35 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the event the aftermath have had consequences that still impact us to this day. The area around (and) Chernobyl itself has become a urbex Disneyland for many adventurers and the catastrophe has been made into an HBO series (where everyone speaks with english accents) recently. The nuclear catastrophe has a morbid allure – though the real life consequences of displacement, death and the fact that 2,600 km2 have been turned into an exclusion zone are mostly glossed over. With the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on the 26th of April, we decided to see if we could locate any Chernobyl Memorials in Berlin.
Reactions to the Chernobyl disaster in the East and West Germany
Both East and West Germany initially had a similar reactions to the chernobyl nuclear meltdown. While the accident happened on the 26th of April, 1986 – the Soviet Authorities tried to keep the news as secret as possible. Only when Finnland and Sweden measured increased radioactivity, did the Soviets – on the 28th of April 1986 – that a nuclear accident had happened.
East German reactions
The East German news first reported on the Chernobyl accident on the 28th of April, 1986 – and mentioned in four short lines that an accident had happened and that one of the nuclear reactors had sustained damage. An East German journalist relayed a press statement from Moscow a day later that 2 people had died in Chernobyl and that 4 villages had to be evacuated.
The head of the East German Atomic Agency essentially downplayed the whole issues, and dismissed any calls to review the safety of both the East German Nuclear Power plants. People were rightly worried as all nuclear technology in the GDR had been supplied by the Soviets – and trust in its safety wasn’t high. Rightly so. Little did the general population know how bad the safety and quality of its own Nuclear Powerplants were, and how close they came to their own Chernobyl disaster a few years earlier in 1975.
Over the next few days the East German Politbüro and Media tried to downplay the situation, that there was no health risk and that Nuclear Energy was the safest energy source available. All the drama around Chernobyl was just hysteria. This media tactic continued over the next weeks. When Gorbatschow gave a press conference on the 14th of May, 1986, the East German media refused to show any coverage of it, instead opting have one of its own reporters “interpert” the speech. Ironically, many East Germans had already sourced information from the West German media of the situation in Chernobyl, and were unsettled as to what they should do.
The only real short term consequences that the East German Government undertook – similar to that of its West German counterpart – was to impose guidlines on how much radioactivty was allowed to be measured in milk and vegetables (oftern double the amount than in West Germany).
West German reactions
As mentined, the West German Government had a similar response to the potential dangers. The Minister of the Interior (at the time) Friedrich Zimmerman said that any risk to the German population can be categorerly ruled out.
Compared to the East German media coverage, the West German covered the events extensively with as much information that was available. Another similarity between East and West Germany at the time was that both countries had zero plans as what to do with the current situation. There were no emergency or contingency plans , no minimum guidlines or official recommendatinos as what should be done in a sitatuation like this. As radioactive readings got higher and higher – the nuclear fallout cloud had drifted over from the Ukrainian SSR and was washing down with the rain – more and more panic was setting in.
In a lesson that history is just a series of repetitive events – a consequence of the German federalism and a lack of government metn strategy – every German State set its own guidelines and recommendations when it came to the maximum amount of trace radioactivity in foods, as well as other health and safety tey guidelines (the German Covid19 strategy says hello).
Different (german) states ended up implementing different strategies – with some testing alle cars trucks and ships that came from eastern europe for their radioactivty, others giving out advice about the consumption of iodione tablets (which caused them to be sold out completeley – hello covid19 toilet paper crisis), as well as frequent showering when returning indoors.
While there cerntainly were over reactions in the media, the consequences of the nuclear fallout from chernobyl are still visbile in Germany today. The fallout cloud that drifted over europe was not a hoax – and to this day berries, mushrooms and certain animals still have higher than normal traces of Caesium-137, making their consumption less than advisable.
Chernobyl Memorials in Berlin
With the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster just around the corner, we took the opportunity to reflect a little on the event. At the time of the nuclear meltdown, my family was stationed in Poland – and similar to the German Democratic Republic – news of the event were sparse. And there was no mention of a nuclear cloud moving across the country. If the stories are true, we all had higher than “normal” traces, including our dog.
Having lived in Berlin for over a decade, I had often asked myself if there was a Chernobyl Memorial. Id never seen or read about one, but this being Berlin I was sure there had to be one. We did a little bit of research, a lot of walking and we found not one, but two! Interestingly enough, both of the Chernobyl Memorials that we managed to locate are in East Berlin.
