Memories of Resistance and Democracy in Postwar Germany

Germany does not shirk from its collective responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust. The German Historical Museum, for example, does not sugarcoat popular support for the Nazi Party during the interwar period. Instead, historians ask how the Nazis obtained power and why they were able to keep it. By answering these difficult questions, the Federal Republic of Germany acknowledges and wrestles with its dark past, which proves that democracy is never guaranteed in our turbulent world but it can rise out of our darkest experiences.

The Topography of Terror Museum documents the rise and ruthlessness of the Nazi Party through propaganda, intimidation, and violence. The steel building stands where the Gestapo Headquarters and Reich Main Security Office once stood. It was here at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse that Gleichschaltung (i.e. the totalitarian process of subjugating every element of society to Adolf Hitler) became a reality. To solidify their grip on power, Nazi brownshirts arrested political opponents in the Reichstag, paraded elected officials through the streets, terrorized German-Jews, and persecuted the professional classes. Under Heinrich Himmler and Reinhart Heydrich, the Reich Main Security Office fused police forces into the ranks of the SS. The Museum includes pictures of Nazi officials alongside walls of text that explain the roles of individuals in Nazi terrorism. The Nazis targeted the upper echelons of German civil society and removed safeguards that should prevent the acceptance of evil regimes and boundless war.

The Bendlerblock Memorial to German Resistance remembers the few with the courage to oppose the Nazi regime in its atmosphere of terror, especially those who sacrificed their lives in the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One could easily miss the unassuming courtyard where firings squads executed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators. The Memorial consists of a stone slab, two copper plaques, and a statue of a naked and bound man. It does not make excuses for the plot’s failure or conjecture about what might have been. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt noted that key leaders of Operation Valkyrie planned to ask for a separate peace as well as other terms to which the Allies would never have agreed. Instead, the Memorial humbly and factually reminds visitors that some paid the ultimate price in defiance of Hitler’s Germany. The Bendlerblock also contains a series of exhibits on resistance from individuals in many segments of German society, including the army, churches, schools, and governments. While resistance to Nazi Germany was anything but widespread, the Bendlerblock Memorial shows that the Nazis failed to eradicate civil society.

After World War II, Germany was realistic about its culpability for the Nazi regime. Unlike postwar France, there were no myths of a vast and powerful resistance. It was undeniable that many contributed to the collapse of the young Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. The Reich Chancellery and Reichstag lay in ruins, and rubble filled the streets of Berlin until 1950. The Führer Bunker where Hitler took his own life is now a parking lot. From ground zero, Germans participated in de-Nazification and formed a new government. After its reunification in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany was – arguably – the most modern democracy in the world. The Bundestag, formerly the Reichstag, reflects postwar Germany’s dark history and impressive progress through its design. I interpreted its open glass top as indicative of the transparency necessary for parliamentary representation. There is preserved graffiti from Soviet soldiers on the walls. Germany is a product of its experiences, and it does not intend for the suffering of its people (esp. victims and resistors) to be in vain. With democracy in crisis across the West, perhaps the future lies in remembering the darkness of Germany’s past alongside the mirrors and light of the Bundestag spire.

The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and German growth after WWII

When we think of Germany, we often think of them as the awful perpetrators in the Holocaust and of who’s to blame for World War II. But what is their identity today? This year will be 74 years since the end of WWII. From their laws against swastikas and SS symbols to the banning of the Nazi salute in public, Germany appears to be recognizing the past and taking steps to ensure it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes. Yet, there was still one thing that stood out to me as being nonprogressive towards ending Nazism: The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Talks of building the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe was in the works all the way back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t awarded funding by the German Federal Parliament until 1999 and construction didn’t begin until 2003. Finally, the Memorial was completed and opened to the public in 2005. The fact that it took nearly 25 years to get this memorial established in such a key place in Germany was really striking to me. Whether this was due to the fact that many perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders of World War II and the Holocaust were still alive during that time period or if it was Germany’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their past, this seemed like a job that was well overdue.

The name of this memorial also stood out to me because it does not disclose who murdered the Jews of Europe, when or exactly where they were murdered, nor does it include any mention of the Holocaust or Nazism. In addition, the historical placement of this site is important because it in the city center where most of the deportations took place. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is also located around the corner from the infamous Führerbunker where Hitler committed suicide. This could be seen as problematic in the fact that it takes the attention off of the Jewish memorial itself.

