While I was very excited to visit all of the locations that we have traveled to on this trip, Germany was perhaps my most highly anticipated destination. German history has long been one of my historical interests and I relished the opportunity to visit the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, and the many other sites of historical significance in Berlin. Similarly, I was eager to practice both my German language skills with the local Berliners and my ability to quaff large amounts of meat, bread, and beer in the Berlin beer gardens. For sure, Berlin did not fail to meet all of my expectations. Almost everyone that I interacted with was amiable, polite, and spoke excellent English; likewise, the city itself is relatively clean, aesthetically pleasing, and possesses both an efficient transportation network and an abundance of quality eating establishments. One aspect of Berlin that I found interesting was the juxtaposition of old and new that is manifested throughout the city. While most European cities, particularly those affected by the world wars, obviously possess both old and new buildings, the architectural contrast between past and present in Berlin is particularly stark. Since about 80% of central Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, a great amount of the city is relatively new; the multitude of construction cranes that dot the city’s skyline exemplify how Berlin is a modern, dynamic metropolitan area. At the same time, Berlin possesses a number of older structures that more or less survived the maelstrom of World War II like Charlottenburg Palace and the Rotes Rathaus, many of which date back as far as Prussian times. Even in areas where no old buildings currently stand, there are often plaques that commemorate important historical locations such as the former palaces and ministerial buildings on the Wilhelmstraße.
My perception of Berlin’s urban landscape, that of an open and honest acknowledgement of and engagement with the past while looking ahead towards the future, matches my impression of the German perception of World War II. The German museums that we visited were very impressive in their thoroughness, attention to detail, and frank portrayal of the crimes perpetuated during the Third Reich. The German Historical Museum in particular caught my attention with its painstakingly detailed and nuanced depiction of the interwar period and the rise of the Nazis. The exhibits made no excuses for the German nation but, at the same time, thoroughly explained the specific circumstances in which the Nazis rose to power and accurately surveyed the regime’s misdeeds, naturally highlighting the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, the Topography of Terror Museum openly and objectively detailed the inner workings of the Nazi terror state and strenuously emphasized its many and varied victims while the Museum of the Capitulation surveyed the course of the Eastern Front from both sides, sparing neither Germany nor the USSR from critical analysis. The famous Holocaust Memorial, the ubiquitous commemorative plaques for Berlin Jews, and the prominence of Holocaust exhibits at almost every museum underscore both Germany’s persistent guilt for Nazi crimes and its continual determination to educate both foreigners and natives of the horrors committed during the Third Reich. Some may think that this German guilt is almost neurotic in its intensity and persistence and that this guilt skews the German historical perspective. In this vein, both the Resistance Museum at the Bendlerblock, which commemorates the various elements of German society that opposed the Nazis, and the Wannsee House, which maintains a staunchly intentionalist view of the Holocaust that accentuates the guilt of the Nazi elite, can be seen as German attempts to salvage historical memory by not implicating concretely the German populace as a whole. However, I think that Berlin’s evident acceptance of history, typified by the continuing existence of Soviet war memorials like at Treptow, the presence of Soviet graffiti in the Reichstag, and the present reconstruction of the Prussian Stadtschloss, demonstrates that Germans find solace by firmly acknowledging the complicated reality of their nation’s history and dutifully preserving that history for future generations. While it is not always easy, I think that the German commitment to truthfully portraying both the good and the bad of their history is an admirable effort that I hope I can replicate as an aspiring historian.
Finally, there are many people that I must thank for this amazing experience. Firstly, I thank my parents and the generous donors of the World War II program for making this trip possible for me. Of course, I thank Professor Steigerwald and Lauren Henry for organizing and leading our program and for being amazing role models for an aspirant history professor such as myself. Last but not least, I sincerely thank my colleagues on the trip for their fellowship. While the World War II Study Program’s stimulating coursework and exciting locations were amazing in their own right, the presence of 22 fantastic people solidified this trip for me as one of the greatest experiences of my life thus far.
Dankeschön and auf wiedersehen,