At a German museum with Russian trustees, teamwork is tense

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At a German museum with Russian trustees, teamwork is tense
A Soviet Tank outside the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum in Berlin, June 23, 2023. As a Berlin museum with Russian trustees commemorates an allied victory over the Soviet Union, it is also negotiating the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times)

by Catherine Hickley

BERLIN.- As preparations get underway for the 75th anniversary of the Berlin airlift, a Cold War victory for Western allies over a Soviet blockade, one of the museums mounting a commemorative exhibition is negotiating the fallout from a more recent geopolitical conflict.

The Berlin-Karlshorst Museum, on the site of the German army’s formal surrender at the end of World War II, commemorates what it describes as Germany’s “brutal war of extermination” against the Soviet Union. Founded in 1995, when Germany and the Russian Federation were on friendly terms, the museum’s collection includes many objects on loan from Russia, including a Soviet tank that stands at the museum entrance.

But at a time when Germany is contributing military hardware worth billions of euros to Ukraine so the latter can protect itself from invading Russian forces, the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum’s management structure is — to put it mildly — awkward. Its board of trustees includes representatives from Russia’s foreign, defense and culture ministries, plus members from three Russian museums and one from Russia’s ally, Belarus.

Trustees on the opposite side of the current conflict come from a Ukrainian museum and several German institutions, as well as the foreign, defense and culture ministries. The Ukrainian representative stopped taking part in board meetings in 2014, in protest of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“The situation is untenable,” said the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum’s director, Jörg Morré. “We know we are at a turning point. But you can’t just throw trustees off a board. It’s not straightforward.”

The airlift exhibition, which the board approved before Russia’s 2022 invasion, opens June 29, and will be staged outdoors at the former Tempelhof Airport. It was here, in 1948, that the United States and Britain flew fuel and food from bases in West Germany into a cold, hungry and bomb-ravaged Berlin that Soviet forces had sealed off.

Comprising photographs and text, the admission-free exhibition — organized with two other museums — will be presented in German, English, French and Russian, with handout documents in Ukrainian. Despite the Russians on its board, the Berlin-Karlshorst museum has thrown its weight behind the Ukrainian cause.

In a Feb. 21 statement, it said: “We continue to condemn this war in the strongest terms. We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.” Since the invasion, the board has not met, Morré said, and the Russian representatives have remained silent over the museum’s stance.

At the time the museum was founded, Germany was grateful to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, for tolerating reunification, and to Russia for the swift withdrawal of troops that had been stationed in East Germany. Germany’s relief at a peaceful end to the Cold War was combined with guilt for the annihilation of 24 million Soviet citizens in World War II.

In that context, the new museum was “a gesture of reconciliation on a state level,” Morré said. The German government meets all its costs.

Until as recently as 2020, cooperation between the Russian partner museums and the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum worked well, Morré said.

“We always looked for where we could find agreement,” he said. “That has gone, it doesn’t work anymore. The Russian view has become narrower and narrower. Now it is completely biased, propagandistic and distorting.”

Germany’s Culture Ministry said in a May 8 statement that its minister, Claudia Roth, “is preparing a reconfiguration” of the Berlin-Karlshorst board in consultation with the foreign and defense ministries. A spokesperson for Roth declined to comment further and Russia’s embassy in Berlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Even after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Germany has remained committed to honoring Soviet soldiers’ sacrifices in the struggle against Nazism. Across the country, but primarily in the former East Germany, there are more than 4,000 protected monuments to their memory.

Morré said he remains convinced of the importance of this memory work, which is the focus of a revamped permanent exhibition at his museum that opened in 2013. The trouble, he said, is that “the Russian Federation instrumentalizes everything: The Soviet victory in World War II becomes a Russian victory.”

“It is not enough to say ‘no, we are not going along with this,’” he said. “We have to actively distance ourselves from the Russian perspective.”

Although the Ukrainian board representative, from the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, in Kyiv, no longer attends meetings, the two institutions continue to collaborate, Morré said. A historian from the Ukrainian museum joined Morré’s team in Berlin temporarily after the invasion, and has since returned to Kyiv. The Berlin-Karlshorst Museum also works closely with exiled members of Memorial International, a human rights group that was banned by the Russian Supreme Court in 2021.

For now, Morré said, he can only work with Russian historians in exile. His colleagues at the three Russian museums represented on the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum’s board — the State Historical Museum, the Central Museum of the Armed Forces and the Victory Museum in Moscow — have become silent partners.

“We know there are still good colleagues in museums in Russia who have a clear view of history,” he said. “But they can’t express it.”

Morré said he doesn’t know how the German government plans to rid the museum of its Russian trustees. One option may be to take legal action on the basis that Russia has breached the museum’s statutes, which define one of its aims as “promoting understanding between peoples,” he said.

If the Russian trustees leave, the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum may also forfeit a large chunk of its collection. About 1,000 of its 20,000 objects are on loan from the Russian Federation. In addition to the military hardware on display outside the museum, these include artifacts from the two-and-a-half year German siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

“I imagine that they will demand them back,” Morré said. “It would be a very big loss.”

The museum no longer describes itself as a “German-Russian” project, Morré said. The Russian and Belarusian flags hanging by the entrance were taken down on the day of the Russian invasion. Only one flag still flies — and that’s Ukraine’s.

Morré said he could not foresee a revival of cooperation with Russia any time soon. “It will take a long time,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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