Since its opening in 2005, there have also been problems of tourists and locals alike, taking pictures, posing on top of and vandalizing the rows of Memorial stones. These acts of insensitivity are extremely dangerous and give the impression that people do not know or care about the genocide of the Jewish people. Like Hannah Arendt pointed out, these “nobodies” are the most dangerous of all when it comes to the Holocaust. This bears the question if the memorial had a stronger and more descriptive name, would people be more empathetic to it?

The only thing this memorial seems to have done right would be in the actual construction and design of the Memorial. It consists of various rows of gray rectangle blocks that vary in size, shape, and texture, with an unstable ground that changes in elevation. Visiting this memorial with my comrades only intensified the experience. Walking through the blocks I would see my friends one second and then they were gone the next. There was a sense of uncertainty with no set direction as to how to walk through the memorial and a feeling of instability and chaos in the precarious ground, where you are almost never able to properly catch your footing. The exposure you feel when standing by the short blocks and a sense of isolation you feel while standing by the tall blocks was also something I encountered while visiting. These were all feelings that the Jewish people experienced during the Holocaust. You leave the memorial feeling uncomfortable and unsure, only a minute part of what these victims felt every day of their lives during World War II. This memorial does seem to be a step up against Nazism, but as we can see in the lengthy timeline of construction, vagueness in the title of the memorial and in the insensitivity of visitors, there is still a long way to go for Germany.

Where It All Ends: The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

The penultimate morning of our journey, we experienced the Soviet War memorial in Treptower Park. This memorial was breathtaking. Coming out of the thick of Treptower Park, we walked through a ring of trees. Then, the memorial swallowed us. It seemed as if you had never entered. As if the place was not even on Earth.

Almost everything about the Treptower War Memorial makes you look up. Towering, twin spires of granite greet the visitor with faded gold hammers and sickles on each. But they are not even the most impressive part of this memorial. Towering over the massive expanse of green, red, gold, and stone, is a statue of a Red Army soldier. He is holding a rescued German child in his arms. A sword at his side is cutting through a swastika, which he is crushing under his boot. The scene feels unreal.

Despite the grandeur, this memorial is only a token to the sacrifice of the Soviet Union in the great fight against fascism. Under this surreal backdrop, I presented on the Red Army soldiers’ perspective during the Great Patriotic War (what the Soviet Union and now Russia call the eastern front in World War II). 5,000 Red Army soldiers rest for eternity in this park, but they are only a small percentage of the sacrifice of the Soviet Union during WWII.

27 million. That is the conservative estimate of how many lives the Soviet Union lost during World War II. That level of suffering and loss is absolutely unprecedented in the history of warfare. And yet, this fact is often forgotten in American culture. It is understandable, of course, given that we are the United States and the Cold War soured a generation against anything Soviet. But politics cannot alter history. The Soviet Union suffered far more than any other country during World War II, and it is important that we recognize this. World War II was fought on the eastern front. The Soviet Union was in a fight for it and its people’s very existence. Memorials like these are important reminders of the sacrifice of millions of men, women, and children in the battle against fascism.

Resistance in France and the Restoration of National Pride

In class, we learned about the French refusal to admit defeat against Germany and the overwhelming need to restore national pride to France after World War II. When visiting many museums and memorials in both Bayeux and Paris, we saw the over-exaggeration of the French role in military battles of WWII, resistance movements against the Reich, and even the liberation of many cities in France.

In some of these museums, there seems to be the justification of the Vichy government—who collaborated with the Nazis and were complicit in the genocide of Jews in occupied France—as the only choice to keep France from total annihilation by the Germans. Exhibits at the Caen Memorial Museum tell of the Free French Forces organized in France and their help in all fronts of the war. They also focus on the various resistance movements and their spontaneous acts of rebellion against the Third Reich. While it is true that there was French Resistance against the Nazis, the Resistance was not as strong as the museum exhibits often indicate.

In the case of the Charles De Gaulle exhibit, Vichy is indeed harshly criticized; being contrasted with De Gaulle’s help in French Resistance efforts. The Caen Museum also depicts resistance as any act along a broad spectrum—from reading a forbidden newspaper to planning armed assaults on German soldiers. The armed resistance that was stressed in almost all the museums we have seen in France, while not untrue, felt overemphasized. The French have also created a narrative that they would have liberated themselves and could have done so with or without the Allies’ help. This emphasis on their self-liberation, combined with the almost nonexistent mentions of the armistice with Germany, gives the impression that the French do not want to lose their sense of victory after WWII.

