German-Russian Museum Berlin Karlshorst
A unique museum in Berlin
about German-Russian relations from World War One
to 1990, with special emphasis on the grim part of WWII
invaded the USSR
but then lost the war bitterly. The heart of the museum is the original hall where the German unconditional surrender was signed to end the war on 8/9 May 1945.
Subsequently, the building served as the Soviet HQ in Berlin until it was transformed into a "surrender museum" in 1967, in GDR
times. After German reunification the museum was remodelled and a new permanent exhibition was opened in 1995, jointly sponsored by Germany
More recently still, the permananet exhibition was substantially revamped in 2013 and now also provides English labelling & texts, as well as an audio guide.
What there is to see:
Even as you arrive at the entrance, the Russian
theme is already more than hinted at by the presence of a T-34 tank on a plinth (like in so many Eastern Bloc
WWII monuments!) In the garden behind the building there are more open-air displays of tanks and other military vehicles.
Inside the museum building some grand Soviet relics stand out – such as the slogan above the door in the foyer that says, in Russian, “glory to the great victory” plus the years 1941-1945 in golden letters. In the staircases, grand stained-glass windows recreate images of the Kremlin
and of the Soviet monument in Treptower Park
. These are all still original.
One major change compared to the old design of the museum is that you now get to see the highlight, the hall in which the surrender was signed, as one of the first things, rather than as the crowning finale that it used to be in the old exhibition. That's just as well, I think – now visitors can take in this highlight and then decide how much of the museum exhibition they also want to go through.
Undoubtedly a major improvement over the old museum design is the fact that the texts and labels are now trilingual, no longer just German and Russian, but also in English – so it finally caters for more international visitors much better. There's also an audio guide you can borrow (in the same languages plus French, Polish and Ukrainian).
Next to the surrender hall is a smaller room with more Soviet-era socialist realist war-glorification art in marble and bronze as well as a diorama (such a popular technique in Eastern-Bloc war museums): It shows the taking of the Reichstag
by the Red Army in the form of a scale-model war scene with a painting of the Reichstag in the background. A little aside: since the capture of the Reichstag so stood out as a symbol of victory some of the famous photos "documenting" the "glory" were actually staged afterwards. Remember that famous one of the Red Army soldiers raising a red flag from the Reichstag? Not genuine! It's kind of the Soviet equivalent of the US flag-raising at Iwo Jima …
Then you enter the holy of holies – the hall in which the signing of Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies took place in the night of 8/9 May 1945.
In fact, a German delegation had already signed a surrender to the Allies in Reims in France
the day before, but only at this second "ceremony" was the capitulation ratified by the high commanders of the respective military branches.
The "correct" date is somewhat controversial: the ceremony took place on the evening of 8 May, but because a Russian translation of the document was delayed, it was not signed until just after midnight (CET). In Moscow
time it had already been the 9th of May anyway. Hence the discrepancies: the military surrender took place on 7 May = VE day in Britain
and the Commonwealth. But it only came into legal force through the ratification on 8 May, but as the actual final signing took place after midnight, on 9 May Moscow time, that date became the Soviet Union
's official victory celebration day – and it remains so in most of the post-Soviet independent states of today as well as a few other eastern countries.
The hall still has the tables and chairs used in the ceremony in place, and also the four flags of the victorious Allies hanging united from the far wall. This ensemble is in fact a reconstruction from 1967, created for the first incarnation of this museum in GDR-times, as a new text panel now states.
Near the balcony (from where you can peek into the room from the upper floor) hangs a screen onto which is projected footage of the historical event (playing in a continuous loop).
In front of the set of chairs and tables is now a glass display cabinet that contains facsimiles of the original 'act of surrender' documents with all the relevant signatures at the bottom. Also covered in this display cabinet is the fact that the first surrender ceremony actually took place already on 7 May in Reims, France.
In the wing to the right of the surrender hall you can see the study of Marshal Zhukov, the "hero" commander of the Red Army's push into Germany and the capture of Berlin
, who was also present at the signing of the unconditional surrender of Germany at Karlshorst. After the war he was supreme commander and governor in the Soviet occupied zone (which was later to become the GDR), working from precisely this place.Also on display are his uniform and a bust of the big man. A few new information panels about Zhukov have been added in the 2015 modernization of the museum as well.
