BERLIN (Reuters) - Museums usually show visitors a past securely consigned to history. The German-Russian Museum in Berlin is marking a harmonious event not long ago that hardly seems real when set against the tensions between the two countries today.
Twenty years ago this week, the last Soviet soldier left Germany after one of the biggest peacetime military maneuvers in history, a triumph of organization that ended the Soviet Union’s almost 50-year Cold War presence in old East Germany.
The pullout, made necessary when Moscow’s eastern communist ally merged with West Germany at reunification in 1990, smoothly repatriated 340,000 troops, 210,000 family members and 4,000 tanks by the pre-arranged 1994 deadline.
The museum, housed in the building where Germany signed the unconditional surrender that ended World War Two in Europe, has collected the bits and pieces the departing Soviet forces left behind, using these to evoke their way of life.
The last Soviet commander, General Anton Terentyev, got a warm reception last week at the opening of an exhibition on the pullout at the museum in Karlshorst, an east Berlin suburb once dubbed Karlowa for its strong Soviet presence.
The friendly banter there seemed far removed from recent German calls for sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine crisis and regret for an era of cooperation now fading fast.
Retired Colonel Otto Freiherr Grote, head of a German liaison unit with Soviet forces, said the Western-Russian confrontation over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine showed the “prejudices of old enemies” had still not been overcome.
Joachim Gauck, a former East German dissident, cast off the diplomacy that normally goes with his role as Germany’s president to castigate Moscow for closing off the cooperative period that the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in.
“Russia has de facto terminated this partnership,” he said at ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of Hitler Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland that began the Second World War. “Stability and peace on our continent are again in danger.”
The partnership Gauck recalled began before the Wall fell, when then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev opted for close ties with then-West Germany.
In the fateful months leading to reunification in October 1990, he sided with West Germany over East Germany’s discredited communists, earning popular admiration and solid support for Moscow from the united German government for years to come.
Now that ties are so strained, it is hard to imagine how smoothly and completely Moscow dismantled its military presence.
Soviet bases and training areas once covered 3 percent of East German territory. Unlike American GIs in West Germany, Soviet troops were mostly confined to their isolated bases and only officers were allowed to leave to visit nearby towns.
Grote said there were fears they would not have enough vehicles to move everything out or that departing soldiers would be pelted with stones. Nothing of the sort happened.
New worries arose instead. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 created logistical problems such as building the 36,000 flats needed for returning soldiers and their families.
Neighboring states such as the Czech Republic did not want Soviet transports clogging their railways, so much of the 2.5 million tonnes of equipment had to be transported by sea.
Under the agreement with Germany, Moscow was to take home all that was moveable but leave the buildings behind.
“We saw some discrepancies between what we understood as moveable objects and what they did,” said Grote.
The Russian troops literally took the kitchen sink. They even packed up a concrete runway.
Objects left behind included red signs for a barracks tea room and psychological advice center, first aid posters, wooden dove sculptures and brochures for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, all now on show in Karlshorst.
Comments from participants at the opening of the exhibition also sounded like throwbacks to another era.
“We left as friends and were waved off by friends,” recalled Terentyev, who was the last Soviet soldier to leave Germany in 1994, by which time the Soviet Union no longer existed.
“Our aim was to ensure the Soviets could leave with their heads held high,” said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Franke, an East German who joined united Germany’s liaison unit with the departing Soviet forces.
The museum itself testifies to the mood of the time. For decades it was a Soviet museum about Nazi Germany’s 1945 capitulation to the Red Army. Germany agreed in 1990 to maintain it as a German-Russian memorial to the event.
Reporting by Alexandra Hudson and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Stephen Brown and Mark Heinrich