However, there were not many options for France at the time of occupation. While in retrospect it is easy to call for total resistance and to judge any form of complicity, the United States was fortunate enough to have not been put into that situation. From fear of social exile and self-preservation to pure survival and fear of death, there were many different reasons why most French people did not participate in resistance efforts. The Vichy government certainly committed atrocities such as the deportation and registration of Jews and other various initiatives that were taken by this government even without the prodding of the Nazis. Despite this, we still couldn’t imagine what we would do in that situation.

Though it is true France has been and seems to continue to attempt a restoration of their national pride after WWII. No matter the amount of resistance, the Vichy collaboration with Germany will never be forgotten. I feel it will be a long road for France to be able to finally prove to themselves and the rest of the world who they really are.

Creating on Borrowed Time

The Nazi party adored art.

Hitler and other high ranking officers inspecting artwork as well as participating in purchases

To be more specific, art that was approved by the Fuhrer himself. Any art that was deemed “undesirable” would be destroyed or taken by the Nazis to be displayed in a degenerate art museum.

Themes that were considered perfect German values would be praised and those that were created by Jews or displayed themes that clashed with these values would be rejected.

While in Berlin, I saw examples of the art that was allowed by the Nazi party and art that was rejected entirely. The German History Museum had an extensive WWII exhibit that featured a portion about art censorship and theft. In this portion, I saw the most iconic example of German endorsed art. This painting, titled “Kahlenberger Bauernfamilie (“Farm Family From Kahlenberg) and painted by Adolf Wissel, represented the ideal Aryan family. Hitler purchased this painting at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1939 because he believed in the message that the work portrayed. Alongside this iconic work were other “acceptable” works for reference and also photographs of Hitler inspecting artwork.

The perfect Aryan family in the eyes of the Nazi party

 

Another example of Nazi endorsed artwork was a photograph that I saw at the Topography of Terror Museum (located in the exact place where S.S. Headquarters were during the Second World War). This photo shows two Aryan lovebirds who are cuddling on the sand while surrounded by swastika flags. The work is titled “German Vacation Fun with Swastikas” (ca. 1939). The photograph is beautiful and shows young love yet represents the propaganda that was being circulated in Germany at the beginning of the war.

“German Vacation Fun with Swastikas”

To juxtapose the Nazi support of acceptable art, I also visited the temporary Bauhaus Museum exhibit. The Bauhaus School of Art, located in Berlin, was creating designs in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s that were revolutionary and shocking for the art world. As Germany entered the war, the students at Bauhaus felt the pressure of being labeled a “degenerate artist”. While touring the museum, I came across several examples of female students who ultimately ended up in concentration camps for their art. Choosing to not comply with German standards or fundamentally being the wrong race lead to many artists losing their lives. The possibility of new inspiration and creativity was killed along with them.

Female artists who studied at Bauhaus before being sent to a concentration camp

Thankfully, these artists’ stories are finally being told. While reading about both the acceptable and degenerate art in these exhibits, I felt like there was a sort of justice for those who had been lost. Those who collaborated with the Nazis were listed by name. Those who lost the battle were remembered. It seems to me that the creation art during the Second World War was created on borrowed time and we are lucky to learn about the artists’ struggles in the modern day.

Corrupting Christianity

Although I enjoy most of the classes I take, I often have trouble applying the knowledge I learned in real life scenarios. I had never been put into a situation where I utilized the knowledge I learned from all of my classes to figure out a problem and come to a logical conclusion, but this changed when I visited the German History Museum. Here, I was amazed when I stumbled upon an exhibit which called upon what I learned in my German, history, and religion classes.

As I passed by a seemingly simple quilt, I quickly realized there was much more depth to it. It was a very large quilt with embroidered pictures of a Nazi German town with many houses, townspeople, Nazi soldiers, the Hitler Youth, and the League of German Girls marching towards a church in the center of the town. This seemed pretty straightforward until I realized there was also a long German passage also embroidered into the quilt. As I began to read it, it seemed oddly familiar to me. This is when I realized it was the Lord’s Prayer well known throughout Christianity.

Large quilt depicting the Nazification of Christianity in a German town

Once I figured this out, the entire piece seemed to make so much more sense. It was a pure example of the Nazification of Christianity which was seen throughout WWII in the Third Reich. Coming to this conclusion was very rewarding to me because I finally utilized what I’ve learned in several different classes in real life, and I hope to have more of these moments as I continue to further my education.

