After traversing through the old cities of London, Bayeux, Paris, and Kraków, Berlin’s modernity surprised me. They were forced to rebuild most of their city after the destruction of World War II. With this restoration of Germany, the state had to choose how they wanted to represent their history, all the while proving what they have become. After visiting the German Historical Museum and Reichstag, it’s plain to see that Germany has handled both its history and growth well.
The German Historical Museum impressed me with its objectivity. It was very unbiased, as opposed to the museums in England, France, and Poland – each country presented some favorable twists in their history. The German state presented their part in the war well without shirking any responsibility. I also appreciated that the museum went beyond a mediocre description and explained the reasoning behind most of the events in the war. Along with its objectivity, the German Historical Museum was the most comprehensive collection I’ve seen yet. This museum did not focus solely on its own history, but incorporated how other countries were affected by Germany’s decisions. My research in this class was focused on the Kindertransports – Britain’s effort to save 10,000 Jewish and non-Aryan children from German-occupied areas prior to the outbreak of World War II. I was surprised to see that the German Historical Museum had a detailed exhibit on this topic, when it was only briefly mentioned in one of the museums in Britain. This complete collection of war history reinforces the objectivity of this site and demonstrates how well they are capturing their history.
After all the museums we have been in, we finally toured a contemporary building. We received the pleasure of going into the Reichstag, the location of Germany’s parliament. The lengths the government has gone to avoid past mistakes and to set itself apart from the Third Reich is impressive. Our guide spoke of the meticulous decision-making process to use the former Reichstag as the location of current-day Parliament. Interestingly, the building was decommissioned shortly after Hitler became chancellor because of a fire; thus, the building was never used by Nazis. With this line of thought, the government believed they could use the building without sharing anything with the Third Reich.
Another aspect I found interesting was their hierarchy for police. They have different police for different areas; they have cops specifically for the trains and others for the streets. This is done intentionally so that no one person can have more power than another. I’m impressed by all of the steps the new government has taken to realign itself and prevent something like a Third Reich from forming again. Not only did they incorporate the lessons learned from past mistakes into their government, but they paralleled it by combining old and new architecture. Most of the Reichstag was destroyed by fire and the Soviets, when they occupied that area. Despite the almost total destruction, some areas were left standing and the walls or outside structures were incorporated with the new modern architecture. When the Soviets occupied the Reichstag, they wrote on its walls with either messages or their signatures. Parliament uses it today to remind itself and the country of their rocky history so that no one can forget. These many precautions taken show that the history of Germany still plays into issues and decisions today.
While in Poland, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the hardest site for me thus far. There aren’t words to describe this experience, so forgive my futile attempt to do so. Our visit was broken down into halves – the first half in Auschwitz I and the second half in Birkenau. During our time in Auschwitz, we walked through old barracks that were transformed into the museum. The main focus of the tour of Auschwitz was the exhibits presented; Birkenau’s focus was the site itself. Birkenau was partly intact, with only the crematoriums and half of the barracks destroyed. The walk through this camp was intensely unreal. Standing in the same place that millions stood awaiting their death, walking through the hospital barrack where many knew their end had come, and visiting the crematoria rubble where so many perished hit me in my core. I have studied World War II and the Holocaust since high school, but standing in the same place as the victims of these atrocities made it the most real it’s been thus far.
During last semester, we focused on the Polish claim to innocence concerning the concentration camps. Poland recently passed a law that forbids people from saying “Polish concentration/death camps” or hinting to Polish complicity because they want to ensure everyone knows these camps were German. This law is controversial because the camps were in German-occupied areas at the time and were staffed by mainly Germans. But many Poles also worked there. By making this law, Poland seems to be claiming that they had no part in the persecution of Jews. This is not supported by what we learned this past semester or by our guide in Poland. While we were at Auschwitz, our guide stated that the Poles in the surrounding villages were aware of the camp and that some even worked on the camp complex. I was surprised by her willingness to declare that the Poles had a hand in the camp given the new law.
On the other hand, the exhibits at Auschwitz gave a different impression than our guide. It did not say explicitly that Poles were or were not a part of the persecution and massacre of Jews, but instead focused on Poles being victims. This site was not changed in the last year after this law went into effect. Thus, I think the information in this museum foreshadowed the making of this law and lent a view into the national feeling of innocence and victimization. The makers of this site consistently categorized Poles and Jews that died at Auschwitz separately. This makes me think they wanted to remind the viewer that the non-Jewish Poles were also persecuted. The emphasis on the victimization of non-Jewish Poles reinforces the claim to national innocence. Additionally, I think Poland believes they can claim this innocence because of the recognition and display they provide for the Jews – particularly the recognition of the German role. Poland has come a long way since World War II, but this new law and mindset hinders their forward growth.
