The chilling Cold War history on the streets of Berlin

Last week, Berlin celebrated the 28th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. The day is marked with a public holiday and, while it was nice to have a day off work, all I could think about was just how little time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited the city and paved the way for national reunification. I found myself recalling my first visit to the city in 1989. Cold War hostilities still existed, the Berlin Wall seemed like a permanent fixture, and passing through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin was like a scene from a movie.

The anniversary celebrations culminated with live music and a crescendo of fireworks, but seemed quite subdued given the momentous nature of the occasion. I guess there might be a sense of wanting to move on from the past, and it’s probably no coincidence that Berlin’s Festival of Lights starts where reunification celebrations end. A thumbing of Berlin’s collective nose at the darkness of decades of division. Yet, the city’s daily life is lived with near constant reminders of its Cold War history.

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

'Balancing Act' sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

‘Balancing Act’ sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Our apartment is built in what was known as the ‘death strip’, a strip of land behind the Berlin Wall that was filled with electronic devices and watched over by three hundred observation towers. Attempting to cross these formidable ‘defences’ cost at least 138 Berliners their lives, and maybe it is in their memory that the city has not only retained sections of the Wall, but has marked its entire 155km length as a permanent memorial – I often see people ‘walking the wall’, map in hand.

It’s fairly common to find yourself in an ordinary area of the city and to suddenly be confronted by segments of the wall. A version of ‘the banality of evil’, to steal Hannah Arendt’s phrase. Recently while walking along the Spree close to the Reichstag, we passed through the Invalidenfriedhof, a former German military cemetery. The wall sliced through here with little regard for the living, or the dead. A watch tower stands in memory of Gunter Litfin, the first person to be killed trying to escape to the West.

That was in 1961, and the Wall would stand for another 38 years. The Wall though, is only one reminder of the Cold War. Walk under the Brandenburger Tor down the main avenue of the Tiergarten, and you’ll soon reach the impressive Soviet War Memorial, which also doubles as a mass grave for over 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle for Berlin. The massive statue of a Russian soldier that looks down on the Tiergarten is flanked by two T34 tanks, alleged to be the first tanks to enter the city in 1945.

This memorial sat in British controlled West Berlin and, when I visited in 1989, Soviet soldiers stood at attention guarding the site. It’s an impressive memorial to the utterly gobsmacking Soviet sacrifices made in the Battle for Berlin: 80,000 Soviet soldiers died capturing the city, to which must be added tens of thousands of German soldiers and civilians who also died. The mass grave sits a few hundred meters from the Reichstag.

As impressive as it is though, the memorial pales in significance to the enormous Soviet memorial and mass grave in Treptower Park. We recently visited this interesting bit of Berlin, walking through Gorlitzer Park and along the Spree on a hot day to reach what surely must be Berlin’s most impressive memorial to the victory of Soviet arms over Nazism. A huge statue of a Soviet soldier rests his sword on a crushed swastika while cradling a German girl in his protective arms.

The irony of which would not be lost on the millions (literally) of German women and girls who were subject to mass rape and deprivation at the hands of their ‘liberators’. This statue, like its Tiergarten twin, is an effective piece of propaganda, the reality behind which is far more terrifying: Soviet soldiers, having witnessed Nazi atrocities in the East and fed a daily diet of anti-German hate, ran amok, committing atrocities in return. It is a history that has been largely ignored, some have even tried to justify it.

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

That Germany, and Berlin, has retained all these symbols of its own historic crimes, and those visited upon it, for the 28 years since reunification, shows a maturity and bravery that I doubt many other nations would exhibit. There are far right politicians who want to get rid of these and other reminders of the past. That they remain is something to be celebrated.

4 thoughts on “The chilling Cold War history on the streets of Berlin

  1. Thanks. A thought-provoking piece about something many people are unaware of. My Dad’s family were trapped behind that wall for a very long time. I’m not going to forget that particular stretch of history any time soon. I recall meeting them for the first time a week after the wall came down. I was 30 and I’d never met my aunt, my cousins or my great aunt before that.

    • That’s an amazing (and tragic) family history. I’ve read about the arbitrary separation of families, but to have lived it is incredible. The Friedrichstrasse train station is known as the Palace of Tears because it was where families from the West could cross to the East to see their relatives, and where they left them on the way back. It is surprising that the national emotional scar isn’t much greater.

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