Berlin: Remembering the Facts

After bopping around Poland for a few days, the comrades and myself then travelled to Berlin on May 26th. The historical journey leading up to our arrival in Berlin really set the stage for the sites and museums that we visited there. In London, the history of WWII was portrayed very much the same as it is in America, as this history was written by the victors. In France and then Poland, that history became a little bit different, coming from the perspectives of two nations that were occupied by Nazi Germany. After visiting Poland, where the people seemed very much in denial of their own role in the Holocaust and World War II, Berlin felt like a breath of fresh air. However, this feeling was short lived.

At first, it felt as though the German portrayal of the history of World War II aligned almost exactly with what we learned in our Spring studies of the topic. But then the closer we read into the information presented to us, it became clear that something was missing. The German presentation of World War II is very matter-of-fact. Every museum that we visited seemed to lay out a very objective story, void of emotion, but full of reality. The German Historical Museum was the most notable in this sense. The museum was filled with information about the end of World War I, through the modernization and “Americanization” of Germany in the late 1900’s. However, I felt as though the information was fragmented and sometimes hard to follow. No section about the war seemed to be missing, but the museum did not tell a complete story. It merely presented the facts as though they were sufficient in telling the narrative of Germany during the war. A mere presentation of the facts is definitely not sufficient when telling the story of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. This feeling that something was missing from the narrative also troubled me when we visited the Wannsee House. The exhibition inside did a tremendous job of telling the story of the Third Reich and the top Nazi officials who met there in January 1942. However, even the room that focused specifically on those individuals neglected to explain just how they arrived at the positions that led them to the Wannsee Conference.

The many sites and buildings that we visited in Berlin serve as a reminder, not just to Germany, but to the rest of the world, of the tragic events that occurred there during the 20th century. The German government, down to the reconstruction of the Reichstag building, has put in place many measures that will, hopefully, keep any official from gaining the power to commit such acts again. While the structure of the government is ultimately the path that Hitler used to gain power, it was not the only factor that allowed him to consolidate the Third Reich under his command. What seems to be missing from the German historical record is the political, emotional, and social environment that produced a leader such as Adolf Hitler. These aspects are just as important, if not more so, than the methods Hitler used to gain power. After all, it was the people of Germany, not the structure of the government or the Treaty of Versailles, that produced a leader powerful and depraved enough to begin the Second World War.

A Lingering History

Even though our time in Poland was short, I absolutely fell in love with the city of Krakow. Krakow is a hub for the arts as well as academia, and is a true cultural center in Poland. It has a rich history dating back thousands of years with traditions that have persisted for centuries. Part of Poland’s history has to do with its involvement in World War II. For many Poles, this is a history that they have yet to come to terms with.

Polish history in World War II plays a large role in the contemporary issues surrounding Poland today. Recently, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Many right-wing groups have been pushing back against talk about Polish complicity in the Holocaust ever since the end of the war. This law has become very controversial because it is seen as a Polish attempt to “rewrite history.” One of the major points in the bill that was passed is the banning of reference to Nazi camps, such as Auschwitz, as “Polish death camps.” When we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau on May 24, the importance of what the camps are called seemed to be the most notable issue. Before we even entered the camp, our tour guide made a point to tell us that UNESCO had changed the name of the Camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Nazi German Concentration and Extermination Camp. While changing the name to reflect those who ran the camp seems an innocent measure, changing the name affirms the Polish government in their measures to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It removes the agency of the Poles that lived in the surrounding areas and even worked inside the camp, yet did nothing to help those inside or stop the atrocities from occurring.

This controversial bill passed by the Polish government caused an uproar in the international community, but from our time in Poland, its effects were not as noticeable as I thought they would be. Besides the insistence on calling Auschwitz-Birkenau a Nazi German Camp, the effects of this new bill were not really visible in the day-to-day life we witnessed in Krakow. I expected a bill as divisive as this to produce a visible outcry that we would witness during our time in Poland. The lack of voices publicly speaking out against this issue speaks to the character of Poland as a nation, and their inability to fully deal with their role in the Holocaust. Since the end of World War II, Poland has tiptoed around their own complicity in the Nazi crimes committed in occupied Poland. The silence from the public surrounding this issue further shows how the Poles have not yet been able to accept and deal with their own history.

An American in France

Going into France, I knew that being an American would affect the experience I would have there. They speak a different language, one that I have not studied, and while the culture is similar to our own, there are distinct differences in societal norms. Americans often split the check when we go out to eat, which they don’t often do in Europe. In France it was also very apparent to our group that Americans are much louder than the French. Just by talking in our normal volume it felt as though we were disruptive in most of the places that we went. While these difference. They influenced the interactions that I had with the French people. I found myself constantly searching for ways to be less noticeable and stand out less as a “loud American” in public spaces.

