[Photo: Tx0h, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons]

Beim Essaywettbewerb “Beyond new wave of mythologization of WWII” (Center for Independent Social Research, CISR) hat Stephanie Schulz 2020 in der Kategorie “Public History” gewonnen. CISR dazu: “The authors of this essay have demonstrated the ability to present the complex issues of war memory in a popular manner, and have addressed the problems of representing the history of war in public space.” Hier findet ihr Stephanie Schulz’ Sieger-Essay.

The Second World War has been part of the communicative memory of many Europeans, although it is now celebrating the 75th anniversary of its end. Adults and young people carry personal family memories and stories, besides the state and school narratives. Inherited stories, retold experiences of family members or a direct transmission from grandparent to grandchild. Passed on are those personal stories of the last survivors of the Holocaust, war veterans and civilians, who survived and who are able and willing to share, despite trauma. But the great majority of the generation, who experienced the war as children is dying or has not survived, taking endless stories of the war to grave with them. Nevertheless the Second World War is not to be forgotten within the European community, the ways of which it is remembered- the course of action of its way from communicative, mouth to mouth told stories, into cultural memory, of a nation or a community, vary.[1] Due to its brutality, war crimes and the monstrosity of organised mass murder of the European Jews, the WWII haunts the European community into the 21st century. Moreover, it has reached a political scale of being an instrument of power in history politics. In the year of the 75th anniversary of WWII – the survivors and eyewitnesses have nearly all deceased. But discussions, mystifications and competing narratives about the “authentic” historical truth continue and are regularly reignited, as the chosen example of this essay will show.

In the course of May 9th, 2020 thousands of people payed a visit to the Soviet War Memorial Treptower Park in Berlin, Germany.[2] Publicly known as the Victory Day, originally a Soviet holiday, they gathered to celebrate the end of WWII 75th years after the liberation of Europe from Nazism. For local Eastern Berliners the meetings have been a regular event to observe in their district for many years. As will be explained, the event contrasts and hosts multiple World War Two narratives. Firstly the connection to the Eastern European, post-Soviet celebration and heroisation of the Red Army. And secondly the city of Berlin itself, being part of the European Union and German memory politics sphere, which centers around the commemoration of victims and the centrality of the Holocaust and Auschwitz as the main place of remembrance (defined by Pierre Nora).


I.      The 2020 Victory Day celebrations at Treptower Park War Memorial in Berlin

The character of the event can be described as an intersection of a commemoration and a festival style celebration. Many people gathered without invitation, by own initiative. The reasons behind their visits might consequently vary, same as their action during the gathering. A common wreath-laying ceremony by high officials was followed by people lining up to the main memorial at Treptower park to lay flowers there and taking a picture in front of the memorial. The originally planned celebration could not be held due to COVID-19 pandemic event restrictions, hence there is no clear timeline of activities. Part of the celebratory character was the dressing up in military costumes, mostly Red Army uniforms. In addition, patriotic war songs were sung in Russian, signs and posters in favor of peace with Russia were held and the Soviet flag with hammer and sickle and the ribbon of Saint George were omnipresent.[3] Apart from the meeting at Treptower Park there have been further meetings in Berlin at the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten as well, some officials have also been present there. In May 2020 the quarantine of COVID-19 was at a peak, public meetings were generally forbidden. One of the exceptions were the Victory Day meetings at Treptower Park and Tiergarten Memorial.

The annual meeting for Victory Day at Treptower Park is supported by the Berlin Association of those persecuted by the Nazi regime – Association of Anti-Fascists (VVN-BdA)[4] since 2006. The reoccurring slogan being: “He who does not celebrate has lost“ („Wer nicht feiert, hat verloren). The association was founded by a group of volunteers at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (then, Museum of the unconditional surrender of fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War). Following a description on their website, the underlying message of the festival is „to send a clear signal that goes against historical revisionist tendencies and indiscriminate commemoration or the mixing of victims and perpetrators“.

The event was attended from official site by most ambassadors of the former Soviet states.[5] Moreover, members of the German orthodox church and Military officials have been present.[6] Moreover, German officials, like the mayor of Berlin, the prime minister of Saxony and members of left party the „Die Linke“ party attended.

