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A Museum for Our Times

The solitary flag of Ukraine

War is raging in Europe again and we feel helpless in the face of such terrible loss of life and devastation. Berlin has scores of memorial sites to remind us of the cruelty and horror of war. Many of them relate to the Holocaust, but there are also several significant memorials erected by the Soviets in memory of the 81,000 Red Army soldiers who were killed in the Battle of Berlin. It is estimated that World War II losses of the Soviet Union from all related causes were about 27,000,000 both civilian and military. Yet now Russian troops and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are dying in their thousands all over again. A visit to the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst in east Berlin (from 1945 until 1990 the Soviet Sector of Berlin) could not be more relevant.

Berlin-Karlshorst Museum in March 2023 with Ukrainian flag flying

The current museum was established by Germany and Russia after the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces from Germany. Funding came from the governments of both countries and it was opened to the public in 1995 as the German-Russian Museum. The focus is on World War II, including the Red Army’s role in liberating Berlin, but the story starts in 1917. Historians from cultural organisations in Germany, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine collaborated on its contents. The four flags of these countries used to fly outside the museum entrance but on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, three of the flags were removed, leaving just the Ukrainian flag as a sign of solidarity. In June 2022, the museum management decided to change the museum’s name to Berlin-Karlshorst Museum because it commemorates all Soviet victims of the German war of extermination, regardless of their nationality.

The solitary flag of Ukraine

The building originally served as the officers’ mess of the Wehrmacht, Germany’s wartime armed forces, in the district of Karlshorst. It was here, on 8th May 1945, that German officers surrendered to the Allies in a meeting with Red Army generals, and representatives from the US, Britain and France. The central feature of the museum is the former dining room of the officers’ mess where the surrender document was signed. This room has remained as it was in May 1945 and a film recording of the surrender can be seen in a continuous loop. It makes for compelling viewing.

Room where the German surrender was signed

From 1945 until 1949 the building housed the Soviet Military Administration and from 1949 until 1954, the Soviet Control Commission. After serving various purposes, in 1967 the Soviet armed forces opened the building to the public as a ‘Surrender Museum’, which existed until 1994. I made several visits in the 1980s, when Berlin was divided by the Wall and Karlshorst was in the Soviet Sector. In those days the first-floor exhibition featured huge paintings of battle scenes relating to the invasion of Berlin as well as uniforms, weapons, banners, documents, and strategic plans dating back to that time. The highlights were a large-scale model of the Battle of Berlin and a diorama representing one of the ‘last real military operations in Berlin; the storming of the Reichstag’.

Diorama of Storming of the Reichstag

The Soviets were keen to focus on anti-fascist resistance to the Nazis by German communists and in the 1980s the exhibition included emotive photographs of the first meetings between Berliners and Red Army soldiers as they liberated the capital. There were also gruesome photographs of Nazis who were hanged or committed suicide at the Nuremberg trials after the war. It seemed that the Soviets wanted to display the final proof that Nazism was dead.

My next visit to the Karlshorst museum was almost two decades later, after the Wall had fallen and it had re-opened as the German-Russian Museum. The ground-floor rooms relating to the surrender had been preserved in their original state, but the rest of the exhibition area had been completely renewed. Detailed accounts of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, featuring original film footage of Wehrmacht soldiers battling against the Russian winter made a special impact. The huge model of the Battle of Berlin had been removed, but the Soviets had left behind the Reichstag diorama and a display of armoured vehicles in the gardens, a rather bizarre sight in a 21st century suburban Berlin. In front of the museum stood one of the Soviet T34 tanks used in the Battle of Berlin. This has now become a memorial site.

Memorial site with Soviet T34 tank

“The heroic deeds of the Soviet soldiers who fought against fascism will live forever in the hearts of present and future generations.”

In 2013 the permanent exhibition was substantially restyled and renewed.  Throughout the museum the labelling and texts are now in English, as well as German and Russian and an audio guide is available. The room where the surrender was signed is dedicated to the Soviet Army soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin and the photographs on the walls show the monuments and cemeteries in Berlin and Brandenburg where they are buried. Marble plaques list 164 units who were awarded titles.

‘On 2 May 1945 the troops of the Belorussian Front, supported by troops of the 1st Ukrainian Front achieved the destruction of the German Berin units and conquered the capital of Fascist Germany, Berlin, after fierce street fighting.’

The first-floor rooms are thematically arranged and document World War II from the perspective of both the Germans and Soviets. German warfare and occupation rule included crimes such as the mass deaths of Soviet prisoners of war, the planned starvation of millions of civilians and forced labour. These aspects are all fully researched and documented with photographic evidence. Visitors can also listen to the true stories of victims and survivors. My only criticism of the exhibition is the lack of any reference to the war crimes committed by Soviet forces on German territory they occupied, including in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin when it is estimated that over 100,000 women were raped. 

60% (over 3.3 million) of Soviet prisoners of war died.
German soldiers taken prisoners of war by the Soviets; 1.1 million died.

The Ancient Greeks defined a museum as being a place of contemplation; this could not be a more apt description for the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum. In many respects it is a memorial and it is fitting that entrance is free. It only takes about 35 minutes to get to the museum from the city centre. Either take the S3 to Karlshorst S-Bahn Station or the U5 to Tierpark Underground. Then pick up the 296 bus from either station and there is a stop right outside the museum. There are no café facilities at the museum, just a drink and snack vending machine. For further information follow this link https://www.museum-karlshorst.de/en/

Food for thought: USA propaganda poster from 1942

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4 responses

  1. Dear Penny,
    Thank you for your newsletter of April 7th. I will of course subscribe to your blog and look forward to your next post!
    Micha

  2. Very interesting article Penny. I am hoping to visit Berlin again later this year, and if so, will visit the museum.

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