Reckoning With the Past: How Germany, France, and England regard World War II

When visiting the museums of Berlin such as the Topography of Terror, German Resistance, and the Wannsee House, I noticed that Germany took a quite different approach to how they portray the war compared to England or France. All the museums I visited in Germany talked very little about the fighting of the war but focused on Nazi atrocities and the few people who tried to resist. The Topography of Terror Museum was dedicated to the crimes that the Gestapo committed and the condonement of these atrocities by most of the population. Less than 1% of the German population resisted the Nazis, which is surprising both for how open Germany is about admitting this and for how small the figure is considering how cruel the regime was. They do not try to hide their history but rather own up to it to ensure that nothing as awful as the Nazi regime can rise again. 

In the Wannsee House, it is also acknowledged how many of the masterminds behind The Final Solution were never held accountable for their crimes, in yet another example of Germany facing their past. This is much different from the museums of London, which focused more on the battles of the war and the hardships that the British people faced. The French also chose to focus on the fighting in France and their liberation but did not acknowledge their complicity in exporting thousands of Jews to concentration camps. It seems that the Allied nations decided to tell the story of the war in the way they experienced it, with the British focusing more on the battles and the bombings, while the French focused more on occupation and resistance. The Germans, being the aggressors, instead focused more on the atrocities that were committed under the Nazi regime as a way of reckoning with their past.  

I have lots of respect for how Germany has handled their troubled past, as it should be every country’s duty to tell their history as it was, regardless of how awful it may be, to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.  

Looking down the Holocaust Memorial in Central Berlin


A moving quote in the German Resistance Museum

The Depths of Nazi Depravity

Truly little can prepare you for setting foot in Auschwitz. It is hard to connect with statistics, but walking through the very place where over a million people were murdered and seeing the tons of hair taken from the victims to use for fabric or the piles of children’s shoes highlights just how brutal and evil the Nazi regime was. We learned about Auschwitz in preparation for this trip by reading testimonies from prisoners who escaped the camp, but even their brutal attestations paled in comparison to the gravity of being in the camp itself. This was elevated by our tour guide, who explained the awful conditions and violent mistreatment that the prisoners had to endure every day. Each barracks was crowded with hundreds of people, and prisoners could be locked in solitary for weeks for the most minor of infractions. Even though the Nazis tried to hide their crimes by destroying the camp, parts of it survived as a testament to their atrocities. I was surprised to learn that Auschwitz was a series of camps instead of just one. These included Auschwitz I which was the main camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which housed the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau was a massive complex and included the gas chambers and crematoria that became infamous for their implementation of the Final Solution. Walking through one of the surviving gas chambers it is hard to fathom how willing the Nazi regime was to commit genocide. The creation of a complex dedicated solely to the murder of innocent people shows how dangerous indoctrination and totalitarianism can be, and how low humanity can fall.

Looking out at the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau from inside the camp

Caught in the Middle

In preparation for our trip to Europe, we learned about the bombing campaigns the Allies conducted during the war. These included the bombing of railways in France in the weeks before and after the Normandy invasion. These attacks killed thousands of French civilians and destroyed many towns, including Caen. We visited the Caen Memorial Museum, and I was surprised to find little mention of this destruction or the pain it caused the people of Caen. This is even more surprising because one of the main intentions of the museum is to “pay a tribute to the martyred city of the liberation.” The suffering of thousands of French citizens was seemingly overlooked in this museum that was supposed to be dedicated to their memory. The Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux did a better job of capturing the civilian suffering, with multiple captions dedicated to the plight of the people of Normandy. Much of the region was caught in the middle of fighting, and many French civilians suffered in the “Battle of the Hedgerows,” which is acknowledged in the museum. Yet, if these two museums represent the national sentiment, overall, the French seem prepared to overlook the loss of life caused by Allied bombs in the belief that those bombs helped bring about a quicker end to the war. If that is the argument, then it is a questionable one. Strategic bombing proved ineffective in attaining its military goals, and its inaccuracy caused the death of thousands of civilians, which should not have resulted from the actions of their liberators.

Captions in the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux describing the civilian suffering in Caen and Normandy.


Coronation Commotion

The atmosphere around London on the days leading up to the Coronation was one of excitement and bustle. Workers were hard at work setting up massive screens in parks to allow for viewing parties, in anticipation of the thousands of passionate supporters that would arrive to support their king. Safety was clearly a priority for the event, as you could not even step near Buckingham Palace, and many major roads had fences put up along the sidewalks to prepare for the parade. Dozens of police lined every street and landmark in anticipation of the massive crowds. Just about every shop and restaurant window displayed congratulations and commemorations for King Charles III. You couldn’t walk fifty feet without seeing something mentioning the Coronation, whether it be a window, sign, or even bus advertisements. But not everyone was in a festive mood. Walking through the streets of London meant that you were likely to encounter some protestors against the Coronation and the immense costs of the ceremony, which cost over $120 million. Despite this, the vast majority of people were feverish. When I visited Buckingham Palace on May 3, three days before the Coronation, I observed people already camped out along The Mall waiting for a chance to see the soon-to-be king. On the day of the Coronation, I partook in the celebrations by heading to one of the watch parties, and, despite the constant rain, I saw hundreds of supporters who had arrived hours before draped in the Union Jack buzzing to witness this historic event. You could hear the crowd singing the Anthem as it was playing during the procession to the Abbey, and loud cheers all throughout London when Charles III was officially crowned King.

With the intense security, this was as close as you could get to the Palace during the coronation.

Trafalgar Square with fences in preparation for the parade.