Berlin: A City Born of Defeat

The remains of Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof – still standing today as a symbol of German defeat in World War II

Berlin was the third of the great national capitals our group visited and the final stop on our journey through Europe.  After a seven-hour bus ride from Poland, our tired group arrived in the city.  Having experienced the greatness of both London and Paris, I had high expectations for Berlin.  Initially, I was somewhat disappointed

I was struck by the relative new-ness of everything, as well as how dingy it seemed.  Gone were the old buildings and grand architecture seen in London and Paris.  More than any other city I’d seen thus far, Berlin felt more like an American city than a European one.  Despite my relative disappointment, the city quickly grew on me.


The German Finance Ministry Building – an example of Nazi architecture – next to a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The bricks at the bottom of the frame are the remains of the old Gestapo headquarters

One of the aspects of Berlin that struck me were the many remnants of the city’s past I came across, despite the city’s “new” feel – specifically, remnants from the Nazi-era, as well as the Cold War.  The twentieth century was not kind to Berlin.  Much of the city was destroyed at the end of World War II in allied bombing raids and in the climactic Battle for Berlin, which resulted in the final defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe.  Some of the remains of the old Gestapo Headquarters have been preserved, and today, a museum exists on top of the site, preserving the memory of terror, persecution, and genocide that defined the Nazi-era in Germany.  The former German Ministry of Aviation building (constructed in 1936) is one of the few buildings left from the Nazi-era.  I was surprised to learn that this building is still used by the German government today, housing the German Finance Ministry.  Smaller sites also remain, such as the Bendlerblock, which housed the General Army Offices during World War II.  Its courtyard served as the execution site of some of the July 20th Plotters who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944, and today, the complex is a museum dedicated to the memory of German “resistance” against the Nazi regime.


The courtyard of the Bendlerblock – the execution site of some of the July 20th Plotters in 1944, including Claus von Stauffenberg. The final scenes of the 2008 film Valkyrie were filmed here

In other cities, these reminders of a hideous past might be swept under the rug, but in Berlin, they have instead been embraced as learning tools for future generations of Germans.  The city has made an effort to come to terms with its Nazi past.  Where direct sites of Nazi history are lacking, Berlin has attempted to create as many sites of remembrance as possible.  The Holocaust is the most shameful and embarrassing aspect of German history that, for decades, many Germans tried to ignore and move on from. Despite this fact, memorials of the genocide have been constructed all over the city.  The Tiergarten houses a number of memorials to the victims of Nazism (Roma, Sinti, the disabled and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, …).  Most impressive, however, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  Taking up an entire city block, the memorial is right at the heart of the city, next to the Brandenburg Gate, the American Embassy, and the Reichstag Building.  There could be no stronger effort to remember a humiliating past than a massive Holocaust memorial taking up such major real estate in the German capital.


A portion of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

This effort at coming to terms with the past is also reflected in the historical museum exhibits I went through in Berlin.  One of the most common excuses made by Germans ever since the end of the war is that the Nazis lacked popular support, and that the crimes committed under the Nazis (both before and during the war) were committed only by dedicated party members.  Such narratives make it all too easy for Germans to place the blame on a defined group (the Nazis) while glossing over their own complicity in the atrocities committed.  The museums in Berlin, however, tackle the matter of German complicity directly.  Time and again, when addressing the crimes of the Nazi-era, these museums address the perpetrators as “the Germans” rather than “the Nazis.”

