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Stimulating local memory

A review of “Everyday Life – Politics – Combat Training. Soviet armed forces in germany 1945-1994.” An exhibit at the German-Russian Museum, Berlin-Karlshorst, Germany, August 28th 2019 – January 15th 2020.

April 6, 2020 - Kinga Gajda - Books and ReviewsIssue 3 2020Magazine

The exhibit depicts the story of the Soviet troops stationed in Karlshorst and other bases in East Germany from 1945 to 1994. The photographs and objects that allow the visitor to transcend into the isolated world of the Red Army soldiers. Photo: German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

More than anything else, museums are archives of collective memory. Thus, it is not surprising that as modern institutions, gearing to increasingly more digital audiences, today’s museums often depart from their role of solely storing and archiving historical artefacts. As a result, a visit to a museum more and more often takes the form of an experience in which a visitor engages through technologically stimulated interactions with the past.

Equally important as the form with which a museum chooses to retell the story about history and share it with the audience is the authenticity of its work and physical location. Thus there are also many museums where, based on a more modern approach, artefacts are placed in glass cabinets and geared towards the direct participants of the discussed event. This way of presenting history can be equally attractive, especially in those cases when the building or location of the museum is an important witness to history. A good example of this is the German-Russian Museum in the Karlshorst district of what was formerly East Berlin.

Museum witness

Today’s premise of the German-Russian Museum in Berlin is the former seat of the Soviet Military Administration where on the night of May 8th 1945 the high command of the German Army signed the document with its unconditional surrender to the four Allied forces. After the war, the building continued its role as the Red Army’s headquarters in Germany until 1949. In 1967 it was changed into a memory site and was opened to the public as the Museum of the Soviet Armed Forces in Germany. Later the institution’s name was changed into the Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War and as such operated until 1994, which is the year when the last soldiers of the Red Army left Germany.

In May 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and after restructuring the permanent exhibition, the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst was opened to the public. Its existence is a result of an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union to jointly recollect the history of the German-Soviet war and the end of Nazi rule. Put simply, having such a museum was one of the conditions for the withdrawal of the Red Army from Germany. In a form of a certain response, the Allied Museum was opened in 1998. It is located in the former American sector of Berlin and naturally provides a different interpretation of the end of Second World War and the post-war period.

Karlshorst

Karlshorst, where the German-Russian Museum is located, is a district in the eastern part of Berlin still inhabited by many who remember the post-war years and the Soviet Army stationing in Berlin and East Germany. In a similar way, the objects that are presented at the museum’s exhibitions “remind” us of the Wehrmacht’s surrender and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, while the biggest military equipment, including the Soviet tanks exposed on the premises, was donated to the museum by the Central Museum of Military Forces in Moscow, many smaller objects including photographs were handed over by members of the local community. The latter also contributed to the creation of the museum’s most recent exhibition.

Titled Everyday Life – Politics – Combat Training. Soviet Armed Forces in Germany 1945-1994 the exhibit presents the story of the Red Army stationed in East Germany in the post-war period. The exhibit documents the first four decades of the presence of Soviet troops in East Germany and their withdrawal in the early 1990s. This story has been arranged for public viewing with the help of archival materials and physical artefacts which are presented in chronologically arranged displays, as well as collected personal testimonies, which were gathered by museum staff through an oral history project. The latter, however, were used primarily as background materials and were more of an inspiration for certain parts of the exhibit.

The chronologically arranged presentation of the past, aimed at being free of any interpretative manipulation, should be regarded as the greatest merit of this exhibit. Thanks to being deeply rooted in the local context, the exhibit naturally stimulates many visitors to share their own personal memories of the period. In this sense the building is a part of the local community and its history and certainly puts the museum into the model of what is called a site-specificinstitution. That is a place where the locality and its community are the institution’s main point of reference.

Thus, even if not stated directly, it is clear that the residents of Karlshorst and those who live in other parts of Berlin (or even more broadly former East Germany) and remember the stationing of the Red Army are among the main recipients of the exhibit. It is also for them that the museum staff organises discussions during which they can confront their narratives and memories with those of the curators and other witnesses of historical events. Such meetings are not a classical educational programme, which in many large museums often accompanies the exhibit. The goal of the exhibit and organised discussions is thus not only to teach about the past, but also stimulate the memory of the people who had experienced it. In this way, the exhibit helps them bring back memories and thereby builds relations with its audience.

