Memories of Resistance and Democracy in Postwar Germany

Germany does not shirk from its collective responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust. The German Historical Museum, for example, does not sugarcoat popular support for the Nazi Party during the interwar period. Instead, historians ask how the Nazis obtained power and why they were able to keep it. By answering these difficult questions, the Federal Republic of Germany acknowledges and wrestles with its dark past, which proves that democracy is never guaranteed in our turbulent world but it can rise out of our darkest experiences.

The Topography of Terror Museum documents the rise and ruthlessness of the Nazi Party through propaganda, intimidation, and violence. The steel building stands where the Gestapo Headquarters and Reich Main Security Office once stood. It was here at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse that Gleichschaltung (i.e. the totalitarian process of subjugating every element of society to Adolf Hitler) became a reality. To solidify their grip on power, Nazi brownshirts arrested political opponents in the Reichstag, paraded elected officials through the streets, terrorized German-Jews, and persecuted the professional classes. Under Heinrich Himmler and Reinhart Heydrich, the Reich Main Security Office fused police forces into the ranks of the SS. The Museum includes pictures of Nazi officials alongside walls of text that explain the roles of individuals in Nazi terrorism. The Nazis targeted the upper echelons of German civil society and removed safeguards that should prevent the acceptance of evil regimes and boundless war.

The Bendlerblock Memorial to German Resistance remembers the few with the courage to oppose the Nazi regime in its atmosphere of terror, especially those who sacrificed their lives in the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One could easily miss the unassuming courtyard where firings squads executed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators. The Memorial consists of a stone slab, two copper plaques, and a statue of a naked and bound man. It does not make excuses for the plot’s failure or conjecture about what might have been. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt noted that key leaders of Operation Valkyrie planned to ask for a separate peace as well as other terms to which the Allies would never have agreed. Instead, the Memorial humbly and factually reminds visitors that some paid the ultimate price in defiance of Hitler’s Germany. The Bendlerblock also contains a series of exhibits on resistance from individuals in many segments of German society, including the army, churches, schools, and governments. While resistance to Nazi Germany was anything but widespread, the Bendlerblock Memorial shows that the Nazis failed to eradicate civil society.

After World War II, Germany was realistic about its culpability for the Nazi regime. Unlike postwar France, there were no myths of a vast and powerful resistance. It was undeniable that many contributed to the collapse of the young Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. The Reich Chancellery and Reichstag lay in ruins, and rubble filled the streets of Berlin until 1950. The Führer Bunker where Hitler took his own life is now a parking lot. From ground zero, Germans participated in de-Nazification and formed a new government. After its reunification in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany was – arguably – the most modern democracy in the world. The Bundestag, formerly the Reichstag, reflects postwar Germany’s dark history and impressive progress through its design. I interpreted its open glass top as indicative of the transparency necessary for parliamentary representation. There is preserved graffiti from Soviet soldiers on the walls. Germany is a product of its experiences, and it does not intend for the suffering of its people (esp. victims and resistors) to be in vain. With democracy in crisis across the West, perhaps the future lies in remembering the darkness of Germany’s past alongside the mirrors and light of the Bundestag spire.

The Polish Narrative of World War II

Growing up, I attended St. Adalbert of Berea, the oldest Polish church in Ohio – built brick by brick in 1874. In Berea, Polish-Americans quarried sandstone alongside German and Irish laborers. One cannot blame them for wanting a religious sanctuary from that backbreaking work. They wanted to preserve their history and culture in a nation that sought to assimilate and often exploit them for cheap labor. My great grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American whose family mined coal in Gallitzin, PA before moving to Cleveland. Sergeant Joseph A. Szczelina served his country as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He did his part in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. After the war, he altered the spelling of his last name from Szczelina to Selena. He made that decision because his superiors could not pronounce his name at roll call. From my own heritage, I thought that I understood the relationship between Polish history and identity. My short time in Krakow proved that I still have much to learn.

Once home to Copernicus and Chopin, Krakow was the center of Polish education, culture, and faith for centuries. Be that as it may, I was unprepared for the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica (pictured) and Wawel Cathedral. Unlike the ones I visited in France and Germany, these cathedrals were filled with people. Even on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was evident that religion remains a powerful component of Polish identity.

