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Soviet-era tanks in Berlin arouse controversy

September 25, 2022

As Germany discusses sending its tanks to Ukraine, a debate is developing in the capital, Berlin, over tanks from a different era. The issues involved span history and two wars.

Two T34 tanks Brandenburg Gate and TV tower in the background
Soviet battle tanks stand within sight of the Brandenburg Gate in front of the Soviet Memorial in BerlinImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

To this day, Soviet tanks stand in the German capital. They were used at the end of World War II in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. Ever since, they have stood as a symbol of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany as part of a vast memorial barely 500 meters (550 yards) from the landmark Brandenburg Gate. But is that still appropriate, considering the ongoing war in Ukraine?

For Stefanie Bung, a lawmaker in the Berlin state parliament for the conservative opposition Christian Democrats party, the answer is clear. "Memorials must be preserved, but I call for the Russian-Soviet guns and tanks that are on display in Germany to be dismantled," she told DW.

Protesters pulling the blue and yellow flag over the battle tank
Shortly after the war in Ukraine began, protesters covered one of Berlin's Soviet battle tanks with an Ukrainian flagImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Germany pledged to maintain and care for Soviet monuments as part of its reunification in the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, also known as the Two Plus Four Agreement of 1990.

Nevertheless, Bung hopes to initiate a debate about military equipment on memorials in public spaces because, according to the Berlin native, "the political conditions have fundamentally changed."

She is adamant that Russian war machines should not be regarded as a symbol of peace in Germany "when at the same time Russia has been fighting against Europe and our values for years and is waging war in Ukraine with the most brutal violence."

Stefanie Bung, a woman with long blonde hair wearing a black blazer and white shirt
Stefanie Bung wants Berlin to remove the Soviet battle tanks Image: Ines Grabner

Soviet monuments in the Baltic states

Bung speaks of the former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which, since 1991, have been independent Baltic countries. There, many of the remaining monuments from Soviet times have been removed since the war in Ukraine began in late February.

"The Baltic states show that the time of Russian war equipment and victory monuments is over, and these are now being consistently taken down," she said, labeling tanks as "materialized symbols of violence" that are designed to kill, intimidate and wield power over people.

But Wieland Giebel, publisher of historical books and initiator of a permanent exhibition in Berlin about the Nazi era, is opposed to removing the T34 tanks from the Soviet Memorial. "They are there because Germany started World War II, which killed 27 million people in the Soviet Union," he said. That number includes about 8 million Ukrainians, Giebel told DW, pointing out that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at that time.

Flowers and messages of solidarity with Ukraine across the street from the Russian Embassy in Berlin
Outside the Russian Embassy in Berlin, flowers and messages of solidarity show support for Ukraine Image: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

"The Soviet soldiers defeated National Socialism under the most terrible conditions," he said. To continue to honor and recognize this fact, he feels the Soviet monument in the center of Berlin must remain as it is — tanks included.

A symbol of anti-Putin protest

The fact that in the year 2022 people in Ukraine must fear for their lives because of the Russian attack on their country hurts Giebel deeply. Shortly after the war started, he helped in the welcome center set up for Ukrainian refugees at Berlin's main train station. His horror at the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked his desire to exhibit yet another Russian tank in the middle of Berlin. "I would like to do something to counter the crime," he said.

The idea for a temporary installation came to him when he saw how captured Russian tanks were publicly displayed in Warsaw and Prague in June and July. He thought that could also be possible in Berlin, and what better place than directly opposite the Russian Embassy? "To show: We are against this war! These tanks bring violence to Ukraine."

Wieland Giebel, an older man with white hair and rimless glasses in a blue shirt
Giebel's application to erect a wrecked tank from the war in Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin was declinedImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

A wrecked Russian tank in the center of Berlin would, in the view of the 72-year-old, send a further message: that Ukraine is able to destroy such tanks.

Giebel's application to erect a wrecked tank from the war in Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin was declined. The local Mitte district authority turned down the application because it was likely "that people died in this destroyed military equipment, and therefore exhibiting it is inappropriate."

Remembering Bucha war crimes

However, Giebel points out that another Berlin district had no problem addressing the war through the medium of art. A few weeks ago, the exhibition "Testament of Bucha" was opened on the famous shopping boulevard Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, with former Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk in attendance. It showed a burnt-out car in which three women and a 14-year-old girl had been killed after a Russian attack.

Meanwhile, Giebel is moving forward with his plan. He has already been to Kyiv to pitch his idea to the Foreign, Defense and Culture Ministries. He was offered the opportunity to "make a museum piece out of a destroyed tank." To transport it from Ukraine to the German capital, Giebel needs a document stating "that this piece of scrap metal can no longer be used to wage war." This document has already been promised to him.

A burnt out car on a black platform
The exhibit 'Testament of Bucha' consisted of a burnt-out car in which people had died in a Russian attack earlier this yearImage: Brühl/Bezirksamt Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf

But lawmaker Stefanie Bung, who is upset by the T34 tanks on the Soviet Memorial, is against displaying a wrecked tank outside the Russian Embassy. "In my view that would be a purely populist way of using the war to attract media attention, and for ethical reasons it cannot be the action of choice," she said.

Enemy weapons, regardless of their condition, are not suitable symbols for the idea of a peaceful Europe, Bung feels. "Instead, pictures of war victims, documentation of war crimes and fragments of the cultural treasures that have already been destroyed should be exhibited as an indictment of Russia's foreign policy," she said.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.