Small cultural differences are also noticeable in the way that history is taught and presented in France. As I walked through Les Invalides in Paris and visited the Arromanches 360 Theater in Normandy, I noticed that the “facts” of World War II are presented differently in France than they are in the United States. In particular, I saw this in the way that they portray the involvement of the French in the liberation of France. At the Arromanches 360 Theater it was clear that they viewed, or wanted to show, that the French played a nearly equal role in the Battle of Normandy and the subsequent liberation of Paris. The focus of this video was very much on the French effort during Operation Overlord. The French flag was seen in every part of the video, quite often alongside the British and American flags. Towards the end, the focus of the video turned to the rebuilding of France and their rise out of the ashes of WWII. At Les Invalides these differences became very apparent in the emphasis placed on Charles de Gaulle and his role in the liberation of France. I also noticed that an in depth analysis of Vichy, France was really nowhere to be seen.  In my studies of World War II in America, this emphasis is almost opposite. Vichy, France is seen as a collaborationist state to Nazi Germany, and Charles de Gaulle played a minor role in Operation Overlord and the liberation of France. De Gaulle led the charge to liberate Paris because the Allies were more focused on chasing and defeating the Germans than liberating Paris. At Les Invalides his involvement was presented as though he led the charge into Paris because of his status among the Allied Powers.

My perspective as an American definitely influenced how I saw these differences in the portrayal of the history of WWII. Although the United States joined WWII late, they were one of the Allied Powers and played a major role in Operation Overlord, as well as the subsequent battles and the defeat of Nazi Germany. The French resistance did play a part in the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, which I do not want to undervalue. However, I found it upsetting that they placed their efforts on the same playing field as that of the other major Allied Powers. It seemed to me that they had warped their own history out of pride, and that they wanted to be seen more as victors than as victims. This makes sense because culturally, France is a very proud nation. They are focused on having a cohesive national identity, which could be damaged by looking too far into the involvement of Vichy in the war or being seen as victims of Nazi oppression. When I take a step back from my own national identity, it makes me wonder about the things that I have been taught in school and how the American culture plays a role in how that history is portrayed.

At the cliffs of Arromanches with the remains of Port Winston in the background.

Pride and Resiliency of the British People

During our travels through London, we visited several museums that truly embodied the experience of World War II for the British people. These included the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park. Throughout the past semester we learned a great deal about the pride and resiliency of the British civilians during the war. At the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park, these characteristics became evident in the portrayal of the impact of World War II on everyday people, and how the war changed their lives.

On May 11, we took a train out to Bletchley Park, about a 40-minute ride outside of the city center. Even as we entered the visitors center it was clear that this site would very much illustrate the experiences of British civilians in the war effort. Inside the visitor’s center there was an exhibit with a video about women and the war effort that continually played on a loop. This video almost played like an ad, convincing ordinary citizens of the importance of the role women took on at Bletchley Park. While in actuality it was not an ad, because Bletchley Park was a secret, it still showed the immense pride these women had in the work they were doing to help decode the German Enigma code. After we entered the park we took a guided tour. As our guide, Sheila, led us around the various huts and blocks that comprise Bletchley Park, she explained where many of those who worked at Bletchley came from. Many of them were young women, who had proved to be skilled at solving puzzles and logic problems. These women often came from different social classes, but they came together for a common cause at Bletchley Park. This break down of the social classes was one of the lasting effects of the war effort in Britain. Other individuals were summoned from universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Among those was the famous code breaker, Alan Turing. Most of the individuals working at Bletchley Park were civilians and had no military experience. This really helped emphasized the “total war” aspects of World War II and showed how each citizen played their part in helping to defeat Nazi Germany.

The next day we travelled to the Imperial War Museum, where this theme of pride and resiliency was evident in the emphasis on the civilian efforts and sacrifices during the war. As I walked into the museum, it seemed that it would only be about the military efforts; the very first exhibits on the ground floor were V1 and V2 rockets. However, as we explored the museum, it became clear that the impact of the war on everyday citizens was embedded deep into each aspect of the story the museum had to tell. In the World War II exhibit, I specifically remember a case containing the arm bands of the various civil servant units.  Along with displays such as this, the museum had an entire section dedicated to the “People’s War.” This exhibit followed the story of one family who lived in London during the Blitz and clearly portrayed their resiliency in maintaining their daily lives during the bombings of 1939-1940. This emphasis on the stories of individuals rather than of militaries is a clear theme in British history. While we learned much about the pride and resiliency of the British people in class, it is very different to see how it is portrayed by the people that those events actually affected. From museum’s like Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum, it is clear that Britain places great importance on more than just the history of their military during World War II. The sacrifices and heroism of the everyday Brit have a special place in the history of Allied victory in World War II.

Armbands and hats of the British civil service units – taken at the Imperial War Museum.