Though many of the places we visited were special, each having qualities and characteristics unique to that location, Berlin had to be by far my favorite place. From its laid back atmosphere and culture to its modern but simple lifestyle, Berlin had to be the most complete city of the entire trip. Keeping in mind that this was a WWII study abroad, it was at times difficult, however, to place yourself in a WWII mentality. Unlike Bayeux, where many of the sites were well preserved, Berlin was heavily bombed during the war. This means that many of the buildings that stood in 1939 are not here today. Consequently, it takes a lot more imagination and visualization to understand some of the places we visited. For example, when we visited the Topography of Terror Museum, where Nazi SS headquarters once stood, it was hard to get the same impression from the place than if the building were still there today. I’m not trying to say that the museum was ineffective, far from it in fact, it’s just not the same.

With that being said, the one aspect of Berlin that no other place we visited seemed to match was their narrative of WWII. Whereas Paris tended to over embellish their narrative, Berlin seemed to be the most unbiased in their depiction of the war. None of the museums really tried to shift blame for the war. On the contrary, several seemed to make it a point to point out that it was the German people who, supporting the Nazi party and thus empowering them, were the most at blame. While at first I saw this as a potential way in which modern Germany might be trying to distance themselves from their past—saying it was them, not us—I soon realized that many of those who belonged to the generation that lived through the Nazi regime are no longer alive. As I rationalized it, those putting forth this information in the museums are already distanced by virtue of their age, therefore there wouldn’t be any logical reason to try and distance themselves any further. Most people alive today didn’t have anything to do with Hitler and his empire, so what motive do they have to distort the truth.

Furthermore, it was interesting to observe how Berlin, and Germany more specifically, dealt with their history with Russia. We all know, perhaps more prominently, that Russia occupied much of Germany throughout the Cold War; however, many forget how brutal and critical the war on the Eastern front was. Because of the brutal actions of Hitler’s armies and his Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units tasked with exterminating conquered populations) during the invasion of Russia, retaliation by Stalin and his armies towards the end of the war was just as merciless. Needless to say, the relationship between Germany and Russia was a strained one. I didn’t expect Germany to pay much credit to the Russian aspect of the war, yet many of the museums had significant portions of their exhibits dedicated to the subject. Museums like the Soviet museum, though obviously focusing on the Russian perspective, did a remarkable job of portraying this often polarizing part of the war.

Berlin is an amazing place, not least because of its ability to self-reflect. It’s remarkable that a city with as difficult a history as Berlin’s is able to not only rebuild and recover, but also to recognize that history and move on from it without forgetting it.

Paris and Parisians

I think the one place that characterizes Parisian culture the best is the Shoah Museum. Many know about the Vichy regime that ran the French government during the Nazi Occupation in WWII and its role in the persecution and deportation of thousands of French Jews, but many don’t realize that France has struggled with this reality for the many decades following the end of the war. The Shoah Museum is the perfect example of this. Opened in 2005, sixty years after the war, and located in the Marais, a historically Jewish neighborhood, the museum is a powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, the fact that it took some 60 years for this memorial, which isn’t funded by the French state, to be erected says something. In Les Invalides, there was only a small portion of the WWII exhibit dedicated to the Holocaust, and furthermore it was tucked away in a corner that was difficult to find. The reason I bring this up is because although one is dedicated entirely to the Holocaust and the other to the broader subject of modern French history, the latter seems to try its hardest to hide the topic of the former. It’s no secret that France struggled to recognize its role in Jewish deportations (the French state didn’t admit its role until 1995 when President Jacques Chirac formally apologized), but this small portion of their long history goes to show a certain aspect of French history that is central to French culture.

When we Americans perceive the French, especially the Parisians, as snooty and arrogant it’s because they are, but it’s not for the reasons we may think. The French are very proud of their history—their philosophers, scientist, poets, and politicians included—so when there is a blemish on their record, especially one as dark as the Vichy regime’s role in the deportation of Jews, they don’t want to acknowledge it. It doesn’t help that France has a long anti-Semitic history, but nevertheless it’s not surprising that they are ashamed of some of their more infamous history. For me, this seemed to play a large part in why the French, specifically the Parisians, could sometimes seem standoffish. Not necessarily because we’re loud, obnoxious Americans, but because we couldn’t possibly understand their country or be as proud of our history as they are of theirs.

But Paris shouldn’t be defined by one period of its long history. Known as the City of Light due in large part because of its role in the Enlightenment (and apparently also because it was one of the first European cities to adopt gas street lighting), it’s a place often associated with the arts, fine wines, delicious pastries and beautiful architecture. Hundreds of world famous authors, philosophers, politicians and a variety of other famous faces have called this beautiful city home—Sartre, Descartes, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie to name a few. Consequently, Paris has a culture unlike any other. Made famous in contemporary society by some of the brightest minds the world has seen, to the outsider Paris can seem a very intimidating place. Besides the occasional, stereotypical rude inhabitant, Paris is one of those places that if you give it time and do your best to assimilate to the finer details of Parisian culture, one can get over the constant stares and general indifference towards you. One has to remember, being one of the largest and most famous cities on the planet, Paris and its inhabitants see millions of tourists a year, making everyday a struggle against the hordes of photo taking, non-French speaking visitors. Taking things like this into account, it’s no wonder some travelers seem put-off by the generally indifferent and standoffish locals. If one can understand and accept this, however, then Paris is your oyster.

