Reflection to Reconciliation

       Germany’s collective memory of World War II is a complex and evolving narrative that reflects the country’s efforts to come to terms with its dark past. Since the end of WWII, Germany has undergone a process of reflection, remorse, and reconciliation. The country has acknowledged its responsibility for the atrocities committed during the war and made significant efforts to address its historical legacy. The museums that we visited make this clear.

       Compared to the museums in all of the other countries we went to, Germany’s recognition of the war and the Holocaust  is direct and pedagogically focused. The Topography of Terror museum has paragraphs accompanying each and every picture. The captions contain detailed information, and boards hang everywhere with more background and extensive analyses. The pictures of smiling Nazi soldiers, in particular, spoke to me. One wall of pictures shows Nazi’s enjoying their rest time, and the caption read “Taking a break from mass murder.” The next wall displays gruesome pictures of the victims of those Nazis. I was consistently surprised by how openly German museums discuss war crimes committed in the name of Germany. Through these discussions, Germany seeks a deeper understanding of the complex factors that contributed to the rise of Nazi ideology and the war itself.

       As we walked through Berlin, we frequently stumbled on memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and WWII. The Holocaust Memorial occupies a full block in the middle of the city, and many other buildings commemorate other historical events throughout the city including the preserved front of Anhalter Bahnhof, once Germany’s largest train station, near our hotel. Germany does all it can to educate future generations about its history and preserve the memory of victims. Through education, memorials, and ongoing discussions, Germany confronts its past, striving to ensure that the memory of the war serves as a reminder of the consequences of nationalism, intolerance, and hatred. 

Horrifying Holocaust Realities

     I have learned about the Holocaust in my history classes for as long as I can remember. Despite seeing pictures from Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to walk around and stand in the death camp.

     Before we entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, I never understood the sheer size of it. We passed through the gates that I have seen in every textbook and museum I’ve visited, and it suddenly became real to me. I didn’t realize how little I had internalized the brutality of the camps until I stood crying at a pair of toddler’s shoes behind a pane of glass. Even worse was seeing the “beds” that prisoners crammed into. The dark, hard wood looked uncomfortable at best, and hearing stories about people waking up next to cold, dead bodies, and being happy that it wasn’t them shook me. We saw the blocks, the death wall, the tracks, and stolen valuables. We were able to see pictures of victims, and hear about how they got there. Our guide was especially good, helping us understand what we were shown, connecting it back to the lives robbed from all of these people. Our studies had covered the estimated number of deaths in the camp and explained the inhumane treatment of prisoners, but facts and figures will never compare to standing in the camp itself and seeing the aftermath personally. The piles of shaved hair, glasses, and shoes continue to haunt me.

     Brutality was palpable in every room, but most telling for me were the rooms dedicated to different modes of execution. I work in a veterinary clinic and have been present for animal euthanasia. I have held and comforted  animals as they passed from an injection to the heart. The pictures of human beings killed in a similar manner – but without sedation or comfort — made me feel sick. Learning more about the terrifying deaths of millions of people has truly shown me how these prisoners were treated as not only less than human, but as less than animals.

Historical Appreciation v Contemporary Entertainment

           It’s interesting to view how history has been preserved and appreciated as time goes on. After learning so much about WWII, it was a surreal experience to be able to see the places we talked about and to step foot on the same land that so many soldiers risked their lives on.

            When the attack on Omaha Beach was occurring, German troops were hunting the Americans on the beaches from bunkers up in the bluffs of Point du Hoc. Systematically bombed before the landing, the area was quite literally a battle field strewn with explosions, guns, and bodies. Now, the bomb craters  are filled with grass and greenery, and the German bunkers are becoming rubble overtaken by nature. One thing that is still pretty much the same is the inside of the German bunkers that are still standing. When walking inside the bunker, I could see  bullet holes and small indentations made by grenades all throughout the surrounding walls. The wood on the ceiling is still charred, burned by flamethrowers, and you can look outside of viewpoints that the Germans once used to watch the Americans storming the beaches. Being able to stand in the same place where a Nazi soldier once had stood watch was a haunting experience. But it really helped me to put all that I’ve learned about the D-Day invasion into perspective.

            When I was walking the beaches, all I could think about was the weight of the sacrifices made here. While we were walking through a bunker, there was a group of about fifteen high school kids touring aside us. Despite the violence that happened here, they made jokes about shooting people and even made a TikTok of themselves re-enacting being shot against the wall.  They were simply disrespectful. When thinking about it more, I wonder if this “joke” shows how a historical site may become trivial to some as time passes. There were no bodies left on the land, no active fighting, and today we are raised around violence as entertainment. I wonder if this makes it hard to have the same appreciation for history, and whether these kids were simply uneducated about the horrors that occurred exactly where they were standing or whether they simply didn’t care.

            Being able to stand in the same place where something so horribly important happened allowed me to have a better grasp on what I’ve learned while studying WWII. Seeing different reactions to a place like this brings up the question of whether or not these locations will be properly respected as time passes, or if contemporary social media will make it a trivial site of exploitation and dark comedy.

War Through Varied Lenses

Walking through England, there are museums, monuments, and historical sites everywhere you look. When I visited the Imperial War Museum, the Churchill War Museum, and Bletchley Park I found them to represent history in completely different ways.
The Imperial War Museum was immense and it displayed a lot of items and descriptions for soldiers from England, soldiers from Germany, families at home, and so much more. I feel like every corner I turned, there was a new gas mask or uniform I was looking at. One room was built to look like the inside of a house. It’s wallpaper showed pictures of families wearing gas masks, pictures of kids playing, and pictures of soldiers. There was a fire flickering in the middle of the room, and a radio next to that. The radio was playing an old broadcast that was talking about the war, but it was hard to make out exactly what the voice was saying. As I was walking around it was insane to imagine that this was how people lived for six years. Leaving the house, there was an air raid shelter that I was able to squeeze inside. I wasn’t even able to stand up straight while I was in there. Right outside of the shelter was a display showing all of the bombs that might have been dropped on the fake home I was just in which was chilling to imagine. The Imperial War Museum explained so many different topics by trying to have them be as relatable to viewers as possible, and walking around really showed me a lot of different perspectives of the war. It it helped me understand just how many different perspectives there could have been during the war, whether that be that of a soldier, or that of families sheltering in place at home.
Opposing the broad perspective of the Imperial War Museum, the Churchill War Museum focused completely on Churchill and the behind-the-scenes of planning the war. In all of my history classes we have always talked about important people meeting in a room to discuss big plans for the war. I don’t think I completely understood the work that went into planning such complex things as war until I was able to walk through the war rooms and hear workers from this time talk about their jobs and experiences. There were maps that took up the entire wall that had lines and pins scattered all over them showing where troops from both sides were. There were statistics posted everywhere showing casualty rates of both friend and foe, and every wall that surrounded me was covered in paper. I can’t even comprehend the amount of work that went into keeping such accurate information and deciding which information was important enough to be posted. In addition to looking around, I was listening to an audio guide that was explaining what I was looking at. When first person accounts started playing of the people that worked there it showed me everything in a new perspective. So many of the rooms had typewriters and beds in the same space. