Remembrance : the French and the Germans

Because of its role in the end of the war in Europe it is fitting that the final destination of our trip is Berlin. It was also the most anticipated stop for me and many of my classmates for a multitude of reasons. First, we were excited to experience German culture and to witness Dr. Davidson in his natural habitat. Although I very much enjoyed French cuisine, I often found myself still hungry after most meals; I found comfort in the mere idea of a filling meal consisting of pretzels and bratwurst instead of the petite French portions. In addition to this, the we had been told by many that the Germans are a very kind and hospitable people, and that many of them can speak English very well (Hurray!). All of this turned out to be correct. The food and drink have been amazing thus far, especially the street food (I think I’ve had around twelve döners in only a week’s time), and the German people have been amazing. But experiencing the culture was only half of the reason for our anticipation of Berlin. The other half was that we were curious to see how the German people and government view their nations culpability in World War II. After witnessing the French myth of resistance, how would this extremely dark chapter in history be remembered in the museums and culture of the country that is by far the most guilty?

The answer to this question was extremely satisfying. The Germans make no attempt to save face or push the blame elsewhere. They confront their culpability head on. There were three things that stood out to me in Germany as distinctly different than what I saw in France. The first difference occurred to me during our time in the German War Museum. Here there was no attempt to hide the Holocaust portion of the exhibit as was done in France. In order to continue on to the next portion of the museum one had to pass by the exhibit. In addition to its visibility the quality of the explicative writing was much greater. It was not simply a cold retelling of distant events with statistics, but rather a moving piece that shed light on the suffering of victims.

The second difference between French and German remembrance initially occurred to me in the German War Museum as well, but was exceptionally stark in the Topography of Terror Museum. This discrepancy can be shown by quoting one seemingly simple sentence from the exhibit; it reads “The Germans conducted the war against the Soviet Union as a war of extermination”. The significance of this sentence lies in the fact that it says “The Germans” and not “The Nazis”. There is no mincing of words. This is just one example of the Germans acknowledging their culpability, where on the other hand, the French often said “the Vichy regime” when referring to terrible acts committed.

The third difference between France and Germany that I noticed was that there were banners, posters, and the like all over Germany signifying important events, many of which pertaining to the Holocaust. There was none of this in France. Even the State issued memorial to the deported Jews (of all European Jews might I add) was hidden from view. This is in direct contrast to the stumbling stones in Berlin, which signify the location where individual Jews were deported.

The German museums, as well as the city of Berlin with all of its posters, tell a very straightforward story of the Second World War. No detail or event is omitted, no matter how grim. To do so would be a great injustice to not only history, but to the future. In all, it seems that the German people have done have done an excellent job of not only coming to terms with the past but also preserving the lessens that have been learned.

I’d now like to take a moment to sincerely thank any and everyone that had a part in making this trip possible. I came hoping to get a better understanding of cultures other than my own and how they remember the events of World War II; I succeeded in both. However, during the course of this trip I also became proficient in many different forms of transportation (which is astonishing because I’ve never been in a big city or flown in a plane before), learned a lot about myself, and had the time of my lif all the while making friends that I intend to keep in touch with for rest of my life. I’m a better person for having this incredible experience. I will cherish the memories I’ve made forever.

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