One extremely significant detail separates the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten from other similar Soviet memorials in Berlin – specifically that due to the division of the city at the end of the Second World War, this particular memorial ended up on the other side of the Berlin Wall – in the Cold War West of the city.
To be exact, it is located in the former British sector of West Berlin – a short walk from the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate – on a street that was renamed in 1953 by the West German authorities to reference a popular uprising in the east of the city – against the Sovietisation of the East.
Completed to commemorate the war dead of the Red Army who fell in the Battle of Berlin, the memorial was unveiled shortly after hostilities had ceased in the city on November 11th 1945.
Due to its precarious position in West Berlin, the memorial would be guarded by Soviet honour guards sent from the east of the city. Understandably, to protect it from any unwanted attention from any West Berliners eager to voice their objections to the Cold War political climate or actions on the part of East Germany or the Soviet Union.
It still serves as a site of pilgrimage for war veterans from the former Soviet states and with wreath laying ceremonies taking place here on the May 9th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. That said, the memorial is not appreciated by all – and during the Cold War acquired the derogatory nickname ‘the tomb of the unknown rapist’ as a reference to the crimes committed by Soviet troops in Berlin.
Not unlike other Soviet memorials across Europe, this particular site also featured an ornate stoa and central column bearing a statue of a Soviet soldier. A large Cyrillic inscription underneath calls for “Eternal glory to heroes who fell in battle with the German fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union”. Notably there is also the addition of the dates 1941-45, in keeping with the Soviet perspective that the war against Hitler’s regime began following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – and not with the earlier invasion of Poland.
Naturally this would be problematic to state as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both cooperated to divide and occupy Poland following the establishment of a non-agression treaty in August 1939 – something historians have since referred to as the ‘Midnight of the Century’ – that would also see the Soviet Union invading the Baltic states and fighting a war against Finland.
Instead the dates on the memorial reference what in Russia is still referred to as the Great Patriotic War.
This term was first used on June 23rd 1941, in an article printed in the Pravda newspaper, to rally support for the defensive battle against the invading German forces. One year later, an award for heroic deeds – the Order of the Patriotic War – would be introduced with more than one million men awarded this military decoration by the end of the war in 1945.
It is rumoured that the material used to construct the memorial came from Adolf Hitler's Chancellery building, although that has not been conclusively proven.
More important than this decoration was the rarer honorary title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, applied personally or collectively for heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society – with 11,635 instances awarded during the Great Patriotic War.
One of the first impressions of visitors to this plot of land, from the south side, is of the two Soviet T-34 tanks flanking the memorial, and the 152mm artillery guns – the tanks somewhat incorrectly often referred to as the first two tanks to arrive in the city in 1945 by numerous guide books. On closer inspection, when walking up the stairs of the memorial towards the central feature, it is possible to make out two sarcophagi and the names of 9 men – each awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.
The central feature of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten is the six column colonnade, with six granite pillars representing the different branches of armed service that took part in the fighting. Each of these pillars is engraved with the names of some 35 soldiers who died, a small selection of the 2,500 soldiers and officers buried here – their final resting place being on the northern side of the memorial.
This is not the largest Soviet War Memorial in Berlin – that honour alternately belongs to the memorial in Treptower Park (as the largest in terms of area) and the memorial in Pankow (where the largest number of Soviet soldiers who fell in the fight for the Nazi capital are buried).
Of around 80,000 who would be killed in the assault on Berlin – many were repatriated back to their families and loved ones, some buried (at least temporarily) where they fell, many others gathered into mass graves across the former Nazi capital – to be laid to rest eternally on German soil – in this series of three huge cemeteries.
Many of the soldiers buried in the Tiergarten fell during the fight for the Reichstag – designated as the main objective in the city by Soviet commanders. From April 29th 1945 until May 2nd, ferocious fighting took place in and around the building before the Red Army could clearly claim control of the area. As the military forces in Berlin surrendered the same day, the Soviet troops could toast to their new role as occupiers – remaining in the city for more than two months before the British and American forces arrived from the west to take control of their zones.
This Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, built in the western part of the city, is certainly a bold statement in reference to that fact – that the Red Army had arrived first and many of its men had died to liberate the city from fascism.