The sprawling tree park of Treptow, a district in the former East Berlin, contains one of the three main Soviet war memorials erected after the Russian-led Battle of Berlin in 1945 and before the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic in October 1949. Entering from the southwest under a victory arch emblazoned with Soviet symbols and the date “1945” embossed between a laurel wreath, visitors walk a path lined with tall trees to a statue of a woman, representing the Russian motherland, in mourning—half-kneeling, half-bowing—on a granite plinth. Turning to follow the line of her head, visitors see the main monument. Two massive, symmetrical red granite walls frame the plaza beyond. Each wall is a structured, geometrically deformed triangle with a hammer-and-sickle emblem at the peak. They overhang twinned bronze statues of kneeling Soviet soldiers, helmets in their hands and guns at their side, facing one another and marking the entrance. In the distance, a colossal bronze statue holding what appears to be a lowered sword rises.
Walking toward the walls, the plaza appears. It is a funeral garden, symmetrically organized around a grid of rectangular shrubs. Small memorial sculptures dot the walkways. The red-tile paths are inset with white laurel wreath patterns. Lining the garden on either side are sixteen white stone rectangles, each about twelve feet by twenty feet. The face of each rectangle displays a relief-carved battle scene commemorating the Soviet army’s advance. On the edge of each is a gold-embossed passage from Stalin’s post-war victory speech. The monuments on the north end have the text in Russian, the southern monuments, German.
Approaching the rear of the garden, Warrior-Liberator comes into clearer focus, a thirty-eight-foot-tall bronze Soviet soldier towering above a stepped mound. In his right arm is a lowered sword; in his left, a cradled child. The colossus is based on a real soldier who was reputed to have rescued a German child during the final phase of urban warfare. Ascending the steps, visitors see that the soldier’s plinth contains a memorial chamber, visible through a grilled gate. The interior is decorated with a shimmering mosaic. A cloth and wire ornament in the shape of a star is fixed to the gate. From the top of the soldier’s mound, visitors see that he stands on top of a mangled swastika. The plinth is decorated with relief carvings of soldiers and the repeating Russian and German words СЛАВА and RUHM—“glory.”
The invading Soviets had a complicated political task. They needed to simultaneously occupy Berlin and unite it, to subdue the population and inspire them to rally behind world socialism. They needed the Germans to forget both decades of entrenched anti-communist propaganda and more recent Soviet war crimes. A glorious monument projected the perception of control over the city. Masonry from Hitler’s demolished New Reich Chancellery was carted off from Wilhelmstrasse in 1948 and recycled into the Treptower and Tiergarten memorials. The repurposing of the stone from the capital building, the chambers where Hitler once walked, as an epic monument commemorating those who smashed the fascist state sent an unmistakable signal. At the same time, the intimacy between the Russian and German text and the German child cradled in the arm of the Soviet soldier wove the peoples together, amassing support for the alliance between Moscow and the emerging GDR.
But the park also seeks to fulfill another task: It materializes collective mourning. Treptower Park is a mass grave, one of several sites around the city where thousands of Red Army soldiers who fell during the invasion are buried. As Erika Doss argues, the construction of memorials is not a neutral process. Production of commemorative material culture takes place in spurts, periods of what she calls “memorial mania.” “Driven by heated struggles over self-definition, national purpose, and the politics of representation,” Doss writes, “memorial mania is especially shaped by the affective conditions of public life . . . by the fevered pitch of public feelings such as grief, gratitude, fear, shame, and anger.” The memorialization of Soviet soldiers in Berlin was not simply a functional political tactic; it was an expression of national mourning and the consolidation of a national narrative of valiant sacrifice for a higher cause. Memorials, Doss argues, are “archives of public affect.”
This is why the 1990 treaty involving Germany and the four occupying powers, including the USSR, formally allowing reunification, also stipulated that Germany would provide maintenance and security for Soviet memorials in the former GDR. This was not a frill thrown in during negotiations. The Russians were deeply concerned that the public edifices of mourning for their dead—over eighty thousand in the two-week span of the Battle for Berlin alone—remain consecrated. The possibility of the memorials of Soviet soldiers buried in faraway lands being forgotten and disappearing beneath the grass was a sickening concern. Even in the absence of any explicitly religious elements, the memorials were, for all intents and purposes, sacred ground.
The dead do not talk to us. Scattered reports of life-after-death communications or visions notwithstanding, our information about a world after life hovers at zero. To posit an afterlife is to believe, to deny is to disbelieve. But the seeming clarity of this crisp religion/secular divide is deceptive exactly because the register of stated belief is unjoined from the register of action, expression, and material culture. When we expand the one-dimensional frame of “what bodies think” to a more expansive attention to “what bodies do,” the difference all but vanishes. Secular and non-secular people—people announcing beliefs in diametric opposition to each other—treat the dead in strikingly similar ways.
