The German Parliament Building, 1933 to Now

The Reichstag building from the front

Touring Germany’s Bundestag was one of my favorite parts our trip to Berlin.  As a political science and history double major, I was thrilled to learn about the story of the building itself during World War II and the Cold War in addition to current parliamentary tensions.  The building itself was key to the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s.  As the Nazis gained seats in the Reichstag (the name for the German parliament at the time), they fought for absolute power, led by Adolph Hitler, who had been appointed chancellor in January 1933.  The Reichstag building caught fire in February, and the Nazis blamed their political opponents for the destruction.

The Reichstag building

They quickly used this as an excuse to declare a military state of emergency and imprison or exile all of the legitimate threats to their political power in the Reichstag. This was the beginning of the decline of German democracy and of Hitler’s tyrannical rule in Germany.



The mirrored cone as seen from the dome

The current state of the Reichstag building is less depressing than this history might suggest.  The Bundestag (the current name for German parliament) meets in the large central room, which is open to visitors and is apparently the most visited parliamentary meeting space in the world.  The building’s renovated architecture is attractive and environmentally friendly.  The ceiling in the parliament room is made of glass, and there is a mirrored cone descending from the dome above the Bundestag’s meeting room that brings sunlight down into the space, reducing electric lighting needs.  We got to tour the massive glass dome on top of the building, which provided for excellent views of the city and a better appreciation for Germany’s political past, as it was filled with an exhibit on the history of the Reichstag building.

The view from one part of the ceiling dome








The Bundestag’s meeting room – the chairs are “Bundestag bl

Our tour guide was kind enough to tell us about the current state of affairs in the Bundestag, which had just shifted the day before due to the elections that weekend.  Across Europe and in Germany in particular, elections are revealing that people want political representation that is further from the middle of the political spectrum than in recent years.  The far right and left-wing parties are gaining more seats than they have historically, which is evidence of how quickly people have forgotten the detrimental impacts of Nazi and Soviet rule in Germany.  In studying politics, I’ve learned that modern democratic governments tend to sway from right to left, from centrist to extreme, as people tend to dislike whatever representation they have and desire change.  While I do not have the solution to this problem, I do think that it is important to remember the lessons of history before the political pendulum swings too far in any one direction and derails democracy as we know it.

The Bundestag logo – a smiling eagle

Remembering the Holocaust: An International Responsibility

Travelling through three different countries in two weeks required a lot of grit and stamina, but it also gave me the opportunity to compare a few different cities, modes of transportation, and cultures.  It allowed me to view and compare many different museums as well, and I particularly focused on the strategies different nations used to recount the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII.  The British Imperial War Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum in France, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland each addressed the tragic history in slightly different ways depending on their proximity to the events and their perceived audience.

The Imperial War Museum offered the English perspective on the events of World War II and included a section on the Holocaust that was surprisingly larger than any other portion of the museum. This museum reminded me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in that it provided considerable background about German history and Hitler’s rise to power before describing the different groups who were persecuted over time and the terrible fates these groups met either in civil society or  Nazi camps.  The material was engaging and offered a general idea of the experience of the victims, but the museum was clearly designed for people who had no background in studying the Holocaust and focused less on individual towns and people than on big picture statistics and ideas.

The French exhibit on the Holocaust in the Caen Memorial Museum was more specific and personalized than the exhibit in England was.  It offered less general background information and told many individual stories instead, making the history feel closer to home.  This is likely because the curators assumed prior knowledge of the Holocaust from the museum’s visitors.  France was occupied by the Nazis during the war, and the population was affected by deportations firsthand – presumably this history is taught to new generations in schools and through family memories.  The exhibit is also within the larger WWII exhibit in the museum, rather than having its own unique section, implying that France remembers the Holocaust as an integral part of the  war, as opposed to a separate but parallel part of world history.  This museum was more emotional than the British museum  because it was more personalized, and it still included a lot of important information about different people who were brutalized and the various methods the Nazis used in their war for “racial purity.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum solely revolved around the evils that occurred at the infamous death camp, and while this museum’s focus was incredibly narrow, it was by far the most heartbreaking.  Poland sponsored this state museum to allow visitors to get a glimpse into the terrible conditions that people were forced to live and work under in the concentration camp.  We were able to see where over one million people lived, worked and were killed, whether passively,  from starvation or illness for example, or actively, by torture, gassing, hanging, or any number of other cruel and unusual methods.  Walking through Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the earth itself felt calm, and I could not reconcile how the quiet area once held embodiment of human misery and evil.

The panels and tour guide were informative about the events that had occurred there, but the energy of the place, and especially the exhibits that had been set up housing the detritus left behind after the evacuation of the camp, were more telling of what had happened than any words could ever be.  A volume of suitcases, children’s clothing, prayer shawls, hygiene products, crutches and artificial limbs, and even human hair were displayed throughout the old barracks in Auschwitz I. These exhibits all spoke to the magnitude of  barbarity at Auschwitz and the sheer waste of life.

Seeing just a fraction of the  worldly possessions a few victims left behind helped me imagine the camp’s enormity.   What would have happened if those people had lived and had children? What if everyone had been allowed to work, rather than most people being systematically killed upon arrival?  So many preferable different outcomes spiraled through my head, and this was just one camp.  What about the other camps, and the ghettos, and the villages overrun by Nazis?  The mix of anger and despair and hopelessness I felt was almost unbearable, and while this museum had the  fewest words dedicated to explaining the details of the Holocaust, the remains of the abandoned camp system were enough to make me understand and loath the truth of the mass murder more than I ever had before.

