Published: November 10th 2005November 4th 2005
Although we think of Berlin as being finally defeated by the Allies, it was specifically the Soviet soldiers who got here first and finally defeated the city. While perhaps the Battle of Berlin was not quite as bloody as, say, Stalingrad, it still was one of the bloodiest battles in the war. After the war, when Germany finally surrendered, the Russians made sure that the unconditional surrender terms were signed in their territory in the eastern part of Berlin. The building where this took place has now been turned into a museum, which is now known as the Karlshorst Russian-German Museum. During the days of East Germany, it was known more grandiosly as the Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fasist Germany in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 (the Soviet Union dates the war from when they joined it rather than from the invasion of Poland in 1939). It is located in what used to be the Russian quarter, where the Russian military baracks were during occupation and where the Russian army command centers was. Most of the houses are Einzelfamilienhausen or single-family houses, which are a rarity in Germany and especially in a large city like Berlin. The area fell into disrepair over the years and with the fall of the Soviet empire and the GDR, the original residents are moving back in, 60 years after they were kicked out by the Russians.
The museum has essentially a short summary of the entire war in Europe (with one or two mentions of events in the Pacific). It started with the Nazi rise to power, and chronicled the early days of the war, particularly on the Eastern Front. We hear mainly about the events in the west, but from a military point of view, the Eastern Front was significantly more important in winning the war. It was also, of coures, the Eastern Front that started the war, as Hitler tried to kick out Eastern Europeans in his meglomaniacal quest for “Lebensraum” (Living Space). There were exhibits on everything from everyday life in the war to the atrocities done by both German and Soviet troops. As our tour-guide said, it was such a sad twist of irony that in Russia, the person best able to lead the people and win the war, was also the people’s worst enemy besides Hitler - Stalin. I must say, I really feel for the people of Eastern Europe, who really got the worst of just about every major European conflict in the 20th century. First, kingdoms hundreds of years (Austria, Hungary, etc.) old were broken up and shrunken considerably in the treaties after the First World War, breaking up economies and weakening what had long been proud peoples. Then the Nazis invaded and took over almost all of Eastern Europe, bringing not only the horrors of war, but the atrocities of genocide. Then the Soviet Union came back, putting on the Iron Yoke and drawing the Iron Curtain of communism, committing its own atrocities in the form of political purges. I really hope that the entry of these countries into the EU will really help their recovery from almost a century of suffering for them.
There were a few exhibits in the museum left from the old Soviet version of the museum. (Most of the artifacts were also from the old museum, but the exhibits had been changed to be more facts and less propoganda). The few remaining rooms were amazingly propoganda-ish and soviet-ish, with busts of Soviet War-heros (and of coures Stalin and Lenin too), Hammer and Sickles on almost every wall, and dramatic panoramic paintings of Soviet Soldiers heroically taking the Reichstag (the German version of the Capital Building). (The battle for the Reichstag is an interesting one because the Soviets considered it such an imporant target, even though control of it had little military purpose and it had not been used for political uses since Hitler assumed power in 1933.) Out front of the building were also some relics from the Soviet Museum time - a number of Soviet tanks and artillery units. There was also a rocket truck (nicknamed Stalin’s Organ because of the whistling sound made by the rockets as they were launched).
After the museum, we went over to visit the house of one of our proferssors who lives in the area. She had prepared us a huge meal of traditional German foods (with a little bit of traditional Turkish foods thrown in for good measure). It was an amazing meal. The main course was a dish called Gulash, which comes from Bavaria (I think). It does not sound like an apatizing name, but it is wonderful! It is a mixture of meat (either beef or pork in medium sized strips), sauerkraut and something called Knüdel (which are basically base-ball sized balls of half-cooked mash potatoes that have something like the consistency of jello). It is one of my favorite German dishes. It was also just wonderful to sit and talk and be fully fed (for free!!!!) for a while. It was a good ending to the day.