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.

Belgrade War Heritage – From WWII to the Yugoslav Wars

Belgrade, the capital city of today’s Serbia, with a population of 1.3 millions, boasts traces of dating back to the Roman Empire. Strategically located on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, through the ages it grew to become a major military and trading post.

A city at war – brief historical perspective

In the 19th century, with the foundation of a Kingdom of Serbia free from the Ottoman rule, Belgrade became a capital city of an independent power, right at the geographical center of the Balkan region.

In 1914, tense relations with the better established and more powerful Austrian Empire triggered WWI, where Serbia fought on the side of the winners, gaining territories extending to the Adriatic Sea from the dismembered Austrian empire. These regions were encapsulated in an unprecedented entity, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where Belgrade played again as capital city.

Soon after, WWII saw a bloody and rather unsung front opening in the Balkans, conquered from the north by Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and from the south by fascist Italy. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia ceased to exist, and Belgrade – initially the target of massive air attacks by Germany – was made for a while the capital of a kind of German protectorate. It was in the final years of WWII that communist-led resistance para-military corps led by Marshal Tito, secretly supported by the Western Allies, started operating massively against the Axis. Tito was backed especially by the British, who provided war materiel, staff for tactical decisions and political support.

When Serbia was liberated, with the help of the Red Army attacking from southern Ukraine through today’s Romania on Serbia’s eastern border, Tito raised to power, re-founding Yugoslavia as a communist country extending from Greece to Austria and Italy, and with borders with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – all the latter three being communist countries, deeply entangled with the Soviet Union. Belgrade was again the capital city of a powerful and strategically relevant state.

Quite oddly from Stalin’s perspective, Tito did not capitulate the sovereignty of Yugoslavia to the USSR – unlike most states in Eastern Europe. This again was possible likely through the support of the West, in the quickly evolving geo-political situation soon after WWII leading to the Cold War, where former allies split on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. As a matter of fact, no Soviet military bases were ever placed in Yugoslavia, a communist country which until the Fifties even obtained war material from the West!

Tito managed to keep his post on the international scene and internally until his death in 1980. Soon after, the artificial ties between the many nations united in Yugoslavia began to crack, and almost at the same time of the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the country literally fell apart. As of now the bloodiest conflicts in post-WWII Europe, the Yugoslavian Wars saw the secession of several new national entities from one another and from Serbia. Belgrade is now the capital city of the Republic of Serbia.

War heritage in Belgrade – What is covered in this chapter

The troubled history of Belgrade as a capital city has left permanent traces in the fort, one of the oldest and most prominent highlights in town. The foundations bear traces of the ancient Roman fort, but a defense bunker dug underground within its premises is a witness of the role of this old part of the town in more recent years.

An ideal setting for a weapons display, the fort is also where the museum of military history can be found. Dating from Tito’s era, this place boasts a remarkable collection of war material from all ages, including WWII, the Cold War and the 1990s. It stands as a perfect counterpart for the air museum, covered in this chapter. Further items of interest include one-of-a-kind memorabilia items belonging to Marshal Tito.

Being Tito’s Yugoslavia capital city, it is no surprise the founder of postwar Yugoslavia was buried here. An extremely interesting purpose-built museum – a major relic of the Cold War era – surrounds the mausoleum. There you can find a massive documentation on the dictator, including signed photographs and gifts from prominent western political leaders – including virtually every US President in office during Tito’s many decades in charge! This witnesses the special status of Marshal Tito in the eyes of western powers.

Another characteristic sight is the ‘Genex Tower’, a unique skyscraper of American size, with a style resembling ‘Blade Runner’ motion picture’s set. A real punch in the eye in the landscape, this is tower is of course another witness of how private enterprises – this time, the Yugoslavian tourism group Genex – could get a prominent status in communist Yugoslavia, differently from Soviet-style fully centralized economies. It is also an example of an original architectural style from the Cold War era, showing the great care given to art and architecture by the communist party of Yugoslavia – another prominent example being ‘spomeniks’, monuments scattered over the entire former territory of the country (see this dedicated chapter).