Part of the quilt which shows a couple lines of the Lord’s Prayer in German

The Polish Narrative of World War II

Growing up, I attended St. Adalbert of Berea, the oldest Polish church in Ohio – built brick by brick in 1874. In Berea, Polish-Americans quarried sandstone alongside German and Irish laborers. One cannot blame them for wanting a religious sanctuary from that backbreaking work. They wanted to preserve their history and culture in a nation that sought to assimilate and often exploit them for cheap labor. My great grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American whose family mined coal in Gallitzin, PA before moving to Cleveland. Sergeant Joseph A. Szczelina served his country as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He did his part in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. After the war, he altered the spelling of his last name from Szczelina to Selena. He made that decision because his superiors could not pronounce his name at roll call. From my own heritage, I thought that I understood the relationship between Polish history and identity. My short time in Krakow proved that I still have much to learn.

Once home to Copernicus and Chopin, Krakow was the center of Polish education, culture, and faith for centuries. Be that as it may, I was unprepared for the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica (pictured) and Wawel Cathedral. Unlike the ones I visited in France and Germany, these cathedrals were filled with people. Even on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was evident that religion remains a powerful component of Polish identity.

Throughout the twentieth century, Poland endured cultural and political oppression from neighbors that sought to erase it from the map. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. It was not prepared (and how could it have been) for a two-front war with the most powerful war machines in the world at that time. As a result, historians sometimes diminish or even disparage the role of Poland in the war. However, one should respect the courage of Polish soldiers who scrambled through railway stations to fight a losing battle and partisans who waged guerrilla warfare at great risk to themselves.

After visiting the Oskar Schindler WWII Museum, I found myself empathizing with the Polish wartime experience. When the Wehrmacht first entered Polish villages, it pursued a vicious policy of racial extermination which saw Poles as sub-human. The Schindler Museum stressed that the Nazis deliberately annihilated most of the Polish intelligentsia, including local officials, clergy, businessowners, and intellectuals. They attempted to slaughter anyone capable of criticizing the regime or leading resistance movements. In the end, World War II claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, half of which were Jewish, via starvation, shootings, forced labor, and the death camps. Considering the dual occupation and its aftermath, perhaps no nation in the twentieth century suffered as much as Poland.

It is important to note that native Poles participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, a reality which the Museum failed to address. From class lectures, we know that the anti-Semitic myths of Judeo-Bolshevism and collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus fueled these gruesome beatings. The environment was ripe for these atrocities because of a foreign occupation that encouraged them and eliminated civil society. The SS, for example, executed Soviet collaborators and conducted ruthless reprisals for alleged resistance activities. Nazis manipulated popular frustration with the Soviet regime for their own advantage. Sadly, the historical memory in Poland overlooks these complexities and outlaws discussion of any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

Churches in Krakow are filled with shrines and reliquaries to Pope John Paul II, the pride of Poland who resisted the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a Polish soldier’s in Auschwitz. These figures symbolize Poland’s resilience and spirituality in the world today.

The Objective Perspective

Over the course of the month we visited many, many museums, each of which had its own narrative of the war to tell. The Churchill War Rooms wanted to show that Churchill was an exceptional man of the people and a crucial asset to the People’s War. The museum did this by showcasing Churchill’s everyday routines and hobbies thus making him more average and relatable. The Caen Memorial Museum in France pushed forward the idea that the French resistance was so effective that the Allies were not really needed to liberate the country… The Schindler museum in Krakow clearly laid out the Polish narrative of collective victimhood; our guide continuously made clear that there were good Polish people and bad Polish people, good Jews and bad Jews, and that overall Poland suffered as a whole. But the German museums I found the most interesting because they did not seem to push any sort of narrative at all. They were all very objective and fact based leaving the visitor to interpret the information as such. This objective perspective also seemed to really embody Germany’s collective memory of remorse – we did it, and we are sorry.

To me the objectivity was their way of taking responsibility. Sticking to the facts leaves no room for twisting the story into something it wasn’t. German museums were much wordier and held many less pictures; pictures tend to evoke more emotion than words do and leave more room for subjective interpretation. The Topography of Terror was probably the most word-heavy of the museums we visited in Berlin and the pictures that it had were often placed in a very calculated way – pictures of tormented Jews were often

The juxtaposition of photos in the Topography of Terror Museum.

placed in close proximity to pictures of Nazi officers doing everyday tasks or having fun and in this placement a sort of tension and discomfort was created. The museum displays were also hanging from the ceiling. If someone touched them or if the air conditioner was blowing, they would begin to sway. This also created feelings of discomfort and even made me feel as though I was going to pass out while reading them.

