Just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow’s forces massing on the border, officials in the medieval town of Lützen, Germany, afforded landmark status to a Soviet-era World War II memorial standing outside a kindergarten in the town center.
“Glory to the great Russian people — the nation of victors,” reads an inscription that was repainted by local officials in June on one side of the 10-foot, pyramidal monument.
Inscribed on another side in bright red is a quote from Joseph Stalin commemorating 12 Soviet prisoners of war who died at German hands while working at the local sugar factory. A bright red star with gold-colored hammer and sickle adorns the pyramid’s peak.
Lützen is not an outlier. Scattered across Germany, but primarily in what was once the Soviet-dominated German Democratic Republic in the east, are more than 4,000 protected monuments commemorating the sacrifices of Soviet soldiers in the struggle against Nazism.
Soviet tanks stand on pedestals just half a mile from the German Parliament in Berlin, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz made his “Zeitenwende” (roughly, “sea change”) speech, declaring that “the world afterward will no longer be the same” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he called the biggest threat to the European order in decades. A few miles east, in what was East Berlin, a 40-foot statue of a Russian soldier holding a German child and a giant sword towers over Treptower Park.
Such memorials, most of them commissioned by the Red Army or local allies, have been toppled, removed or vandalized across Eastern Europe for decades as odious symbols of oppression by Moscow. The trend has only accelerated since the invasion of Ukraine.
Yet in Germany, one of Ukraine’s main military backers, they are perhaps the most striking examples of a deep-seated guilt over Nazi atrocities that continues to pervade national identity.
In interviews across three German states, historians, activists, officials and ordinary citizens explained their support for monuments glorifying a former enemy and occupier as a mixture of bureaucratic drift, aversion to change and a rock-solid commitment to honoring the victims of Nazi aggression that trumps any shifts in global affairs.
“We were taught to learn from pain,” said Teresa Schneidewind, 33, the head of Lützen’s museum. “We care for our memorials, because they allow us to learn from the mistakes of past generations.”