Similarly interesting is ‘Avala Tower’, a TV tower with an elevated panorama platform from the 1960s. Besides the architectural interest, it is worth mentioning this tower was targeted by NATO air raids in 1999, and completely demolished. It was rebuilt in an identical shape and re-opened only recently.

The oddest among war-connected items in town is the former building of the ministry of defense, close to today’s capital directional center. Having being targeted by NATO bombing raids in 1999 and severely damaged, it was left for years damaged and derelict, a memento for the attack by NATO forces, and the focus of much controversy.

Photographs of these sites are from a visit in Spring 2019.

Map

The sites covered in this chapter can be found on the map below.

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Sights

Military Museum of Belgrade

When getting access to the beautiful historical fort of Belgrade, a vantage point to watch the oldest districts and the rivers, you will hardly miss an impressive array of cannons, howitzers, tanks and missile batteries from earlier than Napoleon to the Cold War.

This rich collection is the outside part of the Military Museum of Belgrade. Founded back in Tito’s era, this museums offers an overview of the war history of this war-battered part of the world, since ancient times to the latest Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990s.

The collection features interesting items especially from WWII, including pieces of German make, as well as from the Cold War period, like Soviet-made ‘Katyusha’ launchers and SAM batteries.

Despite the initial struggle with Stalin, after the latter’s death, relations with the USSR improved. Since then, military supply for Yugoslavia mainly came from the USSR, flanked by a non-negligible domestic production.

The indoor collection starts from much back in time, with weapons dating from the centuries of the struggle against the Ottoman rule. A major section is dedicated to the 19th century, when the Kingdom of Serbia was founded. As known, the spark for WWI came from the Balkans. Serbia took part to the war on the side of the Entente. As a result, after WWI the Kingdom of Serbia increased its territory and became known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia since the late 1920s.

Resulting from the political union of peoples of diverse ethnicity, religion, language and commercial vocation, this kingdom never experienced much stability. As a matter of fact, king Alexander I was murdered on a visit to France by Macedonian fighters for independence. The blood stained shirt of the king following the assassination – notably the first such event to be video recorded, albeit in 1934 quality – is preserved in the museum.

Like elsewhere in Europe, WWII years saw the suppression of the existing institutions. In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by neighboring Hitler’s Germany (which at that time was a single entity with Austria). The Nazi rule was implemented in the region of today’s Serbia, administrated by a German-backed local government. Items from this era are abundant, and include maps, weaponry and uniforms.

Of special interest are also the double-language notices – in German and Serbian – produced by Nazi Germany, with the distinctive eagle and swastika (similar to what you can find in the occupied territories of the USSR, see for instance here).

Also interesting are the bounty signs about Tito and other ‘comrades’ – the resistance movements were well organized and supplied, with the backing of Western Allies operating from Greece and southern Italy in the latter years of the war, thus creating real troubles to the invading powers.

Despite that, also improvised weapons were used, presented in the museum. Being an installation from Tito’s time, the operations of the communist-led resistance para-military units is showcased with flags, banners, uniforms and weapons.

A true relic in the museum is made of a small collection of Marshal Tito’s own uniforms and everyday items. These include some field items – torchlight, map magnifier – as well as more personal belongings – glasses, a USSR souvenir, apparently a pencil case, and more.

Some interesting photographs include portraits of US staff and aircraft operating from Yugoslavia, as well as a copy of the declaration of support to Tito’s army from the participants to the Tehran conference – Churchill, Stalin and president Roosevelt.

A very Soviet-style part of the museum is a kind of memorial, with a statue of Tito and a myriad of banners from various military groups – a kind of homage – completed by a massive engraved metal map of communist Yugoslavia.

A significant part of the museum deals with the 1990s wars. These include the early secession war mainly opposing Croatia, but deeply involving Bosnia-Herzegovina. Weapons of the Croatian army are on display.

