Heat of Berlin

Going into Berlin, I was more conscious about the historical aspect of the trip than I was in any of the other countries I went to. What I mean is that for the other countries I felt like I could speak more freely on historical matters of the war but in Berlin I thought I would have to watch how I say things especially if I was talking about Nazis. When walking through the museums such as the Topography of Terror Museum, I thought that I would see some slightly skewed perspective of the war however, out of all the countries I went to the German perspective of the war was the closest to how I have learned the war through school. The Germans were straight to the point and very direct when talking about the past. They didn’t put the blame on anyone else but themselves. The Germans realize that they are the ones that caused the war which gives me a great amount of respect towards the German population.

The Topography of Terror Museum is a building where the Nazi government offices were. I couldn’t wrap my mind around walking into a building where some of the most ruthless people walked. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting when walking into this museum. How were the Germans going to portray their own people who oversaw killing millions? I was surprisingly shocked. I noticed that the articles and pictures were direct and gave more detail than I was expecting. I learned more about these people than I ever have before. This museum went into depth and detail about all their lives. Not only give me an insight to how they were placed in the powerful position they were given but I learned about what they did during their time in the Nazi regime and what happened to them after the war. I was in awe of the German population because they probably have some type of guilt being from the same culture that caused World War II but instead they told the war exactly how it happened. The Germans didn’t try to cover anything up or skew the perspectives at all. They told the war exactly how it happened which is admirable.

I think as an American, I have a victor’s perspective. Once we entered the war, that’s when the tide changed in the European front. Going to Germany was the first time, I was in the presence of a country where they were the ones defeated and destroyed. I think that the Germans have done and will do everything in their power to never let that happen again and I was able to see the changes when walking through the Reichstag building. They are inclusive and accommodating to everyone. They have a parliamentary system which divides governmental powers, they have open clear walls and open spaces which helps the deaf community and they also have brail for the blind. It was truly a wonderful experience to walk through and see how the Germans are taking the lessons from the past and making changes to improve the future.

Contrasting Perspectives

Staying in France opened my eyes to how perspective plays a role in remembering the war. I have learned about World War II in a way that I thought was universal; I have discovered that is not the case. I have studied the history of World War II all the way through high school and taken three college classes for my own interest, and each class was generally about the same. I started out by learning just the most basic parts of the war. I learned generally about battles and that was the extent of it. As I got older it became more specific, politics became more central and the approach more detailed. The way that I viewed not only the war but America was challenged during my time in France. I began to think about the role politics play a role in how things are taught and that just because I was taught something my entire life doesn’t mean it is correct. There is always more than one perspective to events.

When I went to the Arromanche’s 360 Theater, a 15-20-minute video showed the Battle of Normandy from a French perspective. I had not realized that I will probably see different perspectives of the war. We learned about the French perspective in class but it is one thing to read it and another to witness it.  At one point in this film showed, a map of France with flags of the invading and occupied countries and their movements as the battle progressed. The French flag was included in the invasion. When the Allies were surrounding Paris, the French flag was shown to be the first one advancing. Talking about the Battle of Normandy this past semester, we focused on Omaha and Utah Beach invasions. I never questioned learning more about these invasions than the others because I knew that these invasions were focused on because they were the bloodiest parts of Normandy. In the past, the French troops wasn’t focused on in the American school systems because they didn’t play a central role in the campaign as the other troops. However, the French made it look like they were more a part of the liberation of France than I have previously learned. The French portrays themselves more as victors than victims and align with the Allies even though they were the ones liberated by the Allies. The pride and ego of the French was seen in every museum that I entered and that portrayed themselves in the war.

In my time in Normandy I had the opportunity to visit German, American and British cemeteries. In each cemetery, you could see how the culture influences the design and structure of each location. The German cemetery was very simple. It had groups of larger headstones and the larger headstones were in groups of five stone crosses. The rest of the graves just had plaques. Then in the center of the cemetery there was a larger cross on a raised mound. In my opinion, this showed the German culture. The stone crosses aren’t the most beautiful things to look at but they do their job in memorializing the men who were lost. The German cemetery was very simple, to the point and very well kept. My dad’s side of the family is heavily German and the German cemeteries that my grandparents are buried in have a similar look to as the German cemetery that I walked through in France which is why I think it fits the culture.

The American cemetery was extremely emotional for me. I was moved by seeing the numbers of the dead in person and knowing that this is only a small portion of those who died in the war. The American cemetery is beautiful, massive and well kept; however, I think it was one of the flashier military cemeteries in Normandy, because I think its was design shows the people look at all our countrymen who died for you. This place overlooks the water and is designed very well, but I think that the intentions behind the design was that “we did this for you and we suffered saving you.”

The British cemetery is not as flashy as the American cemetery but it personalizes the dead soldiers. The British cemetery is medium sized compared to the previous two. There was a plant or flower placed in front of each tombstone and most of them had a personalized statement written on it. The British designed this with the idea of memorializing these men in the most honorable way possible. They personalized it and brought a piece of home to France for the fallen, and it was a truly beautiful sight.