Throughout the twentieth century, Poland endured cultural and political oppression from neighbors that sought to erase it from the map. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. It was not prepared (and how could it have been) for a two-front war with the most powerful war machines in the world at that time. As a result, historians sometimes diminish or even disparage the role of Poland in the war. However, one should respect the courage of Polish soldiers who scrambled through railway stations to fight a losing battle and partisans who waged guerrilla warfare at great risk to themselves.

After visiting the Oskar Schindler WWII Museum, I found myself empathizing with the Polish wartime experience. When the Wehrmacht first entered Polish villages, it pursued a vicious policy of racial extermination which saw Poles as sub-human. The Schindler Museum stressed that the Nazis deliberately annihilated most of the Polish intelligentsia, including local officials, clergy, businessowners, and intellectuals. They attempted to slaughter anyone capable of criticizing the regime or leading resistance movements. In the end, World War II claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, half of which were Jewish, via starvation, shootings, forced labor, and the death camps. Considering the dual occupation and its aftermath, perhaps no nation in the twentieth century suffered as much as Poland.

It is important to note that native Poles participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, a reality which the Museum failed to address. From class lectures, we know that the anti-Semitic myths of Judeo-Bolshevism and collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus fueled these gruesome beatings. The environment was ripe for these atrocities because of a foreign occupation that encouraged them and eliminated civil society. The SS, for example, executed Soviet collaborators and conducted ruthless reprisals for alleged resistance activities. Nazis manipulated popular frustration with the Soviet regime for their own advantage. Sadly, the historical memory in Poland overlooks these complexities and outlaws discussion of any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

Churches in Krakow are filled with shrines and reliquaries to Pope John Paul II, the pride of Poland who resisted the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a Polish soldier’s in Auschwitz. These figures symbolize Poland’s resilience and spirituality in the world today.

Memories of Mercy and Liberation after D-Day

On the morning of May 16th, I visited a tiny church at Angoville-au-Plain in Normandy, where medics Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore cared for 80 combatants and a child during Operation Overlord. Wright was a paratrooper in the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and an Ohio State Buckeye. By transforming the 900-year-old church into an aid station, Wright and Moore remembered their common humanity. They insisted on tending to both American and German soldiers who checked their weapons at the door. They draped the eglise (i.e. “church” in French) with a Red Cross banner from its steeple, making it neutral territory under the Geneva Convention on Warfare. Although Angoville changed hands several times during the heavy fighting, the medics risked their lives and remained in the church to treat wounded and dying soldiers. At one point, an artillery shell crashed through an aperture in the roof and thudded onto the stone floor. Luckily, it was a dud.

Like the church at Angoville, the crucifix above Gold Beach has palpable religious symbolism. I interpreted it as the redemptive value of suffering for something larger than one’s self.

Near Angoville, the town of Sainte-Mère-Église was an important crossroads in the plan to liberate Northern France. Operation Overlord demanded the capture of key transportation routes between Nazi-occupied Paris and the Cherbourg Peninsula. By capturing the town, American paratroopers prevented German reinforcements and controlled a vital causeway above Utah Beach, one of five Allied landing zones. If they did not secure the causeways leading through the high bluffs, then U.S. troops would have been trapped on the beaches.

Wright and Moore decided to operate out of Angoville because it was located between the heavy fighting at Utah Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église, where medics were sorely needed. They hauled injured combatants in wheel barrows and carried them out of the combat zone and into the sanctuary of the aid station, where the blood of American and German soldiers stained its wooden pews. These bloodstains cannot be washed out and must not be forgotten. They are the price of liberty from tyranny, of free religious expression, of democracy and equal justice under God. Although millions died without knowing the type of world that would be built from the horrors of war, men like Robert Wright eased their journey and lightened their heavy burden by practicing extraordinary works of mercy and compassion in the heat of battle.