One placard in particular at the German Historical Museum caught my attention, concerning the role of the German military in the Holocaust.  The “Final Solution” was primarily an operation conducted by the Waffen-SS, the military-wing of the Nazi Party.  Since the SS was separate from the German military (the Wehrmacht), many Germans have used this fact to argue that ordinary Germans in the Wehrmacht had no role in the Holocaust, and therefore, had no responsibility in the crimes of the Nazi-era.  Again, this narrative goes against reality; the Wehrmacht took part in a tremendous amount of war crimes, including the massacre of Poles, Jews, and Soviet POWs on the Eastern Front.  Avoiding the common excuse, the museum exhibit explicitly mentioned the role of the Wehrmacht in perpetuating the Holocaust, therefore wiping away any defense made for the general German population.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located at the heart of the city. Next to the memorial in this photo is the United States Embassy

Unlike at the end of World War I, the German people truly felt defeat at the end of World War II.  Berlin was divided by the victorious powers at war’s end and was split into East and West by the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Despite the fall of the wall in 1989 and 1990, its remnants are everywhere throughout the city.  The standing sections of the wall today stand not only as a symbol of the Cold War, but, more importantly, as a symbol of defeat.  Germany bears a large responsibility for the suffering of the two World Wars in Europe.  The German people can’t ignore this, especially in a city like Berlin, where symbols of defeat (such as the Berlin Wall) remain.  Just a block away from our hotel was another symbol of German defeat – the remains of Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof – a great railway station destroyed by bombing during World War II.


Bricked paths run through the streets of Berlin, marking where the Berlin Wall once stood

Berlin is a city that has both accepted and learned from its past, precisely because of this defeat.  Unlike the victorious Allies, the Germans were forced to question their own past and their own sense of nationalism – to question their role in the widespread misery that accompanied the two World Wars and the Cold War.  I couldn’t help but compare Berlin with the other cities I have seen – London, Paris, and Kraków.  The British, the French, and the Poles were on the winning side of the war, and have never been forced to question their own national histories (history is written by the victors, right?).  As I mentioned in a previous post, the British still celebrate and glorify their former colonial empire, despite its legacy of oppression.  Likewise, the French, on the victorious side at the end of the war, were free to rewrite their own national history, lionizing Charles de Gaulle, the Free French, and the French resistance – all despite the fact that a majority of the French population accommodated their German occupiers and that thousands of Frenchmen actively aided in the Holocaust.


The glass dome of the newly renovated Reichstag Building, meant to symbolize democracy and political transparency

While London and Paris look back to a mythical national past, Berlin has tried to come to terms with its own harsh reality, and instead, looks forward to the future.  The Reichstag Building, renovated after German reunification in 1990, reflects this outlook: avoiding the grandiose architecture of other national capitals, the building embraces modernity and democracy.  Its glass dome stands as a symbol of political transparency.  This outlook is also reflected in present day politics.  In Britain, France, and Poland, nationalist movements are on the rise (UKIP in Britain, the National Front in France, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, …).  Germany, however, remains one of the few countries without a resurgent nationalist movement.  In the wake of the Syrian Refugee Crisis last year, Germany accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees into its borders, a move derided by nationalist movements in most other European countries.

Berlin is a city born of defeat, a defeat which, paradoxically I think, has made it stronger – prepared to accept its terrible past and to move forward.  On a section of the Wall in East Berlin is a quote from the Austrian Poet, Erich Fried: “he who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.”


“He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.”

What is “Evil”?

Hoess Home

The former home of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, located just feet away from Auschwitz I and within view of the first experimental gas chamber and crematoria

On Wednesday, our group toured the site of the former Nazi labor and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, located about an hour outside the Polish city of Kraków.  During the war, the site saw the murder of around 1.2 million people – most of them Jews.  I didn’t know what to expect when our group first entered Auschwitz.  Despite the ominous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” gate and barbed wire fences, the camp seemed rather unimposing; while large in size, the buildings and ruins gave me little sense of the horror that occurred there.  What did affect me, however, was seeing the personal belongings robbed from the victims – shoes, eyeglasses, kitchenware, and hair – there was an entire room with hair shaved from the heads of the prisoners.  I had known beforehand I would be seeing these things, but it was still a shocking experience.  I expected I might feel grief, but I didn’t feel this at all.  Instead, I felt angry.


