In Treptower Park

Sadakat Kadri

Last week saw the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. Victory Day ceremonies were muted in Moscow, but Berlin commemorated defeat almost as usual. The Red Army’s arrival isn’t a straightforward cause for celebration in many places that fell under Stalin’s control after 1945, but Germany doesn’t question the sanctity of its liberation. Having learned the hard way why international harmony matters, it maintains at least five hundred Soviet war memorials.

Events on 9 May took place against an exceptional legal background though. Berlin is home to tens of thousands of recent emigrants from Eastern Europe, who are as likely to equate Vladimir Putin with Hitler as they are to support his operation to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine. To forestall disturbances, the Berlin police announced on 5 May that both Ukrainian and Russian flags would be prohibited at all the capital’s major war memorials. The decision was reversed on appeal – in part. A court ruled that Ukraine’s colours should be allowed. The ban on Russian Federation flags was left intact.

The outcome, in effect, was to legitimise bias. At least thirty police vans were stationed in Treptower Park, the site of Berlin’s largest memorial, and every visitor was searched for offending items at the gates. I saw one man barred for wearing a jacket embroidered with the word ‘Russia’. Another waited at the cordon for ten minutes while officers debated if it was lawful to carry a peace flag demanding Nato’s dissolution.

Even opponents of the invasion acknowledged the unfairness. ‘We have particular reasons to be sensitive about symbols,’ I was told by a Berliner draped in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. ‘But, swastikas excepted, I’m a free speech absolutist. Banning one side alone is stupid.’ People who’d been directly affected were angrier. The Russian told to take off his jacket shrugged contemptuously when I asked if he’d comply. ‘Welcome to Nazi Germany,’ he said. Someone who supported the ban had told me that victims should be favoured over aggressors, but the anti-Nato peacenik just he shook his head on hearing that argument. ‘Unbelievable,’ he murmured. ‘Unbelievable. We live in a Fourth Reich now.’

Actual admirers of Adolf Hitler would have been less impressed. Though Russian tricolours were excluded, the cypress-lined avenues were filled with Communist, pacifist and rainbow flags. Around the monumental statue at its centre – a soldier standing over rubble from Hitler’s destroyed Chancellery, surrounded by seven thousand graves – Soviet nostalgists dreamed on. A guitarist led the crowd in renditions of ‘Katyusha’, while hammer-and-sickles fluttered and vodka flowed.

Only once did the mood properly darken. When a group of anti-war activists unfurled blue and yellow stripes on the central staircase, Putin’s supporters were galvanised. Hissed insults about the ‘fascists’, ‘traitors’ and ‘provocateurs’ grew into shouts. Tensions then increased further, with the appearance of about a dozen Night Wolves. They’re Russia’s equivalent to the Hell’s Angels, and they arrived in dramatic style: stomping down the main concourse, between lines of German police.

Unlike many biker gangs, the Night Wolves don’t claim to be outlaws. They’ve been close to the Kremlin since 2009, when Putin was so wowed by their leader that (according to Russia Today) he told him he’d recently done a wheelie and crashed into a car. Far from challenging the state, they have acted as a paramilitary force since the annexation of Crimea, and many are now serving as fighters in eastern Ukraine.

As the Night Wolves marched towards us, an intensifying cry of ‘Nazis raus!’ swallowed up the rival chants. I’d been keeping quiet, to maintain a pretence of neutrality. But it then dawned on me that the cacophony wasn’t actually much of a clash. Shouting in unison, opponents and supporters of Russia’s assault on Ukraine sounded in accord about one thing, at least: Nazis out!