Fittingly, Wright was laid to rest in the cemetery outside the church. Dr. Nick Breyfogle planted an OSU flag to commemorate Wright’s legacy as a Buckeye. It was a stirring moment for everyone present.

75 years after D-Day, Angoville remains a beautiful French hamlet of less than 100 residents, and it still memorializes the struggle for liberation. The town’s mayor and his spouse graciously received our large tour group, no doubt larger and louder than the usual foot traffic. At first, he thanked us for coming and highlighted the generosity of Americans in preserving the church as a historical landmark. He went on to express deep concern about future generations forgetting about the history of World War II and repeating the mistakes of past generations. His reception was a touching and inspiring example of French historical memory and its relationship to the United States. Although Angoville was one stop on our long journey, I will never forget my experience there. The church deserves to be visited, because it captures something beautiful, somber, and serene about the Second World War and its legacy today.

Weathering the Blitz: The Importance of Morale to the People’s War

World War II was the greatest conflict in human history by any measure. People experienced it differently based on their nationality and personal background. In England, modern historical memory derives from the concept of a People’s War. This ideological framework holds that all individuals must make sacrifices for the common good during Britain’s darkest hour. The father of the People’s War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the social anxiety and physical destruction that German bombs and rockets unleashed on London. Londoners weathered the Blitz by rationing food and supplies, evacuating children to the countryside, observing blackout conditions, spotting enemy aircraft, taking shelter, keeping calm, fighting fires, and rescuing those trapped in the rubble. It was not simply in the air but in homes and metro stations that the Battle of Britain was truly won. Only the resilient spirit of the British people could overcome Nazi terror and barbarism.

On Westminster Square, the Churchill War Rooms are situated in reinforced concrete bunker, which served as Great Britain’s command and control center for most of the war. Churchill lamented that the Nazis had driven his government underground, because he believed it was symbolic of Hitler’s power over him. Nonetheless, Churchill used the facility for cabinet meetings and wartime strategy. Today, the War Rooms are a public example of the war effort at the highest levels of command. Those commanders and statesmen needed typists, guards, codebreakers and even cooks. To that end, the War Rooms highlight the important contributions that everyday people made to defeat Nazi Germany, because they worked long hours under tight security as the very fate of the world hung in the balance. In the bunker, British citizens worked in stale, smoke-filled rooms, slept in a cramped concrete cellar, and absorbed a minuscule amount of daylight. Even so, I was impressed by the humility of typists and messengers who recalled their experience of the war and claimed to be simply doing their part.

Winston Churchill is enshrined throughout London as a moral leader who personified dogged resistance to German bombardment. To an extent, he certainly did; I for one particularly enjoyed the emphasis on his heroic speeches and witty quips, such as: “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm.” Still, historians should take care not to deify him. Instead, we must unpack his perspective to imitate his statesmanship. From a secure phoneline disguised as a “water closet,” Churchill formed a close relationship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wrestled the U.S. Congress into aiding Great Britain. The famous Map Room, where British officers tracked every theatre of war, exemplifies the global nature of WWII, which could not have been won without help from the Soviet Union as well as current and former British colonies. Additionally, Churchill expected British colonies to carry on the struggle if the mainland were lost. He understood the necessity of waging war with all means at his disposal, because he saw Adolf Hitler as a tyrant and the essence of evil. To Churchill’s credit, the War Rooms note the blood spilled by Commonwealth nations (e.g. India, Australia, Canada…) in the struggle against Axis powers around the world.

Without strong diplomacy, charismatic leadership, and effective air strategy, Great Britain may have succumbed to the Nazis. English historical memory attributes much of this victory to Prime Minister Churchill, but it would be folly to think that it was his alone. He himself believed that the seeds of victory were sown with the bravery of British airmen, the endurance of working-class families, and the selflessness of first responders. “Keep calm and carry on” was the mantra of a time when it took courage to leave for work in the morning or fade into sleep at night. When recalling the Battle of Britain, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of those too often left out of the limelight. We must remember not only the gritty politician whose speeches energized the nation but also those listening on the radio as the bombs erupted around them. Otherwise, the so-called People’s War evaporates into a myth used by the powerful to explain away the suffering of many.