The unloading ramp at Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of arriving transports were “selected” for labor in the labor camp or for immediate death in the gas chambers

People talk about the impersonality of the killing, but this clearly was not the case.  Someone had to unload the deported Jews from the trains.  Someone had to select who went to the labor camp and who went to the gas chambers.  Someone had to guide the deportees to their execution sites. And someone had to dump the Zyklon B into the gas chambers.  There is nothing impersonal about this.  Seeing the piles of hair (at least for me) was the most upsetting aspect of the site.  The simple task of cutting the hair from the individual heads of murdered prisoners or forced laborers at a work camp seems incomprehensible.  The first word that comes to mind is “evil,” but this description is too easy.

The word “evil” conjures up images of malice and sadism, of monsters who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on others.  It is an absolute term.  “Evil” gives us clear monsters, people we can easily point to and blame.  Rudolf Höss was one such monster. During his time as commandant of Auschwitz, Höss personally oversaw the camp’s expansion from a labor camp into a death camp, as well as the first experimental gassings.  He lived at a villa with his wife and family, just feet away from the camp and within viewing distance of the original gas chamber and crematoria.  Focusing on monsters like Höss, however, lets others off the hook.


Canisters of Zyklon B on display at Auschwitz I

Our guide at Auschwitz briefly spoke about the guards and bureaucrats working at Auschwitz who were not directly involved in the selections and gassings, and in particular, he mentioned the case of Oskar Gröning – a former SS guard at Auschwitz who was convicted last year of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.  Gröning worked as a bank clerk before the war and joined the Waffen-SS after the German victories in Poland and France.  Gröning worked various clerical jobs before being sent to Auschwitz.  There, he continued his clerical work, taking inventory of the various items and currencies stolen from arriving Jews.  Gröning never directly took part in the killing process, which, for him, made it easy to get cozy with work at the camp.

In a 2004 interview with historian Laurence Rees, Gröning expressed guilt for his actions during the war, but explained that he “drew a line between those who were directly involved in the killing and those who were not directly involved.”  The former SS officer never invoked the “I was just following orders” defense.  Instead, he referred to the power that Nazi propaganda had had on his thinking.  As he explained, he continued to work at Auschwitz (even after personally witnessing a gassing) not because he was ordered to, but because he genuinely believed that the Nazi extermination program was “right” – that by aiding in the destruction of Germany’s enemies (the Jews) he could protect his family back home and do his part in the war effort.  In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Rees wrote: “the essential—almost frightening—point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet.”

Hannah Arendt, a famous German political theorist, termed this frightening realization the “banality of evil.” The crimes of the Holocaust did not occur because of Germans’ will to do evil and commit murder – evil intentions are not always required for evil actions to take place.  Most Holocaust perpetrators became involved in the genocide not because of their desire to kill, but because of their simple failure to recognize the humanity of other human beings and to identify the moral and human dimensions of what they were doing.  When we fail to recognize the humanity of others, it becomes impossible for us to understand their suffering, opening the door for any number of horrors and crimes to be committed.  The Jews at Auschwitz were not treated as human beings, but as raw materials.  The room full of hair at Auschwitz displayed this point quite literally.  The hair of prisoners was sewn into various products for use back in Germany.


The main entrance to the Schindler Factory in Kraków, where around 1,200 Jews were saved from death by Oskar Schindler. Today, the former factory houses a museum and is a growing tourist attraction, largely thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List

Last February, Timothy Snyder, another prominent Holocaust historian, came to Ohio State’s campus to speak about his book Black Earth.  In the book, Snyder contrasts Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” with his own theory of the “banality of good.”  Despite widespread collaboration with the Nazis during the war, there were still thousands of people throughout Europe who courageously acted to help individual Jews escape death, even though, if caught, they could be subjected to punishment or death from the Germans.  These people were certainly not all saints, but they acted out of a basic sense of decency; even in the horror of war, they still managed to recognize the humanity of others.

