The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Space Photography Shines a Light on Berlin.

I’ve been following International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter for quite a while now – I enjoy his insights into daily life aboard the ISS and particularly enjoy the photographs he regularly posts. Last week he posted the following photograph of Berlin at night, which generated widespread media interest:


Chris Hadfield’s recent photograph of Berlin by night, posted to his Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield, clearly highlights the former east-west divide across the city!

Commander Hadfield’s photograph, taken from the ISS, 200 miles above the earth, illustrates that even more than two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the East-West Berlin divide is still clearly visible from space!

The divide is caused by different methods of streetlighting, a hangover from the Cold War division of the city, with the fluorescent lamps of western Berlin causing a brighter, whiter glow and the sodium-vapour lamps in the eastern part giving off a softer, yellowish hue. Hadfield’s photograph was widely circulated on Twitter, and featured in mainstream media including the Guardian, Telegraph and Spiegel Online, Speaking to The Guardian Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of Berlin’s city government commented that ‘although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city’. City authorities have since confirmed that they plan to replace the old sodium lights with electric lamps as part of a gradual drive to reduce energy consumption.

April 26, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

50 Years On – Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


This weekend marks fifty years since construction of the Berlin Wall began. Sunday August 13th 1961 became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (‘barbed wire Sunday’) as soldiers hastily constructed makeshift barriers across the city, but what began as little more than an impromptu barbed wire fence soon evolved into an increasingly impenetrable system of metal and concrete walls, which cut across neighbourhoods, dividing families and essentially trapping nearly 17 million people inside the GDR. For further information about the events surrounding the construction of the wall, including video footage from August 1961, please see my previous blog post Building the Berlin Wall.


Between 1945-1961 around 2.4 million people (15% of the population of the GDR) fled across into West Berlin, with this recent exhibition providing a fascinating depiction of their experiences in West German refugee camps in the 1950s. During the 28 years between the wall’s construction in 1961 and its collapse in November 1989 however, guards stationed along what quickly became known as ‘dead mans zone’ operated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, with over 600 people thought to have died while trying to breach the wall.


Was the Berlin Wall Necessary?

Speaking ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction, British Foreign Secretary William Hague today described the building of the Wall as ‘one of the darkest days for post-War Europe’.  In 1961 however, reactions to the wall were fairly muted, both within and beyond Germany. While there were some protests (particularly in West Berlin) most Berliners quietly carried on with their lives as far as possible, seeming bemused by and resigned to the sudden appearance of the wall, rather than outraged. Russell Swenson, who was stationed in Berlin with the US Army in August 1961, described the confusion he witnessed among citizens of Berlin: ‘Nobody expected it; that’s why there was no plan to do anything about it … I don‘t think people thought it was going to last very long, certainly not 30 years’.


In 1961 the East German authorities claimed the wall was necessary as an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’ to protect against ‘subversive activity’ from the West. In a Letter sent by Soviet authorities to the governments of the USA, UK and France dated 18 August 1961, they claim that: ‘West Berlin has been transformed into a center of subversive activity diversion, and espionage, into a center of political and economic provocations against the G.D.R., the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries’. It has long been accepted that the primary motivation behind the wall’s construction was to stem the growing exodus of people leaving East Germany however, something which was both politically embarrassing and economically damaging for the communist authorities, with those leaving primarily comprised of younger, skilled citizens, amounting to a ‘brain drain’.


The idea that the Berlin Wall was ‘necessary’ still appears to hold some weight today, fifty years after its construction and 22 years after its collapse. This weekend, members of Germany’s Left Party (the successors to the East German SED) are debating a motion to officially accept that the building of the wall was an ‘inescapable necessity’. Perhaps more surprisingly however, around a third of Berliners also maintain that there was some justification for its construction – in a Forsa survey published in the Berliner Zeitung earlier this month, while 62% of those surveyed rejected the ‘necessity’ of the wall, 25% expressed the view that construction of the wall was ‘necessary and justified in part’ while a further 10% saw its construction as fully justified, to stem the exodus to the West and stabilise the political situation in Germany in the face of growing Cold War tensions.


In a recent article in History Today, Fredrick Taylor also believes that the wall was perceived as necessary – or at least, very convenient – by the Western powers, certainly more so that their condemnatory rhetoric suggested at the time. Despite a brief stand off between Soviet and American tanks in Berlin, overall the Western reaction to the wall’s construction was decidedly muted. Taylor details how, distracted by domestic and other pressing foreign commitments, Western statesmen and diplomats were largely ambivalent towards the permanent division of Berlin. Not only were the Western powers clearly unprepared to risk going to war to prevent the division of Germany, Taylor claims, but many privately saw the wall as a satisfactory solution to the ‘German problem’.


