thomas m wilson

The past and the present in Berlin

August 14th, 2023

This morning I visited the Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial, the largest war memorial in Germany and a place that honours the Soviet victory over the Nazis when they eventually took Berlin, and the more than 80 thousand Russian soldiers who were killed.  More than 5 thousand are buried under the grass here where I was walking.  This is the most impressive war memorial I have ever seen. 

Two giant flags made from red granite are lowered as a kind of gate to the space.  A huge rectangle greets you of grass, flanked by many large stone sarcophagi on either side of this long rectangle.  At the opposite end you see a hill on which stands a vast bronze statue of a victorious soldier.  The soldier carries a sword, and its blade bites down into a broken swastika.  Leaving aside the politics of all this for a moment, you could not design a more monumental and awe inspiring war memorial.  This was made about four years after Berlin had surrounded to the Soviet troops in mid 1945.  It took 3 years to build with 1200 workers and 200 sculptors.  As I walked around looking at the carved stone reliefs telling the story of the Russian struggle to defeat the Nazis I was reminded that at least symbolically the Russians had won the second world war.  They raised their flag over the Reichstag.

Note the blade cutting into the swastika.
Under this grass lay more than 5 thousand dead Russian soldiers.

Berlin can easily bring thoughts of sad and monumental European history to mind. 

But it can also easily lighten the load.  Ever since Christopher Isherwood can here in the twenties to live a bohemian life, or Nick Cave came here in the eighties to be debauched and compose music, or continuing with the electronica of the clubs of today, it has had a lighter side.

I walked around Freidrichshain yesterday evening as the sun was low and the warm summer glow filled the cafes and bars of this alternative, creative neighbourhood.  It felt like one of the coolest places to be in Europe.  Free thinking, young, international, open minded, artistic people walked and sat, chatted in parks with beers bought at corner stores, snacked at vegan Vietnamese or imbibed at Portuguese bars.  The light cast long rays down the street through the canopy of the many trees around Boxhagener Platz.  The buzz was palpable.  And it wasn’t marred, like it is in Rome or Paris or Florence by the hoards of American, Chinese, and other nations camera wielding tourists.  It seemed to be mainly people who lived in Berlin – although I’m sure there were people like me there for the fun. 

Boxhagener Platz, very social and aromatic with the smell of joints.
So many people out on the pavement enjoying the summer, finally here after weeks of grey weather in northern Europe.