A latter part is devoted to the war with Kosovo, which resulted in an open, mainly air-fought conflict against overwhelming NATO forces. From the fierce and polemical titles of the display cases in this latest part of the museum, it is clear that this fragment of history is still an open wound in the collective memory of Serbia. Maps of NATO bombing incursions have been created, and curiously translated into English, for the eyes of western visitors.

More substantial remains from this relatively recent struggle can be found at the air museum of Belgrade, covered in this post, in the form of wrecks of downed aircraft and western missile bodies.

Visiting

The museum is a major attraction among those scattered over the premises of the fort. Access to the outdoor part, surely deserving a walk-through also for those not particularly interested in history, is free of charge, and may be very appealing for the kids. The indoor collection is extremely interesting for war historians or history-minded people, but the exhibition may be hard for children. Most items are labeled also in English, making the visit interesting. Visiting the inside part may take from .5 to more than 1 hour, depending on your level of interest. A photo permit is required to take pictures inside. Website with info here.

Mystery Bunker in the Fort of Belgrade

This bunker is poorly advertised, and only scarce on-site descriptions are provided. It is basically made of a tunnel built close to a the most panoramic corner of the fortress. Access is via a narrow stair, giving access to a U-shaped corridor, connecting two double-floor underground circular towers.

On the lower floor of the towers, sleeping rooms for troops can be found, together with water tanks. On the upper floor what appears as an unfinished or lately interred firing position for high-caliber artillery can be found.

Construction is similar to some installations of the Atlantic Wall (see for instance here and here), hence it may date from WWII or soon after.

Due to the (strangely) scant description, it is hard to tell the history of this mystery bunker, and I am only guessing its function.

Visiting

The site can be visited with an inexpensive ticket, to be purchased (cash only) by the entrance to the helical pit, a much more advertised attraction nearby. To be honest, nobody checked my ticket once by the entrance to the bunker, which at a first glance can be confused with a backyard deposit (it is really not much celebrated as an attraction). Anyway, I came across a Serbian-speaking small guided group on my visit, so there must be chance of getting inside like that, enjoying some better explanation. Visiting alone may take 15 minutes. A little info on the site of the Fortress, here.

Marshal Tito’s Mausoleum and Memorabilia Museum

This installation lies to the back of the older building of the Museum of Yugoslavia, dating from Tito’s era and currently closed for renovation (2020). The neighborhood is very nice, with buildings of many embassies. The mausoleum and the annexed museum are part of a nice ensemble, surrounded by a garden. A very modern entrance hall with shop and services has been prepared at the entrance.

The burial place of Marshal Tito is in a greenhouse-like building, pretty nice and peaceful. The tomb is definitely plain and not bombastic, nothing you would expect from a dictator. Tito’s wife is buried nearby.

To the sides of the building you can find a well designed exhibition including personal belongings of Tito, parts of his office furniture, as well as pictures – including a magnified one with dignitaries attending his funeral ceremony in 1980.

A small excerpt of the huge collection of scepters, a traditional gift offered to Tito by every group or local society on his domestic visits, can be visioned here. Some of these are really nicely crafted, some are funny – some are really kitschy and caricatural.

A second part of the installation is hosted in a small, separate building. Here an incredible collection of gifts, personal belongings, photographs, authentic papers from the fund of the Museum of History about momentous events in Yugoslavian history, autographs and scepters can be found.

Of special interest are the official portraits – often signed – of presidents, dignitaries, kings and queens from various ages and from all over the world. This collection witnesses the relative popularity of Marshal Tito in the West, even though NATO forces never trusted him fully – the missile defense system placed in northeastern Italy in the 1960s and 1970s is a clear memory of that (see this post).

Similar to Ceausescu’s house in Bucharest (see here), the items on display make for a very vivid memory of Marshal Tito life and actions, and really bring back the man from history. Really an evoking place those interested in the Cold War can’t miss out!

