The German Collective Memory

Reichstag Building

The final leg of our journey landed us in Berlin, Germany after a seven-hour bus ride. Immediately after arrival, our group rushed to the Reichstag, which houses the German Bundestag. Based on what I understood from our tour guide, this functions as their parliament. During active sessions, the chairman, government, Bundestag,and Bundesrat meet to debate laws. The system functions similarly to our government, but the presence of the Bundesrat allows for the local governments to have more say in the functioning of the state. The site itself is full of history, still bearing the marks of the Soviet capture of Berlin. Our guide dispelled an incorrect assumption I’d made—Hitler didn’t use the Reichstag to conduct government business. Today, the government building is a monument to the balance of government power and tolerance. There is even a room for meditation designed as a nondenominational place of worship or simply a place to contemplate or escape from the hectic environment of a session. This is a clear message about German intentions to never again let something like this happen.

Section of the Berlin Wall, a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain

The memorials we visited often looked to the heroes of the Resistance in Germany, which came far and few between. However, it is also worth noting that these attempts at honoring those who were cut down by the Nazi regime also have their flaws erased from the collective memory. In the case of Von Stauffenberg, he is recognized as a hero. But even if he had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate Hitler, he and his associates hoped to sue for peace with the Western Allies and continue the war in the east against Russia. The various German museums, including the Wannsee House and the German Historical Museum, look much more critically at the actions of the Nazi party. The Wannsee House does bear an internationalist message, placing much of the blame for the Final Solution on Hitler instead of acknowledging the actions of not only his subordinates but the action or lack thereof among the German people.

The Topography of Terror Museum sits on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters that was destroyed during the bombing of Berlin as the war came to a close. Throughout the Soviet occupation of East Berlin, the ruins remained in what can be called a dead zone between the extension of the wall. When the iron curtain fell, the museum was built. But in 1996, the Berlin Senate voted to stop funding the museum. Based on information from the website, it is now a privately funded operation. This is a relatively new memorial, developed to symbolize a unified city for the first time since World War II. It demonstrated the difficulty of the German citizens who must balance accepting responsibility for the actions of their country and individuals who acted or chose not to act while not glorifying the Nazi party and its soldiers. It also demonstrates an attempt to rebuild a national identity that distances the German people from the actions of the Nazis and move forward as a peaceful nation.


Never Again

We began our next leg of the trip with a flight from Paris, a connection in Brussels, and finally landing in Poland on May 22nd. I spent most of my time exploring the city of Krakow with Katie and Beau, including visits to the Wawel Castle, St. Mary’s Church, and local market. We were largely guided by a list provided to Katie by her father, who spent his early life in Krakow. Wawel Castle was built for King Casimir III the Great and is built in the styles of medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods of architecture. It is one of the most historically and culturally significant sites in Poland and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built to house the kings of Poland, it now contains an art museum. We made several stops to the market at the city center which once played a more vital role in the city but now houses souvenir goods. Polish Eagles and amber jewelry, apparently quite popular with the locals, were incredibly popular. We paid a visit to Saint Mary’s Church in the Main Market Square (after Katie purchased a shirt to cover her bare shoulders) to see the gothic architecture and its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. Every hour, a trumpet is played from the tower, with the tune breaking of mid-stream to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. It was founded by King Casimir III the Great and completed in 1347. The main group stop aside from our final day was the Schindler Museum, which examined not only World War II but its origins and aftermath. This was a different perspective that what I’ve seen thus far. The material on Oskar Schindler’s aid to the Poles who worked in his factory was only a small piece of an exhibit that moved through the war through different rooms set up to detail the experiences of different population groups throughout the war. Unlike the other countries we’ve visited, the war could not be neatly bookended in Poland. The destruction of the war was followed by a forty-year Soviet occupation of sorts. In the present day, the Polish people are still developing a new national identity through museums like this.

Our final day in Poland was spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz I is primarily a museum, with displays in several of the barracks and some preserved to provide a sense of daily life for inmates and guards. Auschwitz II Birkenau is what remains of much of the camp and purpose-built for the Final Solution. It is what the average person imagines when thinking of what a concentration camp might look like. It is a place that can be visited, the history can be learned, and attempts can be made to imagine it, but I found it to be beyond comprehension. I was struck by my lack of emotion walking through the camp, as I had anticipated to be shaken by my visit. Even now, I have yet to process my feelings completely. I’ve found that I’ve become frustrated with my reaction (or lack thereof), but it seems that my experience was not unique. After discussing this with other students on the trip, I’ve found that many people feel the same as I do. There is a disconnect of the history from the location in my mind, as though it was a story I’d read and not atrocities tied to a location and committed by other men and women. Thus far, I’ve settled on the idea of the camp as a stark reminder of history that cannot be denied. The camp is a monument to the importance of tolerance and it stands to remind people that never again can a megalomaniacal leader be allowed to coopt a nation’s power and, in a genocidal rage, attempt to eliminate a population group. Despite its power, it is disheartening to know that genocides have continued to occur across the world without regard for this lesson.

