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Will Russians Forgive War?

Will Russians Forgive War?

02.11.2009 — Analysis

The impending opening in Ekaterinburg of the memorial to German prisoners of war is capable of causing a strong public resonance. The RusBusinessNews observer found out that the historic "reconciliation over graves" is happening with great difficulties.

On 15 November 2009 at Ekaterinburg’s Shirokorechenskoye cemetery the official opening of the renovated memorial to German prisoners of war of the Second World War will take place. There are 93 mass graves in the Urals: 88 in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, 3 – in the Kurgan Oblast, and 2 in the Tyumen Oblast.

The Consulate General of Germany in Ekaterinburg informed RusBusinessNews that Shirokorechenskoye cemetery has been chosen by the German People's Union for War Grave Care as a central memorial location for 13 thousand prisoners of war from German, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, and Japanese armies. The overwhelming majority amongst these are Germans. The project has received the approval from the government of the Sverdlovsk Oblast.

The German People’s Union for War Grave Care is a humanitarian community organisation which on commission from the German Government preserves and maintains graves of German servicemen abroad. This includes collection and recording the data on German graves, exhumation and transfer of remains to collective graves. The official slogan of the association is "Reconciliation Over Graves – Work For Peace".

According to the intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Germany dated 29 January 1993 on the joint care for war graves the German side in the form of the People’s Union has taken the obligation to tend to the integrity of graves of soviet servicemen on the German territory. The German Government has also undertaken to cover all costs in connection to the upkeep of memorials commemorating people who died during the Second World War and soviet graves from the war time located on the territory of the country.

In reciprocity the German side has been allowed to tend to German cemeteries on the territory of Russia. According to the data from the RF Ministry of the Interior there are 1772 war cemetaries on the territory of the former USSR where there are buried about 230 thousand prisoners of war and internees out of 2 million 309 thousand German soldiers and officers in the soviet captivity.

So far the People’s Union managed to establish 13 and restore 5 collective graves in Russia – in the Kaliningrad, Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk, Tver, Volgograd, Leningrad, Kursk Oblasts, and in the Krasnodar Krai, as well as to restore over 100 cemeteries of German prisoners of war and internees on territories of 31 Russian regions.

Not everywhere in Russia the reconstruction of such cemeteries happens in reconciliatory tones. The public opinion of Russians on this issue is extremely polarised. The new memorial in Ekaterinburg is not an exception. Eduard Zelenkov, the Chairman of Ekaterinburg City Organisation of Veterans (Pensioners) of War, Labour, Military, and Law Enforcement told RusBusinessNews "I feel negative in regards to the opening of the memorial. The initiators of this opening should have met with the Great Patriotic War veterans and discuss everything with them. This has not been done. I know for sure that our veterans would never approve the idea of such a memorial. I remember 3-4 years ago a meeting was organised in Ekaterinburg between veterans and former Wehrmacht soldiers. Many of our people simply ignored the meeting."

It is worth pointing out that at Shirokorechenskoye cemetery there is a War Memorial on the boards of which are listed the names of all soviet servicemen who died in the Sverdlovsk hospitals during the Great Patriotic War. This is one of the most important Memory Watches, where veterans gather every year on 9 May. Will they be able to look at the neighbouring German memorial calmly?

The representatives of German authorities stress the need for reconciliation. This year Dr. Renate Schimkoreit, the Consule General of Germany in Ekaterinburg, has for the first time laid a wreath at the War Memorial on the Victory Day. "I have felt neither animosity nor rejection from representatives of other countries who gathered that day at the memorial cemetery, in particular Russian organisers of the event. I think that we all, including former military adversaries, can revere the memory of victims of this horrible war. I consider such Days of Remembrance very important also because they revive in our memory events of the past and remind us of the responsibility we have to ensure that such events would never be repeated," Dr. Schimkoreit pointed out. "My colleagues and I have recently visited the location of the reconstruction of the German prisoners of war memorial at the Shirokaya Rechka cemetery. This important remembrance place will, at last, be made to look good, I am very happy with that." 

Is it true that German prisoners of war buried in the Urals are simple war victims? What kind of people were they, and why have they not been sent home after Wehrmacht was disbanded?

The thing is that it was far from simple soldiers and officers that were located here, Aleksandr Smykalin, the Senior Tutor of the Department of History of State and Law of the Ural State Law Academy pointed out. Many of them served in special retribution formations like the Second Infantry Division "Das Reich", the Third SS Panzer Division "Death’s Head", the Fifth Hunter Division "Great Germany". Also here served their sentences staff members of Gestapo, Abwehr, and other special services. These people, as a rule, took part personally in executions by shooting and other forms of holocaust of soviet citizens. This is why they all were war criminals and had been sentenced by soviet courts in accordance with the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR dated 19 April 1943 "On Criminal Liability of German Fascist Invaders and Their Accessories".

According to Boris Kosinsky, the Assistant to the Ruling Eparch of the Ekaterinburg Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, regardless of the kind of life the deceased people lived – be it worthy or ignominious – their graves must be presentable. "Their relatives must have the opportunity to visit their graves and tend to them. The question is what the memorial should look like. This is a question of tact, whether this will be a modest obelisk or a pompous monument. It is important that the memory of the deceased is neither provocative nor offensive. This should not conflict the history and offend the memory of those who died defending the Motherland. Both the Motherland defenders and the aggressors are buried at the same cemetery. The authors of the idea of the German prisoners of war memorial should take this into account," Mr Kosinsky told RusBusinessNews.

The first memorial sign to German prisoners of war at Shirokorechenskoye cemetery was installed in 2001. The new memorial is a cross with two grey granite posts either side. It is hard to say whether it’s looks are conciliatory of provocative. Different generation of the Urals people might have totally opposite feelings about it.

It is very important to recognise that this is a memorial to people only, not to ideas they fought for. Aggressors and Fatherland defenders will never be equal in the people's memory as some general war victims. This is why there are memorials to Heroes, and there are just memorials.

Pavel Kober 

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