What has disappeared, on the other hand, is the previous section with lots of Cold-War-era Eastern-Bloc paraphernalia such as model MiGs, toys, gifts, more medals, more uniforms, hats and helmets, and so on.
Why this had to go I do not know (presumably because the exhibition was to put more emphasis on WWII
and less on the time since), but I kind of regret this, as it deprives the museum of a lot of the former “Soviet-ness”, which I quite enjoyed, even though the presentation of the exhibits was also much more old-fashioned, instead of the obligatory multimedia-heaviness you get in most 'state-of-the-art' museums these days.
The all-new main permanent exhibition of the museum starts upstairs on the first floor. Apart from being linguistically updated, it also follows a very different design approach. Whereas the old exhibition was quite airy and brightly lit, the new design is generally much gloomier, often employing backlit white text against a black background in almost unlit smaller rooms. It can be a bit hard on the eyes after a while.
In addition to static texts, photos, documents (mostly facsimiles) and objects there are now also a lot more multimedia elements, such as small screens showing footage or audio stations where you can listen to tracks such as eyewitness interviews.
Topically, the exhibition is organized both chronologically as well as into thematic blocks. It kicks off with the pre-history of WWII, specifically: the period between WW1 and the Russian October Revolution in 1917 and the seizing of power in Germany by the Nazis in 1933.
The exhibition moves on with a section about the Hitler-Stalin Pact (also known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or, officially, "German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression"), which allowed the two dictators/countries to divide Poland up between each other without going to war over it.
One element here is also the massacre of the Polish military elite by the Soviets, especially at Katyn (cf. Katyn Museum
The next stage, obviously, is that Nazi Germany, despite the pact, started its invasion of the USSR in 1941, code-named “Operation Barbarossa”. There are quotations on display about the optimism the Nazis had about this invasion that are almost amusing in hindsight: for instance, Goebbels thought it could all be over in less than four months. Of course it went rather differently.
One element here is the battle of Brest and there are some scorched bricks from Brest Fortress on display. Military artefacts include, predictably, guns, shells and uniforms but also documents that are evidence for the systematic “eradication” approach of the Nazis towards the “Bolsheviks” (e.g. one by Heydrich informing his officers that all communist party functionaries are to be executed).
The plight of the Soviet civilians is another aspect here, e.g. during the blockade
, but also by means of depriving the rural population of their provisions. The sexual side of war is also touched upon, both in the from of rape and the measures taken to prevent or hinder the spread of VD. This is an aspect not often encountered so explicitly in other war-themed museums.
A separate section covers the mistreatment of Soviet POW
s and the consequently horrendous death rate in the camps: it is estimated that about 60% of all Soviet POWs perished during WWII
, from malnutrition, diseases and forced labour.
Another section that has been significantly expanded compared to the previous exhibitions is the one on the Holocaust
, in particular the massacres at places such as Babi Yar
(with some all-too familiar gruesome photos), but also the “final solution”, represented here, amongst other things, by the label from a Zyklon B
canister and a few children's shoes from Auschwitz
The end of the war, and the scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German army are covered separately as is the story of German POWs in the Soviet Union after the war.
Roughly in the middle of the exhibition you come to a little balcony from where you can get a bird's eye view of the surrender signing hall (through glass panels – hence the slight reflections marring the relevant picture in the photo gallery
The Soviet aspects in particular are often accompanied by masterful socialist-realist propaganda posters in this exhibition. Many of the ones I found on display in the new exhibition were quite familiar to me – but I missed one particular poster that shows a stern image of Hitler
– or "Gitler" in Cyrillic – with the Russian caption: "liberator" (!?!).
A separate section about Germany
in WWII also has plenty of Nazi
propaganda but also covers the plight of German civilians in this war. The most stunning exhibit here must be the “Gasjäckchen” a whole-body children's gas-protection suit.
A final section, back downstairs, is about the aftermath of the war, including the occupation zones, mass refugee migration, war invalids, and also the aspect of war commemoration, e.g. in monuments (such as the famous Soviet war memorials
itself or in Volgograd
) as well as in music … you can listen to some heroic (post-)war songs, which is rather painful, though (also, and especially, musically).
