Soviet War Memorials Southeast of Berlin

The final battle for the conquer of Berlin was a massive operation carried out by the Soviet Red Army, who had come on the line of Oder river, marking today’s border between Germany and Poland, at the conclusion of the westward march on the territories of Eastern Europe previously taken over by the Third Reich.

Witnessing the dramatic lack of men and supplies on the German side, the final Soviet attack from that position was launched on April 16th, 1945, to end just less thank two weeks later with the death of Hitler, the conquer of Berlin, and soon after with the German capitulation in early May. In this short time, the Soviets penetrated and gained control of a significant part of what was to become the territory of East Germany, including the capital city of the Reich.

It is estimated that the troops amassed in the spring of 1945 for this operation exceeded 2.2 millions on the Soviet side, whereas the contingent available for the defense of the region on the German side was below 300 thousand men, including almost improvised corps of elders or extremely young people, lacking any military training and experience. As a matter of fact, the original German war machine had been drained of resources also due to the eastward advance of the Western Allies in Western Europe and Germany, where some millions German soldiers were taken prisoners. Actually, by April 1945 the line of the Western front had reached East to the towns of Leipzig, Dessau, Magdeburg and Wismar, very close to Berlin, and all later ceded to the Soviets according to the Jalta and Potsdam agreements.

The defense of Berlin from the Soviet attackers was strenuous though, and heavy losses were recorded on both sides.

One of the most visible remains of these war operations today is a a number of memorials and war cemeteries, of larger and smaller size, scattered over the territory around Berlin. The most conspicuous such memorials are those erected by the winning Soviet forces. Besides their primary role of remembrance, they were in most cases erected soon after the end of the war, then making for an interesting historical trace from that age, when Stalin was the undisputed ruler in the Soviet Union. Their style often reflects the mix of pomp and simplicity typical to the communist art from the time.

Memorials related to these events can be found in Berlin (see here and here) and around. Some to the north of the town have been described in this post. In the present one, three memorials related to the battle around Berlin and located east and south of the German capital are covered – Seelow, Lebus and Baruth.

Photographs were taken in 2021 and 2023.

Sights

Seelow

The memorial in Seelow was designed and installed in 1945, soon after the end of the war in Europe, and was therefore one of the first of the kind. The location is that of the Battle of the Seelower Heights.

The small town of Seelow is located about 8 miles west of the Oder river, marking a natural border with Poland. The hills around the town dominate the flat country reaching to the river. Therefore, for the defending Wehrmacht, this was a natural obstacle between the Soviet invaders and Berlin. The hills were fortified heavily with guns and mortars, and the villages in the area were evacuated in anticipation of a major confrontation.

Fighting was started on the fateful April 16th, 1945, when a Soviet attack was triggered all along the line of the Oder, with a major focal point in the region of Küstrin and Seelow.

The battle went on for four days despite the clear imbalance of resources in favor of the Soviets, due to the advantageous geographical position of the heights around Seelow and the effectiveness of the German defense.

The memorial was erected around a simple statue of a Soviet soldier, put on top of a pinnacle, and portrayed beside the turret of a tank.

To the base of the pinnacle is a small Soviet cemetery, with some marked graves and some gravestones with multiple names, or dedicated to unknown soldiers perished in the battle.

From the cemetery, a good view of the plains extending to the east, where this fierce battle was fought in April 1945, can be observed from a vantage point. Purpose-designed maps allow to retrace the positions of the attackers and to pinpoint relevant locations.

To the base of the monument is a memorial museum. The exhibition is compact but very interesting. Two thematic areas are presented, one related to the historical reconstruction of the battle, the other to the history of the monument and the archaeology of the battlefield around Seelow.

Among the artifacts on display related to the history of the battle are German and Soviet uniforms, machine guns and rifles.

Interestingly, also mortar shells carrying leaflets are on display: these were employed by the Soviets, who launched propaganda leaflets inviting Germans to surrender, and even passes for the German military who wished to defect to the Soviets side. An armband of the ‘Deutscher Volkssturm Wehrmacht’, the non-professional corps recruited by the Third Reich in a desperate move to gather fresh units for the final defense of the German territory from invasion during the last stages of the war, is also on display.

