Berlin had always been the ultimate goal for both the Allies and our small landing party, but I never realized just how much the city had to offer. I think I liked Berlin more than Paris and London because it isn’t a huge tourist destination. That doesn’t mean the city is dead, however. In fact Berlin is quite the opposite.
Berlin is the capital of what today is a strong and confident Germany. However, Berlin is a city that doesn’t shy away from its past. On the contrary both the city and its people are more than willing to recognize both the good and the incredibly bad aspects of German history.
Berlin shows this in the way that it chooses to remember WWII with monuments to the victims of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. We had the good fortune to visit many of these solemn sites during our time in Germany. One of the first museums we visited was the Topography of Terror, a museum on the grounds of what once held the headquarters of the SS. This amazing museum provides a detailed look at the SS from their conception all the way to their downfall.
As the museum chronicles the various atrocities of the SS, it also shows the men of the SS as regular German citizens, which is what they were. There are pictures of Himmler laughing at his desk with a colleague, and pictures of SS members on trips, hanging out, and just goofing around in their off time. I found this hard to take in, because I always think of these men as monsters who perpetrated one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. However, there in front of my eyes was proof that these men and women had also been normal Germans. It is a realization that everyone, even Germans today, have to cope with.
Another very emotional site that we visited was Sachsenhausen, which was a concentration camp not far from Berlin. It was the first ever concentration camp, and it served as a model for the concentration camps that would spring up all over occupied Germany. Our guide around the camp was a German historian, and he didn’t shy away or try and explain away what happened at the camp and others like it. I found this refreshing because in France there had been an overall sense that they wanted to forget their compliance with the German occupation and roundup of Jews and other people.
Germany has the complete opposite mindset of France when it comes to its Nazi past. Our tour guide at the concentration camp was the first one to mention this state of mind. He informed us that it is required for every German child to visit at least one site of Nazi terror such as the Topography of Terror or a concentration camp. I think this is a very important thing, because it helps so that the future generations of Germans never forget what could happen if they forget their Nazi past.
Germany has taken some steps to avoid this, as we learned at the Bundestag, the modern seat of the German Parliament. Our tour guide there mentioned at one point that the German people no longer directly have a say in the election of the prime minister or other critical offices. Their interests are represented by the members of the parliament. He jokingly said that this is because the German people are no longer trusted in such decisions, yet he went on to say that this in a sense is true. The German people very clearly remember how Hitler was able to manipulate the masses, and they are determined to never let such a thing happen again.
The Bundestag itself was a very interesting building. It was designed with a modern feel and a plethora of glass. This represents a new transparency in the German government. However, at the same time they have left some of the original walls from the Reichstag that still holds the graffiti that conquering Russian soldiers wrote on the walls.
Our adventure through Europe has given us a whole new understanding and appreciation of just how massive the war really was. For me it has been a very emotional, incredibly life-changing trip that has taken me through not only the history of my own country but that of several of the countries effected by war. In the future I hope to visit the other theaters of war such as Italy, Africa, and the Pacific so that I can truly get a feel for just how global the war was. Until then, however, I am excited to be returning to my home in America so that I can resume my way of life that so many fought and died to protect. I only hope that one day I will be able to say that I earned their sacrifice.