Von Galen

A portrait of Bishop Clemens August von Galen at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. As the Bishop of Münster, von Galen had a large audience, and his sermons against the T4 program caused a large public backlash against the Nazis’ euthanasia policy

During our group’s trip to Poland, we encountered another Oskar: Oskar Schindler.  Unlike Oskar Gröning, Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who rescued around 1,200 Jews during the war.  After the invasion of Poland in 1939, he opened up business at an enamelware factory in Kraków, where he exploited the slave labor of Jews for profit.  Despite this fact, Schindler later took up resistance against the murder of Jews, personally protecting his Jewish workers from deportation and extermination – usually by bribing high-ranking officials and at great risk to himself (he was arrested more than once).  Why? What did Schindler have to gain by saving these Jews?  While it is hard to say what the turning point for Schindler may have been, his actions almost certainly arose from his recognition of the humanity of the Jews he was saving from death.

Schindler was not alone.  In our class with Professor Davidson, we discussed the T4 euthanasia program, which implemented the mercy-killing of thousands of mentally ill and physically disabled men, women, and children.  Unlike in the case of the Holocaust against the Jews, there had been widespread outcry in Germany against the T4 program, thanks largely to the sermons of a Catholic bishop in Münster.  What examples like these show is that there were alternatives for Germans (and Europeans at large).  It was possible for people to resist the Nazis, to recognize the humanity in others deemed “unworthy of life.”

Happy Nazis

Auschwitz camp personnel enjoying a weekend retreat in the summer of 1944. Just a few miles away from where this photo was taken, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was taking place (Photo taken from USHMM)

When we think of evil, we think of monsters like Adolf Hitler or Rudolf Höss, but these monsters are the exception.  In writing this blog, I thought back to a photo album on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The photographs depict Auschwitz personnel – ordinary people like Oskar Gröning – enjoying a weekend retreat near the camp.  The smiling and laughing Germans in these photographs aren’t monsters – they aren’t demons with glowing red eyes and horns growing out of their heads – they are simply normal people enjoying a warm weekend retreat.  That is what I find most terrifying about the Holocaust: not the idea that the Nazis were a special kind of evil, but the realization that ordinary, every-day people are capable of evil.

My First Impressions of France


A typical street in Bayeux

With six years of French language classes under my belt and a general interest in modern French history, I was most excited for our program’s stop in France.  Despite my Francophile tendencies, I was still a little nervous about my first visit to the country.  Would it live up to my expectations?

Fortunately for me, my stay in Normandy did not disappoint.


The countryside outside of Bayeux, with the old cathedral steeples rising above the treeline

After traveling from London to Portsmouth and taking a ferry across the English Channel, our group arrived in Normandy and took a bus to the small Norman town of Bayeux, where we stayed over the following six days.  On our final day there, Professor Steigerwald referred to our time in Bayeux as being in “fairytale land,” and in fact, this is probably the most apt way to describe it.  Bayeux is a small, quiet town surrounded by scenic countryside and rolling hills.  It was a welcome reprieve from the fast-paced hustle and bustle of London, and, in some ways, reminded me of my own hometown in rural Ohio.  That being said, it was still unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced in the United States.

Most communities in Europe can be dated back not hundreds, but thousands of years.  In the United States, where everything is relatively new, a building over a hundred years old easily qualifies as


The Bayeux Cathedral, built nearly a thousand years ago during the time of William the Conqueror

“old.”  In Europe, however, such aged buildings are the norm. I commented in my last post on the amount of history to be found in the city of London.  Bayeux was more than just a town full of history.  Entering the town itself felt like stepping into another time: many of the buildings appeared to be hundreds of years old, and lots of streets were still paved with brick and cobblestone.  At the center of the town was a cathedral nearly a thousand years old, built in the time of William the Conqueror.  Fortunately, during the Battle of Normandy in 1944, German forces occupying the town fled without putting up much of a fight, sparing the town from the destruction rained down on so many other Norman cities and villages during World War II.


