In 1985 on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the-then West German President Richard von Weizsäcker spoke honestly about Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. He declared that the country's defeat had been a day of liberation. He expressed his belief that Germans, in facing their past, could redefine their identity and future.
In the West, Weizsäcker's speech was liberating. West Germany – in a courageous, humane and moving manner -- was continuing to subject itself to national psychoanalysis. Its insistence on memory – on truly facing the past – was both Freudian and anciently Jewish: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society past atrocities had to be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing. As a direct consequence of taking responsibility for its history, Germany has become an open and dynamic society today.
But at the time in East Germany, where ideology had twisted the history of the Third Reich beyond recognition, the speech was all but unknown (apart from by a young Angela Merkel who had acquired a rare copy and was struck by it). In the communist myth, Nazism had been a form of capitalism. Hitler had been a puppet, propelled to power by AEG, Siemens and the Dresdner Bank. These 'Western' firms – alongside British monopoly capitalists – had initiated the Second World War to feed their voracious hunger for raw materials and new markets.
According to the propagandists' official line, East Germans had fought to destroy the Nazi dictatorship from the earliest days. During the war communist cells had supposedly operated in every neighbourhood and factory. German Communists were said to have called on German soldiers to halt their meaningless fight and surrender to their true comrades, the Soviet Army. On national holidays, in speeches and in school text books, East Germans children were taught to embrace these lies, for they both gave legitimacy to the regime and freed them from their parents' guilt.
Germany's relationship with Russia has always been difficult, as both countries fear the meddling and encroachment of the neighbour. Today it is doubly complicated as President Putin uses Russian foreign policy as a tool for expanding his personal power and wealth. Yet without the Red Army, Nazism might well have triumphed in Europe, and the continent would be a very different place. Hence it is important not to forget the sacrifices of Soviet soldiers in their response to Hitler's brutal invasion of Russia.
In Berlin there are three Soviet War Memorials, the largest and most moving being in Treptower Park. Beyond two huge kneeling soldiers and stylized, red granite Soviet flags opens a geometric expanse flanked by 16 stone sarcophagi (one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics). Beneath them lie 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. At the head of the memorial rises a 12-metre tall statue of a brawny Soviet soldier (by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich) holding a rescued German child and massive sabre, with a broken swastika crushed beneath his boot. Much of stone and granite used for the memorial's construction came from the demolished New Reich Chancellery.
It is an epic, arresting structure; resplendent in heroic images of both the real and mythical narrative. Among its sculptures, reliefs and flame bowls is a quote from Joseph Stalin in both Russian and German: 'Now all must recognise that the Soviet people with their selfless fight have saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind'.
The Treptower Soviet War Memorial is among the most moving structures in Berlin. It is also a place that demands honest reflection and soul-searching on questions of identity, memorialisation and the shifting identities of perpetrators and victims. At the end of the Second World War over 15,000,000 German men had gone missing from the Reich, either lost in battle or locked for years to come in Soviet gulags.