Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Three Must-See Sights of Berlin - A Four Strings Good special (1)

Berlin is an endlessly fascinating city, a treasure trove of history. But sometimes that history tells of unimaginable loss and death on a scale that’s hard to digest.

The gigantic Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park is a monument to the death and destruction involved in the savage fight to snuff out the Nazis at the end of World War Two.

The memorial - Sowjetisches Ehrenmal in Pushkinallee -  lies to the east of Berlin in the area where the workers’ rising of 1919 took place, led by among others Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. I’m told it’s always been a Red area and that German Communists used to meet up there in the 1930s before doing battle with the National Socialists, who were quickly becoming a force in the country.

I have been to many war cemeteries and all share the same air of dignified mourning and respect for the loss. But Treptower Park is a huge open air arena of loss, a stadium of mourning, on a scale which in a way matches the blood shed in the Battle for Berlin, which effectively won the war.

According to figures displayed on information boards in the park, between April 16th and May 2nd 1945, more than 70,000 people were killed in Berlin alone in the final phase of the Second World War. As the Russians tightened their stranglehold on Berlin, 22,000 Soviet and 20,000 German soldiers died, along with 30,000 civilians. The war in total claimed a mind-boggling FIFTY MILLION lives, 25 million of whom were Russian.

Historian Anthony Beevor puts the total dead in the Battle for Berlin at 250,000, with 50,000 German soldiers and civilians wiped out in a massacre at Halbe alone:

From the banks of the Spree I entered through a vast arch, framing a path into the centre of the park. Turning to the left is a granite statue of Mother Russia grieving for her lost children. A vast concourse is flanked by two huge statues of kneeling soldiers in battle dress holding submachine guns, heads bowed alongside dipped Soviet flags.

The memorial opens out across a sunken plaza lined by 16 marble sarcophagi representing the 16 Soviet republics engaged in the vicious struggle against the Nazi Germany. Each is carved with an inscription from Stalin and a relief showing images of the treatment meted out by Germans to the republics. 

There was no love lost in this vicious fight between ideologies once Hitler ordered Soviet political commissars to be shot out of hand, and their response was just as ruthless. Five thousand Soviet dead from the Battle for Berlin are buried inside this corridor of coffins.

The focal point of the park is a colossal statue 13 metres high of a triumphant Russian soldier holding a child while his sword rests on a broken swastika.

Climbing the steps up to the base of the statue reveals a small memorial crypt lit with candles and even now strewn with red roses, a reminder that this is still a memorial used to this day to commemorate the fallen.

Scenes from the sarcophagi lining the sunken area:

Russian retribution, with a mortar team attacking.

Sacrifice in battle.

Suffering on the  home front.

Turning to see the vast sunken garden with the corridor of coffins and above that the stone soldiers kneeling in respect to their dead comrades framed by the dipped flags is quite emotional…  and yet not triumphal or religious. With the sun going down as I walked through the park it's a reminder of the price the world paid to bring the war to an end... and no wonder the Russians were determined to hold on to what they'd fought for.

The Youtube video I have added a link to below gives a good idea of the human scale of this memorial in a way the pictures can’t.

The scale is massive. The symmetry is humbling, poignant and mournful. The loss this park expresses is gigantic. Whether so much blood needed to be spilt securing Berlin is another, possibly political, argument.

PS: For those considering a visit to Berlin, here’s a guide to some of the ‘alternative’ sights of the city I came across while researching these posts.

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