Friday, 31 December 2010

The German-Russian Museum Karlshorst

For most visitors to Berlin, Karlshorst is just one of the stops on the train route between central Berlin and Schönefeld Airport. The suitcase-laden tourists desperate to make their flight connection are probably unaware that just a short distance from this unprepossessing S-Bahn stop one of the worst chapters in modern world history drew to a close. The reason? During the night of 8th-9th May 1945, in the officer's mess of a former Wehrmacht Pioneer School in Karlshorst, the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces to representatives of the four Allied forces took place. The Second World War came to an end.

After the war, the Karlshorst suburb of Berlin became a Russian enclave, hosting as it did the Headquarters of the Soviet military presence in East Germany. Russian troops and their families lived here until the last Russian soldiers left in 1995. So as you might imagine, when a museum opened in 1967 in the building where the surrender was signed, it had a definite bias towards the role of the Red Army. The 'Museum der bedingungslosen Kapitulation des faschistischen Deutschland im Großen Vaterländischen Krieg 1941 - 1945' as it was called (or, Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the ´Great Patriotic War´ of 1941 - 1945), was given a more even-handed emphasis post-unification, and reopened in 1995 as the Deutsch-Russiches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst.

We visited it on a perishingly cold December afternoon, precariously walking the icy 1000m length of Rheinsteinstrasse from Karlshorst S-Bahn. A snow-covered Soviet tank stood guard beside the half-circle entrance to the museum, the building a grey functional box fronted with four plain Doric columns. There were few other visitors, or even staff. Granted, it was the day before Silvester and sensible people were doing their last minute NewYear's shopping or just keeping warm inside by the fire. But still, it didn't look like the museum was ever overwhelmed by visitors. Especially English-speaking visitors; the exhibition labels and information boards were all written in German and Russian. Apparently English visitors can pick up a folder of information sheets in their own language, but we didn't bother - more fun that way!

At the heart of the museum is the hall where the surrender was signed. It looks exactly as it did on that night of the 8th-9th May 1945. We know this because a looped black and white film recording the event is projected onto a screen in the hall. Well, not exactly the same - the footage of the military leaders arriving didn't show them having to plough through four foot of snow. It also looked exactly like my old school assembly hall - all wooden panels, parquet floor, and high curtained windows. Spooky.

Here you can see the three signed surrender documents (I suppose copies), translated into English, German and Russian. What the French representative had to say about a Gallic omission is unrecorded. What I didn't pick up on from information at the museum is that this unconditional surrender wasn't the first, but more by way of a ratification of a surrender that took place in Rheims on 7th May. There were a number of reasons for holding a second surrender:

  1. The Soviets wanted their Soviet Supreme Commander Georgy Zhukov to be involved in signing this historic document. Zhukov it was who'd led the Red Army West from besieged Russia, pushing back the German Wehrmacht and liberating Eastern Europe right up to the final Battle of Berlin. The earlier Rheims surrender had been signed by a Soviet liaison officer with the Allied Forces in Europe, General Susloparov, without the authority of Moscow.
  2. The Soviets also insisted that this historic occasion take place at the heart of where all the Nazi atrocities and destruction had sprung from, Berlin. 
  3. The British meanwhile felt that the surrender should be signed by a top military representative of the German Reich. The Rheims document was signed by Colonel General Alfred Jodl, who was deputy to Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. The Karlshort surrender was therefore signed by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht Keitel himself - i.e. get the organ grinder committed to the surrender, not the monkey. Both these Germans were later sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes, at the Nuremberg trials.
Anyway, the second surrender went ahead and is the one remembered here. To be honest, there isn't an overwhelming feeling of historical imperative about the space; that here, in this very room, the most horrific war of the twentieth century finally came to an end. It is after all just a large wood-panelled room, where German officers once danced with their wives or sat down at long benches to eat and drink. Or maybe I'm just thinking of my old school hall.

The rest of the museum is arranged on three floors and is fairly small. The emphasis is on the Soviet involvement in the Second World War - of course - and there are displays as you might expect of military uniforms, guns, field-kit, army medical equipment, flags and medals (all from both sides). A diorama gives an idea of the intense battle for the Reichstag, and there are interesting collections of propaganda posters and cartoons. There are also a couple of really rather good stained-glass windows in the Soviet Social Realism style.

What differentiates this museum from any other war museum is that it tells a story a thousand miles away (literally) from the Hollywood version of World War II that I am familiar with. There is a room dedicated to the Siege of Leningrad, for example. This lasted for 900 days, from 1941 to 1944, during which the city was blockaded, bombarded, and slowly starved to death by the German and Finnish armies. By the end of the siege, some 632,000 people are thought to have died, with nearly 4,000 people from Leningrad starving to death on Christmas Day, 1941 alone. And I didn't know about it. Or I vaguely did, from one afternoon in a history lesson at school when I was more than likely staring out of the window or swapping notes on the back row. 

Another room is devoted to the victims of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps; yes, of course I knew about them. I can even name from memory, oh about a dozen of them. I've watched Schindler's List. I've read Ann Frank's Diary. I think I know about Nazi atrocities thank you. Well, a large map dominates one wall, showing how far the German army had occupied Eastern Europe and the USSR. The first thing that struck me was how far the Wehrmacht had swept, how much land they had over-run, what an enormous distance it is to the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow from Berlin. There for the first time, I had a scale of how far way Stalingrad was. And behind the advancing Eastern Front, hundreds of dots marking each extermination camp, each Jewish ghetto, each labour camp. Computer terminals tell you how many thousands of people ended their lives at each of those dots: shot, or gassed, or hung, or starved to death. I had no real idea. I could have wept.

This is the point; you think you know about the Second World War, but you don't. There is always going to be something to shock you to your core. More specifically, if you have grown up with Western and US historical narratives, then the whole Russian and Eastern European experience will be unknown to you, untaught in schools, hardly covered by popular Western culture and media.

The museum only took an hour and a half to look around, including a special exhibition by the Leningrad photojournalist Nikolai I. Chandogin, but it gave me a whole new perspective on what drove the Red Army to fight with such ferocity all the way to the gates of Berlin at the cost of so many soldiers. It was dark and cold when we left, but somehow the inconvenience of a few inches of snow on the pavement didn't feel like anything at all.

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