Mauer im Kopf: the ‘Wall in the Mind’


When the Berlin Wall collapsed in the autumn of 1989 it was largely obliterated, in part due to high numbers of Mauerspechten or ‘wall woodpeckers’ (souvenier hunters who chipped away at the remnants of the wall) and in part due to a concerted political effort to remove the wall from view and push ahead with reunification as quickly as possible. A few scattered sections of the wall remain standing today – most notably at Bernauer Strasse which functions as the official memorial to the wall – but visitors to Berlin increasingly maintain that it is difficult to pinpoint where the Wall formerly stood; where ‘West’ became ‘East’. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction SPIEGEL ONLINE have compiled an interesting interactive slideshow of photographs depicting life before and after the Wall here.


Many people believe that the speedy disappearance of the wall created a lack of opportunities for Vergangenheitsbewältigung or ‘coming to terms with the past’ in East Berlin. The growth of Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) in recent years has led to suggestions that while the wall may have been physically removed, a less tangible barrier remains – a Mauer im Kopf  or ‘wall in the mind’. Veena Venugopal believes that ‘it is clear that even though the Berlin Wall came down 22 years ago, it is still a defining force in the life of Berliners’.


In another recent poll where respondents were asked about lingering divisions between east and west Germans nearly 22 years after the Wall was torn down, 83 percent of those surveyed said they thought there was still an ‘invisible wall’ running through the country, while only 15 percent said they thought the differences between those who had lived in the West and the East had been surmounted.


These enduring divisions appear to be fuelled primarily by post-communist disappointment, political stereotyping (with ‘East’ Germans accusing ‘West’ Germans of arrogance while some former ‘Wessies’ see ‘Ossies’ as backward and stupid) and economic insecurity. The ‘brain drain’ halted by the Berlin Wall soon revived after its collapse: between 1989 and 2005 more than 1.6 million predominantly young (with 60% aged under 30) educated and skilled Eastern Germans left for better prospects in the West. Today unemployment in some areas of the former East are three times as high as in the West.


Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


Certain aspects of Berlin’s recent past remain highly charged issues and I previously wrote a short piece relating to the contested nature of memorialisation and commemoration in Berlin here. Today Berlin is a popular tourist destination with an estimated 5.5 million visitors to its memorials and contemporary history museums per year. A thriving and lucrative tourist industry has developed around Cold War Germany, but some events – such as the infamous ‘Trabi safaris’ which allow tourists to tour the route of the wall while driving ‘one of the last relics of real-life socialism’ while experiencing traditional Cold War-style checks by costumed border guards  –  have resulted in complaints about the ‘Disneyfication’ of Berlin, serving to trivialise and distort important aspects of its history for entertainment value.


A campaign has recently been launched for a new ‘Cold War Centre’ in Berlin which would aim to construct a dominant narrative pertaining to commemoration and remembrance of divided Germany. Some have suggested that the use of socialist symbols should be legally restricted, akin to the Nazi swastika. Others suggest that sections of the Wall should be properly reconstructed to stand as a visible and enduring memorial to the divisions in Germany’s recent past. The recent announcement of work to stabilise the best preserved remains of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Strasse (financed by funds seized from the SED after German reunification in 1990), has led to calls from Axel Klausmeier, Manger of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, for the remains of the Wall to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


In the coming days numerous events have been organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction. On 13 August Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading German politicians are attending an official ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Further information about commemorative activities in Berlin can be found here, with a full programme in English here.



August 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Monumental Makeover in Bulgaria Illustrates the Contested Status of Soviet-Era War Memorials

On the morning of 18 June 2011, residents of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, awoke to discover that one of their monuments had been treated to a rather colourful makeover. The Second World War Monument to the Soviet Army (Pametnik na Savetskata armia), built in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Nazi-allied Bulgaria and depicting Red Army soldiers heroically fighting alongside the Bulgarian people in typical socialist-realist architectural style, had been spray painted by an anonymous artist (subsequently dubbed ‘the Bansky of Bulgaria’ by the media). The tarnished, bronzed, Red Army soldiers had been transformed into popular American icons including Superman, The Joker, Captain America, Ronald McDonald and Santa Claus. The flag held aloft by the soldiers had also been adorned with the US stars and stripes. A telling slogan was boldly written in black spray paint below the monument to accompany the statue’s makeover: ‘Moving with the Times’.


This photograph illustrates the recently repainted Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia Berlin (above) compared to its usual appearance (below).


A wonderful 360 degree panoramic of the repainted monument can also be viewed here (click on the arrows to circle around!):


The newly painted statues proved popular with many, quickly becoming a tourist magnet as people flocked to have photographs taken with them. However, not everybody was amused by the monument’s impromptu makeover. Bulgarian Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov quickly denounced the re-sprayed statues as an ‘act of vandalism’ and said he ‘considered it a crime’. The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning ‘the hooligans behind the vandalism’ for their ‘mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers who died in the name of freeing Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism’ and urging the Bulgarian authorities to ‘expose and punish’ those responsible. The fact that the 22 June marked the 70th anniversary of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the German invasion of the USSR, made the timing of the incident particularly sensitive.


