When we arrived at Wannsee, a longtime “getaway lake” for Berliners, I was immediately taken back by how familiar it looked to my ocean-side hometown. Walking along the lake’s edge to hear water gently lapping against the dock, boats clinking against pylons, birds chirping, and a small outboard motor putting across the flat water was reminiscent of Merrick, New York. The place was utterly peaceful it was. Turning away from the lake, I was greeted by a beautiful villa surrounded by bright pink flowers.
It was at this seemingly peaceful location, however, that some of the most sinister documents in human history were created at the Wannsee Conference. On January 20th, 1942, the 90-minute meeting took place, led by Reinhard Heydrich, to define the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” of how to annihilate the Jews. This conference defined “Jewishness” and what it means to be a “mixed blood” German (someone who had one Aryan and one Jewish parent or grandparent, for example), the Jewish demographic within different occupied countries, and how easily those Jewish populations could be dissolved. Most disturbingly, however, was the ambiguity behind how this persecution would be carried out. The documents do not mention the methods for which the “solution” was to be carried out, but do state that mass-deportations to “‘so-called’ ghettos”
should be carried out at once in the occupied territories so as not to let the local populations become “apprehensive.”
The Wannsee Conference Building is today a memorial and museum. Within its walls are a chronological display and explanation of anti-Semitism in Germany dating back to the 18th century as well information on the horrible atrocities and the people who committed them throughout the war. The most striking part of the display, however, is the meticulous use of documents, images, and recordings from the Nazi-era to produce a numb and strictly fact-based museum. In fact, the only touch of a personal narrative was through the explanation of three Jewish families’ stories throughout this period, from Kristallnacht to capitulation.
The displays within this museum and others in Germany are reminiscent of an idea that I have studied in previous classes known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” The process of overcoming guilt with the war is one that Germany has been forced to face. They are stewards to their own history – a national shame that affects the world – and have come leaps and bounds in recognizing the horrible acts of Nazi Germany. Whereas in the past the Nazi atrocities were simply not talked about, they are now displayed to the most minute detail. In fact, it is even illegal in Germany to deny that the Holocaust happened.
These museums also prove that the German narrative of the war has no room for error. No story can be embellished and no experience undermined. In other nations, museum displays presented the historical narrative quite differently. In Paris, France, at the Musée de l’Armée, the war was painted like a story with colorful verbiage inflating several events to mask the blow of defeat. When describing the Battle of France in 1940, the museum said that, “The Maginot Line, even encircled, resisted at every attack and did not capitulate.” Unlike in France, the Germans cannot inflate their war narrative and this shows in the fact that it is displayed in a very impersonal and emotionless manner. Military heroes are few and far between, and the atrocities that were committed can only be depicted as rote fact.