Each museum was key in helping its respective audience better understand the terrible truth of the Holocaust.  Moving closer to the largest site of mass murder with each new city allowed me to better understand how the international community differs in its attempts to guarantee remembrance of the Holocaust.  It is essential to ensure that people never forget what happened to the Nazis targets of cruelty, for those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it as they say, and museums like the ones we visited help prevent people from denying or downplaying the traumatic events of the Holocaust.

Tension Between Mourning and Memorialization

The British Cemetery at Bayeux (photo by Ian Mintz)

Some of the most emotional sites that we visited in France were the British, American, and German cemeteries for those lost in World War II.  The differences in the designs of the cemeteries revealed a lot about the intent of the builders and the nations that commissioned them.  The British cemetery was made up of thousands of personalized headstones for soldiers who hailed from all corners of the British Empire and died in France.  Each headstone included information about where the soldier was from, what unit he served in, when he was born, and when he died.  There was also an individualized quote from family members, friends, or the military if the soldier had no close connections.  The British cemetery felt incredibly personalized and seemed to be a place of mourning both for the nation as a whole and individual families of soldiers who had been laid to rest there.

The American and German cemeteries were much more uniform than the British cemetery.  While the British cemetery allowed

Max D. Clark’s grave, where I had the honor of planting an Ohio State flag alongside my roommate and friend Ashton Cole

unique inscriptions on the headstones, the American and German cemeteries included only standardized information on the largely identical grave markers of the soldiers buried there.  The American graves were labeled only with the soldier’s name, regiment, state of enlistment, and date of death.  Each gravestone was either a cross, if the soldier identified as Christian or Protestant, or a Star of David, if the soldier identified as Jewish (these were the only three choices of religion). The German cemetery had only small square grave markers laying flat on the earth that simply dictated the soldier’s name and dates of birth and death.  These less personal, more standardized  tombstones made the American and German cemeteries feel more like wartime monuments than the final resting place of people’s loved ones.

Overall, I think the intended function of the British cemetery as opposed to those of the American and German cemeteries are different.  British families were and are more likely to visit their nation’s cemetery and mourn those they lost in France due to their proximity to northern France, so the British cemetery was designed to be more welcoming and personal, while still retaining a militaristic dignity.  The British remember World War II as the “People’s War”, one in which each person’s sacrifice mattered, which is reflected in the design of their cemetery.

The American Cemetery at Normandy

American families were and are less able to visit the cemetery frequently, and even if they do make the pilgrimage to their loved one’s burial site, the cemetery workers remove anything placed at the headstones once a week to maintain the graves’ neat and uniform appearance.  It seems as if the American cemetery therefore was designed more as a military monument for the nation, rather than a place for mourning a family member or friend.  Instead of treating each soldier as an individual, the Americans chose to remember its lost military members en masse.  This layout seems to speak more to American military worship than to the supposed passion for individualism that the United States claimed made it superior to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The German cemetery is similarly uniform, as German culture is historically militaristic, and the French government likely did not feel compelled at the time to allow Germany to represent its fallen soldiers as anything more than that –

soldiers.  Remembering them as people who were loved and died for a lost cause would have been more painful for both nations.  Germany struggled to cope with the loss of the war and another generation of men.  Its simple cemetery reflects the nations destroyed hopes for greatness while maintaining the need to remember each soldier, as many a grave was inscribed with “Ein Deutscher Soldat” – a German soldier, anonymous in death but still worth memorializing.

Using these cemeteries as primary sources that provide insight into the objectives of each nation allowed me to better speculate on each nation’s intention for their wartime dead.  Whether they were to be remembered as individuals with complex lives that were tragically cut short or as soldiers honoring their country by giving their lives revealed to me how each country wanted to memorialize the fighting in northern France directly after the war.  While each cemetery was emotional for me to visit – seeing the tombstones of people my age and younger really drove home how terrible the war was – it was also interesting to consider their differences and analyze why each cemetery might be so unique.

“This Is the Room From Which I Will Direct the War”

The Churchill War Rooms, housed beneath the heart of London, England, kicked off the study tour in an exciting and informative way.  As an amateur historian, I am always thrilled to explore and evaluate historical museums, and the setup of the war rooms was both creative and effective.  The museum’s layout was designed to immerse us in the past; the war rooms themselves were essentially untouched from the time that Churchill and his team left at the end of the war.  The narrow hallways and dim lighting made it easy to imagine what it was like to work for hours below ground under tense conditions.  It was harder to picture what it would be like to work 18-hour days consistently, spending only a few hours a day above ground, and sleeping below the earth with the same people I worked with all day.  The lives of Churchill’s team must have been incredibly stressful, but their quotes throughout the exhibits implied that they felt privileged to have had the experience of working under  an amazing leader for a truly noble cause.

An entire portion of the museum is dedicated entirely to Winston Churchill himself.  It explains his impact on the nation during the war and then backtracks to his early life and earlier political career, before pushing ahead to his postwar influence.  The museum toys with the British memory of WWII as the “People’s War”:  the idea that everyone on the home front and those fighting across the world all made sacrifices in order to win the war. While immortalizing Churchill as an incredibly strong leader in a time when the empire and world were in danger of Nazi domination, the museum does not deify the Prime Minister or imply he singlehandedly defeated Hitler’s regime.  It even includes criticism from his peers and everyday British citizens to remind guests that he was a human with flaws, although a remarkable human, nonetheless.  Great Britain lends credit to Churchill as the driving force of the British effort during the war, but the museum does well to also include the stories and opinions of everyday people who experienced the Blitz, rationing, and the otherwise intense working and living conditions of the Second World War.