European interpretation

The museum’s deep integration into the local context does not automatically mean its ghettoisation. On the contrary, local history and narration contribute here to a more global perspective and a wider historical narrative. In this way, from the so-called small history a large historical narrative is built. Thanks to that this museum, which prides itself with the exceptionality of the location, is not an isolated institution but one that facilitates an exchange of experiences of history’s witnesses and their memories. The museum co-operates with partners in Moscow, Minsk and Kyiv where the Second World War is also one of the most important events in collective memory. However, it is important to emphasise that from today’s perspective – and the recent controversies surrounding Vladimir Putin’s interpretation of the causes of the outbreak of the Second World War – the Berlin museum presents what can be called the European interpretation of the events, thereby it participates in a globally-agreed historical narrative regarding both the outbreak and the end of the war. As a result, it is probably best to call the museum a “glocal” institution.

As stated above, the main topic of the exhibit is the story of the Soviet troops stationed in Karlshorst and other bases in East Germany from 1945 to 1994. The photographs and objects that the museum has gathered allow a visitor to transcend into the isolated world of the Red Army soldiers who were on duty in East Germany and learn about their everyday life. This includes information about their daily plans, hygiene routine, drills, armament, code of conduct, career paths, family relations, etc. The exhibit also shows the location of different bases spread throughout the former GDR as well some political aspects of their presence in the socialist German state. Thus, among the most interesting are the displays with information on the attempts to build the German-Soviet friendship, which was one of the foundations of the GDR’s political system, just like it was the case in other countries of the former Eastern bloc. Very informative are the displays about Soviet military tribunals in which Nazi criminals were tried as well as those on the ideological indoctrination of the socialist state system.

The story presented at the exhibit ends with the evacuation of the Red Army from the already reunited Germany. This part of the exhibit also illustrates the soldiers’ attempts to stay, which include requests for political asylum. However, there is also the less known story of the establishment of the assistance fund for Soviet soldiers by the federal government as well as its decision to build apartments for these soldiers in Russia. One last lesser known aspect discussed is the damage to the natural environment that the massive departure of Soviet soldiers caused.

Resistance to change

The exhibit is clearly an attempt at creating a historical and cultural narrative. But it also shows a reflection of a very specific memory writing, one that is linked with the recent history of Germany. There is no doubt that the year 1990 and the unification of both German states was a watershed moment in both states’ history. For those who lived in the former East Germany it marks the beginning of a new approach to post-war history, one which is of course very different than the historical interpretation that was imposed by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

This change in narrative naturally generated strong emotional reactions. Evidently, there were people, especially those who continued living in the united Germany’s eastern lands, who refused to accept the modification of the earlier discourse, claiming that reunification was solely the beginning of a new dictatorship. Their discontent clearly shows that an authoritarian and hermetic interpretation of the past, as well as ideological indoctrination, left their traces on the society.

Indeed, for over 40 years the propaganda machine of the socialist state, aimed primarily at youth, worked well and efficiently. As a result, in East Germany, collective memory became subordinate to the state apparatus and not historical facts. The interpretation of the Second World War was here in line with the Soviet narrative, where the Red Army was – first and foremost – the liberator and never an occupant. The attitude towards the Nazi past played a very important educational role. The brutality of Hitler’s regime was presented as a negative example, reflecting – in the extreme version – all the evils of capitalism and the dictatorship of the West.

German writer, Ralph Giordano, wrote that the GDR’s anti-fascist ideology, like the Soviet Union, was completely oblivious to Stalin’s hideous crimes. Instead it limited the building of a new reality on the promotion of anti-Nazi rhetoric which presented the workers’ movement, communist party and socialist ideology as the victims of pre-war capitalism and the main forces in the resistance against fascism and Nazism. For many people who had been raised with this rhetoric it was difficult to accept the change of narrative that came after the unification. At the same time, the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe offered the societies in the region an opportunity to rethink their collective memory that had been misshaped by the post-war authoritarian systems.

The exhibit in the German-Russian Museum is a perfect example that German institutions have completed this process. The exhibit which talks about a topic that in some post-socialist states is still treated rather emotionally, either because of its glorification (memory of the Second World War in Belarus) or because of its condescension (the attitude to Soviet monuments in today’s Poland and Ukraine) is presented in what can be called the most objective way possible. Kudos to the curators for that.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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