The monument retained its new look for a few days, before being quietly cleaned and restored to its former state. However, the nature of the re-spray has prompted questions about the true motivation behind the makeover. Was this art or vandalism? Does the slogan hint at a more political message? Was the artist suggesting that American pop culture icons were the ‘new heroes’ of Eastern Europe? Or was the true message to suggest that today, in post-communist Bulgaria, one ‘imperialist ally’ has simply been replaced with another?


Conflicting Interpretations of Soviet-era War Monuments


In the aftermath of Soviet victory in World War II, a proliferation of monuments were erected across the territories of the (newly-enlarged) USSR and across Eastern Europe. During the communist era, these were protected by law, so although citizens often privately referred to the monuments in rather derogatory terms (such as the ‘Looters Memorial’ or ‘Tribute to the Unknown Rapist’) there were relatively few serious attempts to tamper with them. In the post-communist period however, many Soviet monuments have become targets for vandalism and graffiti (which is often much less sophisticated than the recent Bulgarian makeover!).


The status of these Soviet-era war monuments has also fuelled political debate, both within many former Soviet bloc countries and between their national governments and the contemporary Russian leadership, as both sides attempt to tentatively negotiate and re-negotiate their communist pasts. At the heart of this debate lie two very different interpretations of history.


One of the best known Soviet war memorials stands in Treptower Park, Berlin. A 12 foot tall bronze Russian soldier holds a young German girl in his arms while his sword cuts through the Nazi swastika, which he crushes underfoot. The monument was removed for renovation in 2003 but restored in 2004.


Russia maintains that the monuments symbolise Soviet sacrifice and heroism in World War II, celebrating the prestige of their hard-fought victory over Germanyand their historic role in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazi tyranny. Lev Gudkov argues that victory in World War II remains ‘the most potent symbol of identification’ in present-day Russia. This is supported by evidence from a variety of other quarters. In 2003 87% of Russians surveyed mentioned victory in the Second World War in response to the question ‘what makes you personally proud in our history?’ and in a list of the most important events shaping Russia’s fate in the twentieth century compiled in 2005, victory in World War II was named by 78% of respondents. Statistics such as these have led to allegations that today, many Russians continue to promote their victory in World War II as a means of legitimising or justifying many of the darker aspects of the Stalinist era.


In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of the establishment of a new Commission to ‘guard against the falsification of History’ specifically related to attempts to revise, question or challenge certain aspects of the Soviet role in World War II in the post-communist era. When announcing the formation of the Commission, Medvedev emphasised that: ‘We will never forget that our country, the Soviet Union, made the decisive contribution to the outcome of World War II, that it was precisely our people who destroyed Nazism and determined the fate of the whole world’. Medvedev even suggested that expressing doubts that the Soviets came to Eastern Europe in any other guise than that of liberators at the end of the Second World War should be considered a criminal offense, similar to that of Holocaust denial. The importance of World War II for many contemporary Russians is also illustrated  by the continuation of the traditional Soviet-era ‘victory parade’ in Moscow on 9th May each year in the post-Soviet period, a military spectacular that was traditionally designed to act as a combined celebration of Soviet victory in World War II and a contemporary display of Russian military might (for some video coverage of the most recent parade in May 2011, see HERE ). 


Many of the countries from the Former Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe who gained independence from Soviet influence when communism collapsed take a rather different stance however; viewing the Soviet-era monuments as symbolic of occupation and repression following World War II and as a painful reminder of the hardship they endured under communist rule. Reuben Fowkes argues that after 1945, war memorials were erected for primarily geo-political reasons across Eastern Europe, to ‘mark on the map the area liberated by the Soviets and to claim that territory as part of the Soviet zone of influence’. Fowkes goes on to suggest that it was ‘no coincidence that some of the earliest monuments were erected at the extremities of Soviet military activity … and often have a visibly aggressive character’.


Speaking in an interview conducted by RFE/RL in 2007, Kadri Liik, a journalist and analyst at the Estonian International Center for Defense Studies, succinctly summarised the views held by many across the former Soviet bloc when he explained that, in the Estonian case:
“It [the monument] was erected in the 1940s to commemorate the so-called liberation of Tallinn … the Soviet troops entered Tallinn in 1944, in autumn. And they called it liberation. Estonians have always regarded it quite differently. Liberators leave — occupiers do not … The Soviet “liberators” stayed inEstonia until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991″.


Since the collapse of communism and the break-up of the USSR, several countries have moved to displace or destroy Soviet war monuments, a policy which has persistently prompted strong objections from Russia. This forms part of a wider policy to remove communist-era monuments and symbols (such as the traditional hammer and sickle) from public buildings, however the status of war monuments has been particularly contested, for obvious reasons. The recent Bulgarian ‘paint job’ is thus far from the first controversial case to hit the headlines in recent years.


