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.”
Red Army memorials are just some of the divisive symbols that persist in Germany long after the political systems and social mores that sustained them have vanished. Germany’s top court ruled just last year against the removal of a medieval, antisemitic sculpture in the very church where Martin Luther had preached. Despite debates, some swastikas from the Third Reich have been left on church bells.
This propensity for what Ms. Schneidewind calls “historical hoarding” means that many Soviet memorials in East Germany contain Stalin’s name nearly 70 years after the dictator was largely purged from public spaces in Russia itself.
Most Germans express support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. And more than a million refugees from Ukraine have come to Germany since the war.
But the rare attempts by antiwar activists to draw attention to the militaristic Soviet monuments have failed to gain traction, and few German politicians have called for their removal or even perfunctory changes in them; they say their hands are tied by a pact signed around three decades ago.
Shortly after the Russian invasion, the Soviet tanks standing near the Parliament building were briefly covered by Ukrainian flags. The police removed them hours later, and the news coverage quickly moved on.
To a small group of German politicians, activists and scholars, the Scholz government’s refusal to re-evaluate public symbols glorifying Russia are indicative of Germany’s ambivalent European leadership, seen most recently in the drawn-out decision to provide Germany’s modern battle tanks for Ukraine.
To them, the persistence of Red Army memorials also minimizes the suffering of Germans during the Soviet conquest and postwar occupation, which included mass rape and forced relocation, and the installation of a police state in East Germany that lasted more than four decades.
Yet, far from removing Red Army monuments, local officials across eastern Germany have been renovating and expanding some of them, even as the national government has spent billions of euros to defeat Russia in Ukraine.
In Lützen, a town of 8,000 set amid rapeseed fields, officials spent more than $17,000 painting their Soviet monument just days after Mr. Scholz committed to delivering the country’s newest air-defense system to Ukraine.
Farther east, the city of Dresden this year earmarked funds to renovate the first monument erected by Soviet forces in Germany, which features statues of Soviet soldiers and scenes of T-34 tanks mowing down German infantry. Nearby, city workers are expanding the protected area of a military cemetery hosting the remains of Soviet servicemen stationed in the area during the Cold War.
Officials say their duty to care for such memorials dates to the so-called Good Neighbor agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1990. Under that measure, each nation committed itself to the upkeep of the other’s war graves on its territory.
Most of the Red Army monuments in Germany are believed to have been built above the graves of Soviet soldiers or prisoners of war. The Russian Embassy has used the pact to draw the German government’s attention to Soviet monuments, including the one in Lützen, that have been damaged or neglected.
But a German historian, Hubertus Knabe, has called for a re-evaluation of the agreement, which also commits both countries to peace and respect for territorial integrity. He says that by invading Ukraine, Russia has at the very least nullified the spirit of the pact.
Mr. Knabe has further asked Mr. Scholtz’s government to explain why Moscow continues to be directly involved in one of the country’s main World War II memorials, the Museum Berlin-Karlhorst. Representatives of Russia’s Defense Ministry and five other Russian state institutions sit on the museum’s board, another throwback to the Good Neighbor agreement.
Mr. Scholtz’s culture secretary, Claudia Roth, who is responsible for the museum, did not respond to requests for comment.
An attempt by one German activist to shift attention to Russia’s current war showed just how ingrained the traditional focus on World War II penitence has become.
Last year, a museum entrepreneur named Enno Lenze applied for a permit for an exhibit near the Russian Embassy in Berlin showing a Russian tank that had been destroyed near Kyiv. He said local officials ignored his application for a month, then rejected it, citing public safety hazards and the risk of traumatizing Syrian refugees, among other things.
It took Mr. Lenze months of court battles and tens of thousands of euros before he eventually received the permit, just three days before the exhibition was scheduled to open on the anniversary of the invasion. Although similar displays of destroyed Russian tanks were erected across Eastern Europe, he said no German politician came to his public support.
Some German scholars working on Soviet memorial sites have tried to strike a middle ground by updating Red Army monuments to reflect political changes and new academic research.
In the former prisoner of war camp of Zeithain, in Saxony, historian Jens Nagel has worked for more than two decades to commemorate the those who died from disease and starvation there during World War II, adding plaques to the monuments built in the Communist era with the names of nearly Soviet 23,000 victims that his team has identified from the site’s mass graves.
After Russia’s invasion, Mr. Nagel left only Ukraine’s flag outside the main monument to demonstrate solidarity, and the historical foundation that employs him disinvited Russian and Belarusian ambassadors from the annual ceremony celebrating Zeithain’s liberation by Soviet forces.
“Instead of tearing them down, you should redefine these memorials,” Mr. Nagel said. “You need to explain why they are here, and why you have a different view of them now.”
In Lützen, local residents say they want to keep their Red Army memorial as it is, a tribute to the central place occupied by the pyramid in the town’s public life during Communist rule. Some remember playing around it while attending the nearby kindergarten, and they say they will fight plans to move it to accommodate a proposed new supermarket.
“This is our history, no matter what is going on in world politics,” said the town’s mayor, Uwe Weiss. “We have to take care of it, because it is part of us.”