There are also a couple of computer workstations for further self study.
The museum also hosts regularly changing temporary exhibitions on a range of different topics that in one way or another are related to its main theme. When I was last there it was about Russian soldiers' letters sent from the front.
There's also a small bookshop which has a number of unusual postcards and books on offer, and less of the usual general touristy goods that you find at many of Berlin
's other museums.
All in all, this is definitely a museum worth the detour it takes to get there. The gravity of the authentic historic place alone makes it a major sight, and the new modernized exhibition supplements it very well too – even if some of the previous elements of “Soviet
-ness” have now fallen by the wayside. I personally slightly regret the latter, but I guess one just has to go with the times, both as museum curator and museum visitor.
At No. 4 Zwieseler Straße, on the corner of Rheinsteinstraße, in the eastern Berlin
district of Karlshorst, ca. 6 miles (10 km) south-east of central Alexanderplatz.
Access and costs: quite a bit out of the centre, but not too difficult to get to; free.
Details: from the centre of Berlin, the museum is best reached by taking either the regional metro train line S3 from Ostbahnhof all the way to Karlshorst station, from where you can either walk the ca. three quarters of a mile (1.25 km), first up Treskowallee, then right into Rheinsteinstraße and to the end of this. Or get the No. 296 bus for four stops and get out at Museum Karlshorst. Alternatively get the U5 metro from Alexanderplatz to Tierpark and then the No. 296 bus in the other direction (i.e. towards Karlshorst).
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Audio guides are available in English, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and French.
On Sundays the museum offers free guided tours in German, lasting an hour and starting at 3 p.m. in the foyer. Guided tours in other languages (Russian, English, French, Polish and Spanish) have to be specially arranged.
Time required: between an hour and an hour and a half should normally do, though studying original documents and reading every last bit of text available might easily take longer than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Just behind the museum building used to be the largest KGB
-HQ outside the USSR
, left abandoned after the Russians upped sticks in the wake of German reunification. You can still find urban explorers' videos on YouTube etc. – but now the formerly derelict area is being converted into housing. So there isn't really anything dark left in the immediate vicinity of the German-Russian Museum.
can quite easily be reached by tram line M17 (8 or 9 stops) from Karlshorst station. In the other direction, the same line gets you fairly close to Hohenschönhausen
– if you get out at Rhinstraße/Plauener Straße and fiddle through the back streets on foot (via Schleizer Straße and then right onto Genslerstraße).
Otherwise just get the bus and either the S3 or U5 back to more central parts of Berlin
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing much in the immediate vicinity, except for Berlin's "other" zoo, namely the former East Berlin one, which is simply called Tierpark Berlin (reached from the museum by bus; see above).
Otherwise see under Berlin
- Karlshorst 01 - building
- Karlshorst 02 - tank on a plinth memorial outside
- Karlshorst 03 - more tanks in the back yard
- Karlshorst 04 - hall of the signing of the unconditional surrender of Germany
- Karlshorst 05 - seen from the gallery
- Karlshorst 06 - closer up - Allied seats
- Karlshorst 07 - confusion over the date
- Karlshorst 08 - historic document
- Karlshorst 09 - re-designed permanent exhibition
- Karlshorst 10 - now with English and with multimedia elements
- Karlshorst 11 - audiovisual stations
- Karlshorst 12 - new design incorporating old exhibits
- Karlshorst 13 - the Motherland calls to arms
- Karlshorst 14 - against the great Git-ler
- Karlshorst 15 - guns
- Karlshorst 16 - artefacts
- Karlshorst 17 - bricks from Brest
- Karlshorst 18 - Xmas 42 in Donetsk
- Karlshorst 19 - relic from the Final Solution
- Karlshorst 20 - gas jacket
- Karlshorst 21 - fallen Adolf
- Karlshorst 22 - the glorious taking of the Reichstag
- Karlshorst 23 - Treptow monument depiction in stained-glass window
- Karlshorst 24 - Kremlin allusion
- Karlshorst 25 - study of Marshal Zhukov
- Karlshorst 26 - brief period of US-Russian friendship
- Karlshorst 27 - brighter design and more Russian artefacts in the old Cold War section
- Karlshorst 28 - glory to the great victory