Perhaps the best documented example is that of the 2007 Estonian decision to move their ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Second World War’ – a 2 metre (6.5ft) statue unveiled by Soviet authorities in September 1944 to mark the third anniversary of the Red Army’s entry into Tallinn, which was more commonly known as ‘the Bronze Soldier’ – away from its original location in the centre of Tallinn to a small military cemetery on the outskirts of the capital. This decision proved particularly contentious given the sizeable Russian minority still resident in Estonia (accounting for around one third of the total 1.3 million Estonian population today). The relocation of the statue provoked two days of violent rioting and widespread looting inTallinn, during which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, ultimately resulting in one death, 153 injured and over 800 arrests.


The 'Bronze Soldier' in Tallinn, Estonia. The monument depicts a Red Army soldier in uniform, his helmet in one hand, his head slightly bowed and his rifle slung over his back. Relocation of the statue in 2007 led to several days of violent protests and rioting in Tallinn.


A second recent example was the December 2009 demolition of a World War II Soviet war memorial in the Georgian city of Kutaisi, a towering 46 metre high concrete and bronze structure which was built to commemorate the estimated 300,000 Georgians who were killed while fighting for the Red Army. Despite sustained protests by Russian officials, Red Army veterans and pro-Russian political groups in Georgia, the government decided to destroy the monument and build a new national parliament on the site. The demolition of the monument, already a politically sensitive issue, was then further marred by the violation of safety regulations during the controlled explosion, which led to flying chunks of concrete killing two people and wounding another four. Following the destruction of the monument Russian Prime Minister Putin condemned the move as ‘another attempt to erase the former Soviet peoples’ memory of their common and heroic past’ and announced that a replica of the monument would be built in Moscow.


The 2009 demolition of a monument in Kutaisi, Georgia, a towering 46 metre high concrete and bronze structure which was built to commemorate the estimated 300,000 Georgians who were killed while fighting for the Red Army caused controversy, particularly as the violation of safety regulations led to two deaths.


Such politically and emotionally charged issues clearly need to be handled with sensitivity, particularly while the impact of World War II and its aftermath remains within living memory for many in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Certainly, Soviet sacrifices in World War II – in terms of both soldiers and civillian casualties – should not be disregarded, with a total Soviet death toll estimated at around 27 million, more than the combined death toll of all of their wartime allies. Many contemporary Russians thus perceive attempts to displace and destroy Soviet war memorials as a humiliation and an attempt to desecrate the memory of those who died. However, Nina Tumarkin is correct when she states that the traditional Soviet version of their ‘Great Patriotic War’ contains a mixture of ‘truth, lies and unforgivable blank spots’. Much of the historical evidence that has come to light in the post-Soviet period demonstrates that this can no longer be ignored. For citizens of the Baltic states, which were first ‘claimed’ by the Soviet Union in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (something which the Soviet Union continued to deny for decades afterwards) and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union after their ‘liberation’ from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II; or for citizens of the East European countries where communism was imposed and maintained – at times forcibly, most obviously in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 – as a result of Soviet dominance until 1989, it is easy to see how the aftermath of the Second World War soon came to be viewed less as a ‘liberation’ and more as an ‘occupation’, something which the continued presence of Soviet-era memorials may serve to emphasise.

 06/07/2011 – Edit:

In the last couple of days I have also come across these two timely, recently posted online articles:

This short post on Maria Popova’s excellent ‘Brainpickings’ blog in relation to Spomenik, a compilation of photographs of communist-era monuments in the Balkans by Jan Kempenaers

This interesting article published by Transitions Online, where Ioana Caloianu demonstrates, using a number of examples of monuments from across the East European and Central Asian region, the ways in which statues and monuments can represent ‘an uncanny guide to a people’s vices, grievances and insecurities’.


A Few Further Articles on this Topic:


Reuben Fowkes, Soviet War Memorials in Eastern Europe

‘Getting Involved in the Messy Politics of War Memorials’ in the European Voice

‘Why is the Bronze Soldier so Controversial?’ in The Times

M Ignatieff, ‘Soviet War Memorials’, History Workshop Journal, 17 (1984), 157-163

K Bruggemann and A Kasekamp, ‘The Politics of History and the ‘War of Monuments’ in Estonia’, Nationalities Papers, 36/3 (2008) 425-448

M Evans, ‘Memories, Monuments, Histories: The Re-thinking of the Second World War Since 1989’, National Identities, 8/4 (2006) 317-348

S Kattago, ‘Commemorating Liberation and Occupation: War Memorials Along the Road to Narva’, Journal of Baltic Studies, 39/4 (2008), 431-449.



July 4, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments