Berlin Blog

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,

Ian Jones

Poland Blog

Given my experiences in communicating with the French locals, I braced myself for the worst as we headed eastward to Krakow. While comprehending French was indeed difficult, French is a Romance language that has many Latin cognates and occasionally words that are similar to English. Conversely, the Slavic tongue of the Poles is completely esoteric to me. Touching down on the runway, I knew exactly one word of Polish; at least in French I knew how to say “I don’t speak French.” However, strangely enough, Poland turned out to be far more similar to the United States than France and, if it were not for my lack of Polish language skills, would have given the UK a run for its money in the area of similarity. Most of the Poles that I interacted with were very friendly and spoke decent English, two qualities that I rarely found combined in the French people that I met. Likewise, Krakow is dotted with McDonald’s and KFC’s, and possesses a very posh, American-style shopping mall. Indeed, the combination of plentiful commercial opportunities and the weakness of the zloty to the dollar greatly contributed to my enjoyment of the location.

Other than the incomprehensible language and ready availability of affordable food and souvenirs, the Polish portrayal of history at the Schindler Museum and at Auschwitz-Birkenau was the more prominent difference between Poland and our previous locations. Unlike Britain and France, the Polish museums did not seem overly preoccupied with establishing a unifying, triumphant, or self-justifying national wartime narrative. Instead, the Polish exhibits aimed to provide a comprehensive, detailed, and largely honest overview of peoples’ wartime experiences, analyzing both general societal issues as well as the tribulations of specific groups. The Schindler Museum, despite its specific name, imparts upon the visitor an extremely immersive and engaging portrait of life in prewar and wartime Krakow for both Gentiles and Jews, utilizing an abundance of physical and anecdotal evidence to explicate the realities of the German occupation. While the museum’s notably scanty coverage of Polish collaboration could smack of a nationalistic bias, the conclusion of the exhibit with the brutal Soviet occupation and prominent recognition of moral ambiguity in wartime bolsters the conception of the museum as a display of diverse wartime tribulations rather than an exhibition with a pointed nationalistic agenda. Auschwitz-Birkenau similarly provides abundant and blunt depictions of Nazi brutality, albeit in a far more compelling and emotionally-distressing manner. By highlighting the many groups persecuted by the Nazis while not diminishing the great significance of the Jewish Holocaust, Auschwitz seems to impart to the visitor plain facts without a great amount of spin.

While Poland, like many ex-Eastern Bloc countries, has witnessed a distinct uptick in nationalist sentiment in the last two decades, the stark and pervasive horrors conveyed by the museums that we visited conveyed to me not that the Poles lack a national view of World War II, but rather that the Polish conception of the war is far more sober than that of Britain or France. Given the immense human losses suffered by Poland during the war and the following 40 years of Communist repression, the Poles seem to believe that they have little to celebrate or extract from the war other than its horrible realities.

France Blog

Sailing on the ferry from Portsmouth to Normandy, the choppy waters of the English Channel were not the only thing that was causing my stomach to churn, for I was filled with both anticipation and dread of travelling to a truly foreign country for the first time. While Britain is certainly distinct from the United States in many aspects, the shared language and multitude of cultural similarities imparted a sense of familiarity and comfort that was conspicuously absent in France. Other than a few momentary misunderstandings, particularly regarding the disparate French and Anglophone understandings of what a “menu” is, my compatriots and I managed to survive without any major catastrophes. Noticing and adapting to different cultural norms, while far more daunting than London, was fascinating, exiting, and, in regard to the ubiquity of pastry shops and (relatively) inexpensive three-course meals, delicious.

However, the distinct French language and customs were not the only notable differences between France and the United Kingdom. Throughout Normandy and Paris, we visited a variety of museums, cemeteries, monuments, and historical sites that all conveyed different perspectives of World War II history. While all of these locations were intriguing and informative in their own right, the overall narratives and foci of the French museums contrast starkly with the formal, detached empiricism of the British sites. For one, many of the exhibits, particularly the American-funded Utah Beach and Airborne Museums, are quite narrowly focused on military affairs. Being a military history enthusiast, I greatly appreciated the plethora of military artifacts, OOB’s, and battle maps; while I believe that a thorough comprehension of the actual fighting in Normandy is both relevant to the location and crucial to a larger understanding of the war, the dominance of purely martial aspects occasionally risked reducing World War II to a mere campaign narrative. In contrast, the “more French” Caen Museum aspires to a far broader, more universal understanding of the war. By chronicling both the interwar and wartime periods and addressing most military, political, and social aspects, including the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, the Caen Museum attempted to convey a general message of the essence of total war and its calamitous effects on Europe. However, similar to the idiosyncrasies of British “empiricism,” this universalist lens has imperfections that reveal a distinctly French perception of the World War II period and its significance. While acknowledging Vichy collaboration and the relative paucity of vigorous resistance in occupied France, the museum delves very little into these subjects. Similarly, the exhibits oversimplify the participation of France’s empire in the war effort, largely neglecting the moral complexities of colonial exploitation. Simultaneously, the conspicuous passages on the deleterious effects of Allied bombing in Normandy, while valid, further underscores this French perspective.

Yet, compared to Les Invalides, the Caen Museum is a shining beacon of objectivity. The Army Museum in Paris, while fascinating in its display of militaria, presents a grossly distorted view of the war and France’s part in it. The ignominious defeat of 1940, collaboration, and the roles of other Allied countries (save the USSR, interestingly enough) are all swept aside by a cavalcade of French military “triumphs.” Even allowing for the inherently limited focus of the exhibit on the French military, the museum is almost ridiculous in its pro-French bias, particularly the effusive Charles de Gaulle exhibition. However, having viewed the broader picture of France’s military and political history in Les Invalides’ military pantheon and in the glittering halls of Versailles, I can largely understand the prevailing nationalistic tone of French museums. France possesses a rich history as a political, military, and cultural giant in Europe; at the same time, France faced great crises and deep divisions throughout the twentieth century and particularly during the world wars. While I can never condone the distortion of historical truth, I believe that France’s self-righteous and skewed view of the war is symptomatic of the country’s continuing struggle to define itself and achieve domestic political and social harmony.

London Blog

My observations of the British presentation of World War II at the sites we visited largely matched my impressions of the Britons that I interacted with: formal, polite, detached, and occasionally condescending. Just as I was struck by the impeccable courteousness and comparative remoteness of many British people, the thoroughness and overall objectivity of the British museums was conspicuous and impressive. Exhibits like the Churchill museum, which provided an interactive display of thousands of viewable documents related to the prime minister, exemplified for me both the serious pedagogical aims of British museums and a commitment to a more detached, objective presentation. The abundant information presented by the Churchill exhibits balance Churchill’s strengths and successes with his flaws and failures; while the positive popular and historical consensus about Churchill was certainly clear, the museum’s nuanced portrayal seemed to leave the final assessment up to the observer. However, despite this prevailing sense of impartiality and analysis, all the museums that I visited clearly convey the British perspective on the war and structure their foci correspondingly. The Imperial War Museum hardly gives any mention to the Eastern Front or the Pacific theater, naturally ceding pride of place to the Battle of Britain, the Western Desert Campaign, and the Normandy Invasion. Similarly, while the IWM acknowledges the wartime contributions of the larger British Empire, more sensitive and controversial issues like the defeats in East Asia and the exploitation of imperial resources are downplayed in favor of the more traditional, Anglo-centric view of the British Empire’s resolute and heroic fight against Fascism.

Indeed, the multiple museums that I visited in Britain all exuded the common theme of World War II as “the People’s War,” the strenuous, unified effort of all British people to overcome material hardships and military reversals to win the war despite deeply-entrenched class and political divisions. In contrast to the many less-than-positive aspects of World War II for Great Britain – appeasement, a mixed military record, and the loss of global preeminence – the British collective memory seems to favor portraying the war as a great coming together of all levels of society for a just cause. The Bletchley Park Museum exemplifies this notion of a great collective effort, emphasizing the diverse backgrounds and contributions of the thousands of people that worked in the Ultra intelligence operation. In addition to displaying the methods and effects of Ultra’s intelligence-gathering, various exhibits highlight the daily lives and individual experiences of Bletchley operatives from Alan Turing himself to the WREN’s that operated the facility’s switchboards. Similarly, the HMS Belfast museum ship presents both the operational history of the light cruiser and the experiences of its sailors, notably including many interviews with Royal Navy crew members. The Imperial War Museum dedicates much space to the wartime experiences of ordinary Britons, particularly stressing the everyday privations and sacrifices of Londoners during the Blitz with an abundance of primary accounts and salient artifacts. Likewise, the placement of the World War II section after the revamped Great War exhibit, which exhaustively introduces the concept of total war, reinforces the idea of World War II as a great collective undertaking of the entire British nation.

Despite this copious evidence, the speech of Michael Hanscomb, our guest speaker who grew up during the Blitz, most firmly impressed upon me the British conception of the “People’s War.” His anecdotes of perseverance and simple admiration for Churchill’s determined, down-to-earth leadership typified for me the experience of common Britons during the conflict. While the British interpretation may oversimplify history, Mr. Hanscomb poignantly remarked that what is history to me is simply part of his life, reminding me that despite our efforts to be rational and detached, history is often very personal and thus subjective.

Introductory Post


My name is Ian Jones and I just finished my second year as a history major here at Ohio State. While I find essentially all history fascinating, I am primarily interested in early-modern and modern European history, particularly military history. World War II is my original historical passion and I am very excited to finally visit all of these places in person.