The Reichstag building in Berlin is a favorite tourist destination. Blighted by the darkest chapters of German history, it was spectacularly reconstructed before it became the seat of the German parliament in 1999. Light floods through the building from a huge glass cupola that offers breathtaking panoramic views of Berlin. The cupola symbolizes the transparency of democracy. Walking up the spiral path to the top, visitors can observe parliamentary debates in the plenary hall below and elected officials can look up and see the Germans they represent.
Inside this pantheon of German democracy, Russian graffiti has been painstakingly preserved on some of the walls. In May of 1945, Soviet soldiers scrawled their signatures, the names of their hometowns, denunciations of Hitler and ecstatic proclamations of victory in the corridors of the war damaged building: A dream has come true and You will reap what you sow. Most of the names written in Cyrillic letters are Russian, some are Jewish and German.
When the Reichstag was renovated in the 1990’s, a public debate ensued regarding this graffiti: should the writing - some of which was coarse and nasty - be preserved or forever destroyed? There were those who argued that the hallowed halls of German parliamentary politics were not an appropriate place to commemorate Soviet victory. Others insisted that this was the perfect site to remember the Soviet troops that liberated Berlin in the final days of World War Two.
The Battle of Berlin, fought sixty years ago between April 18 and May 2, 1945, was bitter and brutal. 1,6 million Russian soldiers marched towards the German capital from the East. In two weeks, the fighting claimed the lives of more than 170 thousand soldiers and tens of thousands civilians. It left half a million injured and destroyed large sections of the city. While the battle raged, Hitler hid in his Führerbunker with his closest associates. On April 30, he committed suicide, leaving the deutsche Volk to live with the consequences of defeat. Soviet soldiers were fighting only a few blocks away and finally conquered the badly damaged Reichstag building on May 2. An iconic WWII photo shows young soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag from one of the buildings’ towers high above the demolished streets of Berlin. The Allies proclaimed victory on May 8, 1945.
The Soviet Union was a crucial part of the Allied Alliance that defeated Hitler, but the Cold War has pretty much blocked this out of US memory. Not only this, but we have forgotten that the Soviet Union paid by far the highest price in the war. Germans troops were on a mission to destroy the Russian population as well as their land. More than nine million Russian soldiers and more than eighteen million civilians were killed - compared to the five million German soldiers, six and a half million German civilians and 407,000 US troops who lost their lives (see details here). It is hard to fathom what might have happened if the Soviet Army had not been victorious on the Eastern front. Would the Western Allies have lost the war? Would the US have dropped the atom bomb on Berlin to stop Hitler?
When I looked at the Cyrillic letters on the white walls of the Reichstag corridors, I got goose bumps. I tried to imagine the young men, ragged and hungry, who had seen such carnage and experienced unimaginable losses. I wondered what happened to these Soviet soldiers who defeated Germany and liberated Berlin? What lives did they go on to lead? What nightmares haunted them? I wondered if any of them were still alive.
Silently, I thanked them.
In the coming weeks I will be exploring several other Memorials (related to National Socialism, the Holocaust and WWII) that move me.