Putting an Image to D-Day

Known for its beautiful and scenic landscapes, the Bayeux countryside has much more to it than initially meets the eye. Blessed with lush, fertile lands and beautiful weather, both Bayeux and the greater Norman region have a long and rich history. From William the Conqueror’s tale of Victory in England, vividly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, to the Allied landings in 1944, Normandy’s storied history unfurled like the pages of a novel to us everywhere we went. Even the daily bus rides told a story. One can imagine peasants of William the Conqueror’s age working the rolling country fields, or American GI’s fighting the Germans through the dense hedgerows. It is truly a powerful and provoking place.

Preparing for the trip, certain courses were required in order to meet the prerequisites of the trip, all being related to the subject of WWII in one way or another. In one class, History of WWII, we focused primarily on the military aspects of the war, whether it be tactics, the outcomes of battles, or even the equipment at certain force’s disposal. Normandy, the site of the largest amphibious assault ever (Operation Neptune), was the highlight of the course in my opinion. The infamy of the operation is enough to peak one’s interest. Visiting some of the beaches and fields that we learned about in class, where men fought and gave their lives in battle, provided the perfect summation of everything we had learned about. It is one thing to read a book or hear a lecture about how the Allied forces overcame the enemy on June 6, 1944 and the days that followed, but to actually visit the places where they stood and fought is something else entirely. It is indescribable. Seeing the cliffs of Utah beach and Pointe-du-Hoc force you to truly appreciate the magnitude of what happened there.

While these experiences allowed me to put an image to what I had learned, there was plenty of new information to absorb as well. While Omaha beach might be the most famous of the five beaches, earning the infamous moniker of “Bloody Omaha”, Utah was by far my favorite. To learn that it wasn’t even a part of the original invasion plan because it was so risky makes its success even more incredible. This was the same place that the legendary 101st Airborne had to protect the beachheads from German counterattacks by parachuting in the night before, and where General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., after landing in the wrong spot of the beach, famously said “We’ll start the war from right here!”

Visiting the Utah Beach Museum and learning about all the intricate parts of the invasion of just that beach made me marvel at how the invasion was ever a success. For example, the night before D-Day the 101st and 82nd Airborne dropped into Normandy to secure crucial causeways in order to prevent the Germans from mounting any successful counterattacks and pushing the Allied forces into the Channel as well as taking out enemy artillery that threatened the beachheads; however, difficult weather and intense flak from German anti-aircraft resulted in men getting scattered and landing far from their designated LZ, often several kilometers from their objective. Nevertheless, the majority of these men were not only able to find their units and objectives but were also able to successfully complete their missions, saving the lives of the thousands of men on the beaches.

Reading about things in class, while incredibly interesting and informative, only does so much. Seeing those famous places for yourself not only helps solidify the information you learned in class, but much more than that it forces you to understand the importance of it all. Not just the tactical strategies of the battle or the weaponry used in combat, but more importantly the sacrifices that were made there. The men who gave their lives fighting for something bigger than themselves.

England: What’s the Big Deal?

England has a long, rich history. London, the nation’s cultural and political capitol, is no exception. In the five days we spent in this historical city we did more subway-riding, more speed-walking and more site-seeing than most would accomplish—heck, even attempt—in a full week. I don’t think any of us had experienced the kind of self-inflicted sleep deprivation as we did. All for the sake of seeing the unseen, exploring the unknown and soaking in the culture.

Having once been the largest empire this world has ever seen, Britain no longer has the domain it had a few hundred years ago. Nevertheless, because of its long history, Britain, and especially London, is regarded as one of the most diverse places on the planet—certainly the most diverse I’ve ever seen. I often found myself overwhelmed, for the United States is often referred to as a cultural melting pot, but after visiting London I would have to say that this place is just as diverse, both in its culture and in its people. So many times we would be walking down the street or sitting in a café and overhear a conversation spoken in some strange, exotic language. (Especially French. I can’t even begin to count how many times we found ourselves surrounded by swarms of French school children who seemed to have no concept of personal space.) It was also never difficult to find good food, whether it be Indian, Persian or native English cuisine. Too many times there was so much to do and so much to see that I was crippled by indecision. Thankfully, however, I was able to see some amazing things.

The place that by far left the biggest impression on me was Westminster Abbey. Throughout the trip I often poked fun at the queen and the royal family, seeing them as illogical and silly. However, after seeing Westminster and seeing the rich history it tells and holds I can finally understand all the hullabaloo about the Her Majesty, the royal family and all the pomp and circumstance. Walking past the tombs of kings and queens from hundreds of years ago, seeing doors and paintings over 1,000 years old, thinking of the people who have walked under this beautiful building’s roof, one begins to understand why so much importance is placed on things that at first glance seem so arbitrary. Westminster, and places like it, has certainly broadened my horizons and provided a new perspective on things previously ill-understood.