Red Army Graffiti Kindles Debate

ReutersA section of a wall that was covered with graffiti by victorious Red Army soldiers.
BERLIN -- When Soviet soldiers raised the red flag above Berlin's Reichstag in 1945 to signal the end of the Third Reich, victorious troops scrawled their feelings on the walls of the historic building.

Among obscene sexual references to Adolf Hitler stand the angry words daubed in charcoal: "You got what was coming to you, you sons of dogs!" and "It's you who ended up in the shit, you fascists, not Russia!"

But now a group of conservative politicians wants to remove a large part of the graffiti and replace it with German national symbols that present a more favorable image of Germany.

Nearly 80,000 Soviet soldiers died and more than a quarter of a million were wounded in the battle for Berlin in May 1945.

Revenge was high on the Red Army's list of priorities when it finally fought its way to the Reichstag, a potent symbol of the Third Reich's power. But the graffiti contains poignancy too. "Blessed are the dead for their hands do not freeze," reads one message.

Johannes Singhammer of Bavaria's Christian Social Union has proposed removing part of the graffiti because he says it is a burden on relations between Germany and Russia. "We don't want to remove the graffiti totally, but partially replace it with German symbols like the constitution, portraits of former heads of state and regional shields," he said.

Singhammer says the graffiti and lack of German national symbols make the Reichstag seem like a temporary, rather than established, parliamentary building.

"There are not enough German things there. It's confusing to people," said Singhammer, who is head of a parliamentary of group of 69 deputies who want the words covered up.

The graffiti resurfaced seven years ago during the four-year renovation of the Reichstag by British architect Norman Foster, but he decided to leave it there to commemorate the Soviet dead.

The smudged Cyrillic letters and defiant, warlike phrases stand in sharp contrast to Foster's sleek and airy building, topped by a huge glass dome symbolizing 50 years of transparent federal democracy.

Some of the more graphic sexual references to Germans have embarrassed visiting Russian dignitaries on occasion.

"Ivan was here, 1945," is scribbled many times on the walls of the parliament building erected during the Prussian era of the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

Russia's ambassador to Berlin, Sergei Krylov, wants the graffiti to stay.

"This is an extremely dangerous trend," he said. "Those people who want to destroy the graffiti also want to let the commemoration of millions of dead Soviet troops sink into oblivion."

Tourists visiting the Reichstag back keeping the graffiti. "I think that the graffiti is a reflection of that era," said Hans-Bert Mingers, an architect from Alsdorf in western Germany.

Bernd Dahlmann, 56, a pensioner from Lahnstein said: "The insults and the hate belong to that historical period."

Younger visitors agreed. "I would keep it -- it's a part of history, and there is enough modern art in the building as it is," said Miriam, a 24-year-old student from Hanover.

Efforts to reduce the Russian influence on the Reichstag's gleaming halls and replace it with more Germanic artifacts have found little resonance among the ruling Social Democrats.

Gernot Erler, deputy parliamentary leader of the party, described the proposal to remove the graffiti as small-minded and provincial. "It reminds us of the terrible consequences of the Nazi period and the liberation at the end of the dictatorship and the war," Erler said.