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.