The First Footprints

France was the second leg of our journey across Europe. Our first stop was the town of Bayeux, which was our longest stay in a single place. A small quintessential French town, this community was liberated about five days after the Allies moved off the beaches at Normandy. We spent our time exploring the narrow, winding streets to discover both the food and the history that the town has to offer. There are monuments and plaques everywhere commemorating the rich history including that of the cathedral, the Roman wall, and the occupation throughout the war. The pace is sleepy and quiet like that of my own hometown, and yet it feels as though the buildings go on forever like that of a city.

The focus of our time in France was largely the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy, which resulted in the liberation of France from Nazi occupation. The first beach we visited was Utah, which seems to have been relatively preserved over time. Omaha, however, now bears an abstract monument on the sands and vacation homes and souvenir shops on the shores. I felt an unexpected pang of irritation, as though it was a disrespect to what happened there. After thinking about this for almost a week now, I remind myself that the war has ended and life has gone on. People resettled and created a new, post-war normal that involves vacationing on what are clearly some beautiful shores. Pointe Du Hoc is a cliff overlooking the English Channel and is the highest point between the beaches of Utah and Omaha. The U.S. Army Ranger Assault group scaled the steep cliffs here and destroyed an area fortified by the German army with gun pits. The site stood out to me because it not only pays respect to the events it has seen, but it allows visitors to explore the bunkers the American GIs faced. You could still see the charred ceilings, and I distinctly remember a women quietly speaking to her husband about how the Nazi soldiers surely would have suffocated in these sealed rooms. It adds a very human aspect to all of the soldiers who were sent here, including those who were technically on the ”wrong side of the war.”

France still struggles with its identity as an occupied country during the war. Pointe Du HocIts people have been left to contend with not only those now recognized as the heroes of the Resistance, but collaborationists as well. Each museum we visited had its own take on how the collective memory of the occupation. At the Caen museum, efforts were made to highlight the resistance efforts while mitigating the role of the collaborators. I’ve found it is important to recognize that there were those who actively participated on either side, such as the Vichy government or the SOE, but there are those who were passive in their actions. By choosing not to act in certain situations, whether it be not denouncing a neighbor to the government or standing by as someone is wrongly accused, civilians all played a role.

The German cemetery as well as many of the French museums focus on peace. For Germany, it appears the intention is to both recognize the horrific tragedy the Nazi party inflicted upon Europe, as well as making sure it does not happen again. The display in the information center shares stories of the individual pain and suffering of those affected as soldiers as citizens of all creeds, as well as a demonstration of national programming that allows young men and women to ground their understanding of history in the place where it happened. French museums also bear a pro-peace sentiment through their imagery of the suffering born out of the occupation. There will always be a fear associated with another war, another fight on the homeland, another occupation.

The American cemetery sprawls as well, with thousands of white crosses interspersed with Stars of David. Families chose to allow their sons and daughters be buried here. The stones bear the name and rank, date of birth and death, and state of enlistment. There is little individuality—the cemetery is a monument to unity and sacrifice for country. The focus is on a whole image, not any particular individual. It is less a place of mourning for families and more about a monument to the American sacrifice to liberate France. When walking up, I was struck by the powerful message of the headstones. Each of those men and women gave their lives for their country, willingly or unintentionally. Together, they rest as a monument to the bravery of the United States.

The British cemetery felt smaller than the others despite an equal amount of sacrifice in the war. Headstones bear name, rank, messages from families, markers of their service, and more. It is yet another testament to the idea of the People’s War, with each headstone personalized to the man who gave his life for Queen and country. The cemetery itself is absolutely meant for the family to mourn the loss, with stones still surrounded by flowers and mementos. It is worth noting that there are many other stones here, including German, Polish forces, Czech, Italian, Egyptian, and more. Some men are buried together; often flight crews who could not be separated in the wreckage or possibly upon family requests.

The German cemetery sprawled across a field overlooking the ocean. The stones were simple and uniform, bearing name, date of birth, and date of death. Many stones lacked this vital information, possibly a sign of the haste with which the bodies were being collected or the length of their stay before being collected. The place seems to be a penance, an offering representing apology for acting as the “evil,” despite many of these men not intentionally fighting for the Final Solution but a Greater Germany.

London: A Different Kind of Blitz

Prior to arriving in London, I had never left the United States. My flight was smooth, though not terribly restful—as is to be expected. Upon arrival, I checked in with my roommate, Katie, and unpacked upstairs, finally able to lay down and stretch out. Once the group had all checked in, we took a crash course in navigating the city, landing in Westminster. My first stop was the Westminster Abbey to take in the architecture. Plaques to soldiers, writers, and artists covered the walls, with members of the royal family entombed on the premises. I will admit that the statuettes, dressed in their Victorian garb and praying with their blank expressions was unsettling. However, the ornate designs and memorials make the respect bestowed upon these individuals clear. It was interesting to listen to some members of the group piece together phrases, desperately trying to recall high school Latin. We then took some obligatory photos of Big Ben and by a red telephone booth before moving over Trafalgar Square. There, we explored the sites and found ourselves in a little pub for dinner. Throughout the night, it became clear that our group would consistently be the largest and loudest in any place we went or will go.