The group of private participants was not homogenised, there were members of several social groups present. Different unions, associations and cooperation that mostly focuse on a dialog with the Russian Federation like DKP, Berliner Friedenskoordination, Druschba were present.[7] Also the association of the former GDR Army donated a wreath. In Interviews, the German participants explained their attendance by the wish to celebrate and thank the Soviet soldiers for the liberation from Fascism in their country.[8] About 100 members of the Putin related biker club Nochnye Volki visited both memorials, in the past years their way of honouring their heroes of the Red Army consisted of riding by motorcycle from Moscow to Berlin.[9]

The Soviet War Memorial is located in the surrounding of Treptower Park in the East Berlin district Treptow-Köpenick, close to Pushkin Allee. Many parts of East Berlin show sides of the former influence of the Soviet Union, such as the memorials in Soviet memorial Schönholzer Heide and Soviet memorial Tiergarten. The Treptower Park memorial is the biggest one in size, with about nine hectares. Inaugurated on the 8th of may in 1949 it is not only a Memorial in honour of the fallen soldiers, but also a military cemetery for about 7.000 soldiers, who died in the battle of Berlin. Moreover, it is the biggest Soviet war memorial outside the post-Soviet states. The central element of the park is the bronze statue “The Liberator”, a sculpture of a Soviet soldier who breaks the swastika with his sword and carries a rescued German girl on his arm.[10] The memorial itself represents the Soviet memory of the Red Army as the liberator of Germany and Europe and the memory of the approximately 80,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle of Berlin.


II.     Origins of the Victory Day celebrations

The main monument at Treptower Park shows close resemblances to other Soviet war memorials, that were build all over the Soviet Union in honour of the victory over Nazi Germany. Together with the famous Motherland Calls (1967) monument in Volgograd and the Magnitogorsk Rear-front Memorial (1979) they form a triptych. The continues building of many war memorials connected to the Second World War, in Russian referred to as the Great Patriotic War, has kept the memory alive. In the Russian Federation, the „well-established pattern“[11] of war-memory is well integrated into most social groups, from school children to veterans. The highlight being the Victory day celebrations on 9th of may, which have been celebrated in the Soviet Union since 1945. While under Stalin and Khrushchev the date was not even a holiday for some years, the fascination with the war and excessive parades started in the Brezhnev period. Amir Weiner argues that World War II acted as a unification factor of the USSR citizens. It replaced the October Revolution mythos and created a new narrative and debatably even a founding myth for the USSR.[12]

The Second World War is a part of the communicative and cultural memory of the post Soviet space and in the global historical community discussions about the number of victims are ongoing. Common sense is that the Soviet republics suffered immensely during the war (about 27 Million deaths).[13] Hitler wanted to destroy the eastern Europeans civilisation in order to „create living space” for Germans, the war in the East was a war of extermination. Millions of civilians lost their lives and a collective cultural trauma can be attested.[14] The Victory Day therefore functions as a day for not only celebration but also commemoration. On the one hand, the commemoration of the fallen soldiers and victims, and on the other hand the glorification of the Red Army. The „Heroes“ are being kept alive by the discourse in Russia.  The established narrative beeing that they liberated not only Auschwitz, but also saved Europe, and especially Germany, from Fascism. Other post-Soviet states like the Baltic states follow a different narrative approach of the war and the 9th of May, due to the conflicted memory of the Stalinist repressions. But in many former Soviet states it remains a public holiday.[15]

At Treptower Park the Immortal Regiment was held, which leads to the understanding that there is an interconnection between the Russian civil society and the German one. The movement was originally launched in 2012 „by a group of liberal Tomsk TV journalists critical of what they saw as overly state-centred commemoration“.[16] Its purpose is to highlight the personal connection between the veterans and their relatives and spark interest in family history. It is a way of honouring the heroic and tragic lives of the glorified Red Army by joining the Victory Day parade with a photo of a related soldier of the Red Army. An understanding of this phenomenon in the context of the 9th of May is the concept of Postmemory by Marianne Hirsch (2012). Hirsch defines the generation of Postmemory, that experienced World War II not through family or personal stories, but exclusively through the mediated versions such as TV and movies. The Immortal Regiment aims at exactly this generation, by creating a heroised understanding of the own family story. Mischa Gabowitsch describes it as a personalisation of the many individual family stories, through state but also civic initiative.[17] The originally decentralised movement is now supported by state.