The central street running through Bayeux, full of stores, restaurants, and cafés

Aside from the location itself, another aspect of Normandy that I was attentive to was the local people themselves.  On the whole, my observations were unsurprising.  The French have a certain “joie de vivre” about them that is much more evident than in Britain or the United States: they enjoy relaxing, socializing, and eating great food.

Some observations I made in Bayeux (and now in Paris as well) were a little more startling for me, however.  The French are often stereotyped as being unkept, and while I can’t attest to the personal habits of the locals in Bayeux, one thing that took me aback was my encounters on the sidewalks (even right outside our hotel) with les crottes de chien: dog feces.  I don’t know if there are any particular laws in France demanding owners clean up after their dogs, but if they exist, many French dog owners seem to pay no attention.

Putting such peculiarities aside, most interesting for me was observing how the locals reacted to us Americans.  Despite our own stereotypes of the French as snobbish and inherently anti-American, most of my interactions with the locals in Normandy were positive.  When an interaction was negative, it seemed to be out of their annoyance with us more than anything else, and the locals certainly had reasons to be annoyed.  I noticed that the French are a generally quiet people who keep to themselves in public.  When it comes to Americans, on the other hand, this is not so much the case.  Walking through the streets of Bayeux, our large, rambunctious group attracted more than a few stares, and some of us were told occasionally to quiet down.  While taking a shuttle bus to Mont Saint-Michel, it was quite obvious that many of the French passengers (and especially the older ones) were not happy to have a group of American students crowding onboard and pushing them aside.

Most of my interactions with the locals took place around food (either at the grocery store or at restaurants and cafés), and while almost all of these were positive, there was one instance on our first evening in Bayeux (during a group dinner) that one of our servers commented on our poor dining etiquette.  Some of us had been picking apart our food, and the server laughed and told us we “ate like birds.”


Omaha Beach today, as seen from the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer

In writing about my experiences in Normandy, of course, it would be impossible for me to go without mentioning the 1944 invasion of Normandy during World War II and my visits to the various battle sites, museums, and cemeteries associated with the war.  Visiting the Utah and Omaha landing beaches were especially poignant moments.  Bloodshed and carnage immediately come to mind when thinking about the D-Day landing beaches (thanks, no doubt, to films like Saving Private Ryan), which is why I was immediately struck by the serenity and beauty of these places today.  After viewing them

Airborne Museum

A French father and son at the Airborne Museum. I was surprised at the large number of French tourists visiting sites dedicated solely to the American war effort

firsthand, it’s difficult to think of these beaches as former battlegrounds, much less as battlegrounds where thousands of American troops took their last steps.  The only word I could use to describe my feelings being there is “surreal,” and even now, I don’t think the full immensity of the events that took place there over seventy years ago has sunken in.

Particularly moving for me was the French and their reactions to the war today.  Despite being stereotyped as anti-American, and despite the few negative interactions I personally experienced, the French (at least in Normandy) have certainly not forgotten the efforts of American, British, and Canadian forces to liberate their country from Nazi occupation.  Aside from the cheesy signs at tourist sites reading “Welcome, our liberators,” it was clear to me that many local Frenchmen still remember and appreciate what happened in Normandy over seventy years ago.  Many museums dedicated to the memory of the American war effort (like the museum at Utah Beach) are maintained by French staff, and I was touched reading the comments in a guest book (nearly all of them written in French) at the Airborne Museum, praising the museum and highlighting the need to preserve the memory of D-Day for future generations of Frenchmen.

“We have not forgotten, we will never forget, the debt of infinite gratitude that we have contracted with those who gave everything for our liberation.” – French President René Coty

Some program members were bothered by the swarms of French schoolchildren taking fieldtrips to the sites (there were several busloads of them when we visited Pointe du Hoc), as well as the lack of respect that many of them seemed to display.  While, to be fair, most of these schoolkids were too young to fully understand the importance of the places they were at, I thought their very presence said a lot about the French.  The fact that schools continue to send their students on fieldtrips to war sites in Normandy highlights the importance that the French attach to the Allied invasion in their national history.  The effort to preserve the memory of D-Day for future generations is alive and well in France.  At the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, a fitting quote from French President René Coty was inscribed on a wall outside the visitor center, summing up my observations of the French in Normandy: “We have not forgotten, we will never forget.”

