Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow, Berlin*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow, Berlin*

Article excerpt

The Soviet War Memorial in the Treptow district of Berlin demonstrates how the meaning of place is shaped and reshaped through time to symbolize social values and political ideologies. Studies of such value-laden landscapes are an important part of contemporary cultural and historical geography. (1) This interest stems from the view that landscapes "symbolize and sustain collective values over long periods of time" and enable these values to play an important role in the reproduction of a culture (Foote 1997, 33). Attention in geography has often focused on the symbolism of everyday environments, but recent currents in the new cultural geography and other fields have focused more on the elite landscapes of power and control created by corporations, private institutions, and governments. (2)

MEMORIAL MEANINGS AND MESSAGES

The memorial in Treptow is an excellent example of this latter type of symbolic meaning, one that inscribes a particular view of history on the landscape according to the motives and ideological imperatives of the Soviet Union at the close of World War II. The Treptow memorial, created by a totalitarian state, is an extreme example of the power of ideology to shape place. But memorials in general and war memorials in particular also have attracted considerable comment. (3) In totalitarian states, public art and memorials often reflect attempts by the state to claim legitimacy and in many situations can be viewed as little more than propaganda etched in stone. Memorials to other events--from the loss of great leaders to a community's response to a natural disaster--can be just as enlightening in revealing underlying social, political, and cultural values. War memorials have been attracting more attention recently because they offer opportunities to explore social tensions that arise between private emotions and public commemoration. War memorials such as the one in Treptow also offer an interesting perspective on how memories and meanings are negotiated across international borders and, in the case of the Treptow memorial, in the context of the heated political battles between East and West in the wake of World War II.

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow became, in effect, a mirror for viewing the political struggle involving the Soviet Union, its client states, the United States, and the nations of Western Europe in the early cold war and beyond. Although extraterritorial veterans' cemeteries and memorials have been built on the same monumental scale as the Soviet memorial in Treptow and some have employed equally triumphal imagery (Heffernan 1995; Winter 1995), the Treptow memorial stands apart from most modern European memorials by creating and imposing a symbolic history of World War II that was both openly propagandistic and subtly diplomatic. Its propaganda value arose from the story it told of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). For decades the statue at the heart of the Treptow complex served as a primary symbol in Soviet war commemoration (Figure 1) (Tumarkin 1994). Indeed, the major war memorial in Moscow, initiated in 1958, was not completed until 1995 (Forest and Johnson 2002). Despite its size, the Treptow memorial had a subtle diplomatic mission as well: to help define and regularize Soviet--German relationships in the aftermath of World War II in a way that would allow a mortal enemy like Germany to be considered an ally against the West. Thus, in contrast to the existing memorials, monuments, and iconography in Berlin that were being evaluated for restoration or effacement, depending upon their relationship to militaristic and authoritarian traditions in German history (Stangl 2001), the Treptow memorial was the culmination of a Soviet effort to inscribe its story of victory on conquered territory.

These characteristics of the memorial make it an interesting study in the growing literature on identity politics and landscapes of commemoration (Harvey 1979; Cosgrove and Daniels 1988; Foote 1992, 1997; Daniels 1993; Johnson 1994, 1995; Azaryahu 1996a, 1999; Withers 1996; Yeoh 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998). …

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