Critically looking at the tradition, the sentimental use of the photo of a lost grandfathers might lead to a hesitation to condemn war crimes of the Red Army. Looking at it critically as a „whitewashing“ process, it can be compared to the German mythos of Weiße Wehrmacht. Meaning, that the Wehrmacht was only following orders with a pure and moral nature, and was not a part of any criminal  activity or war crimes.


III.    Victory Celebrations in Germany

The described aspects of Russian and post-Soviet memory politics lead to the question how the city of Berlin -as one of the host cities of the 9th of May traditions- fits into the narrative. Understanding the celebration as a Soviet memory remnant may seem irritating- or from the opposite perspective, very logical.

The city of Berlin is one of the main places of European history in the 20th Century. The city and its citizens carry countless places of remembrance in connection to the beginning and end of the war. Being the capital to the national socialist party from 1933. The Red Army started to gain control in the battle of Berlin from the16 April. Stunde Null-, after being defeated on the 8th/ 9th of May, Berlin and Berlins division between the USSR and the Allies. Being part of the GDR, East Berlin has had a different approach to political and historical education because of being bound to the USSR. In some way, the celebrations and narratives have been already a part of life in the former GDR. The citizens experienced parades similar to those happening in Russia nowadays.

Regardless of the final battle in Berlin, the memory of the end of World War II is not present in an  reoccurring celebration, as for example the 9th of May. In many other European states the 8th of May is already a holiday, in the GDR it was a public holiday between 1950 – 1967 and 1985.[18] The main pillars of legitimacy and common ground for the GDR was a similar agency to the memory polices of the Soviet Union. The GDR was founded after the liberation from Fascism by the Red Army, a deep connection and gratitude towards the USSR was therefore implied already in the basis of the state.

East and West Germany were already at this point going in different memory political directions, the GDR celebrated the day of liberation, the 8th of May. The Western Germans did not celebrate any event in regard to the end of Naziism; as it was considered a defeat. The conservative parties stated “why to celebrate a defeat?“.[19] A historical reappraisal (Aufarbeitung) of the Second World War followed only decades later.

In 2020, the city of Berlin has established a one time holiday for all Berliners on the 8th of May, in memory of the end of World War II in 1945. An initiative by the Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejerano[20] asked for the 8th of May to be a permeant holiday in the German calendar. She argues in a letter to President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel that the day of liberation from the Nazi regime should be celebrated as such. Political left parties supported her argument for the creation of a new, permanent holiday, as they claim, it is the day, that made the democratic German Republic possible and  through its celebration send a reminder to the Germans not to relativise the crimes.

Another side of the coin is, that Berlin, as the capital of Germany, is part of the western German cultural memory which doesn’t include a heretic celebration regard to WW2. As already depicted, the German term Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Dealing with the Past) was only coined after experiences of national trauma and a mechanism of Repulsion in the after war years. The parents-children discussions and the groundbreaking speech of President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985 were turning points upon discussion of the Second World War and the Nazi crimes.

For the German society the question of guilt is a constant matter of discussion. The political awareness for the topic is there, the German politics strive towards a constant reestablishment of the responsibility. Close relationships with Israel are one way of showing that. History school classes are packed with information about the 1930s and 1940s and most of all the Holocaust. The „heavy, historical burden of guilt Germany’s responsibility does not expire“, as Steinmeier said in Yad Vashem this year.[21] Celebrations in this context seem quite odd from the described German perspective. Rather than celebrating the liberation of the totalitarian state, the guilt and trauma of the remembrance of the war, mark the memory.


IV.  Conclusion

Historical perceptions are nothing trivial; when they collide, they can have unexpected consequences.[22]

This statement by Aleida Assmann expresses that memory politics have a power to them, which should not be underestimated. WW2 was experienced by all of Europe. Yet celebrations like the Victory Day in Berlin seem to be displaced in one city of the war- and fitting in another city. The event itself- the remembrance of the Second World War and the wish for a peaceful future, is what unites all of Europe, including the presented national memory politics of Russia and Germany. Yet the example of Berlin on 9th of May shows a conflicted, but yet uniting presentation of these understandings. Generalizing, the post-Soviet states use the heroisation of the veterans as a positive founding myth, while the European Union centres memory around the negative founding myth of the Holocaust.[23]

Fixed days of memory are an excellent example of this theory: on the one side the Victory Day on the 9th of May and, on the other side, the Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27th of January. A European parliament resolutions put the Holocaust in the centre of European cultural memory, a common commemoration date for all of Europe.[24] The liberation of Auschwitz is a central role in both memory political spheres, but the approach of identifying the historical truth is different. One side focuses on the freed victims and another on the liberators.

 Another example of clash of memories are the controversies surrounding the Fifth World Holocaust Forum 2020. Several members (excluding Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was denied to give a speech and therefore didn’t attend the meeting[25]) of the meeting gave political and historical speeches from their national perspective. German President Steinmeier, focused on the crimes of humanity of his country’s citizens and the guilt towards the jewish population. President Putin’s speech was also directed towards the victims of the Holocaust, yet more openly, he pointed at the losses of the Red Army.[26]

One of the most common misunderstandings of memory politics is the simple, yet groundbreaking debate about historical dates. For instance in Germany the 8th of May is the official end of the Second World War, while for the post-Soviet sphere the time of the final signature of the surrender of the Wehrmacht in the night May 9th is celebrated as Victory Day.[27]

Historical revisionism, history politics, historical laws- memory politics are part of politics, they present images, narratives and myths and are used as tools for creating identity and legitimacy.

The celebration at Treptower Park War Memorial in Berlin 2020 show commemoration and celebration of the end of the WWII, therefore it is an excellent example of diverging attempts of keeping the memory of the war alive. There seems to be a disconnection between the European countries of not only how to understand the ending of the WWII, but, moreover, in the understanding of who is responsible for it, and whether it should be celebrated or commemorated. The two sides of the coin are presented by the negative and positive myth of the end of the Second World War. But, nevertheless, the relevance of WWII is proven. The experience of the world war has the potential to be a unifying argument for all of Europe, against all odds. Postmemory generations have the possibly to recreate it.


[1] based on Aleida Assmann und Jan Assmann theory. Das Gestern im Heute. 1994. Medien und soziales Gedächtnis. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-663-09784-6_7

[2] RBB fernsehen. Tag des Sieges. 10.05.2020. https://www.rbb-online.de/doku/s-t/tag-des-sieges.html (Last Access 13.09.2020)

[3] Bernd Adam. Tag des Sieges 2020 Berlin, Ehrenmal im Treptower. 09.05.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS7rxvK8kQ8. Last Access (20.08.2020); Mathias Tretschog – Freier Journalist. Tag des Sieges, Berlin Treptower Park. 09.05.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8p9xWIvTMU. Last Access (20.08.2020)

[4] VVN-BdA. Über uns. 14.04.2016. https://neuntermai.vvn-bda.de/. (Last access 15.09.2020)

[5] Botschaft der Russischen Föderation. Gedenkzeremonie mit Kranzniederlegung am sowjetischen Ehrenmal im Treptower Park vom 9. Mai. 09.05.2020. https://russische-botschaft.ru/de/2020/05/09/gedenkzeremonie-mit-kranzniederlegung-am-sowjetischen-ehrenmal-im-treptower-park-vom-9-mai/. (Last access 05.09.2020)

[6] RBB 24. Gedenken am Sowjetischen Ehrenmal trotz Coronakrise. 09.05.2020. https://www.rbb24.de/panorama/thema/2020/coronavirus/beitraege_neu/2020/05/berlin-corona-virus-treptower-park-ehrenmal-sowjetunion-weltkrie.html (Last access 09.05.2020)

[7] Deutschen Kommunistischen Partei (https://dkp.de/); FRIKO (http://www.frikoberlin.de/); Druschba https://druschba-global.org/

[8] B Bernd Adam. Tag des Sieges 2020 Berlin, Ehrenmal im Treptower. 09.05.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS7rxvK8kQ8. Last Access (20.08.2020); Mathias Tretschog – Freier Journalist. Tag des Sieges, Berlin Treptower Park. 09.05.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8p9xWIvTMU. Last Access (20.08.2020)

[9] Tomas Kittan. Nachtwölfe entern Befreiungs-Gedenken. 09.05.2020. https://www.bz-berlin.de/berlin/treptow-koepenick/nachtwoelfe-entern-befreiungs-gedenken (Last Access 20.08.2020)

