Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Would Comrade Felix Do?

A Soviet tank reading "For The Motherland" outside the Karlhorst Museum.

Purple trains: Third Reich answer to forced labor transportation.

 by Maria Simson

It's hard to imagine that Karlshorst, a very quiet corner of the already quiet suburban Lichtenberg district of Berlin, was once the Red Army stomping grounds.

Until 1963, half the district was off limits to civilians.

Hard to imagine until you see the Soviet tank painted with "Za Rodinu!" (For the Motherland!) parked outside a non-descript gray building.

The non-descript building with the desperately inoffensive name, "German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst," has been many things: a military academy, a Wehrmacht casino and, in May 1945, the HQ for the Soviet Military Administration. It was here on May 8th, or 9th, depending on whom you follow, that Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signed the German Instrument of Surrender, ending the war in Europe.

The officers' mess where the signing took place is intact and was the centerpiece of the "Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the 'Great Patriotic War' of 1941-1945," inaugurated in 1967 by, surprise!, Soviet soldiers stationed in the GDR. But in 1995, the museum was renamed and its collection rethought by a panel of Germans and Russians to illustrate the nations' rocky relationship in the 20th century.

There is an excellent collection of photographs and film footage; a barrage of propaganda alternately extolling and insulting most anyone east of the Rhein; a facsimile of the map used to launch Operation Barbarossa; a letter from German General Paulus on the day he is encircled at Stalingrad.

There are plenty of markers of the Third Reich's short-sighted megalomania: a proposed (purple) wide track train for the transport of forced labor from Russia to Germany was to run along a track extending between the Black Sea and the Atlantic. Meanwhile, real German soldiers on the Eastern Front wore straw shoes.

While this is primarily a military museum, there is plenty about the suffering of civilians: the diary of a 16-year-old written during the Siege of Leningrad is gradually reduced to a plaintive, alternating refrain of "I got some soup" and "I feel worse." There is a room about camps: extermination, transportation, labor, POW.

This is not a Holocaust memorial, but the simple display of three tiny children's shoes from Majdanek is no less affecting for the note that they were taken as evidence for a Soviet investigative commission. There is, perhaps understandably given the museum's founders, little about what happened to German civilians in 1945.

Many of the objects from the section on USSR/GDR seem to come from some mutually agreed opium dream: a children's story called "Guten tag, Onkel Lenin"; or an LP presented by the Stasi exhorting young men looking for a role model, to "Live as Comrade Felix Would" referring to Felix Dzerzhinsky, architect of the Cheka and the Red Terror. WWCFD?

There are still reminders of the museum's origins in socialist realist memorials to fallen Soviet soldiery and a diorama of the storming of the Reichstag. But what started as a museum of righteous indignation and martial heroism is now a steely-eyed look of what's left for both sides when the smoke clears.

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