Churchill statue in Westminster

Our first full day in London was spent exploring the Churchill museum and war rooms, having brunch on the Thames, and listening to the story of a man who experienced the London Blitz firsthand. As we traveled through the narrow brick halls of the underground war rooms and meandered through the maze that was the Churchill exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice his influence in bringing the men, women, and children together in a time of desperation. Instead of turning inward and focusing on themselves and their own interests, the citizens maintained an incredibly high morale and took the Blitz with the “stiff upper lip” Londoners are known for. Civilians aided in sifting through the rubble of the city, making sacrifices through rationing, and spending nights in shelters. Britain would not surrender, it would have to be ripped from the hands of its people under their leader, Winston Churchill. The man understood his impact on his constituents, choosing to reside at 10 Downing Street until he was forced underground after his home and office was hit during an air raid. He was motivated by a need to demonstrate fearlessness to inspire the same among his population. Despite the often abrasive way about him, Churchill was respected and even admired by the people who worked with him. As noted in the museum exhibit, he was “easy to satisfy,” he expected the very best. He made difficult decisions in the interest of his staff, such as the choice not to inform them that their workplace was not entirely bomb-proof. It seems to me that today, Her Majesty has a similar effect on the people of England as Winston Churchill did throughout World War II. While the Queen’s power is not nearly as complete as Churchill’s, she is a figure behind which the people unite through a common identity. Much of today truly made the impact of the war personal. I find that especially to Americans, war is often something that occurs “over there.” Being surrounded by two oceans, an attack “at home” has not been taken out on the same scale as the impact of World War II across Europe and Asia. This trip has provided me a sense of what happened here, and I think this feeling of personal connection to the history will only continue to grow and develop as we move throughout the countries.

Lancaster from the RAF Museum

On our free day, Katie, Sarah, and I trekked out to the Royal Air Force museum. Having been to the Wright Patterson museum, I looked forward to exploring what Britain had to offer. The exhibits, despite some hangars being closed for construction, were phenomenal. Many of the planes were actual models that had flown during the war, with various flight statistics and mission catalogs listed below. Some were a bit worse for wear, such as the Halifax. While examining this wreckage, we were fortunate enough to meet a gentleman who had flown these planes during the war. Before we interrupted, he had been quarreling with his friends about what instruments were located where in the cockpit—I personally would take his side. Other planes were replicas or built from pieces collected from various planes and refurbished. Overall, it was absolutely worth taking the trip out. It also offered us a different view of London, certainly more suburban than what we had seen so far. It is important to recognize that during the Blitz, it was not just central London that was hit, it was these quiet neighborhoods as well. Bombs at this time were not terribly accurate, often landing a significant distance from the intended target. Thus, bombs dropped by aircraft and the V1 and V2 rockets devastated family homes in and around cities.

On Thursday, the group rose early to travel out to Bletchley Park, site of the major ULTRA Intelligence decrypting. The operation is on a sprawling estate and offers a first hand look at what the conditions were like for the men and women working here. It was not hard to imagine the conditions of the huts we were allowed to explore, filled with a flurry of activity and likely incredibly hot. Men and women pressed on dutifully, but one is left to ask how, after so many years, did no one know about this operation?

V1 and V2 Rocket

Friday was spent largely at the Imperial War Museum, which had been compared to the Smithsonian. I spent a total of five hours slowly making my way through only three of the exhibits: World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust. I found that these displays greatly expanded on the history I have spent the past semester learning about, as well as sparking a new interest in WWI. The stories of the artifacts found in the museum again made the efforts feel personal, attempting to convey the emotions felt by various individuals throughout the war. I’ve visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but this exhibit was unlike anything I’ve seen. There were real SA and SS uniforms, clothing worn by prisoners of the camps, and a partial model of the camp to demonstrate the experience of an individual being processed. Despite being only a section of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the model was massive in scale. By the end of my time here, I was both energized and emotionally drained. I followed this by discovering a small Italian place with Katie, Brandon, Beau, and John. Again, we managed to be your typical Americans despite trying our best to be polite. To cap off the night, I had signed up for a Jack the Ripper tour throughout the East End of London. While I expected it to be a typical and cheesy tourist trap, our guide was actually a devoted researcher named Lindsey who had spent much of her life reading books, conducting her own investigations, and actually working at a local museum. I was pleasantly surprised by how in depth the tour was, and was also excited by the exploration of an area I had not spent much time in. Having spent the last five or so days in London learning about another Allied experience of WWII, I look forward to seeing the different collective memory of Occupied France.


My name is Natalie and I am a rising junior at the Ohio State University. I am majoring in Criminology and pursuing minors in sociology, philosophy, and history. This program offers me an opportunity to connect with not only the history I have spent the spring semester studying, but my family history as well. I look forward to travelling abroad for the first time this summer!