[10] Botschaft der Russischen Föderation. Gedenkzeremonie mit Kranzniederlegung am sowjetischen Ehrenmal im Treptower Park vom 9. Mai. 09.05.2020. https://russische-botschaft.ru/de/2020/05/09/gedenkzeremonie-mit-kranzniederlegung-am-sowjetischen-ehrenmal-im-treptower-park-vom-9-mai/. (Last access 05.09.2020)

[11] Mischa Gabowitsch. ZOIS Berlin. The present and future of post-Soviet war commemoration. 08.05.2019. https://en.zois-berlin.de/publications/zois-spotlight-2019/the-present-and-future-of-post-soviet-war-commemoration/. (Last access 12.09.2020)

[12] Amir Weiner. Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. 2001. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t28v

[13] John Silk. Deutsche Welle. Russia accuses US of downplaying Soviet role in WWII. 10.05.2020. https://www.dw.com/en/russia-accuses-us-of-downplaying-soviet-role-in-wwii/a-53386866 (Last access 12.09.2020)

[14] Jeffrey Alexander,. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. 2004. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp9nb. pp. 1-30

[15] Mischa Gabowitsch. ZOIS Berlin. The present and future of post-Soviet war commemoration. 08.05.2019. https://en.zois-berlin.de/publications/zois-spotlight-2019/the-present-and-future-of-post-soviet-war-commemoration/. (Last access 12.09.2020)

[16] Direct quote. Mischa Gabowitsch. ZOIS Berlin. The present and future of post-Soviet war commemoration. 08.05.2019. https://en.zois-berlin.de/publications/zois-spotlight-2019/the-present-and-future-of-post-soviet-war-commemoration/. (Last access 12.09.2020)

[17] Mischa Gabowitsch. ZOIS Berlin. The present and future of post-Soviet war commemoration. 08.05.2019. https://en.zois-berlin.de/publications/zois-spotlight-2019/the-present-and-future-of-post-soviet-war-commemoration/. (Last access 12.09.2020)

[18] Nils Michaelis. Berlin erinnert mit Feiertag an Kriegsende. 06.02.2020 https://abendblatt-berlin.de/2020/02/06/berlin-erinnert-mit-feiertag-an-kriegsende/. (Last access 14.09.2020)

[19] Peter Hurrelbrink. Befreiung als Prozess. Die kollektiv-offizielle Erinnerung an den 8. Mai 1945 in der Bundesrepublik, der DDR und im vereinten Deutschland. 2006. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-531-90269-2_3. S. 83 ff.

[20] Esther Bejarano. Auschwitz-Überlebende wünscht sich 8. Mai als Feiertag. 27.01.2020. https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2020-01/esther-bejarano-feiertag-nierderschlagung-ns-regime-auschwitz-komitee. (Last access 14.09.2020)

[21] Bundepräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem. 23.01.2020. https://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/EN/Frank-Walter-Steinmeier/Reden/2020/01/200123-World-Holocaust-Forum-Yad-Vashem.html (Last access 14.09.2020)

[22] Aleida Assmann. Der Europäische Traum. 2018. https://www.kas.de/documents/258927/4633940/19_Assmann.pdf/ee656a83-e0ae-d068-0295-76c3d7fa332a  S.19 ff

[23] Birgit Schwelling. Krieg und Gedächtnis. 2006. www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-8037.

[24] European Parliament. European Parliament resolution on remembrance of the Holocaust, anti-semitism and racism. 2005. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P6-TA-2005-0018&language=EN. (last access 20.08.2020)

[25] Alexandra Föderl-Schmid und Florian Hassel. Eklat um Auschwitz-Gedenken. Süddeutsche Zeitung. 08.01.2020. https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/polen-eklat-um-auschwitz-gedenken-1.4748890 (Last access 10.09.2020)

[26] Евгений Баранов. Владимир Путин выступил в Израиле на всемирном форуме памяти жертв Холокоста. 1tv.ru. 26.01.2020. https://www.1tv.ru/news/2020-01-26/379453-vladimir_putin_vystupil_v_izraile_na_vsemirnom_forume_pamyati_zhertv_holokosta. (Last access 10.09.2020)

[27] Direct Quote: Augsburger Allgemeine. Tag der Befreiung: Wo ist der 8. Mai 2020 heute ein Feiertag?. 08.05.2020. https://www.augsburger-allgemeine.de/panorama/Tag-der-Befreiung-Wo-ist-der-8-Mai-2020-heute-ein-Feiertag-id57331676.html (Last access 14.09.2020)