At the Site of Germany’s Biggest World War II Battle, a Changing View of History
SEELOW, Germany — In the best mellow spirit of modern Germany, the local authorities in Seelow wanted to build a bike path so the increasing number of tourists could expand their rides across the tranquil flat plain of the Oder River and into neighboring Poland.
This being the site of the biggest World War II battle on German soil, a team was chosen to scour the proposed bike path route for abandoned ordnance. Soon they turned up not munitions, but a mass grave, with the remains of as many as 28 Soviet soldiers.
The finding, in May, confirmed once more the blood-soaked nature of the Oder plain, where tens of thousands of soldiers on the Soviet and Nazi sides perished in the April 1945 battle for the Seelow Heights. The rocky outcrop rises just 100 meters above the plain, but gave some 80,000 Germans sufficient cover to dig in and slaughter many of the up to one million Soviet troops sent in waves to overwhelm the enemy and clear the way to Berlin.
This history has never ceased to leave its mark, making Seelow a showcase for that unfailing truth of war: To the victors go the spoils, especially the chance to impose their version of events.
After the Allies crushed Hitler, Seelow Heights became a showcase for Stalin. Two Soviet sculptors, Lev Kerbel and Vladimir Zigal, created a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier, gazing mournfully toward his homeland, said the monument’s director, Kerstin Niebsch.
The figure conveys a “more in sorrow than anger” mood while leaving no doubt of superiority — moral and military — as it towers over the land of vanquished Nazi Germany. Below the statue and the cliff where it is mounted stand the neat graves of 66 fallen Soviet soldiers, as young as 19, with headstones bearing black stars, not the usual Communist red.
It is a powerful sight, bordered by trees and a stunning view of the plain where these men met their deaths. As Ms. Niebsch noted to several visitors on a recent Sunday, it is a spot that shows just how worthless human life can become. “Even really hardened men,” like a recent group of officers from Georgia, the former Soviet republic , “swallow hard.”
Next in the palpable layers of history to peel back here comes the East German period, 1972 to 1989. As the Soviets in general somewhat relaxed their grip on the Communist state in Germany, control of Seelow’s memorial site passed then to the local authorities.
A museum was built of wood logs and small windows with iron grids, an echo of the trenches the Nazis dug before the Soviet charge. The East German Army held elaborate swearing-in ceremonies here, complete with torchlight parades.
The emphasis was on unbreakable Soviet-East German friendship. Red marble gravestones with the names of fallen Soviet soldiers were moved in next to the 1945 cemetery.
In a sign of the bungling that eventually led East Germany’s Communists to their fall, the remains of the Soviet veterans named on those headstones were not transferred here in the 1970s, but only in 2006 after the mistake came to light.
The East Germans also proudly displayed one of the powerful lights Marshal Georgi P. Zhukov used to illuminate the battlefield when he ordered his troops to advance in the predawn hours of April 16, 1945.
It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that it was openly admitted that those lights, instead of aiding the Soviet charge, in fact blinded the Red Army and highlighted Soviet silhouettes for the Nazis to shoot at because of light reflecting off clouds of battlefield smoke.
Despite his long-concealed blunders, Marshal Zhukov did eventually prevail, and took Berlin, albeit a week after Stalin’s target of May 1, the International Day of Labor.
Today, Seelow Heights reflects the post-Communist unease of a Cold War that has passed but left behind unfinished business.
In Russia, where political changes have long rendered the past unpredictable, the Orthodox Church, which survived atheist Communism, has emerged as a staunch supporter of honoring fallen Soviet soldiers, as a display near a magnificent dark marble Orthodox cross explains.
Like other embassies of the old Allied forces in Berlin, Russia’s maintains an attaché for war graves and the hundreds of Soviet graveyards in Germany.
Despite the many problems in the West’s dealings with the Kremlin these days, cooperation between Germans and Russians — volunteers and officials — is intact, contributing to yet another view of the significance of Seelow, as a symbol of reconciliation.
Yevgeny A. Aleshin, the Russian attaché for war graves, said he hoped the bodies found in May would be buried with due ceremony next year in a nearby cemetery. Several hundred bodies are discovered or reburied each year in this region, he noted.
Since reunification, Germany has carved out a reputation for confronting its history. The telling of the war’s chaos and horror has accorded a big role to witnesses like Günter Debski, 89, who visit schools and recount tales backed up, in his case, by carefully preserved scraps of paper, photos and a piece of shrapnel retrieved from the remnants of a backpack that saved his life.
Mr. Debski survived several brushes with death in 1945. He was forced to fight for the Nazis, was captured by the Red Army, marched to the Russian border at Brest and was then freed to make his own way back to Berlin. Eventually, he was police chief for 10 years in the East German city of Eisenhüettenstadt.
As he sat one recent morning in a local hotel, his stories sent a chill through the sunlit room.
“All of a sudden, it just erupted,” he said of the Soviet charge on Seelow Heights on April 16, 1945. “There was shooting. Everything shuddered, I just could not imagine what was happening. I thought, perhaps an earthquake. Nothing resembled it — perhaps only the bombing in Dresden,” he said, referring to the Allied air assault there in February 1945, which he also witnessed.
Unforgettable, Mr. Debski said, was the loud “hurrah” with which the Soviets charged despite the German artillery fire.
What will happen to history when the last survivors die is a big and unanswered question. Bored teenagers and other children seen in three recent visits to Seelow Heights suggested a need for a more lively 21st century presentation than the static and detailed written displays that are a staple of Germany’s painstaking chronicling of the Nazi or Communist past.
Older visitors, while too young to have known the war or the Holocaust, know why they have come to Seelow.
“Many people died here,” said Benjamin Langhammer, 54, a musician from Erfurt who had visited once 10 years ago with his father and was now stopping off during a solo bike tour.
“We had a lot of history told us” during Communist East German times, he noted. “And you always know you are only getting half the story, the one the winners tell.”
It was important to correct distortions, he said. Although “as a German, the last thing you should do is try to lecture someone else. Right?”