Richard Carp writes that “[a]lthough scholars often approach material religion as if it illustrates religious texts, the opposite is often true. Religious texts frequently articulate or attempt to make verbal sense out of what is first both experienced and expressed physically.” Carp upends the assumption that material culture is a crystallization of a symbol system, the deep claim by cultural anthropologists that every religious regimen is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Instead, we find ourselves expressing, and in the process generating both concepts and material culture.
This displacement of belief also disrupts the facile distinction between secular and non-secular mourning. Secular mourning practices, from the individual to the state, vary scarcely at all from religious mourning practices. There is formalized treatment of the dead, ritual, and the creation of material memorials—headstones, statues, mementos, shrines. In his research on the funerary practices of British humanists, anthropologist Matthew Engelke found that their death rituals were expansively similar to those of religious people, drawing on the same repertoire of funerals, eulogies, burials, and material memorials.
The difference, it seems, was in the pressure placed on the ritual practice by acute identification with secularism. As Ann Taves and Courtney Bender write, “for many modern people the processes of experiencing things of value take shape in tandem with identifying their various projects and pursuits as secular, religious, or spiritual (or some combination thereof).” Engelke’s research confirms this: The overriding stated concern of the humanists he consulted was to affirm the non-supernaturalist axiom of their rites. One heuristic for doing this was to focus on the “person” of the departed, rather than the body. In their methodical efforts to maintain the integrity of the immanent frame, the body loomed up as a special kind of threat: “It is a potential opening, or rent, in the closed world structure,” Engelke writes. “Once the body is stripped of life, even celebrants often run up against the demands of their own humanist ways.” The treatment of the dead is designed, in these secular spaces, to serve as a badge of secular identity, the flag of a belief system.
But this pulls in obverse angles on the affective imperatives to mourn and remember. Out of this complex tension emerges the secular ritual landscape. Even in an avowedly secular context, the materiality of mourning puts pressure on a rationalist ideology. “The worst thing that might happen at a funeral,” Engelke writes, describing his humanist consultants, “is for this kind of enchantment to break in, for the dead body to be wrongly recognized as an agentive force.” But one of Engelke’s subjects, a lay secular funeral “celebrant” named Johnny, was deeply valued as an officiant at humanist funerals, in part because his funeral liturgy reaffirmed the materiality of mourning. “After asking those gathered to please be seated, Johnny walked over to the coffin, still on the catafalque, and touched it, very gently, as he might touch the shoulder of a person. In that moment, Johnny was invoking the importance of materiality.” Moments of power in the context of secular mourning spark when the embodied facets of love, affection, grief, and loss are brought to the surface. It is not only a “person” being mourned. It is a presence, a body, a wound, a charismatic etching on our memories. It is an inalienable enchantment breaking through.
This is not to say that the Treptower memorial is not also doing political work as a conqueror’s monument. But to flatten a memorial expression to only a set of political calculations is itself to transmit the logic of secularism. By proposing that material mourning has to be done for a reason, rather than being driven by grief, it crushes the affective landscape down to a rational cost-benefit analysis. As Engelke writes, “we cannot understand formations of the secular as purely ideational or discursive; these are the ways secular formations are often presented, but secularities are material.” The British humanists seemed to recognize this material pull but struggled against it. The Soviets with their state atheism were fully aware of the “enchantment” of the dead, seeing it as something to be amplified, rather than avoided.
Physical mourning materializes itself in symmetrical ways in religious and secular contexts. So with private funerals, so with state memorializations. (As ethologists such as Barbara J. King have shown, even nonhuman animals respond to their dead in ritualized ways, sometimes even with the creation of a material culture around the body.) The meaning of grief is not dictated by theological or atheological frames, though without question they play a role in shaping its experience and its expression. We cannot reason or believe our way out of grief, but the phenomenology of grief is itself partly historical. Belief, power, and history are coordinates that mediate the material expression of mourning, an expression informed by the affective facets of embodied life.
Secular and religious factions often insist that the metaphysical questions hanging in the air between them are central. They say that belief in what happens (or fails to happen) after life divides them. But eyeing the material culture produced by both sides, the frame of belief suddenly recedes far into the background. The materiality of mourning is a zone in which the secular/non-secular divide washes out. Beliefs about the afterlife may themselves be epiphenomena of the intransigent affective tangle of grief. Atheists are going to build shrines, hoard talismans and charms, dance in festivals, explore rituals, nurse superstitions, and memorialize. At the level of the way we live, die, and grieve in relationship with our objects, secular and non-secular meet in the memorial sculpture garden.
All photos taken by the author.