Being in France made me feel like I was in a country unlike my own for the first time. In Bayeux, the difficulty resulting from the language barrier shocked me. By the end, I got the hang of it, but the first few days were difficult. I had to guess and hope they weren’t saying anything important. As an American, I ignorantly believed most things would be in English in other countries. Most of the exhibits we visited displayed French commentary with some English descriptions. This left me feeling disconnected from the experience because I didn’t know what they were trying to present with each object. I think this expectation is unique to an American because English is such a universal language. Thus, I assumed that it would be more prevalent in other countries. The realization that a place could be so different from my home sparked a new way of interpreting different cultures.
One thing I have noticed that differs between France and the United States is how we treat spoken language. The French are much quieter than we are. Perhaps traveling in a large group makes a difference, but wherever we go we are the loudest in the room, reaffirming the loud American stereotype one city at a time. It startled me in Bayeux because it’s such a peaceful, country town. I think this can be attributed to a difference in our cultures.
While in France, the stereotype that the French don’t like Americans popped up in my head a couple times. When our group went through security at the Caen museum, the security guard told us that bags of any kind were not allowed – not even purses. This wasn’t a big deal – all of us with a bag returned to the bus and put them in our seats. Once we returned to the security line, a couple in front of us had their bags checked by the same security guard and gained entrance. I ventured that maybe the rule only applied to school groups, but upon entrance to the museum, we saw two French school groups with their purses and backpacks. What I felt to be discrimination shocked me because I have never been discriminated against before for being an American. I encountered discrimination against Americans on a personal level at our hotel in Bayeux. I was talking in the lobby with two other girls at a conversational level when we were shushed by one of the employees. Not only were we shushed, but there were other people in the lobby that were talking at the same level but not reprimanded.
These experiences of discrimination in France have caused me to have a different outlook on France and other countries. Although this effected my time in France, I’m grateful I had this experience because it isn’t something I would experience at home. This is part of experiencing a different country and understanding a new culture. In France, this consisted of understanding French social expectations and how they interact with each other. My experiences did not match up with my expectations but instead taught me the valuable lessons of understanding new cultures and adapting to a new language.
In the five short days we spent in London, we saw it all – The Churchill War Rooms; RAF Bomber Command Memorial; Bletchley Park; Imperial War Museum; plus everything we saw on our own. The Churchill War Rooms had the biggest impact on me. These aligned with much of what we learned in our classes in the spring and reinforced most of the studying put into this subject. The bunker alone, while interesting, was not as informative as the Churchill Museum inside of it. Being in the bunker, below the ground, without daylight, able to see the rough set up inside each room, allowed me to envision the arduous life lived down there. The psychological effect this must have had on the workers is one I cannot comprehend. Although this was Churchill’s bunker, he only stayed in the room below a couple nights, instead choosing to sleep above ground in the same building.
The Churchill Museum reiterated most of what we learned about Churchill and then some, glorifying him in any way they could. As I went through this museum, I had to remind myself of where I was. I had to remember that Churchill was their Prime Minister and their priority is making their significant historical figures representative of their country. After my classes in the spring, I have learned to pay attention to biases in history. While I might have learned that, maybe everyone else in the museum doesn’t know that you don’t take everything at its word. After all, the Churchill War Rooms is one of the branches of the Imperial War Museum (IWM). The IWM has the task of presenting and teaching history to all who go through their museums. As I was surrounded by little, blue shirts of the private elementary aged students, I realized this is their main source of information about Winston Churchill and his war-time rule.
Since the museum was strictly about Churchill and his bunker, it offered a comprehensive viewpoint of his life. With some of the new information I learned about Churchill’s life before the war, things started connecting and more made sense. I never understood why people wouldn’t listen to his warnings about Hitler. After visiting the museum, I learned about his part in the Gallipoli operation. He led an attack that failed horribly because he wasn’t aware of the terrain and planned poorly. This failed attack put a dent in his reputation and made him an unlikely candidate as Prime Minister. This was also why no one listened to him when he was right about Hitler. Additionally, I learned that Churchill tended to change his beliefs and political views depending on political openings. This was something I didn’t catch in my studies in America but find it an important trait to consider. All of this was a good reminder to challenge and expand my area of study and see what might affect someone’s decisions. I am glad London and the Churchill War Rooms were one of our first stops because this reminded me to take a step back and look at the whole picture – from here on until the end of the trip, I can only reap the benefits.