Visiting

This attraction can be easily reached by car, a few minutes from central Belgrade, in a nice and safe neighborhood (see map). The local name is ‘Kuca Cveca’. As a branch of the Museum of Yugoslavia, it is modernly managed and has been recently revamped, making the visit enjoyable and interesting. For those with an interest in the Cold War era or Tito’s life and legacy, a visit to this site may easily take 1-1.5 hours on a self-guided basis, despite the place being relatively small and easy to tour. Guided tours are possible as well, info on the official website (in English) here.

Genex Tower

An internationally known piece of contemporary architecture, this strange looking massive skyscraper can be clearly spotted from the fortressof Belgrade, looking west towards ‘Nikola Tesla’ airport. It was built between 1977 and 1980, and is made of two bodies connected at the top through an elevated platform.

The name Genex Tower comes from the legacy Genex company, a large tour operator from the Yugoslavian era, operating even an independent airline, Aviogenex, flying mainly touristic routes conveying visitors from western Europe to the beautiful coast of Dalmatia. This openness of Yugoslavia to western tourism has been an uncommon characteristic in the panorama of communist-led countries. Overt trade relations with the West contributed to a higher standard of living of Yugoslav population, compared to the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc neighbors.

The tower is today partly a relic. The half once hosting the offices of Genex and its subsidiaries is mostly empty, even though not abandoned – there is a porter apparently living there, and willing to answer your questions on the history of the place! Going beyond the entry hall is not possible, but the hall itself deserves a glance – built with style, it is much more pleasant than the outside of the building!

The atmosphere is really evocative of the Cold War era. Like other buildings – mainly hotels – in former Yugoslavia, the style of the interior somehow recalls the old-fashioned luxury of some older James Bond movie setting!

The residential part is still inhabited as a high-rise condominium. The entrance is via a small door, but despite the derelict appearance of the small square ahead of the building, it looks normally cared for.

The circular platform on top of the tower used to host a panorama restaurant, today long gone.

The view of the platform from between the two main bodies from the base makes for a peculiar photographic set – as a matter of fact, professional photographers were taking pictures  from that spot for a fashion review!

Visiting

The tower can be reached by car, a few minutes north of the city center. This is basically a non-public building, so while visiting is not possible, the open, unfenced premises at the base of the tower allow walking freely around the tower. The neighborhood is densely populated and safe, despite the base of the tower not looking good, due to disrepair. Parking opportunities all around. A walk around the base may take 15 minutes. If you like to get inside the hall of the largely unused (as of 2020) commercial building, you may also have a chat with the porter about the history of the place. The visit won’t be much longer, anyway.

Avala Tower

This tower is located south of Belgrade, and is a vantage point for observing the town and the countryside around. The original tower was completed between 1961 and 1964, entering the world’s top-ten list of tallest buildings at the height of the Cold War era. That tower was targeted by NATO bombing in 1999 and destroyed. It was rebuilt between 2007 and 2009, mostly identical to the original design.

It is today a renowned tourist attraction. A remarkable engineering and design masterpiece, the tower boasts an uncommon three-leg base, giving a shape well fitting in the years of the space age when it was designed – despite the inspiration being reportedly from a three-legged Serbian traditional chair.

The platform on top can be reached via a fast elevator. Strange massive condominiums in the southern outskirts of Belgrade can be clearly spotted from here, but the most striking feature is the wild countryside surrounding Belgrade, really a spot in the green.

Not far from the tower, the interesting Monument to the Unknown Soldier from the 1930s is a remarkable national shrine from the years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Visiting

The Avala Tower can be reached by car in about 45 minutes from central Belgrade – mainly due to traffic, since it is not geographically far (see map). Parking on site. The place is managed as a modern large scale attraction, website here.

The Monument to the Unknown Soldier is open 24/7, a quick and interesting detour from the tower, with a dedicated small parking close to a fashionable ‘old-Europe’ vintage hotel. Explanatory panels nearby.

