Upon arriving in Berlin, my perspective on World War II had certainly evolved since the morning that I disembarked from my plane in Heathrow Airport. Seeing so many landmarks face to face, like Auschwitz-Birkenau and the beaches at Normandy, gave me a more nuanced and fully realized interpretation of the events of the war. I knew that being in Berlin and learning about that period through the eyes of a country that had rebuilt itself after committing unspeakable atrocities and coming out on the losing side would be informative in a completely different way.
Berlin does not shy away from its history, and that could not have been more evident than at the Reichstag, which is the seat of the German Parliament. The history of the Reichstag is closely intertwined with the history of World War II. It was a fire in that building, started by a young communist, that gave Hitler the opportunity to assume total power. Although the Nazi government was never conducted from the Reichstag, it remained so symbolic of German power that the Soviets made a point to seize it when they marched on Berlin, scrawling graffiti all over its walls. Some of this graffiti remains at the Reichstag today. Our tour guide explained this as a conscious decision to acknowledge every aspect of the building’s past. It was fascinating to look at the individual names and symbols written on the walls and wonder what state of mind those men must have been in after surviving the hellish Eastern Front and finally taking part in the fall of Berlin.
Another interesting way the Reichstag acknowledged the Nazi Party was an art piece that listed the names of every democratically elected German official on individual boxes, stacking them together to symbolize the foundation of the German state. Controversially, the artist chose to include NSDAP members who had been democratically elected. Certain boxes looked like they had been punched or kicked in, and Hitler’s box had to be reinforced with concrete to prevent further damage. I do feel as though including the Nazis in the piece was the right choice, as it serves to recognize that they were initially democratically elected by the German people.
The Soviet presence still is heavily felt in Berlin, whether through the prevalence of Soviet Bloc-style architecture on the Eastern side or the multiple Soviet memorials scattered throughout the city. The most impressive and imposing one was at Treptower Park and featured a gigantic statue of a heroic Russian man holding a child in his arms while crushing a swastika beneath his feet. It also featured a series of smaller concrete blocks that depicted scenes of not only the Red Army but also women and children. This seemed to convey that the Russians remember the devastation of the war as having impacted every single civilian.
Our visit to the German Historical Museum made it clear that the Germans want no part in covering up the darker parts of their country’s history. Here, as opposed to certain French and Polish museums that deemphasized the collaboration of their own citizens, every aspect of Hitler’s rise to power was covered in detail. It paid specific attention to the conditions in Germany during the 1920’s that allowed the Nazi Party to become successful. Their country experienced a similar economic boom to the one in the United States, and Germany refers to their period of prosperity as the “Golden Twenties”. The 1929 stock market crash impacted the German people even more harshly than it did the Americans due to their country’s lingering debts from World War I. The widespread poverty and resentment brought forth a political climate that was rife to absorb Hitler’s rhetoric.
Although my blog entries focus mostly on the educational and historical aspects of the study tour, my time in Europe has meant so much more than that. I am endlessly appreciative of the opportunity it has given me to see so many uniquely beautiful cities. Most importantly, however, I could not be more grateful that I could share this experience with 22 of the best people I’ve ever met. I am also especially thankful to Dr. Steigerwald and Lauren for being such great travelers and teachers and making this trip the amazing experience that it was! I know I will never forget the memories contained in these past few weeks!
Au Revoir / Do Widzenia / Auf Wiedersehen / Goodbye!