soviet flag dipped in honor of the fallen soldiers. A quote is written on the triangular forms, in Russian to the left, and German to the right. It reads, “Eternal grace to the Soviet warriors who gave their life in the struggle for freeing the humanity from the Fascist slavery”.
After passing between the two soldiers a commemorative plaque sits below the steps at the start of the mass graves. The large grass covered areas beyond the wreath are the final resting places of the 7,000 Soviet soldiers. Eight stone sarcophagi flank the burial grounds, representing the sixteen Soviet Republics. Each stone bears a relief depicting a scene of the war – from the Siege of Leningrad to the concluding Battle of Berlin. It is all from the Soviet perspective. The victors write the history. The stones also bear excerpts from Stalin speeches regarding the war. The quotes on the left side are written in Russian, and to the right in German.
A hill at the far end of the mall forms the base of a large statue of a Soviet soldier with his sword held in his right hand pointed to the ground. He stands on top of a broken Swastika as he comforts a German child in his left arm. Steps lead up the grass covered hill to the base of the massive statue where you can peer into a small colorful chamber decorated with representations of a funeral. The various Russian regions are depicted by the people in the colorful mosaic. It all transpires under a Soviet star in the ceiling. The massive statue is part of a triptych along with a statue in Magnitogorsk, and another one in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), Russia. The one in Magnitogorsk depicts two men who have made a sword from the iron mined in the region, which supplied much iron and steel to the Russian war effort during the war. The second one is in Volgograd and depicts Mother Russia calling her people to fight. The third is the Treptower Park statue that shows the end to the war. The three statues were designed by a famous Soviet sculptor, Yevgeny Vuchetich. He also designed the statue of a man beating a sword into a plowshare that stands in front of the New York City UN Headquarters. This statue refers to the Bible verse Isaiah 2:4 “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
When we visited the Soviet military memorial, the stone sidewalks were being replaced along the Russian language side of the site. A fence prevented us from getting too close to the worksite. We found one spot where we could get close enough to allow Elsa to read one of the quotes. While we walked in reverence a Russian speaking family happened along. The two young boys began running around the base of the statue. The parents were more interested in posing themselves for photos and laughing. I stopped the boys and told them “Rennen Sie nicht bitte.” (Please don’t run.) They slowed down but soon they were urging each other to jump from one side stone to the next along the edges of the steps. The parents finally stepped in to put an end to that activity. I was glad to see them taking some interest in reprimanding their kids.
As we left the site, I realized that I always feel like this could be my last visit here. When I had visited in the early 80’s the Berlin Wall prevented easy access to the site. During the early 90’s the Germans were pondering the future of the memorial, would it be dismantled, or would the German government maintain the site out of reverence? I have since returned multiple times, either to showcase it to friends who visited with me, or with the Berlin U. S. Military Veterans (BUSMVA) tour group in 2018, sponsored by the Check Point Charlie Foundation of Berlin. I hope to return again to share this memorial with others. It is well worth the trip.
All photos by Douglas Brockway