Ruins of the Ministry of Defense

The building of the ministry of defense was targeted during a bombing raid in April 1999, and severely damaged. An administrative building right in today’s administrative district of downtown Belgrade, it has been left mostly untouched for years now, as a memento of the war against the NATO alliance.

Two buildings can be seen cross the street. Part of the corresponding blocks are still in use, and for safety reasons portions of the damaged buildings have been finally demolished in recent years. More and more plans to convert this very central area to something else have been elaborated, as memory of the troubled 1990s is slowly fading.

Visiting

The place can be reached easily with a walk from the historical and shopping districts of Belgrade (see map). The buildings are inaccessible, and can be seen from the outside. A 5 minutes stop along your walk may suffice to check this item.

A Few Remains of Nazi Grandeur in Germany

Architecture is possibly one of the disciplines where the ringleaders of the Nazi dictatorship invested most, for it provided a direct mean to display and impose their ‘new aesthetics’ to the German people and to foreign visitors from abroad.

The victory of the Allies in WWII wiped out the Nazi apparatus, but nowhere as in Germany did the new post-war leadership take the  deletion of all traces of the Third Reich so seriously. Even in museums of military history – there is an excellent example in Ingolstadt,  Bavaria, perhaps one of the most beautiful museums on the topic in Europe – there are just a handful of Nazi insignia. Swastikas, Nazi uniforms, weapons and memorabilia can be found to an incredibly greater extent elsewhere in Europe, especially in Britain, or in museums in the US. They are really also abundant in the countless exhibitions about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for Russians – in the former USSR, and generally beyond the Iron Curtain.

Concerning architecture, especially in Berlin many buildings of all ages were totally demolished as a result of US/British air raids, and during the last battle for the city opposite the Red Army. Similarly, the town centers of many larger towns were severely damaged. In the reconstruction process, little care was taken in keeping trace of this dark page of the German history, and the reborn downtown districts assumed in many cases a new face, where 1950-styled buildings shared the stage with medieval cathedrals and public schools from Bismarck’s time – pretty much nothing from the 1930s.

Yet of course some creations of Hitler’s architects have come to these days. Despite the evil ideology behind them, some are remarkable works of art, displaying a clear relationship with functionalism, typically found through various interpretations also in many realizations of great architects of the Thirties, in the US as well as all around western Europe. Examples are those buildings connected with infrastructures, like airport terminals or railway stations – much needed in the post-WWII period, and preferably restored instead of being demolished. More items of this kind survive than possibly of any other from Hitler’s era in todays German cities. A majestic example is the terminal of the now closed Berlin-Tempelhof airport.

Most of the surviving buildings hold a public function – like departments of the government or sport arenas. In a very few cases, buildings strongly connected with the devious ideology of the Third Reich have been preserved – albeit not greatly publicized – as museums. A first notable example is the complex around the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, with the unfinished huge congress hall for the conventions of the Nazi Party. A second one is the disturbing ‘spiritual center’ of the infamous SS in Wewelsburg.

This chapter collects a few photographs from these three places. Of course, it is far from a complete review of the architectural heritage of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. It just provides an insight on a relatively unknown group of relics from Hitler’s era in Germany.

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Sights

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport Terminal

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Possibly the most complete and grandest example of Nazi architecture, the airport terminal of Berlin-Tempelhof is interesting both from an architecture standpoint and for its historical significance. The terminal was designed and built in the late 1930s and completed in 1941, greatly enlarging a preexistent construction.

At that time, nothing comparable existed in the world. The terminal is more than a mile long. It was built with a direct access from the land-side buildings directly to the long side of a narrow hangar on the air-side, which basically ran all along the terminal. Considering the small size of the aircraft of the day, this ‘hangar-terminal’ configuration could be exploited to simultaneously load and unload a high number of flights, with operations taking place directly in, or just outside, of a covered hangar. During WWII, parts of the hangar were used to manufacture military aircraft, exploiting forced laborers from a concentration camp prepared nearby for the purpose.

