Hands Off Our T-34 Tanks!

It would be a mistake to remove Russian armored vehicles from Berlin’s war memorial

Hands Off Our T-34 Tanks! Hands Off Our T-34 Tanks!
The Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten is a prominent symbol of the past, just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate and the... Hands Off Our T-34 Tanks!

The Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten is a prominent symbol of the past, just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

The memorials’ largest feature is a curved arch topped by a Soviet soldier and flanked by howitzers and two T-34 tanks. Buried underneath are around 2,500 Soviet soldiers killed in the final battle against Nazi Germany.

But this symbol from the past has become a present-day controversy. The Russian invasion of Crimea—and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine—has provoked a backlash against the tanks.

“Now is the right time to eliminate these signs of a cruel war,” said Erika Steinbach, a member of parliament for the center-right Christian Democratic Union. Thomas Heilmann, a Berlin senator for the CDU, called for a competition to honor the soldiers “without tanks.”

The tabloid newspapers B.Z. and Bild also circulated a petition to remove the armored vehicles. “In an era when Russian tanks are threatening the free and democratic Europe, we don’t want any Russian tanks at the Brandenburg gate,” the petition stated.

Not everyone agrees. Green Party parliamentarian Volker Beck called the petition a “PR move for cold warriors” that does nothing to help Ukrainians.

The weekly newspaper Der Freitag also mocked the petition and satirically called for abolishing Mondays and redesignating a street named after the 1960s left-wing activist Rudi Dutschke to “Helmut Kohl Boulevard.”

But should the tanks be removed? No. It would be a mistake to equate symbols of the Soviet victory over the Nazis in Berlin with the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Bild sees the tanks as symbolic of present-day Russian units “deployed and threatening the freedom of a sovereign state.” But the memorial in Berlin has Soviet tanks—not Russian tanks in 2014.

It would also be a mistake to equate dismantling the Berlin memorial with the destruction of Soviet-era symbols in Ukraine. There, activists have painted over memorials and chopped the heads off statutes symbolizing Soviet troops.

But you can hardly blame Ukrainians for this. There’s no telling how many relatives of Maidan activists starved to death in the state-directed Soviet famines of the 1930s, in which more than three million people died.

Russian media outlets have criticized the destruction of Soviet symbols—and vandalizing war memorials—as a reflection of a growing neo-fascist ideology. While it’s true the Maidan uprising included the far right along with everybody else, Ukrainians have a distinct claim to their Soviet-era history that’s just as valid as that for Russians.

Here’s why.

In a March essay for the New York Review of Books, historian Timothy Snyder and author of Bloodlands wrote:

World War II on the Eastern Front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians.

There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

Both regimes oppressed Ukraine. Millions died under Soviet rule, and millions more died in a Nazi invasion. The Soviets destroyed the Nazi war machine—which aimed to eliminate Ukrainians as a people—and Ukrainians took disproportionate casualties doing it.

This means Ukrainians have moral rights to Soviet war imagery that doesn’t belong to Germans. And it’s understandable that many Ukrainians see Soviet symbols as a sign of a tyranny while at the same time rejecting Nazi ideology. These are not mutually exclusive positions.

Germany took a somewhat different approach. Berlin promised to protect Soviet war memorials in the 1990 Two Plus Four Agreement, which secured Soviet diplomatic recognition of German reunification.

The agreement made the German government “expressly obliged to respect the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten in memory of the fallen soldiers of the Red Army,” German federal government spokesman Georg Streiter said. “The federal government is fulfilling this obligation.”

But Germans also took to smashing East German symbols after 1989. As the Berlin Wall collapsed, citizens vandalized images of East German communist leader Erich Honecker.

The anti-communist ire also turned against statues of Lenin and Karl Marx. In 2008, Germany demolished the ultra-modernist East German parliament building to make way for a reconstruction of a 15th-century Hohenzollern palace. But the most enduring symbols of the Soviet victory in World War II endured.

“The federal government generally respects this particular form of commemoration of the Red Army on the part of victims of the Second World War,” Streiter said.

But the histories are different.

No one would fault Germans for getting back on symbols of communist-era horror. But blurring the distinctions between that and the destruction of the Nazi regime doesn’t do anyone any good. Politicians and tabloid papers should respect those differences.

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