The French film that I watched and the cemeteries that I visited altered my perspective and helped me to accommodate other cultures and histories. Each culture, American, Germans, British and French, all have a different take on the war. It was a check on reality knowing that just because I learn something one way does not mean it is the only way. After visiting all the cemeteries, I could glimpse how each culture represented the war and how they honor their fallen. By doing this, I can get a better outlook of the war. This will allow my perspective and opinions on the war to grow more nuance over time.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Poland was a very fun and interesting place to visit. The main square was filled with their culture. From the designs and patterns, they sell in the stop to the amber jewelry you can get just about everywhere all the way to the authentic polish food of perogies and paczki. There was so much life and excitement on every corner than I turned that I found myself wondering how this was possible. How could this be such a vibrant and full of life city even though so much death and destruction took place just outside of the city? It was confusing to me to take a bus and go to Auschwitz, the more notorious death camp, where a million-people lost their life and then drive into the city and the people aren’t phased by the past.

I felt that everywhere I went in the city there was history staring at me, but the Polish didn’t seem phased by having the most notorious concentration camp just around the corner. They didn’t seem to think about how they were walking where people were taken from their homes and placed in ghettos. Nazis’ marched these streets terrorizing the Jews and that not too long-ago war was happening. That part of the Polish culture stumps me. The Polish history of World War II is extremely emotional and was filled with a lot of hardships. The country of Poland was occupied by the Nazi’s where they committed extremely acts of violence. I don’t understand how they can carry on their everyday lives without constantly thinking about the past.

Do the Polish push these thoughts out of their head? Have they gotten so desensitized to the past that they don’t feel sympathy with the past? I had a Polish tour guide who gives tours in Auschwitz daily. Then there was a second tour guide who translated for the Polish guide at Auschwitz and she was with our class the next at the Schindler’s Museum. The Schindler Museum was away from the main part of town and is a story of saving rather than killing compared to Auschwitz. Honestly, if I didn’t have a guide telling me where it was I would’ve walked right past it. It was just a regular looking building which made me a little sad for how important this site was. The Schindler’s Museum was supposed to honor and memorialize the Jews who were placed in the ghetto and then saved by Oskar Schindler. However, it also discussed the Jews who weren’t saved and perished in concentration camps. The museum did a good job at showing the viewers a glimpse into the past with pictures, audio, physical replicas of the life in the ghetto. I did not think there was enough emphasis on what Schindler did for his workers. I also felt very overwhelmed by the building because there was an excessive amount of reading which to me takes away some of the site. When I am spending all my time reading, I am not considering of where I am. I was in Oskar Schindler’s office, walking the same halls that he walked. I was so focused and curious about the readings I forgot to be mindful of where I physically was. The Poles remember the victims through this museum, in my own opinion things could’ve been done differently but either way I was still able to pay my respects to the fallen. The people of Poland are trying to cope, memorialize and honor the victims while trying to live normal lives and that is all we can ask them to do.

British Will

Traveling around London learning and being able to see the sites and history in person, you can really see how the British population embodied the “People’s War.” The locations included Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum really embraced this and I think these places did a good job of showing this not only to someone who loves history but to the people who do not have an extensive knowledge of history. In class, we learned a lot about British pride and resiliency. Not only did Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum embody this but the entire city of London.

Bletchley Park was where the German Enigma Code which happened to play a significant role in winning the war and it was all do to the everyday people working there and the secrets they kept for years after the war. Walking through the working community, I got a good understanding of how this park functioned. This organization grabbed people from all over England. They searched universities, looked for men and women, they were willing to take anyone who seemed qualified. Walking through the grounds, I saw where the women translators worked and where the code breakers worked day and night to break Enigma. In the basement of Block B, there was an exhibit dedicated to Alan Turing. I saw his childhood teddy bear, school notes and books. He was a university mathematician whom Bletchley Park recruited. Turing spent most of his time in Hut 8, which I walked through. I saw his workplace and how he spent his days.  He worked nonstop with a group of other code breakers who, just like him, were everyday people. Turing’s contribution to the war was extremely significant because he cracked the German code which gave the Allies knowledge of German moves. The Allies prepared the troops and counterattack to eventually win the war based on this knowledge, and it was all because of the German translators and code breakers working at Bletchley Park. However, Turing wasn’t the only contribution to Bletchley Park, every single person contributed to the war which is why it played a role in the “People’s War.” Even after the war was over, each worker agreed to keep silent about the work that was being done with Ultra, the German Enigma and the code breaking. Each worker held the secrets of Bletchley Park for over 30 years. Most of the families and friends of these workers didn’t find out they worked at Bletchley Park until the ends of their life. One man in our tour group just recently found out that his mother worked at Bletchley Park. She never told her own son about the work that she did until very late in her life and even when she told him, she didn’t go into details. The man, standing with me, was there to pay his respects to his mother and all the other people who worked so hard for England. The people of Bletchley Park and the families and friends that they touched are all involved with helping the Allies win. The community of Bletchley Park, how they worked together and the secrets they kept are what made this operation successful.

On May 12th the class took a tour of the Imperial War Museum. The second floor was dedicated to World War II. On this floor, I saw how World War II was the “People’s War.” During the Blitz, the average person was the one going out to rescue and help those in need after the bombings. One of the artifacts that really caught my eye was an arm band used by a volunteer firefighter. It was the townspeople going out and helping those in need. They would go and rescue people from the rubble, help seek shelter and give aid with food, water and medical attention. The volunteers, men, women, old and young all pitched in and helped. Most of the men were away in the war and the actual firefighters, medical staff and police were doing what they could. But they couldn’t be everywhere and that’s where the local citizens came into play. There were pictures hung around the second floor of the citizens helping search through bombed buildings to look for missing family members, belongings or just anything that could help. It was really moving to see how everyone pitched in and did anything and everything they possible could to help. The nation’s high spirit and willingness to keep fighting the Allies’ morale up which ultimately lead to the defeat of Germany and a victory for the Allies.