Great Britain’s “Good War”


My obligatory photograph in front of Big Ben

As I mentioned in my first post, I have never been outside of the United States before.  Having now been in Europe for a little over a week, I can say – with some confidence – that I now feel like an experienced traveler.  My trip began with my flight into Ireland, three days before the official start of the World War II Program in London.  I was initially apprehensive about taking my first flight ever (and my first trip abroad ever) all by myself, but my entrance into the city of Dublin quickly calmed my fears.  Everyone I ran into was extremely helpful and patient.  After being dropped off in the middle of Dublin (without any idea of where to go) by an airport shuttle bus, one woman saw that I looked lost, and she quickly walked over and opened Google Maps on her phone to give me directions to my hostel.  The three days I spent in Ireland left me convinced that the Irish are the friendliest people on the planet.  I’m glad I made the early trip, since it got me acquainted with life in Europe before I flew into the hustle and bustle of London.

Over the course of my week in London, my schedule was packed full with visits to various historical and cultural sites in the city.  I made the obligatory visits to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, and other tourist-y spots.  This being a program focused on World War II, of course, I traveled with other program members to sites specific to the war – the Churchill War Rooms, the HMS Belfast, the RAF Bomber Command Memorial, and the Imperial War Museum.  London is a city full of history, with places of significance to be found around nearly every corner.  The Brits are certainly proud of their long and fabled history.


Bletchley Park, the site of British codebreaking efforts during the war and the inspiration for the 2014 film, The Imitation Game

Initially, I wasn’t sure about what I would make my blog post for London about, but a conversation I had with a British tour guide got me thinking.  On Thursday, our group made a half-day trip outside of London to Bletchley Park, the site of British codebreaking efforts during the war to decrypt and analyze German communications.  After our guided tour through the site, a few program members and I spoke with the tour guide.  I was struck by the man, who, after learning we were American college students studying the history of the war, immediately told us he hoped our visit to Britain would (using his words) “correct” our image of the war.  He explained to us that the American education system had misled us and inflated our own country’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.


Winston Churchill’s statue, located just outside Westminster Palace

While the tour guide was personally friendly with us, I did get a sense of his critical attitude toward the United States and the general perception of American arrogance by the British.  National biases aside, there is certainly a ring of truth to what he told us.  Most Americans’ view of the World War II is skewed and American-centric.  In the typical American telling of the war, Hitler had conquered most of Europe by 1942 and stood poised to defeat the Soviet Union – that is, until the United States swooped into Europe and saved the day, leading the war effort in North Africa, Italy, and France, eventually defeating the Nazi regime.  This retelling focuses only on the second half of the war, and completely ignores the fact that Britain had been fighting Hitler since 1939, a full three years before the United States committed significant forces to the European Theater of the war.

My experiences in London have allowed me to reflect on the British view of World War II, which, as I have seen, is focused more heavily on the first half of the war – and especially on British suffering during the Blitz.  Touring the city, it is hard to escape remnants of the war.  Damage from German bombs occurred everywhere.  On a walking tour through East London, a guide reminded me and other tourists that most of the buildings in that part of the city were built in the 1950s onward, as the area had been largely obliterated by the


A detail from an exhibit on life in Britain during World War II. British suffering is a major theme at the Imperial War Museum

German Blitz in 1940 and 1941.  On a tour of Westminster Abbey, I saw a group of stained-glass windows with inscriptions explaining that they were not the original windows, since the originals had been destroyed by German bombs in 1941.

All-in-all, an upwards of 60,000 British civilians were killed by German terror-bombing throughout the war.  The experience is deeply ingrained in the British psyche.  At Westminster Abbey, for example, there exists a chapel dedicated to the British airmen who defended the island from German invasion in the autumn of 1940.


