Based on my explorations of museums in both France at Germany, it would appear as if the French are much more evasive about their history than the Germans are. In the Musee D’Armee in Paris, France, an important emphasis was placed on the efforts of Resistance fighters as well as the collaborationist element in Petain’s government. However, the distinction between these two portrayals is the emphasis the French placed upon the specific actions of the Resistance fighters as opposed to those of the collaborators. They had entire sections dedicated to the actions of Free French forces in biding time at the Battle of Dunkirk, harassing the Germans in Normandy, and moving to take Paris. However, when it came to the collaborationists, there were little memorable details other than noting that the Petain government deported Jews and foreigners. This is where the contribution of the German Historical museum came into play.
The national German Historical museum featured advertisements that encouraged the French to join the fight with the Nazis. A poster labeled “La Grande Croisade” (The Grand Crusade) depicted a French Crusader standing with a group of Nazis to fight against Bolshevism. What was even more striking was that these advertisements apparently worked in encouraging individual French citizens to join the Nazi cause. The Waffen SS featured a number of what were known as “Charlemagne” regiments of French Nazi soldiers. This detail lent an insight into the extent to which collaboration pervaded occupied France. It clarified the details that the French Musee D’Armee had left out. While knowledge of the French Free Army is widely celebrated and well known, it is likely that very few French citizens even know of the “Charlemagne” regiments on the other side of the conflict.
In terms of fostering historical knowledge, this comparison demonstrates that the question of how a nation remembers a conflict is reflected in the aspects that they emphasize in their museums. The French Musee D’armee was not filled with made up historical myths per se. Rather, it placed emphasis on certain facts while leaving out others.
At the Oscar Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland I was exposed to one of the most insightful lectures I have heard on the trip so far. Our guide took us through the museum, stopping to address each exhibit’s historical context as we covered the experiences of Germans, Poles, and Jews. At each location, she was happy to answer questions, but my group remained skeptical. We had learned that in modern Poland there was a false portrayal of the Poles as victims of the reign of Nazi tyranny during World War II. This portrayal, as we had previously learned from our readings, was incredibly far from the truth. In many instances, the Polish people were active participants in the Holocaust, massacring Jews in small towns such as Jedwabne. With this historical knowledge in mind, we expected an opportunity to challenge our tour guide and offer examples that contradicted her view.
At every stop we spoke to our guide about a multitude of issues. At one point she asked if we knew why the Germans had originally decided to establish the General Government in Poland. Based on the research I had done, I clarified that it was for resettlement of the German people. She appeared confused by my answer and declared instead that it instead was established to maintain stability in the region. At several other points my friends brought up points that were outside the scope of what the museum had to offer, leading us to believe the portrayal was at best limited in its account of how the war played out. However, she was not to admit that in many instances the Poles collaborated with the Nazis. When asked by a student, she explained that many Poles signed up to become part of the German volksdeutches, or collaborators who would be granted the ability to be “Germanized” in the New Reich in return for their betrayal. At another point, we even learned about Polish Jews known as kapos, who ruthlessly beat and tortured fellow Jews in the hopes that the Nazis would spare them.
To dialogue with another historical perspective in such a way is one of the most important aspects of this trip. Despite the fact that her perspective appeared incomplete, our conversation reflects a duality we have discussed in class centered around how human beings can act as victims and perpetrators at the same time in many instances. Conversations like this are important to forming a wholistic view of history and recognizing the gray areas in our moral understanding of the past.
Walking through the fields and paths in the countryside of Bayeux was nothing short of a dream come true. The small town was unlike anything I had ever seen, with archaic buildings and unique restaurants. I decided to take a walk out of the town, however, and discovered a path leading to several fields and a church in the distance. The fields stretched out along hills as far as the eye could see. Trees and hedgerows lined the roads and the edges of fields all around me. There was a creek illuminated by the sun as it crept beneath the hills. Cows grazed in the pastures I passed by and inhabitants waved at me from their windows as I strolled through. I walked along a stone wall until I reached the old church, which appeared to be upwards of five hundred years old. The cool air and the sound of birds offered several key moments for reflection.
Recalling the readings from this semester and the depictions of it I had seen in the past, I imagined the countryside coming alive with the hum of artillery, tanks, and guns in the distance. I imagined myself traversing a path once trekked by the British army as they advanced towards the town. I imagined Charles De Gaulle driving down the main road through the city to greet the people of Bayeux after its liberation. Based on what I had learned previously, I imagined even further in the past the Normans using the area to prepare for their invasion of England. Getting the chance to walk on the same road as key historical figures offers an immersive experience with history that can’t be captured in a classroom. My walk in Bayeux has been one of the best moments on my trip so far. Though to some it may appear no different than any other countryside in Europe, the area of Bayeux boasts a rich amount of historical significance that goes back a thousand years.
I got the chance to tour the Parliament Building while I was in London. As it turns, an Ohio State alumnus works as a security officer and so offered my friends and I the opportunity to see the inside. As I explored Parliament, the grandeur of the art and monuments inside reminded me of the importance of the English form of democracy. Seeing all the paintings, statues, and plaques, I became reminded of the fact that Britain has always been a bastion of parliamentary democracy and that English Common Law was what laid the roots of the American system we abide by today. Such considerations garnered a sort of kinship with the English that I believe is a central aspect of the relationship between our two countries. With close ties like these, I feel as if the fate of the United States’ system of government is partially linked to that of England’s. Even when that system appears to be in crisis, perhaps the memory of what Britain stands for will serve as a rallying point for those reasonable enough to be civil about the UK’s most polarizing dilemma: Brexit.
As I listened to my guide, I concluded the current state of affairs in British Parliament is one wrought with just as much uncertainty as that of the United States. Rifts arise in current parties like UKIP, leading to the creation of new parties that only serve to accentuate the issue. MPs insult and shout at one another. Protests amass in the street daily regarding Brexit in Parliament Square. Amidst it all, Theresa May’s government is struggling to maintain power. As my tour guide said, Brexit has made the position of Prime Minister the most undesirable job in the world. With MPs becoming so angry that they are grabbing the ceremonial mace at the center of the floor and trying to hit one another with it, I understand how difficult it might be to see the light at the end of the tunnel.