The history of the monument is interesting as well, and shows how it evolved from being primarily a Soviet monument – like others in the area – to a public gathering place for official ceremonies in the German Democratic Republic – a place for the celebration of friendship between the USSR and the GDR. Historical pictures, and the addition of a poetic commemoration stone written in German only to the base of the monument, witness this evolution.

Outside the museum, a courtyard is framed by two original small obelisks with inscriptions in Russian and Soviet iconography. On the courtyard, some heavy armored vehicles – including a Katyusha rocket launcher – are on display.

Getting there and visiting

The monument has a special relevance in the history of the liberation of Germany, and has been modernized and updated over the years. It is still a rather relevant destination for visitors. A ticket is required for the museum only. A visit to the monument may take 20-30 minutes. A complete visit including the museum may require 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Access is very easy, since the location is immediately to the side of the road leaving Seelow for Küstrin (now Kostrzyn, Poland). The name of the site in German is ‘Gedenkstätte Seelower Höhen’, and the address is Küstriner Straße 28a, 15306 Seelow. A small parking can be found right ahead of the access, further parking options cross the street and near the railway station, 1 minute away by walk. A new modern building to the side of the monument hosts the ticket office and a small shop. Website with full information here.

Lebus

The cemetery in Lebus, located on the German bank of the Oder river, about 10 miles southeast of Seelow (see above) was activated already in April 1945 for burying Soviet soldiers perished in the final war actions against Germany. Starting 1946, the status of Soviet cemeteries and monuments established on the territory of the Third Reich was officially defined. The Lebus site received Soviet staff perished in Germany after the war, or unrecognized fallen Soviet soldiers whose remains were found in the years soon after WWII on the East German territory.

Following an agreement between Russia and reunified Germany, extending the relationship formerly existing between the USSR and the GDR on the management of war memorials, the Lebus site became a Russian cemetery. It was refurbished in 2014-16, and at the time of writing it is still an active cemetery, often receiving the remains of Soviet soldiers moved from elsewhere, or still found in the area.

It is estimated that more than 5.000 from the USSR/Russia are buried in Lebus.

The memorial is not much visited by the general public, and is an authentic place of remembrance, sober and silent.

The architecture is rather simple, with a central perspective leading to an obelisk with a red star on top, a hammer and sickle emblem to the front, and inscriptions in Russian.

To the sides are two lateral wings, where the names of many fallen soldiers are inscribed on memorial stones.

To the sides of the perspective are an anti-tank cannon, and some more fields, marked with marble red stars as places of interment of unknown soldiers.

Also two further memorial walls with many names in Cyrillic alphabet are symmetrically placed to the sides of the perspective.

Getting there and visiting

The location of the Soviet cemetery in Lebus, now called officially ‘Russische Kriegsgräberstätte in Lebus’, is on Lindenstrasse, immediately after leaving Strasse d. Freiheit, Lebus. It is clearly marked by an indication sign, and recognizable by the external fence. Parking can be found 200 ft further north on Lindenstrasse, on the side of a local school.

The site is not mainly a touristic destination, but a real, well maintained (war) cemetery. It is apparently open 24/7 and not actively guarded. Visiting may take 20 minutes, or more for specifically interested subjects.

Baruth

The Soviet war cemetery of Baruth was erected between 1946 and 1947 for the fallen soldiers of the Battle of Halbe. The battle was a last confrontation between the Soviet Red Army and the Wehrmacht, taking between April 24th to the first days of May 1945 – the very last battle out of Berlin.

The battle was fought around the village of Halbe, south of Berlin, between what remained of the German defense retreating from the bank of the Oder, and two large columns of the invading Soviet Army. The German forces got mostly surrounded in a salient. Losses were very heavy on both sides, of the order of the tens of thousands.

The war cemetery for Soviet soldiers, the final resting place for some thousands of fallen troops, is clearly visible when passing by, thanks to the two T-34 tanks put as gate guardians.

The architecture of the place is rather simple, and composed of a rectangular yard crossed by an alley, leading to a very tall obelisk. The obelisk features a big metal star on top, and a hammer and sickle metal emblem in the middle.

To the base of the obelisk are two bas-reliefs with war scenes.

