View From the Top

As I looked down from a small green hill in Normandy, I tried to feel something, anything. Below me, small brown rectangular headstones laid flat on the ground, with a short iron cross presiding over the remains of every five or six bodies. It did not look like a graveyard. The plots were too small, the graves lacked flowers, and the people visiting did not seem to care about remaining quiet. You see, the green hill that I peered down from, as I was later informed, was a mass grave of fallen Nazi soldiers at the German cemetery in Normandy. Even though Dr. Steigerwald put the visit on the syllabus, I never fully believed we would go there; the very concept of such a place didn’t seem real to me. After all, why would the French maintain a memorial to the Nazi invaders, given the extent of their crimes both inside and outside of France?

The view from the top of Treptower Park, the Soviet memorial and cemetery in Berlin, inspired similar feelings of confusion within me. From the top of another hill, I felt this space to be almost infinite in its grandiosity and power. There were no individual graves; the designers instead built large friezes of heroic Soviet actions, replete with quotes from Joseph Stalin. Flanked by imposing, perfected statues on either side of the entrance and on top of the mound, the celebration of Soviet contributions was on full display. Yet I could not fully be swept up into the narrative the memorial tried to create. I could not stop thinking about how Dr. Breyfogle told us that people colloquially refer to the monument as the “Tomb of the Unknown Rapist,” because of the mass rapes committed by the Red Army. Again, we have a population with memories of an invading force brutalizing them. What purpose does maintaining such a memorial have?

Memorials, it seems, serve other purposes besides honoring the dead. At the German cemetery, Dr. Steigerwald explained that the memorial came to be as a result of careful negotiations with West Germany, and they meant it as a step towards healing the wounds left from the past decades of Franco-German hostilities. The Soviets, on the other hand, built their own memorial in occupied East Berlin to honor their own dead, without whom we could not have won the Second World War. As we talked about in class, the Soviet contribution of 25-27 million lives often goes unnoticed by Americans and the other Allies. In this case, the humble existence of the German cemetery and the opulence of the Soviet cemetery makes sense – both memorials have an underlying purpose beyond what can be initially seen. Yet as I stood at the tops of each and struggled with how to feel in those moments, I realized that whether or not they actually work to overcome such horrific events is another story entirely.


On Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019, our group had the enormous responsibility of going to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the concentration and death camps where as many as 1.1 million people died, including over a million murdered Jewish men, women, and children. I say that this is a responsibility for us to go there, as the camp still stands as a testament to the worst of humanity, and we need to make sure that such a thing never happens again. As I went through the camp, however, I started to wonder if actually going to Auschwitz is the best way to do that. 

Upon arriving at Auschwitz, we milled about in a sea of tourists who had come as well, most of whom were students even younger than we, who were unfortunately not even acting their age in line. There were so many people there, in fact, that we needed a guide with a carefully timed tour of the camp to lead us, which theoretically prevented the throng of people from making the exhibits too crowded – after all, over two million people visit every year. Our tour guide, a graduate from the University of Wisconsin, led us briskly through the main camp. The exhibits, located within the former cell blocks that held the prisoners, felt more like queues that we needed to file through – our tour guide kept prompting us to keep up with him as we sped through the placards and photos commemorating those lost. 

The speed of the tour did not particularly bother me until we got to the first gas chamber and crematorium, which the Nazis used as a test site before unleashing them on an ever- larger, terrifying scale at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I entered the dank, low-ceilinged building and instantaneously felt my soul leave my body. Every step that I took felt heavy as a hobbled my way past the holes where they dumped Zyklon B on the unsuspecting prisoners. I hugged my arms to my body as I made my way into the adjacent crematorium, and my jaw went slack as I stared into the claustrophobic ovens where the bodies burned. I had never imagined the ovens being so small, so personal; and then all of a sudden it was time to go. 

The one thing I did not expect about this experience was how, for lack of a better word, “touristy” it had become. The teens in line did not seem to think it any different from a museum; the tour guide was under orders to keep us on a tight schedule to accommodate the millions of visitors that this death site receives every year. Worryingly, I also counted two gift shops and a snack bar among the outside buildings. On the surface, this seems like it cannot possibly be conducive to broadening our perspectives on the Holocaust.