But the features of the terminal turned also extremely handy during the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, when Stalin tried to force his former western Allies to withdraw from Berlin by cutting off the western sector of the city. The western Allies set up the famous airlift, supplying the western sector with basically everything that was needed for a population in the order of a million, for 15 months! Tempelhof was the major airport in Berlin – the other being the British airbase in Gatow, near Potsdam – and laid in the American zone of the city. Thanks to its peculiar structure, it could manage the immense flow of goods flown in by more than 1’000 flights per day.

In the Cold War years, the airport was operated as a logistic base by the US forces. In the meanwhile, the construction of a larger airport – with a smaller terminal, but longer runways – was started at Tegel, and this was promoted to the main airport of West Berlin for civil air traffic. State flights still were operated in and out of Tempelhof, President Reagan’s Air Force One 27000 notably operating from Tempelhof on a famous state visit in 1982. After the German reunification the airport went on working as a civil airport, but the relatively short runways and noise issues led to its closure in 2008.

Sadly, today this glorious airport has been turned into another city park. It is rather difficult to use it for the scope though, as all the cement and asphalt of the apron, runways and taxiways are still there, there are no trees, and the terminal is an imposing presence on one side. Moreover, it is really a surplus for a city like Berlin, scattered with plenty of beautiful and immense green areas. The terminal building has not yet found a new occupation, and is basically a well-guarded ghost. Plans for reopening it as a convention center are apparently consolidated in 2022, but renovation works are going on still at very low pace.

Most recently, a small but well-designed, mainly pictorial exhibition has been located in the old terminal building, retracing with beautiful historical pictures, technical schemes and essential explanations the history of Tempelhof Airport.

Pictures from the year 2015 – but luckily not much had changed in 2022, the date of my latest visit – show the main building giving access to the terminal on the northwestern corner of the airfield still in a rather good shape. The empty parking ahead of the passenger entrance with nobody around gives a lunar aura to the place.

The neat lines of this part of the building deceive its actual size. From a former visit still in the days of operation – year 2006 – you can notice the roomy check-in hall, right beyond the main entrance.

Close by one of the glass entry doors you can spot a memorial to General Lucius Clay, the American mind behind the Berlin Airlift.

The grand perspective leading to the entrance is really an architectural masterpiece. Also noteworthy is a series of covered passages leading to lateral courtyards to the sides. These service passages are not visible when approaching the terminal from the distance, preserving the general sense of order without renouncing to the functionality of the construction.

There are two surviving marble eagles from Hitler’s time, on the front walls of the buildings to the sides of the main perspective.

The eagle head ahead of the parking is from the eagle sculpture originally standing on top of the main façade in Hitler’s times. That eagle was taken away after the capture of the city and the end of the war. The head went to the Army Academy in West Point, NY as a spoil of war, and was returned after the German reunification.

Moving along the wings of the building you can appreciate the size of the construction, really uncommon for Europe in the Thirties. The quality of all materials is also really striking. Their cost must have been really high.

To the extreme northeastern tip of the building you can spot some former radio installations, likely connected with air traffic control or military operations. From there you can get access to the former air side of the airport. At the time when the pictures were taken it was possible to walk around freely, but unfortunately not close to the hangar. Most recently, a branch of the Allied Museum in Berlin has taken responsibility for a preservation effort, and is keeping the place off-limits, opening it to the public on rare guided visits in German only – but I could not join in any of them.

There is also a historical propliner ahead of the iconic ‘Berlin Tempelhof’ sign on top of the hangar. Anyway, walking on the apron and runways produces a ‘history was made here’ feeling, and it is worth trying! Again, a few shots from the days of operation show the hangar from inside the terminal building. Historical pictures from local panels show the use of the hangar for the production of aircraft and technical parts.