Berlin: Dealing with a Nazi Past

It was incredibly interesting to see the way that Germany wrestles with its past regarding World War II. Despite being the main perpetrators of the atrocities of World War II, I was left with a feeling of appreciation for how Germany has dealt with the war. This was evident all throughout Berlin. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament building. During this tour, our group saw how even the architecture of their parliament and governmental buildings reflects their attempt to deal with WWII and Nazism. Mainly, these features represent their distaste for strong federal power and leadership and their efforts to engage citizens in democracy. I was struck with the openness and accessibility of the Bundestag, which was done as an effort to create more participation in government by German citizens. The architecture of the city, which was almost completely rebuilt after World War II, also has deep metaphorical meaning relating to the war. The Holocaust memorial, a sprawling concrete structure, is placed basically in the center of the city, just down the street from the famous Brandenburg Gate and the United States embassy. Russian memorials can also be found in very central locations in Berlin as well, such as the Russian war memorial in the Tiergarten. This memorial still contains two large Russian tanks overlooking Berlin’s most famous park. Almost 75 years after the conflict ended, Germany still has enemy tanks within its capital city of Berlin.

These structures and memorials are a part of daily life and serve as a reminder to the German people of the consequences of Nazism. The willingness of the German people to take ownership of their faults and work to never forget WWII was incredibly impressive. This was in stark contrast to the way that both Poland and France refuse to adequately deal with their history of collaboration with Nazism and the holocaust. I feel that Germany is a model nation for confronting its troubling past and attempting to prevent injustice from occurring in the future.

Auschwitz and Identity

Judaism is a major part of my life and identity. This is an identity that I wear on my sleeve, devoting much of my time to working with Jewish organizations. My faith is at the core of who I am, which is why, despite having studied the Holocaust extensively, visiting Poland was extremely difficult for me. In Poland, I visited Auschwitz concentration camp for the first time. This devastating experience left me with two large takeaways that kept running through my mind while in the death camp. First, unsurprisingly, I was struck with pain and disgust at the inhumanity that occurred in Auschwitz. No matter how much material one reads on the Holocaust, nothing comes close to conveying the true horrors of the Nazis like seeing this place in person. When studying how the Holocaust happened, we generally discuss it from a “meta-level,” examining the political and societal downfalls that led to the atrocity. However, while physically being at Auschwitz, I was struck with the personal nature of the Holocaust. People perpetrated these crimes directly. The Nazis working at Auschwitz made daily decisions to murder, torture and terrorize. I truly could not understand how human beings could treat other human beings in such a way. This inhumanity was the most disturbing feeling when seeing the camp and the one that was most impactful as well.

My identity has played a large role in my experience on the Ohio State WWII Study Tour. I am a proud American, and many of our sites have only made this grow due to our valiant effort in the war. Surprisingly, despite my disgust and sadness, I felt a similar feeling at Auschwitz as well because of my identity. I am a proud Jew. With my faith, I feel as if I stand alongside the millions of Jews who have been persecuted or killed due to their religion. And yet, there I stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Jew in 2018. The last of those who perpetrated the crimes of the Holocaust are finally dying of old age taking their warped and hateful ideology with them. I am member of a vibrant Jewish community back in the States and that is something I will never let anyone take from me.

Traveling to Poland and Auschwitz was a deeply meaningful experience for me. As a Jew, I was deeply saddened and disturbed. As a Jew, I am determined than ever to preserve my faith as well as protect others in vulnerable communities across the globe.

France: A Distortion of History

In France, it was fascinating and jarring to observe their narrative of World War II. While visiting museums and historic sites in France, I saw a distinct disconnect between the French view of themselves in war time and what American and British history generally portrays. In the World War II classes we took before the study tour, France is considered one of the great losers of the Second World War. The French army, ill equipped and poorly positioned, fell to the German Wehrmacht in only six weeks. The subsequent French government, located in Vichy, consistently collaborated with Nazi Germany throughout the war, especially in the government’s willingness to deport and persecute Jews. While there was a French resistance network in place throughout the war, it did not play significant role in the liberation of all of France.

I sound cynical, because in my opinion what we consistently saw in France was a distortion of the history of World War II. I base this claim according to the sources I read throughout Spring semester even though these sources carry their own mostly pro-American biases as well. The French narrative, incredibly, was one of victory and national triumph. This began at the D-day Museum in Caen, which had a large exhibit displaying walking through the timeline of WWII. This exhibit focused greatly on the French resistance]. The resistance was a small operation mostly concentrated in Paris and representative of neither the larger French government nor people during the war. The museum even went as far as to claim that “because of the success of French resistance, France should be considered a victor in World War II.” It also stated that because of the resistance, “with or without the help of the allies, France would have been liberated.” These outrageous claims have little basis in fact and were shocking to see. The museum also discussed the Holocaust without mentioning the mass deportations of Jews that occurred at the hands of the Vichy government. It was also fascinating to see the way that Charles De Gaulle was regarded and portrayed in France. De Gaulle was lauded as the French leader during and after WWII, given the same stature as Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. This was evident in the placement of his portrait physically among these leaders in multiple museums. Before this study tour, I had never heard the narrative of De Gaulle as a major leader of WWII.

I feel visiting France in person was extremely important in being able to see the discrepancy in narratives regarding the war. This also pushed me to examine my own biases regarding World War II that I carry as both an American and a Jew. I have continued to do this throughout the entire trip. In doing so, this has allowed me to look at World War II in a new way and go deeper into the history.

The People’s War: England’s Wartime Narrative

While in London, it was incredibly clear that the British people have built a collective narrative around World War II. This narrative is one of collective heroism and sacrifice as they refer to the global conflict as “The People’s War.” Each of the sites we visited in London mainly focused their attention on life in Britain, and more specifically London, during the war, rather than the events on the battlefield. As it was presented at these sites, the war was personal for Londoners and deeply affected everyone living there at the time. This contrasts with the way Americans generally study and view the war as a military conflict on another continent. These sites allowed me to further internalize the upshot of our History 3670 class, that World War II was a conflict that enveloped and uprooted all of civilian life in Europe. We began our site visits in London at the Churchill War Room and Museum. The Churchill Museum specifically paid careful attention to tell the story of Winston Churchill in conjunction with the larger narrative of England. This connected Winston Churchill to the British people as a whole; not only was Churchill a great leader, but a uniquely English leader. This is important because as the wartime leader of England in World War II, Churchill represented and carried forward the entire nation. This reinforces “The People’s War” narrative as the museum made frequent mention to his many speeches that rallied the nation.

The Imperial War Museum in London adopted this collective narrative very clearly. The main World War II section of the museum was a collection of artifacts from World War II. Many of these represented what British life was like during the war, such as their collection of children’s gas masks as well as home bomb-preparation items. This also included a section about home life in World War II London. Another notable artifact was a small boat that was used to transport soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuations.

A small boat used by British civilians to assist in the Dunkirk evacuations

There was an extensive focus on the heroism of small boats when retelling the history of the Dunkirk evacuations. When discussing the Blitz and Battle of Britain, the sites we visited focused mainly on the perseverance of Londoners, rather than then skill of RAF pilots. These distinct focuses reinforce the narrative of “The People’s War,” as heroic everyday citizens saved lives and helped the war effort. With a conflict so personal to the British, especially those in London, it was incredibly interesting to see the way this shaped the way they tell its history.