Taking Full Responsibility

Acknowledging and learning from mistakes is no easy task even in everyday life. The German people are faced with recognizing how they were a part of one of the most evil and violent regimes the world has ever known, a role in which they whole-heartedly accept. The German National Museum, the Wannsee House, the Topography of Terror Documentation Center, and other sites and museums provide evidence that the German people seek to admit total responsibility for the actions of Nazi Germany. Endless paragraphs of text, factual documentation, and displays fill these museums, no narrative or excuses present in any way.

The German National Museum gives an excellent exhibit on the Weimar Republic, Germany’s democratic government in the inter-war period, and the conditions that allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to rise to power. The Germans are not deceiving on the support they held for Hitler, one quote from the German Resistance Memorial Center states, “Most Germans welcomed the new authorities and their politics. Only a minority mounted resistance…” The same museum also maintains that the Nazis were the aggressors during the war, definitively explaining that the Second World War began when Germany invaded Poland. A quote from the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, holds the same sentiment by asserting, “The Second World War unleashed by the German Reich claims over 50 million lives.”

The exhibits at the Wannsee House continue to refute the claims of Holocaust deniers by providing the document formed there on January 20, 1942 surrounding the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Translations in multiple languages give readers the opportunity to digest the rhetoric that Reinhard Heydrich and other Nazi officials created when determining the fate of all European Jews. Further displays give evidence of how this plan was put into action and the end result of its implementation – the extermination of millions of men, women, and children.

Germany explains how many Nazi officials, party members, and war criminals were able to return to everyday life following the war. They also indicate how widespread acceptance of their nation’s past did not arise until later generations of Germans began learning the full truth about the Nazis. Germany today takes full responsibility for their sinister role in this period of history and seek to educate others about it.

Selective Exposure

As I gazed out at the entirety of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, two dominant emotions emerged: desperation and suffering. These sensations can characterize Poland’s national experience throughout much of the 20th century. Most Poles maintained a defying temperament throughout the war, operating one of the largest organized resistance movements of World War II.

Poland has suffered like few nations have in recent memory. When World War I began, the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires still ruled over Poland after partitioning it in the late 18th century. Much of the fighting in the Eastern Front occurred in Polish territory, ravaging the land and unleashing disease and hunger. The Russian and German armies looted and destroyed Polish homes and businesses and deported hundreds of thousands of civilians to labor camps. Over one million Poles died during the First World War. Sadly, worse suffering was yet to come.

Poland regained its independence following World War I and began to rebuild itself during the inter-war period. It only had a brief twenty years, however, before Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded in September 1939. The Third Reich took the Western half of Poland while the Soviet Union laid claim to the Eastern half. The Eastern Front of World War II was located yet again in Poland when Germany and the Soviet Union ended their armistice. Besides the destruction that a combat theater provides, Poland was the site of perhaps the most reprehensible atrocities humanity has ever witnessed. The Nazi series of extermination camps situated on Polish lands, combined with the wanton violence of the Einsatzgruppen, resulted in mass murder on a scale the world had never seen. The Nazis brutally and senselessly killed millions of Poles, both Jews and non-Jews, viewing them as subhuman. As the Soviet Union pushed back starting in 1943, destruction continued. Over six million Poles perished during World War II – nearly one-fifth of its entire population; over 90% of these deaths were non-military.

After the Second World War, Poland, despite all of its suffering, did not regain its independence. The Soviet Union continued to imprison, deport, and execute Poles as they established a Communist government that joined their bloc of nations. Today the Polish claim national innocence during the Second World War, maintaining that they played no part in the Holocaust or other tragedies. That is simply not true, as there are examples of Polish groups murdering and maiming Jews. While Poland should take responsibility and acknowledge their actions, it is easy for us to urge them to do so. Americans’ knowledge of Polish history is very limited, and we are privileged in having not experienced the unspeakable tragedies the Polish endured throughout the 20th century. We tend to overlook the courage and resiliency of the Poles and their resistance movements and fail to recognize their suffering through our own biased lens.

A Different Trip Abroad

Seventy-five years ago, American men took a different trip abroad than I. We both experienced the towering cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, the immense stretches of Omaha Beach, and the thick vegetation of Normandy’s terrain, but we did so from vastly different viewpoints and circumstances.

I approached Pointe du Hoc from the rear, navigating the German bunkers and Allied bomb craters, the wind being the only resistance in sight. I quickly realized that the cliffs were taller than I ever imagined, extending one hundred feet up from the water’s edge. The 2nd and 5th Army Rangers were tasked with scaling these cliffs and taking German artillery positions at the top so that they could not be used against Operation Overlord landings.

The cliffs of Pointe du Hoc

The expansiveness of Omaha Beach

The incomprehensible destruction that lined Omaha Beach became painfully easier to picture. A seemingly unending beach extended for miles and stretched a few hundred yards from surf to land. Omaha, minus the German obstacles, looked as flat as it probably did back in 1944; the Allied preparatory bombing missed its mark entirely leaving no craters for American troops to take cover in. Thousands of American soldiers lost their lives storming the beach, their bodies and equipment stretching the coastline.

The thick Normandy bocage envelops roads like this one

Encountering the bocage for myself – thick, overgrown shrubs with tangled root systems – confirmed how the Germans were able to provide such formidable resistance to the American advance. These networks of dense plants lined the side of roads, confused GIs with their maze-like configuration, and supplied the Germans with perfect places for hidden defensive positions.

I quickly became overwhelmed with admiration and sadness when visiting the Normandy American Cemetery. Nearly 10,000 crosses dotted the stretch of land in perfect formation, each cross representing an American serviceman who made the ultimate sacrifice. I realized that many of the men in this cemetery were my age or younger and died fighting in a struggle that many felt they did not belong in. However, these men went on and climbed one hundred feet in the air, ran straight into German machine gun fire, and navigated unfamiliar land with a concealed enemy. The cliffs, beaches, and terrain provided me with a sobering understanding of the grim reality that American servicemen faced in Normandy and more appreciation for the surely impossible tasks they accomplished.

Only a small section of the Normandy American Cemetery

The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets

Perhaps a vibrant society can be interpreted as a positive outcome from Britain’s imperialist past. Former colonies provide the city of London with an identity second to none. Conversations in a collection of different languages surround the bustling streets. Enticing aromas, stemming from the assortment of Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern shops and restaurants, fill the air. Ancient Egyptian statues and sarcophagi, Greek pottery, Roman sculptures, and other nations’ artifacts acquired over time line the British Museum. The British often recognize the expansiveness of their former world dominance, appearing eager to cite that one out of every four persons on earth served the crown in the early 20th century. The Brits fondly advertise and think of the Empire as a period of British preeminence without taking into account the evils of imperialism.

Some museums and sites give credit to former colonies for their aid in maintaining and extending Britain’s success and prestige. The Imperial War Museum acknowledges India’s, Africa’s, and other colonies’ contributions of both manpower and resources in both World Wars. While the British recognize these additions to the Empire, they fail to grasp that their status was built on the forcible taking of land and the exploitation of other people. The appearance of one big happy empire rings hollow; it is foolish to think that colonial residents eagerly left their homes and families to fight and die in a far-off land “for king and country.” The British Empire’s presence and influence remains evident when observing the national character of Britain today. However, it remains to be seen if they will change the presentation of their history and explain how they achieved this rich culture.