A quote from Winston Churchill on Adolf Hitler.  Churchill was among the few European leaders who foresaw the threat of Nazism

Museum exhibits constantly remind visitors that until June 1941, Britain stood alone as the only major power fighting Hitler in Europe.  From what I have seen in London, the British have given an almost semi-divine status to their former wartime leader, Winston Churchill, and the courageous airmen of the Royal Air Force (who almost certainly prevented a German invasion of Britain and eventual German victory).  Images of Churchill are littered throughout the city, from a large statue of him in front of Westminster Palace to a bust of him above a fireplace at Bletchley Park.  Our group even visited a museum dedicated solely to the memory of Churchill.  The museum depicts Churchill as both a daring wartime leader and a prophetic politician, foreseeing both the dangers of Nazism and Communism for Europe while others looked away.


The RAF Bomber Command Memorial, located in Green Park

Among other sites I visited was the RAF Bomber Command Memorial, which, like the chapel at Westminster Abbey, exalts and idolizes the heroic efforts of everyday Britons against Nazi tyranny.  This same story is presented by the World War II exhibits at the Imperial War Museum – the heroics of the British military displayed in one exhibit are contrasted with the horrors of Nazi rule in a second exhibit on the Holocaust.  It is a classic tale of good versus evil.  It is interesting to see that the museum minimalizes the American war effort and ignores the Soviet war effort altogether.

While the Allied effort against Nazi Germany was clearly a noble cause, it is hard to overlook the fact that Britain itself was fighting not only to defeat Nazi Germany, but to also preserve its global empire.  Symbols of British imperialism are everywhere


The Parthenon section of the British Museum. The museum contains a vast collection of art taken (or robbed) from places throughout the former British Empire – in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and India

in London, and is on plain display at sites like the British Museum.  Amazingly for me, the British attitude toward its former empire seems quite unapologetic, and the history of imperialism that I’ve seen presented here in London isn’t one of guilt, but, on the contrary, one of celebration and nostalgia.  Even as the British highlight the horrors of Nazi brutality, they paradoxically ignore the injustice of their own colonial empire that they worked to preserve throughout the war – in Africa, Asia, and India.  As an American, this observation is hard for me to overlook, considering my own country was itself once a part of the British Empire.

While our tour guide at Bletchley Park was certainly justified in criticizing the American view of the war, I have also seen ways in which the British themselves need to “correct” their own view of the war.

Preparing for Europe

Joseph and Dolores (1944)

My grandparents Joseph and Dolores in early 1944 – before Joe’s departure for England

Hello!  My name is Jordan Henry, and I am entering my senior year at Ohio State.  I am majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and International Studies.  I have always loved learning about and studying history, especially European history.  My focus is on modern French history, which is why I am particularly excited about the week I will be spending in Bayeux and Paris during this study abroad trip.  As someone who has never been outside of the United States before (nor ever been on a plane), this trip will truly be an adventure.  It is one thing to read about World War II in Europe and to listen to the personal experiences of veterans.  It is an entirely different matter to actually see these places firsthand and to interact with the people living there.  Hopefully, I will be able to brush up on my spoken French with native speakers.

Aside from my general interest in Europe and its history, I have a personal connection to the war as well.  My grandfather, Joseph Henry, served in the 83rd Infantry Division during the war and saw combat in Normandy.  His twin brother, Alfred, also served in the war, and saw combat in Normandy, the Ardennes, and in Germany.  As a neighbor to my grandfather, I naturally spent lots of time with him growing up. Listening to his wartime stories – including his time as an MP transporting German POWs from the front – is one of my fondest childhood memories.  To be able to retrace the journeys of my grandfather and his brother – from the U.S. to England, to the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy, to Paris “The City of Light,” and onward into Germany – over 70 years after the end of the war will be an unforgettable, life-changing experience.

I would like to thank the generous scholarship donors who helped make my being on this study abroad trip possible.


I look forward to posting again in London.

En avant!

– Jordan Henry