A Memorial in Volkspark Friedrichshain
For Your Freedom and Ours - Für eure und unsere Freiheit
When I walked by this sign for the first time my first reaction was to ask questions: Who are you? Who are we?
Existential questions aside, what we have here is an East German-era memorial: the Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists, to be precise.
It was dedicated in 1972, and is located in a northern section of Volkspark Friedrichshain. The location and date are important, because it indicates that the memorial was created by and dedicated in East Germany – the communist DDR.
Designed by Tadeusz Lodziana, Zofia Wolksa, Arnd Wittig and Günter Mertel, it features twin concrete columns joined by a bronze flag, as well as the main inscription with concrete reliefs of Russian, Polish, and German soldiers.
The original dedication says that the memorial is dedicated to the “armed struggle of the Polish People’s Army” that fought on the side of the Soviet Union for the “freedom of the European people,” and to the “German Anti-Fascists” who defended the “highest moral values of their people alongside their Soviet and Polish allies” and thereby achieved for their people a “vision of the future socialist German Democratic Republic.”
Pretty straightforward, right? There’s clearly one set of “bad guys” – the fascist Nazis – and a couple of different good guys: the communist Polish People’s Army and the communist German anti-fascists.
But like many things during the war, in reality the situation wasn’t quite so simple.
The Polish Underground, Betrayed
There were lots of Polish underground fighters whose actions on behalf of their nation were truly heroic. The thing is, they fought both Germans and the Soviets (Germany and the USSR partitioned Poland in 1939). As the Soviets drove the Germans back across eastern Europe from 1943 until 1945, the main Polish communist guerilla group, which later came to be called the Polish People’s Army, joined the Russians in their march to Berlin.
Once the war ended, though, many of the non-communist Polish fighters – even some who had fought alongside the Russians all the way to Berlin – were viewed as potential threats to Soviet authority in post-war Poland and were rounded up and deported by the Soviet secret police. By the end of 1945, as many as 100,000 had been sent to the gulags – with vanishingly few surviving the ordeal.
East Germany's Nazi Heritage
As far as the German anti-fascists, there were indeed anti-Nazi movements in Germany throughout the war. Some were focused on local communist networks. But they had little effect on the eventual outcome of the war, despite later East German claims to the contrary.
Not only that, but the DDR itself, a client state of the Soviet Union, wasn’t totally free of Nazis post-1945. A recent study estimates that as many as 20% of the DDR’s Interior Ministry were former Nazi party members.
Communist Dictatorships Love Memorials
History is written by the winners, and the post-war winners in Eastern Europe wanted memorials that glorified communists, anti-fascists, and the post-war communist regimes.
Poland had requested a memorial as early as 1965. Originally, the memorial was to be placed somewhere near Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate, but the DDR leadership decided instead for a quiet corner of Volkspark Friedrichshain.
The memorial’s design and dedication leave out the messy historical details, choosing to focus exclusively on communist guerrillas, and conveniently forgetting the heroics of the non-communists.
There you have it: the origin story of the Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists.
If that were all there was to the story, it would be an interesting historical anecdote - a relic from the past. But like so much else in Berlin, the story doesn’t end there.
Democracies Change Their Minds
With the collapse of the Soviet bloc beginning in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, the situation changed. The democratic governments in both Poland and Germany, free of the need to propagandize Poland’s contribution to the war effort, wanted to give the memorial an update.
Instead ofremoving the memorial, it was rededicated in 1995. A new plaque extends the memorial’s dedication to non-communist Polish fighters, and also those who were forced to work as slave laborers, those who were imprisoned, and those who were deported and murdered.
In 2007, a German member of parliament named Markus Meckel suggested that the memorial be further expanded, to explicitly mention Poland’s contribution to the European freedom movement and Germany’s reunification. This suggestion was not taken up, and the memorial remains unchanged since 1995.
The Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists, tucked away in a quiet section of the part, reflects and illuminates Berlin’s – and Germany’s, and Europe’s – complicated history. It was conceived by propagandists, built under a dictatorship, and renewed under a democracy.