As I visited more museums in Berlin, I began to notice that many of them seemed to use this method physical discomfort through layout and

One of the void spaces in the Jewish Museum of Berlin that was intended to evoke feelings of isolation that the Jews would’ve felt.

architecture which I found most interesting. The Jewish Museum of Berlin used tilted floors and dark, empty rooms with 24m high ceilings to create feelings of discomfort and loneliness that the Jews may have felt while in isolation and under oppression. These rooms reminded me of the “sunken place” from the movie Get Outif you are familiar with the film.

Overall, I thought that the German’s most effectively conveyed the message of WWII. The factual perspective exuded a sense of honesty and responsibility that none of the other museums in any of the other countries seemed to acknowledge, especially not Poland and France. I so appreciated seeing that the Germans took this viewpoint because, honestly, I was little nervous to see what they’d say.

Taking Full Responsibility

Acknowledging and learning from mistakes is no easy task even in everyday life. The German people are faced with recognizing how they were a part of one of the most evil and violent regimes the world has ever known, a role in which they whole-heartedly accept. The German National Museum, the Wannsee House, the Topography of Terror Documentation Center, and other sites and museums provide evidence that the German people seek to admit total responsibility for the actions of Nazi Germany. Endless paragraphs of text, factual documentation, and displays fill these museums, no narrative or excuses present in any way.

The German National Museum gives an excellent exhibit on the Weimar Republic, Germany’s democratic government in the inter-war period, and the conditions that allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to rise to power. The Germans are not deceiving on the support they held for Hitler, one quote from the German Resistance Memorial Center states, “Most Germans welcomed the new authorities and their politics. Only a minority mounted resistance…” The same museum also maintains that the Nazis were the aggressors during the war, definitively explaining that the Second World War began when Germany invaded Poland. A quote from the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, holds the same sentiment by asserting, “The Second World War unleashed by the German Reich claims over 50 million lives.”

The exhibits at the Wannsee House continue to refute the claims of Holocaust deniers by providing the document formed there on January 20, 1942 surrounding the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Translations in multiple languages give readers the opportunity to digest the rhetoric that Reinhard Heydrich and other Nazi officials created when determining the fate of all European Jews. Further displays give evidence of how this plan was put into action and the end result of its implementation – the extermination of millions of men, women, and children.

Germany explains how many Nazi officials, party members, and war criminals were able to return to everyday life following the war. They also indicate how widespread acceptance of their nation’s past did not arise until later generations of Germans began learning the full truth about the Nazis. Germany today takes full responsibility for their sinister role in this period of history and seek to educate others about it.

Germany: 75 Years Later

Thinking about World War II from a modern-day German’s perspective is certainly complicated. How do you go about studying such a painful chapter in your country’s history? Throughout the museums and monuments I visited in Germany, it was clear that Germans take responsibility for the war. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of many examples of remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Small “stumbling stones” along sidewalks and streets mark the locations of Jewish victims’ homes prior to the Holocaust and collectively may be more significant than any giant monument or museum. Other museums such as the Topography of Terror and the German Historical Museum explain how the Nazis consolidated power and launched Germany into war. They seem to serve as reminders of what can happen when civil liberties are suppressed, and dissent is punished. Additionally, the museums are not hesitant to admit the widespread support for the German war effort or the quest for dominance over Europe. Still, they honor those who spoke out against Nazism and defied Hitler; people like Claus von Stauffenberg and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Reichstag building is the perfect representation of modern Germany. The chamber was not the home of democracy for nearly six decades and architecturally it does look like there is a sixty-year gap between the old and the new. From the outside, it is an old building with a long history. The interior, however, represents the future of Germany; with fresh looking blue chairs and a spiraling dome that rises above Berlin, it is an architectural marvel. The Wannsee House, where the Final Solution was finalized, was one of the more memorable sites I visited. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by gardens and looking out over the lake. It is hard to miss the irony while walking on the grounds. How could such a beautiful place be most known for one of the most wicked conferences ever held? It is also fitting that Hitler’s bunker, where he spent most of his final months in Berlin, is now a parking lot. A large sign describes the significance of the location where he committed suicide, but otherwise, you could drive by without having any idea.

Overall, Berlin taught me a lot about Germany both in the mid-20th century and today. Fortunately, after nearly fifty years of division following the end of the war, Germany has come together over the past three decades and become a world power once again. I believe the rest of the world can learn a lot from the way the Germans remember their past and how they prepare for the future.