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.