A number of marked gravestones can be found on the greens around the obelisk. More recent – yet pretty old – additions, somewhat altering the original neat appearance of the ensemble, include a wall with applied gravestones and names inscribed on it.

Getting there and visiting

The Baruth war cemetery, named ‘Sowjetischer Ehrenfriedhof Baruth/Mark’ in German, can be found along the road 96 (Bundestrasse 96), about 1 mile north of the homonym town of Baruth. The monument can be clearly spotted on the eastern side of the road. A small parking can be found ahead of the entrance.

Due to the secluded and isolated location, the place is not a highly popular tourist destination, yet it is frequented by relatives and descendants of those interred on site. It is well cared for and perfectly maintained. It is apparently open 24/7.

A prototypical Soviet war cemetery from Stalin’s years, likely the largest in the region south Berlin, it is definitely worth a stop when visiting the area. A visit may take 20 minutes.

Notably, the place is located about 7 miles south of Wünsdorf (see this post), the former Soviet headquarters in the German Democratic Republic, which is crossed by the same road 96.

World War I Trenches in the Saint-Mihiel Salient

Not so well-known to the public as the ‘fort city’ of Verdun, the region between that town and the baroque city of Nancy, France, was theatre of fierce fighting in WWI. German troops poured in the area immediately in 1914, and the Fifth Army conquered the region while the advance of the Kaiser’s forces was in full swing almost everywhere between Belgium and the Alps. By the time the line of the front was consolidated at the end of 1914, a salient was established between the villages of Les Eparges and Pont-a-Mousson, extending about 12 miles to the west into French-controlled territory, reaching the small town of Saint-Mihiel. This anomaly in the shape of the front line would be hard to clear, and in spite of several brave actions by the French armed forces, it was to last in place until the closing months of WWI in 1918.

Coincidentally, the United States had started deploying their forces to help those of France, the British Commonwealth and their Allies on the German western front. The silencing of the Saint-Mihiel salient was part of the final assault to the German lines, leading quickly to the end of the conflict, and the first campaign the American Expeditionary Forces of General Pershing were in charge of. The attack was launched on September 12th, 1918 and lasted one week. It involved both ground artillery and troops and the US Army Air Service, and it turned out highly succesful, the salient being totally taken over.

Today the place represents a less-known, highly interesting field of exploration for war historians. This section of the front was the stage of a prototypical static war of attrition, lasting the full duration of the war. French and German trenches faced each other at a distance of a few yards, and they were consolidated and fortified to last for long. Today some of these trenches are still visible, and the region is pointed with memorials erected after the war, just like the theatre of the Somme and that around Ypres (Jeper), north of Verdun (see this post). The difference is the very much lower number of people visiting, which allows a more ‘concentrated’, less ‘touristic’ visit.

A distinctive sight in the region is the imposing memorial to the US forces, commemorating the succesful action against the German army in the salient, and those who died in the operation.

The following photographs were taken during a visit to the area in August 2016.

Getting there and moving around

The area of the former salient is extensive and located in a nice, relaxing countryside, making for a good destination for a bike tour. If you like to concentrate on war relics, I would suggest moving by car from site to site, accessing each site by foot – this was my choice. The war sites are all freely accessible with no restrictions, and none of them requires special physical ability for touring. The only danger to be noted is that of unexploded shells and explosives, which albeit remote is always real in this and all other former WWI theatres of operations. It will suffice avoiding touching any suspect item you may come across. Local explanatory panels and maps can be found in many of these sites, but directions for reaching them only appear very close to the sites themselves.

I listed the sites I’ve explored in this area on the map below. I spent more than half day exploring these sites. I approached from Toul and drove directly to Flirey, which I suggest adopting as a starting point. Then I moved westward via Montsec to Saint-Mihiel. Finally I left north, following the trench of the Calonne and the old service road reaching Verdun (see map).

Your exploration may take less or more than mine depending on your level of interest. There is not a great ‘hardware difference’ between the various trenches, so if you get bored after the first one don’t expect to regain interest from the others… If you – like me – have an interest in retracing the history of the salient and the attacks in its different sectors, then you will likely enjoy your stay in the region.