Chernobyl Memorial Berlin – Lichtenberg
The German Democratic Republic organised the 2nd International Berlin Sculptor Symposium from 31st of July to 30th of September 1987 under the title “Poetry of the City”. The event had 8 international participants from Poland, Romania, Syria, Bulgaria, Czecheslovakia, Hungary, Finnland and the Soviet Union as well as 6 sculptors from the GDR. The event was held in the Schloßpark Buch (where the Soviet War Memorial Buch can be found) and each of the participants was given Reinhardtsdorf Sandstone – a particulalry rubost and popular material which had been used for many sculptures and buildings such as the Schwerin Castle, the Berliner Stadtschloss, and the Zwinger in Dresden.
The artist from the Soviet Union was Yuliy Synkevich (sometimes also written as Juri Sinkewitsch), and was born in Kiev, Ukraine on the 8th of April 1938. Synkevich had graduated from the Scultupre Department from the Kyiv Arts Academy in 1961 and is probably most well known for the monument to Taras Shevchenko – which he along with fellow sculptors M.Hrytsyuk and A.Fuzhenko einveiled in Moscow in 1964.
Yuliy Synkevich was invited to participate in the 2nd Berlin Sculptor Symposium and used the opportunity to create a monument dedicated to the Chernobyl disaster that had happened just a year earlier. His work would be – as far as we known – the first Chernobyl Memorial in Germany, as well as the only memorial created by an Ukrainian artist.
Synkevich used the Reinhardtsdorfer Sandstone to create an impressive two sided relief titled “Dem Leben gewidmet – die Vögel von Tschernobyl” which translates to “Dedicated to life – the birds of Chernobyl”.
The large sandstone relief rests on a short concrete plinth – with one side depicting a kneeling man (or falling to his knees) with outstretched arms, seeminlgy looking for something to hold on to (the pose is also somewhat reminiscent of a crucifixion). The figure is surrounded by a nuclear ring as well as a series of birds, which are both seemingly flying up and falling down.
The other side of the Chernobyl Memorial features a Woman (or Mother) resting on her knees with a child in her lap. Unlike the man on the other side, these two figures are surrounded by a wreath of leaves – symbolising life that should be protected. The same birds are also present on this side of the memorial – and they can be interpreted to be a deception of life (or hope) and death.
The works of the 14 artist were temporarily exhibited in the Fennpfuhlpark in Berlin, Lichtenberg in the 24th of March 1988,. At the time, the city had planned to find permanent (and prominent) exhibition points for all pieces, but this never came to be. As of 2021, 11 of the 14 pieces can still be found in and around the Fennpfuhlpark.
Chernobyl Memorial Berlin – Mitte
The second Chernobyl Memorial in Berlin can be found in an extremely prominent spot in Berlin Mitte, yet is still somehow hidden away. In late 1989, early 1990 – the evangelical green-ecological network “Arche” (Ark) commissioned a memorial to commemorate the Chernobyl catastrophe. The Arche hired the East German artist Jürgen Strand to design and create a memorial. The monument itself was unveiled on the 4th of March, 1990.
At the time of writing, we’ve been unable to find any relevant information about Jürgen Strand, aside from the fact that he belonged to the same circle of artists such as Annemirl Bauer – who was a well known regime critical painter. Due to her political stance, she was expelled from the East German Association of Visual Artists (which was essentially the same thing as work ban). She was observed and harassed by the Stasi – which had apparently also managed to infiltrate her inner circle and recruit Jürgen Strand as an unofficial collaborator (under the codename “Christian”) – if the scarce information online is to be believed.
The Chernobyl Monument in Berlin Mitte can be found directly behind the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche (a former Monastery Church of the Franciscan Order dating back to the year 1250). The church was destoryed by a bombing raid in the 3rd of April, 1945 – and the ruins, similar to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, the runis were preserved and now function as a grim reminder of the destruction caused by war. As to why this spot was picked – seemingly only the Arche knowns. We are hard pressed to find a link between the themes of a destroyed church and a nuclear accident, but someone wiser than us might known.
The memorial itself is also somewhat cryptic. The piece consists of a square pollished granite pillar, with alternating polished slabs of granite. Sitting atop is smooth limestone cube, with an abstract bronze bird at the front. The top of the limestone cube has a long triangle shapped insciscion, which at first glance could be mistaken for vandalism. The two (technically three) other faces all symbols engraved into them, some of which resemble christian symbols (the PX symbol is a bit of a giveaway). One of the three sides doesnt appear to have any symbols etched into it, but it seems like it might have worn off over the years.
The bronze plaque on the base of the monument – according to the plaque itself was added in 1996, for the 10th Anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Its an odd little memorial, in a picturesque setting – though the longer one looks at it, the more questions seem to pop up.
Berlins Chernobyl Memorials Addresses
Chernobyl Memorial Berlin Lichtenberg
10369 Berlin – Lichtenberg
Chernobyl Memorial Berlin Mitte
Ruine der Franziskaner-Klosterkirche