For my STEP signature project, I attended a study abroad program centered around studying the history of WWII. During my three-week long program, I had the joy of visiting England, France, Poland, and Germany. Prior to departure, we were expected to gain an expertise on a subject to share with our classmates as well as learning as much as we could from visiting historic sites in the European Theatre of the war.
For this trip, we were asked to become historians and therefore take a more critical look at the events of the past and the way in which that information is presented today. Prior to departing on our trip, most of my education surrounding the Second World War was based on the American narrative of what occurred. I believed what I read to be fact, with little questioning if that information contained any biases. While abroad I gained a whole new perspective on how each country records its own history and the potential biases that could be lingering in the United States’ recording of history.
I came to this realization as I walked through the many different museums in the varying countries that all covered the same topic; The Second World War. For example, my specialization for the trip was the German Enigma Code and British Codebreakers. I was shocked to see that the museums in England, France, and Poland all held different accounts of how the Enigma Code was broken. Each account was written to put that country in the best light, often by exaggerating their contributions to the code breaking.
This is not the only area in which countries were altering their perception of events. Both France and Poland were occupied by Germany during the war. During these occupations, many speculate that there was collaboration between their governments and the Nazi Regime. In the Polish museums, rather than addressing any acts of collaboration, they focus on their own oppression under the occupation and not the exportation of Jews to the concentration camps set up by Germany. In regards to France, it was odd to see how they highlighted their limited resistance movement and lesser involvement in the Allied invasion of Normandy, but did not mention any acts of collaboration between the Vichy Government and the Third Reich to deport French Jews to concentration camps.
I was stunned to see how different countries had shifted their focus to the elements that highlighted their good and hid away their bad. As someone in academia, it forced me to question what I knew and harshly evaluate the information being presented to me. In the case of some museums, it felt as though I was being fed propaganda, not historical fact. However, this is the very reason I am so thankful for my experience abroad. Being abroad and seeing how different countries saw the war changed my perception of it as well. It also made me change the way that I intake information.
There are many things that changed in me going abroad. I feel more confident in my myself to handle new situations, to think on the fly, and open myself up to new challenges and experiences that are foreign to me. However, the most prevalent change I received from my project, was learning to think for myself, question what I was being told, and search for the truth. While going through museums, I was forced to question sources and intentions in a whole new way. I will no longer go through life taking in information without adding my own thoughts and knowledge to it. In addition, I will be more aware of my and my countries own biases and how those still affect our country today.
While in the German Resistance Museum in Berlin, Germany, there was a section on German youth who rebelled against the Nazi Youth after not agreeing with the propaganda and hateful ideology the Nazi Party presented. They were a group of college student called White Rose and they worked to dispel the misinformation the Nazi Party was spreading. They refused to accept the information given and rise against what they felt was wrong. The museum asks the question of what would have happened if more people had been like the White Roses and question what information they were given.
In conclusion, my time abroad during my STEP Project changed me in many ways, big and small. It if from this experience that I grew as a person, a citizen, and a student. I intend to take the lessons I learned abroad and apply them to the rest of my education, future employment, and duty as a citizen of the United States. I am excited to return to campus and reevaluate some the knowledge I always held to be true and gain a different perspective. Lastly, what I learned the most was that in a world often full of thorns, I can be a White Rose.