Yet without a doubt the moment where the brutality, the unimaginable horror, and the inhuman atrocities became real was when I stood where hundreds of others had stood in the crematorium. Rude teenagers and tight schedules cannot take that away. And because of that, I will take into the world an understanding that I have a responsibility to the world to do my part in preventing anything like this ever again. That is why the camp stands today—to make history unavoidably real and personal that to ignore it becomes impossible.

On Gratitude

Looking around Bayeux, France, one would assume that their gratitude for Americans and the Brits was always on their minds. The town is relatively small, only around 13,000 people, and on the surface has all the trappings of a typical coastal French village: cobblestone streets, thin winding roads, and patches of colorful flowers and green spaces throughout. Yet for so idyllic a place, it had an unprecedented amount of touristy attractions: standard gift shops with postcards and magnets, menus translated to English, and people in the service industry who also spoke fluent English. None of those things meshed with my preconceived ideas about an idyllic French town in the countryside. One of the most striking visuals that I saw, however, were paintings on the windows in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. They all depicted the stereotypes of French civilians and Allied soldiers, with saccharine slogans like “thank you for our freedom” written alongside them. I swear, we left the hotel for a day and came back to a new painting in the lobby windows. But, this image contrasts with one idea that we learned about during class: the idea of French resentment towards the ongoing American occupation of the country after the war. 

An example of the various window paintings found in Bayeux to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

The idea came up a few times in class discussion and in my research paper. Our readings kept referencing an attitude best summed up by the phrase “thank you for helping! When do you leave?” Even the Musée de l’Armée in Paris included a video extolling Charles de Gaulle, in part for his efforts to regain French autonomy from the occupying Allied forces. Based upon these French interpretations of the American Occupation, one would assume that the window paintings and souvenirs that have popped up in Normandy to be little more than trappings for American and British tourists coming over for the 75th anniversary. In some sense, they are trappings made to make tourists from the Allied countries feel appreciated. And the Allies did make possible French freedom from Nazi Occupation. It is a double-edged sword, however; to expect the French people to remain eternally grateful and in debt to the Americans and British seems fantastical, as if wanting a younger sibling to continue idolizing you well past one’s youth. I don’t believe that either side is happy with the current system, however; the French miffed at continuing to keep up an air of submissive thanks, the Allied tourists upset with the artificial sentiment that inevitably comes with tourist traps. That’s no way to celebrate such a momentous anniversary.

Recognizing the People in the People’s War

A point of pride in many of the World War II museums we visited in London is the idea of “the People’s War,” a war that average British citizens endured with fortitude and determination. The exhibits at Bletchley Park, for example, earnestly honored the hundreds of diverse men and women who cracked Axis codes during the war. As we walked through the cramped, dark, and sweltering “huts” that the people worked in, we viewed images of women projected onto the walls as they solved complex equations. This was fitting, given that our tour guide made sure to mention how women made up the majority of the workforce at Bletchley before we went inside. While the ways the British government has avoided taking responsibility for its oppressive treatment of minority groups in the past is problematic, honoring the members of those groups is a step in the right direction for healing old wounds. Eighty years ago, it did not matter who worked in the cramped spaces or breathed the stale air of the huts; they needed all hands for the war effort.


The emphasis on the people reacting to the war, however, represents a significant change from British heroes celebrated in the past. “Great man” interpretations of history extoll the virtues of a limited number of men instead of the diverse population. The legacy of Sir Winston Churchill stands out today as an example, with the Churchill War Rooms being a testament to his lasting popularity. Located in the former command center for British military operations, a maze of exhibits praise his contributions to the war. The first interactive display, placed at the entrance to the museum, lets you fill in the blanks to his most famous speeches. A few rows over to the right, a long row of shiny medallions awarded to him are on display, next to a plaque claiming that he did not like to show them off to others. One poster still managed to stand out, however. It features the cigar-bearing Churchill rolling his sleeves up, with dozens of others behind him following suit; they are all “right behind” him. Here, the people play an important but secondary role: they rallied behind him, the unnoticed hands who carried Britain out of danger and Churchill to legend. In this regard, Bletchley Park and the Churchill War Rooms are not so different. Whether prominently or in the background, both museums recognize people who quietly went back to their lives at the end of the war. Switching the memorialization of war in museums to focus on these varied stories of the people will give us a better look at the challenges and tribulations that come with war. The perspectives of infantry men are just as important as those of generals; one without the other, and we don’t get the full history.