The battle for Berlin in 1945 – that led to the total defeat of Nazi forces in the city, a two month Soviet occupation, and the division of Berlin between the four victorious allied powers – was brutal and unforgiving. It led to the direct loss of thousands of lives – both military and civilian – and came at the end of years of damage inflicted on the city by Anglo-American air raids, designed to harass the population and disrupt life in Hitler’s capital city.
The Soviet reckoning with the heart of the Nazi state would last a bloody 17 days – from the banks of the river Oder, bordering nowadays Poland, and the battle of Seelow Heights, to the raising of the flag of the Red Army on top of the Reichstag parliament building. Over that space of time an overwhelming number of Soviet troops would descend on Berlin, some 2.5 million amassed outside the city and eventually encircling it on April 26th.
Of those around 80,000 would be killed in the assault – many to be repatriated back to their families and loved ones, some buried (at least temporarily) where they fell, many others gathered into mass graves across the former Nazi capital – to be laid to rest eternally on German soil – in a series of three huge cemeteries.
The largest of them, to be found in the south east of the city, is in the idyllic setting of Treptower Park.
This monumental military cemetery was completed in 1949 and opened on May 8th – four years to the day after the end of the Second World War in Europe. Although it serves as the final resting place for around 7,000 officers and soldiers of the Red Army, it is also considered the main commemorative memorial in the city for fallen Soviet soldiers. And thus the focus of annual commemorations that take place every year on May 8th the celebrate the end of the Second World War in Europe and the capitulation of Nazi Germany.
Despite this, it is actually much smaller in size than the largest Soviet cemetery in Berlin – located in the district of Pankow to the north, and the final resting place for 13,000 Soviet soldiers and officers. Not only is that the largest Soviet cemetery in Berlin, but is also the largest Russian cemetery in Europe outside of Russia.
A further, more centrally located cemetery, sits in the Tiergarten park near the Reichstag building, for the around 2,500 Soviet soldiers who died in the fighting in that area in 1945.
While impressive enough in its size and design, the memorial in Treptower Park is actually part of a series of three such memorials – a triptych that stretches from the city of Magnitogorsk, located on the eastern side of the extreme southern extent of the Ural Mountains – through the city of Volgograd (previously known as Stalingrad) and on to Berlin. These three cities each have Soviet memorials, two designed by the same artist.
It is often speculated that the red marble used in the construction of the Soviet War Memorial In Treptower Park came from Adolf Hitler's chancellory. Although this has been conclusively proven as false, the rumour persists.
The first in Magnitogorsk, titled the Rear-front Memorial, depicts a worker and a warrior raising a sword above their heads (to symbolise the sword being forged in this industrial region). The second, in Volgograd, the The Motherland Calls – was the tallest statue in the world when it was constructed in 1967 – is of a woman stepping forward with a raised sword (symbolising the mobilisation of Soviet forces).
Finally in Berlin – at Treptower Park – the sword is being driven into the ground by a 12 metre tall Soviet soldier standing over a broken swastika. This statue is the final element in the memorial – situated in the most south eastern point of the grounds. Beyond its direct allegorial value representing the final Soviet campaign in Berlin, it is also said to depict the deeds of a Red Army Sergeant of Guards named Nikolai Masalov.
Masalov is said to have braved heavy machine gun fire in the Battle of Berlin to save a young German girl whose mother had disappeared. Whether there is any truth in the story, his image and rumoured actions are now immortalised in this giant bronze sculpture.
Covering around 9 hectares of land, previously occupied by a hippodrome shaped playground and sports field, the memorial is accessible through the arches of two entrances that lead to an open clearing and the first in a number of different parts to the memorial – a 3-metre high granite statue of “Mother Homeland”. Her head bowed and facing a wide avenue lined with weeping willows.
The steady incline of this boulevard leads to two huge stylized flags sculpted of red granite and the actual cemetery of five rectangular communal graves beyond in a massive open field – flanked with sixteen sarcophagi. These limestone blocks, one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics – chronicle the story of the Great Patriotic War of Liberation, in the words of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Accompanied by relief carvings corresponding to the different stages of the war, the text is displayed in both German and Russian.
Beyond the memorial’s historical significance and impressive design, it also bears one unique characteristic – as the last place in Europe where the words of Stalin are on public display.