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Sights

Flirey – destroyed village

Most people know of the air bombing of Europe during WWII and of the destruction it caused to many cities on both sides. What is less known is that WWI brought a sometimes deeper and more complete destruction to villages and non-military buildings. Of course, differently from WWII, this was mainly the result of artillery shelling, and this happened only relatively close to the front, as a ‘side effect’ of firing against enemy troops. The village of Flirey ended up on the border between the invading German forces and the retreating French troops. When the line of the front was consolidated, the village was caught in a kind of ‘nobody’s land’, hence suffered the fate of many towns and villages in similar conditions, being rapidly reduced to ruins.

Today a small part of the planform of some of the original buildings is preserved in a dedicated small park. There you will find also informative panels about the history of the salient.

‘Sentier historique 1914-1918’ – historical walkway with preserved trenches

A local society of enthusiasts made a precious preservation work on a portion of the French and German trenches just a few minutes from northwest of Flirey, with the support of local institutions. Here you can walk in the original trenches, getting explanations from some panels placed along the trail. The German trenches are notable for the very advanced design with a serious use of concrete – making their trenches really durable and ‘fresh-looking’ even today.

In some points the French and German trenches are placed at a distance of a few yards from each other.

There is a map at the trailhead (see map above for the position of trailhead). I suggest taking a pic of it with your phone for moving around without difficulty.

Butte de Montsec – Memorial of the American Expeditionary Forces

The American Battle Monument Commission had this monument erected on top of  a hill, with a scenic view over Lac de Madine, a local lake, and the hills around it. This is an open air memorial, accessible all day. There is a local office offering explanatory leaflets, but it was closed when I passed by. Anyway, a placard with detailed explanations about the history of both the actions in the salient and the monument is placed at the base of the site. The memorial can be spotted also from quite far away, due to its size and location.

Bois brulé – German and French trenches

This is one of three sections of well-preserved trenches closer to the village of Saint Mihiel. Fighting in this area was particularly deadly on the French side from the first days of the war in September 1914 up to June 1915. A refurbished part of French trenches provides an idea of the harsh conditions soldiers had to withstand, especially if you go on a rainy day…

Also here the enemy trenches are located extremely close to each other. The ground is pocked with craters from artillery shelling.

Trench of the Bavarians and Roffignac

This site is next to the previous one, and you can walk from one to the other following the old trenches. A more heavily fortified section of the German trench lines can be seen here, with engraved German words over the entry to some underground deposits. This section of the trenches, despite being fairly well-kept, was very lonely when I visited, and I came across some wildlife.

‘Trench of the Thirsty’

This last portion of the trenches in the forest of Ailly (Bois d’Ailly) close to Saint Mihiel was the stage of a heroic battle in September 1914. Trying to gain a favorable position on top of the hills close to Saint Mihiel, in order to enable artillery shelling on the village, the French attacked the German trenches and occupied some of them. Later on, men of the 172th Infantry Regiment were caught in a trap and isolated by German troops, who had advanced to their sides into their former positions. The isolated French soldiers opposed a fierce resistance in very difficult conditions, having no food nor water supplies for three days, and fighting in very warm weather and in a smoky, suffocating atmosphere.

Albeit partially rounded off by time and rain, clear traces of long sections of these tranches remain today. Two monuments celebrating the heroism of the French troops involved in the battle can be found at the end of the visible line of trenches.

Calonne Trench

When leaving the area of the salient to Verdun, you may choose to follow the old road today numbered D331 (see map above). This dates back to the days of WWI, and is a quick, almost straight road in the trees, which does not cross any village for about 15 miles. It was used as a supply road for the trenches in the northern area of the salient from the city of Verdun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures, for I was driving in heavy rain.

Note

As remarked before, there are rather few signs for reaching the war sites, and unless you know of them elseway, reaching them may be difficult. I obtained much valuable information from the book “1914-1918 750 Musees Guide Europe”, a specialised guidebook with double text in French and English and maps. You can purchase it from various shops in more tourist-populated places like the Somme, Verdun or Jeper, or online from the Editor’s website. The book was edited by a group of enthusiasts, and together with its twin publication about WWII, they are must-have companions for war historians traveling Europe. I used these books extensively this year and I found the information contained in them very precise and extremely useful.