May 25th– We left Krakow by coach and began our journey to our final destination: Berlin. Krakow to Berlin is a seven-hour drive, so that is not much to report from the bus. Once we arrived in Berlin, we has no time to waste. We quickly hoped on their metro and went down the Brandenburg gate to walk to the Bundestag. The Bundestag is where the German parliament meets, and one of the workers there gave us a guided tour. Our guide was excellent, and seemed to know everything there is no to know about the magnificent building. The most interesting part of the building is its connection to the past—especially WWII. Up until then I had been a little skeptical of how Germany handled the war and their Nazi past, and no country would want to focus on something so awful. However, I was quick to discover that Germany is handling the war in a respectful way, without glorifying it. The Bundestag features testaments to the war, such as the Soviet graffiti that has been left on the walls. The most interesting part of this is that it is in the middle of their workspace, and even the building has been remodeled since then, the German people have decided to preserve it. For me that was the most interesting part, and they preserved something reminding them of their defeat, which is not something most countries would not be willing to do. Nevertheless, what amazed me the most is the monument in the basement, to those elected democratically in Germany. There is even a box for Adolf Hitler, despite what later happened under his rule. The box had to be filled with concrete however as it was kicked in more than once. Despite his box, the years 1941-1945 are missing, as a mark of the dark times and Germany and the utter lack of democracy during those years. The Bundestag is a central building for German democracy, and yet in it sits a reminder of the dark times they once faced, perhaps to remind them of the importance of freedom in society, and what happens when it is taken away. After the tour, we made our way to an authentic German restaurant for some pretzels.
Another day exploring how Germany remembers the war, today focused on the resistance however. Despite the overwhelming Nazi power in Germany, there were resisters, even high in the Nazi ranks. We made our way to the Bendlerbloc-Von Stauffenberg Memorial at the site of the German Resistance Museum to learn about the July 20th, 1944 plot to kill Hitler. On July 20th, 1944, Claus Von Stauffenberg and other high ranking Nazi officials attempted to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. Von Stauffenberg planted the bomb and then returned to Berlin, believing Hitler to be dead when hearing about the explosion later on. However, as all other attempts to kill Hitler has failed in the past, this one had too. Hitler had somehow survived and the resisting officers plan to take power in berlin (Operation Valkyrie) was foiled shortly thereafter. Stauffenberg and those immediately assumed guilty were executed in the courtyard of what is not the museum that night, and a witch-hunt that resulted in the deaths of family members and people unrelated to the attempt followed. The memorial is centered outside the museum, and is in the exact spot the men were shot. The museum is incredibly detailed, and features stories of resisters from all lifestyles. From the church, the army, the public and even the Jewish community, the museum pays tribute to those who lost their lives attempting to stop the Nazi party. It is clear that in constructing these places the German people made no attempts to glorify anything, and the men are by no means made out to be heroes. Rather they are shown as people who just attempted to stop it for a number of reasons, not necessarily because they did not agree with it. After the resistance museum, we walked over to the Soviet memorial in the Tier garden. The memorial is dedicated to the soviets who fought in Berlin, and later captured it. It also serves as an example of Germany’s acceptance of their part in the war, as they allow the victors to construct memorials in the city. We then made our way to the Holocaust memorial that sits right next to the Brandenburg gate. The memorial is made of various sized concrete steels, and is a maze in itself. The intention is to show how fast people disappeared in the war, and how one second someone would be there and they next would be gone without a trace. It is interesting to walk through, and as the ground changes and the steels grow bigger, one gets a sense of uneasiness, such as the Jews in Europe would have felt during the early years of the Nazi regime. It is a simple memorial, but that does not take away from its power. We ended the day at the former Hitler bunker, located about a block from the Holocaust memorial. Rather than preserve it as an exhibit, it is a parking lot. The Germans decided not to preserve it, and one cannot blame them for giving him nothing better—as he did not deserve it. It is a stark contrast to the German resistance museum, and gives a vital look into how the Germans treat the war and their Nazi past, they do not ignore it, but they by no means glorify it or give it no more attention than they feel it deserves.
