A+ in Productivity

From its prevalent street art to booming businesses, the city of Berlin is a modern haven amidst the antiquated, historic cities of central Europe. Additionally, Berlin has a strong tie to its history, and the city’s character is built around that connection. Out of the four countries we visited, Germany was the most adamant about building its present and future on the lessons learned from the past. This ideology is evident in how Germany deals with its turbulent past with complete openness; the country does not ignore the messiness and does not try to overshadow it with the seemingly cleaner parts of their history. Instead, Germany faces the facts straight on.

The country has achieved a level of transparency in dealing with their history that translates into the transparency they keep with their government. Our visit to the Reichstag was my favorite thing we did in Berlin and one of my favorite things we have done over the past month because the building so clearly illustrated the transparency between the state and its people in its architecture and symbolism. As a Reichstag worker took us around the building, the symbolism became more and more evident. The most striking feature for me was in the main hall where parliament meets. On the second level of this hall is where the media and citizens can sit-in on meetings, and, as with most things in the building, this setup has symbolism. Traditionally, the boss sits above the rest of the people, so when the citizens sit above parliament, they are meant to be watching and keeping the government in line. This symbolic feature of the Reichstag is one of many features that utilize the events of the past to direct the course of the future.

While I could clearly see the history of the war in every country, Germany by far was the most productive with their history. There are elements around the city that remind residents and visitors alike of the events of WWII, but the city does more than just remember the events; they build this history into their future, fostering a contemporary culture of remembrance and constructiveness.

American Pride, Privilege, and Guilt

I thought I had a grasp on WWII knowledge before coming to Europe, but I never knew how sheltered I was from the pain of the war until I came to Europe and saw the destruction war bestows upon a country and its people. I felt the memory of the “People’s War” in the London culture, and I walked the beaches of Normandy where so many soldiers lost their lives, but Poland was where I felt the pain of war the most. While walking the streets of Krakow, I kept thinking about how Poland experienced the blunt force of war from beginning to end, and I felt disconnected from the history; I found it difficult to digest the information and to appreciate the history because I actually felt guilty for being an American in this situation.

To the United States, WWII is a very different story than it is to the rest of the world. Our hardships came from losing loved ones to the war and distributing rations among our families. Conversely, countries like Poland were torn apart. Poland faced the wrath of Nazi Germany from the beginning and is still greatly affected by the war today. While combing through old postcards at the market in the main square, the vendor began chatting with me in broken English. Adamant on selling me a postcard, he described each one in full detail identifying them either as “before-the-war” or “after-the-war” postcards no matter what subject the picture was. In that moment, I could see just how much WWII really shaped the way Poland is today.

I have had the privilege of learning about WWII from a distance. Traveling to the landscapes where the war took place was more of an adventure than anything else to me. However, my time in Poland aggravated that mindset. I began to feel guilty because, as an American, I had the privilege to traipse through these cities, going from museum to museum knowing my home and my life have been largely untouched by the war while so many people here still ache from the memory. There is no way for me to change nor relinquish this privilege, but I can change how I move forward with this trip and in my historical studies. From my experiences in Poland as an American, I realized that recognizing perspective and exercising empathy are powerful tools in both historical appreciation and how we live our daily lives.

A Historian’s Perspective

Our time in Bayeux, France was a reflective experience. If you take twenty-four history nerds to half a dozen museums and then deposit them in a quaint, Wi-Fi-deficient town, reflective commentary on their experiences is inevitable. The invasion beaches were sobering; the American Cemetery was numbing, but the museums were invigorating. Our museum visits sparked discussions from hushed exchanges in the museums’ dimly lit corners to fiery debates in the park over our cheese-and-baguette picnics.

Our first stop on our Normandy tour was at the Caen Memorial Museum, and Mary introduced the site with her report on the citizens’ experiences in Caen during the Normandy invasion. Additionally, she discussed the museum design, specifically the initial spiral ramp that takes visitors through the interwar period representing the deterioration of the political climate during this time. The design pushes visitors from the bottom of the spiral into a gripping film exhibiting the fall of France. However, the film took a different approach to the capitulation than what I learned this past semester. Instead of discussing France’s own faults in the defeat, the intentional, strategic placement and language of the video removes French responsibility in the defeat and paints the country as a victim of a historical oddity instead. While watching this film, I began to question how the museum presented this information and how I was absorbing the information.

My suspicions elevated as I continued through the museum; I started searching for biases, and they were prevalent. The exhibits suggested that France played a much larger, useful role in the war than the material I studied this semester suggested. While I was scrutinizing every word and finding “mistakes” in the way France was presenting its own history, I realized this problem was not unique to the French: there were certainly biases in England, and I expect Poland and Germany to have biases as well. I also realized that if I could recognize these national biases in France, I need to reconsider how I so obediently absorb the history of my own country without questioning and challenging its presentation.

After coming to this realization, I stepped back from scrutinizing every word in the Caen Memorial Museum and focused more on the overall historical presentation. France was simply qualifying their strengths in moments of immense weakness; this trait is certainly not unique to the French. Biases are inevitable, but historians should not ignore biases; they need to recognize those biases and how our perceptions of the past are shaped by them.

Rising from the Ashes

My favorite moment in London actually came out of a time-crunching, anxiety ridden search for food. The evening of May 11th, I found myself in a group of seven scurrying along the streets of London to grab a quick bite to eat before seeing As You Like It in William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I learned from my prior adventures in Dublin that the best sights within a city are those you happen to stumble upon when exploring the streets, but the only discovery on my mind at this moment was dinner; my eyes were set only on food and getting to the show on time. While we hurried past St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I had explored the previous day, a member of our group pointed out a statue on the south side of the cathedral. Our curiosity got the better of our stomachs, and we made a quick stop to investigate further. What caught my eye first was the profile of a man with his arms thrown up and pointing at St. Paul’s, and I knew instantly this statue was a memorial for the Blitz. As my eyes followed the man’s fingers to the cathedral, the famous image of St. Paul’s standing strong amid the congesting smoke from German bombing consumed my mind and the meaning of the simple figure went from modest to profound in my mind.

I discovered several facts that help construct a fascinating narrative and relationship between the memorial and the cathedral. The structure’s official name is the National Firefighters Memorial, and it was built to commemorate those firefighters who lost their lives during the Blitz but now stands as a memorial to all firefighters who have lost their lives in the United Kingdom. The standing Fire Officer clearly points to St. Paul’s, but he more specifically indicates the phoenix on the front of the cathedral with the Latin inscription “resurgam” or, in English, “again.” The phoenix and Latin inscription combination suggests that no matter what obstacle London will rise from the ashes again. In the context of the Blitz, the narrative demonstrates the resilience of London and its people.

The British people felt the pain of World War II more than any prior war in their strong nation’s history. No longer was the fighting contained to a distant battlefield experienced only by those willing and able to fight for his or her country; World War II brought the fight home. The war affected the people, thus emerging as the “People’s War”; evidence of the “People’s War” in Great Britain is scattered around the country’s capital in notable, substantial monuments but is also found in smaller, less recognizable structures along the streets such as the National Firefighters Memorial. The vast presence of WWII memorials scattered throughout London demonstrates the immense reach of the war on the people of Britain.

When I walk around Washington D.C., I feel patriotism in independence and freedom, but when I meandered the streets of London, I felt the resilience and perseverance of London and its history. This fundamental aspect of British national identity is rooted in an extensive history of triumph and defeat, but it was largely altered and shaped in the modern world by the “People’s War” from World War II.