Germany Protects a Memorial to the Soviet Troops that Defeated the Nazis

Just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow's troops massing at the border, officials in the medieval town of Lützen, Germany, gave it important status to a Soviet-era World War II memorial that stands outside a kindergarten in the city center.

“Glory to the great Russian people – the victorious nation,” reads an inscription that local officials repainted in June on one side of the 10-foot high pyramidal monument.

Written on the other side in bright red is a quote from Joseph Stalin commemorating the 12 Soviet POWs who died at German hands while working at the local sugar factory. A bright red star with a golden hammer and sickle adorns the top of the pyramid.

Lützen is no stranger. Scattered throughout Germany, but especially in what was then the Soviet-dominated German Democratic Republic in the east, over 4,000 protected monuments commemorates the sacrifices of Soviet soldiers in the struggle against Nazism.

Soviet tanks stand on pedestals just half a mile from the German Parliament in Berlin, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz convenes Speech “Zeitenwende” (roughly, “sea change”), stating that “the world afterward will not be the same” after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which it called the biggest threat to European order in decades. A few miles east, in East Berlin, a 40-foot statue of a Russian soldier holding a German child and a giant sword towers above Treptower Park.

Such memorials, most commissioned by the Red Army or local allies, have been toppled, moved, or vandalized across Eastern Europe for decades as symbols of Moscow's abhorrent repression. This trend has accelerated since the invasion of Ukraine.

But in Germany, one of Ukraine's main military backers, they are perhaps the most glaring example of the deep guilt over Nazi atrocities that continues to permeate national identity.

In interviews in three German states, historians, activists, officials and ordinary citizens described their support for monuments glorifying former enemies and occupiers as a mixture of bureaucratic malfeasance, unwillingness to change, and an unwavering commitment to honoring the victims of Nazi aggression. defeat any shift in global affairs.

“We were taught to learn from pain,” says Teresa Schneidewind, 33, head of the Lützen museum. “We care about our warnings, because they allow us to learn from the mistakes of previous generations.”

Red Army memorials are only some of the symbols of the divide that persisted in Germany long after the political system and social mores that supported it had disappeared, a count with parallels in the United States and elsewhere.

Germany's Supreme Court ruled last year against removing a medieval antisemitic statue in the church where Martin Luther preached. Despite the debate, several swastikas from the Third Reich were left on church bells.

The tendency for the so-called Ms. Schneidewind as a “historical hoard” means that many Soviet memorials in East Germany bear Stalin's name nearly 70 years after the dictator was removed from public space in Russia itself.

Mostly German expressed support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. And more than a million refugees from Ukraine have come to Germany since the war.

But rare attempts by anti-war activists to draw attention to Soviet militaristic monuments have failed to gain traction, and some German politicians have called for their removal or even perfunctory alterations; they say their hands are tied by a pact signed some three decades ago.

Shortly after the Russian invasion, Soviet tanks stood near the Parliament building briefly covered by the Ukrainian flag. The police removed them hours later, and the news coverage quickly resumed.

For a small group of German politicians, activists and intellectuals, the Scholz government's refusal to re-evaluate the public symbols that glorify Russia is indicative of Germany's ambivalent leadership in Europe, seen recently in its protracted decision to provide Germany with modern battle tanks. for Ukraine.

Far from eliminating Red Army monuments, however, local officials across eastern Germany have been renovating and expanding some of them, even as the national government has spent billions of euros defeating Russia in Ukraine.

In Lützen, a town of 8,000 nestled amidst rapeseed fields, officials spent more than $17,000 painting their Soviet monument just days after Mr. Scholz is committed to delivering the country's newest air defense system to Ukraine.

Further east, the city of Dresden this year allocated funds to renovate the first monument erected by Soviet troops in Germany, featuring a bust of a Soviet soldier and a view of a T-34 tank finishing off German infantry. Nearby, city workers are expanding the protected area of ​​the military cemetery which houses the remains of Soviet soldiers who were stationed in the area during the Cold War.

Officials say their duty to care for the memorial stems from the so-called Good Neighbor agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1990. Under that act, each country committed to maintaining the other side's war graves on its territory.

Most of the Red Army monuments in Germany are believed to have been built over the graves of Soviet soldiers or prisoners of war. The Russian Embassy had used the pact to draw the German government's attention to Soviet monuments, including the one at Lützen, which had been damaged or abandoned.

Hubertus Knabe, a German historian, has called for a re-evaluation of the treaty, which also binds the two countries to peace and respect territorial integrity. He said that by invading Ukraine, Russia had at least broken the spirit of the pact.

He further asked Mr Scholz's government to explain why Moscow continues to be directly involved in one of the country's major World War II memorials, the Berlin-Karlhorst Museum. Representatives from Russia's Ministry of Defense and five other Russian state agencies sit on the museum's board, another setback from the Good Neighbor agreement.

The culture secretary, Claudia Roth, who is in charge of the museum, did not respond to requests for comment.

The attempt by a German activist to shift attention to Russia's current war shows how ingrained the traditional focus on World War II regret is.

Last year, a museum entrepreneur named Enno Lenze applied for a permit for an exhibition near the Russian Embassy in Berlin showing a destroyed Russian tank near Kyiv. He said local officials ignored his application for a month, then rejected him, citing, among other things, a danger to public safety and a risk of trauma to Syrian refugees.

It took Mr Lenze months of court battles and tens of thousands of euros before he finally received permission, just three days before the exhibition was scheduled to open on the anniversary of the invasion. Although similar displays of wrecked Russian tanks were put up across Eastern Europe, he said no German politicians had turned out to support his public.

Several German scholars working on Soviet memorial sites have tried to find a middle ground by updating Red Army monuments to reflect political changes and new academic research.

At the former Zeithain prisoner of war camp, in Saxony, historian Jens Nagel has worked for more than two decades to commemorate those who died of disease and hunger there during World War II, adding a plaque to the Communist-era monument to the names of nearly 23,000 Soviet victims his team identified from mass graves at the site.

After the Russian invasion, Mr. Nagel simply left the Ukrainian flag outside the main monument in a show of solidarity, and the historical foundation that employed him did not invite the Russian and Belarusian ambassadors from the annual ceremony celebrating the liberation of Zeithain by Soviet troops.

“Instead of tearing it down, you have to redefine this memorial,” said Mr. Nagel. “You need to explain why they are here, and why you have a different view of them now.”

In Lützen, locals say they want to keep the Red Army memorial as it is, paying homage to the central place occupied by the pyramids in the city's public life during Communist rule. Some recall playing it while attending a nearby kindergarten, and they said they would fight plans to move it to accommodate the proposed new supermarket.

“This is our history, no matter what happens in world politics,” said mayor Uwe Weiss. “We have to take care of it, because it is part of us.”