Today was focused on one of the most complex relationships of the war, the Soviet and Germans. We rode the train out to the Soviet cemetery, which differed from every cemetery we had seen thus far due to its lack of single graves. It is still a powerful place however, as it houses a statue carrying a child and stepping on a swastika while impaling it. It was there we discussed operation Barbarossa, and how it is believed to have ultimately cost Hitler the war. Though originally the Soviets and Germans were “allies” in the sense they had a non-aggression pact, but that soon faltered when Hitler decided to invade Russia. Hence, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler assumed the Soviet Union would fall as Poland had, and decided to invade and conquer planning on a swift victory. He found anything but that with Stalin and the red army. The red army had more people, and despite its initial struggles eventually pushed back the Germans and took Berlin. Hitler’s invasion forced the Soviets into an unlikely alliance with the allies, and thus gave him a two-front war with his enemies coming at him from both sides. The Russians, though eventually successful suffered mass causalities during the war, with both civilians and soldiers dying at unprecedented rates compared to their fellow allies. The Soviet Cemetery houses the remains of about 5,000 soldiers who fought for their freedom and helped win the war, and stands as a testament to the enormous sacrifices Russia made during the war.
After the cometary, we headed to the German-Russian museum, which offers an unprecedented look at the battle in the east and how it truly devastated Russia. The museum focuses on the Russian civilians, and how the Nazis imprisoned many of them in attempts to end communism. The museum is very Russian- centric however, and tends to avoid how Stalin treated his own people, but that is a point for another time. Rather it places the blame on the Germans, and how they decimated Russia during their invasion. Overall, it was not my favorite museum, but I left appreciating the sacrifices of the Russian people in order to help the allies win the war.
Our final day in Berlin was spent at the Wannsee house, a spot where it is said that the Final Solution was officially determined. Though there is no definitive proof that this was determined here, it is still an eerie feeling to walk through the place where Hitler and other officials may have decided to murder the 11 million Jewish people living in Germany. The museum is small, but has a grander purpose: the intentionalist v. functionalism debate. The museum takes a intentionalist perspective, and therefore highlights the idea that the mass murder of the European Jews as Hitler’s goal from the beginning. This is highlighted in excerpts from his speeches in the early 1920s which blame the Jews for the loss of WWI, as well as the concise timeline showing the rise of fascism and the ultimate creation of “death factories” for the Jews. This view is something that can be ignored, however it is not the only explanation behind what ultimately became the final solution. There is also the functionalist view, which is the idea that the final solution came about after a series of failures by the Nazi regime and was not the original goal, but the reaction to what they faced as they attempted to answer the so-called “Jewish question”. I personally believe neither is right over the other, and when one looks at the final solution there are elements of both theories, and what should be focused on the is systematic murder of 6 million people. The regime had the goal of ridding Europe of the Jewish people from the start, but whether they had the goal of murdering all of them is unclear. Making it seem to be the result of troubles normalizes it in a sense, as it makes it seem that they would not have turned to this had things worked out. However, this cannot be normalized; it must be treated as abnormal so that it does not happen again. What must come out the debate is that people died, and no matter what ultimately determined their fate, they must not be ignored or become simply the byproduct of theories.
On a lighter note, our final stop in Berlin was the Olympic stadium. Having never seen an Olympic stadium before, I could not help but smile knowing the incredible events that happened there. Including the world record and full gold medals earned there by fellow Buckeye—Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens is a personal idol of mine as I also run, and his performance at these Olympics is nothing short of legendary. Despite Hitler’s racist regime watching, Owens went on to win four gold medals and only annoy Hitler, as he was proved wrong. Seeing where Jesse Owens once ran was nothing short of incredible, and knowing he shared my passion is what makes him someone worth looking up to for me. I took quite a few pictures with his sign, in starting race position of course.
After our day out, we reconvened for our final group dinner. It was full of German food, beer, and many laughs as we reflected on all we had learned—and the bonds we had forged throughout the semester. It amazes me how vibrant Berlin is, for a city divided just under 30 years ago. It is diverse, it is colorful, and yet it is still healing. Germany has by no means had an easy past, and its presentation of that blew me away. They accept responsibility for what they did, and they own their history in effort to teach others. Berlin holds years of history. From Soviet graffiti to the Berlin wall, it stands as a testament of the ability of people to bounce back from bad times, and even though Germany is still a country healing from its deep wounds, it is a country that has managed to showcase both the worst of humanity, and even the good as they attempt to right their wrongs and open their past to educate the world—no matter how painful it is.
This trip has brought me new insight into the war, and how it is treated in a global context. I have learned about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Though I may be leaving where it happened, I can now understand why it has such a global impact, and why is it still studied even today. It was a truly incredible experience, and I cannot begin to describe how this trip has affected me in ways I have not seen yet. Not only has it given me 22 new friendships, but it has made a better historian—and that is truly a gift in itself.