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German-Russian Museum Caught Up in Ukraine Invasion 


A man walks through the hall where a conditional surrender was signed at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, May 8, 2014.

A preserved Soviet tank guards the entrance to the site in Berlin where the Nazis officially surrendered in 1945. Overhead, a Ukrainian flag flutters in the breeze — a show of solidarity for a people now under attack by Russia.

The former army barracks, now a museum dedicated to the war between Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union, has become embroiled in the current invasion of Russian forces in Ukraine, as European leaders warn of the return of conflict on a scale not seen since World War II.

“Normally, we display all four flags — Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. (But) we see it as an important symbol that we sympathize with Ukraine. Ukraine is the victim here. She was attacked — that's the only point to make. So, today we raised only one flag,” museum director Jörg Morré told VOA in an interview on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion.

In addition, the building’s official name plaque — the German-Russian Museum — has been obscured with black tape.

Nazi Surrender Museum Caught Up in Russia-Ukraine War
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Nazi capitulation

After six years of war that tore the continent apart and killed tens of millions of people, Nazi Germany’s official capitulation on May 8, 1945, was signed in the east Berlin suburb of Karlshorst and witnessed by British Royal Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder and Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

The barracks was initially used as a military facility by conquering Soviet forces after World War II in what became East Germany. In 1967, East German authorities turned the building into the “Museum of Surrender,” a monument to the estimated 11 million Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.

During the war, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Many of the Nazi atrocities against the Soviets took place on what is now Ukrainian soil.

A tourist from Britain stands in front of a relief of a kneeing red army soldier during celebrations of Victory Day at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, Germany, May 8, 2014
A tourist from Britain stands in front of a relief of a kneeing red army soldier during celebrations of Victory Day at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, Germany, May 8, 2014

Ukraine objections

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification in 1991, the site became the German-Russian Museum.

“It was Germany and Russia who agreed to cooperate with one another here in 1994,” Morré explained. “Then, two other countries were added, Belarus and Ukraine.”

The museum is now sponsored by an association of German, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian historians.

In 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the museum found itself at the center of a dispute over its name.

“Our Ukrainian colleagues have difficulties working in a museum called the German-Russian Museum,” Morré said.

“From the German point of view, it was sufficient for quite some time to say, ‘We have a museum with Russia.’ But it's a bit inaccurate. Russia was taken to mean the whole of the Soviet Union. For a long time, that didn't bother anyone. For the Germans, it's very important to have a museum together with our former enemies in war. But we've learned now that it's important to distinguish between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus,” Morré told VOA.

The museum has yet to decide on an official name change.

Historical revisionism

Morré has found himself on the front line of a battle for historical truth. In 2014, shortly after Russia seized and annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine, he attended a biannual World War II history conference in Moscow. His Russian colleagues, with whom he had previously worked closely through the museum, compared the Ukrainians to the Nazis and warned there was a new battle against fascism under way in Europe.

The sentiment was echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in March 2014, “We see neo-Nazis, nationalists and antisemites on rampages in parts of Ukraine.”

“I noticed that an understanding of history I once considered to be final was suddenly being reinterpreted,” Morré told VOA. “Suddenly, there were fascists in Ukraine and a need to protect peaceful, Russian citizens. All of a sudden, a historical parallel (with WWII) was drawn, and as a historian, I had to contest that this was simply not true. I found myself in a situation where I had to protest.”

Morré and several other European historians voiced their objections at the conference but were heavily outnumbered by Russians, who voted to pass a resolution warning of the “revival of fascism and Nazism” in Europe.

“I realized all of a sudden: We're in the business of politics,” Morré said. “It is no longer the case that as a historian, I can simply sit at home or in the library, do my exhibitions in peace and everything is in the past. Rather, everything is extremely current, and I have to double-check every word I say, lest the other side starts to use it for political means.”

‘Denazification’

On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, Putin said it was aimed at the “denazification” of Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly compared Ukraine’s government to the Nazis and has accused the country of committing genocide against Russian-speaking populations in the Donbas region. Russia has not provided any evidence for its accusation.

Ukraine has strongly rejected such claims and pointed out that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. His grandfather fought against the Nazis, and many of his family members were killed in the Holocaust.

Morré is outraged by Putin’s language.

“This is a misrepresentation, a corruption of history that I would have never expected. Perhaps we have indeed learned nothing from history,” he said.

For decades, most Europeans believed war was a part of history never to be repeated; to be remembered in museums like the one at Karlshorst.

But as conflict returns to Europe, Russia is invoking the language of 20th-century conflicts, as its tanks roll into Ukraine.

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