A couple of days ago I sat down with Dario-Jacopo Laganá in Mitte to talk about We Will Forget Soon, his project to document the traces of the Red Army in Germany. I bought a copy of the book We Will Forget Soon, and we schedule a short talk since I wanted to ask him some questions about the places he visited and all the pictures that we took. We ended up talking for a few hours about his blog Elephant in Berlin, history, gentrification, our memories of the city and the relationship between the Soviet Union and DDR during the Cold War. After that, I asked him if he would be willing to do an interview about the book. I was glad that he said yes and below you can learn more about this amazing project.
But before we go into the interview, I have to explain to you a little more about We Will Forget Soon and why I believe you should buy a copy of the book before it’s too late.
Growing up in Brazil, the Red Army was something out of movies. I don’t remember learning anything about them and what did they during the Second World War in any of the history classed that I had back in my school year. My first confrontation with my ignorance happened at the first time that I visit the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park. That place sparked something inside me, and I started researching about the history of Berlin, what happened in the city during the last century and that investigation changed a lot about what I believe today.
The Red Army occupied East Germany from the day that Nazi Germany surrendered, back on May 8th, 1945. Berlin was still in flames, and the Soviets were creating the Soviet Occupation Zone that, a few years from that day, would split the city with a wall.
According to the Potsdam Treaty, the Soviet Union took care of the eastern part of Germany and a big chunk of Berlin. In October 1949, the Soviet Occupation Zone became the German Democratic Republic, but the Red Army stayed. They only left a few decades later. June 25th, 1994 was the day that the Russian Ground Forces left Germany and, at the end of August 1994, there was a parting ceremony in Treptow Park to mark the end of the military presence in Germany.
But what would be done with all the military presence that the Red Army had in Germany? What would be done with their camps and installations? Some of them went to the German Army, some of them went to civil authorities, and some were just abandoned. These were the places that Stefano Corso and Dario-Jacopo Laganá decided to document to come up with We Will Forget Soon. They ended up traveling for more than 8,000 km by car across former East Germany and visited more than 200 former military locations. All of this generated 10,000 photos and a book. Below you can learn more about it from Dario itself.
We Will Forget Soon, an interview
The first question must be about the reasons behind this project since the Red Army, and the Soviet Union are a touchy subject until today. So, how did you start thinking about documenting their presence here in Germany and how was the reaction of people around you when they learned about this new “hobby” of yours?
Several coincidences were playing altogether. I’ve always been interested in the history of Europe and the relationships between countries (at the beginning I started with the Italian-German one during the WWII), then I moved to Berlin which is, on this topic, an active place, full of possibilities. And from these opportunities, I’ve started with Stefano and some other friends to explore the city, and then we start going in Brandenburg, looking for abandoned places. But then my need for knowledge was stronger than just exploring abandoned places. I need to understand what was going on, building by building, recognize the relationship between places and history, the use of the areas, the propaganda behind it and the connection with the Cold War as we know it (growing up on the other side).
The idea that two Italians were making a research on this topic, at the beginning was not so easy, the idea that two outsiders were interested in a part of German history that was left in the shadows, was hard to explain. But at long term was a winning point. We had no personal background, we are not Wessi nor Ossi, so that we can just research without the idea that we wanted to criticize one part or another, and in the end, we’re just photographers, not historians.
Your book is not a book about the abandoned places that the Red Army left behind. How hard was to research about these locations and to look for them afterward?
Maybe today the general situation on abandoned places has changed, but at the time was very easy to go around and look for places. Several of these places were well known, and we had a car, that was an excellent opportunity to see around. But then the research was passing from the abandoned ones to the reused ones, which was much harder and difficult to achieve. Most of the places have no traces of the presence of the Soviet Army. Looking at them it’s almost impossible to say it, and this is why we decide to call the book “we will forget soon.” Not because we don’t want to remember, but because as fast as the change in these areas is, it is already very hard to say what was part of this history and what was not.
So a part of the research has been made with satellites maps, historical books, documents with the locations and also some internet forums where the Soviet soldiers are still used to remember their “special time” in the DDR.
The Red Army was stationed in Germany for a long time, but there are almost nothing to remind ourselves of their presence here. The British army was here for a long time, but you can still visit the Gatow Airport and see what did they do in Berlin. Why do you think everything is different with the Red Army?
I must say that I don’t agree 100% with this theory, in fact, the Soviet Memorials in Berlin are more famous than Gatow, maybe just because one is in Tiergarten, but also the one in Treptower Park is very well known. But it is true that history has treated the Soviets in a different way – although they were the ones who defeated the Nazis in most of the country and Berlin in particular.
The end of the Cold War also marked the idea that Germans wanted very fast to forget about them and move on, to a reunified country and 40 years of forced friendship left a dark mark on their souls. From a purely historical point of view, after Die Wende, the 3+2 Agreement committed Germany to pay the expenses to bring the Soviet troops back home, and of course, they brought back with them all that was possible, everything from the barracks, also the frames from the windows. This is also why there are fewer traces of the Soviets.
Of course, after finding out about some places, how hard was to confirm your research? Was there any place that you couldn’t prove even though you knew that the Red Army was there?
If you make a deep research on the topic, most of the places are already on some maps, maybe not all the buildings, but for sure the big barracks, not with addresses, but with names and the reference to the closer town. To confirm you need to go there and look for traces as well sometimes a triangulation of documents. Some small local events in newspapers (usually the tragic ones were reported), some comments on a forum and a picture where you can see the building in the background of a military group portrait (I’ve spent days and days looking for these details in photos). So what you find in the book has been confirmed, we’re not historians, but we tried our best to give people consistent information.
There are some places that I would like to visit but was not possible, like some barracks still in use by the Bundeswehr or some other buildings that are closed, and unfortunately, the local authorities decided that was not interesting for them to give us access to pictures.
We can only imagine how challenging this project was. Did you have any official support from any German or Russian government or institution?
We are very proud of this project, also because we managed to get some recognition and funds from the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur (Federal Foundation for Refurbishment), which is a great national organization that helped us a lot. I’ve been honored to speak with vital historians and head of other foundations about this project, and this was a key to open us more doors, been recognized as official.
Unfortunately, we tried to get in touch also with Russian authorities, but we’ve been so lucky, maybe was not the right time.
You visited more than 200 places all over East Germany. Was there anywhere that became your favorite place? And any place that you think more people should know about?
I’ve been around a lot, and somehow I loved the small places in the middle of nothing where you could find some small elements of this past, like just a statue in the forest.
A favorite place I could say the Festspielhaus in Dresden-Hellerau, which has been restored and brought back to its original purpose of dance, performance and contemporary art. But they decided to let the people the opportunity to get in touch with the past leaving and restoring the Soviet paintings on the walls.
If anybody wants to know more about the subject, is there any book that you could tell people to get?
There are several books, but most of them are in German. For me, the most complete book on this topic is from Silke Satjukow – who also wrote the historical introduction to our book – “Besatzer. »Die Russen« in Deutschland 1945-1994”. It’s a beautiful book with a lot of details, not only on a historical and military point of view but also on the relationship between the countries. Another one is “Roter Stern über Deutschland”, which is also a documentary film, but if you go to flea markets sometimes you still find some volumes of the “Mit der Sowjetunion für immer fest verbunden : eine Bilddokumentation”, a series of photo books made for propaganda of the forced friendship between DDR and the Soviet Union, but that give you a visual image of this story.
Like I said before, We Will Forget Soon is a fantastic book that documents a part of German history that most people don’t like to talk about but that needs to be told. Dario-Jacopo Laganá and Stefano Corso did a fantastic job with their book, and I believe that everybody that has some interest in this part of history needs to have this on their bookshelf.
You can buy the book We Will Forget Soon and know more about the project on www.wewillforgetsoon.com. If you want to learn even more about the Soviet presence in Berlin, you need to go to the Soviet Memorial in Treptow Park and celebrate their victory on the Second World War. On May 9th, 2017, I will be there and Dario as well. You should find us, grab a beer and we can talk about this amazing project and Berlin.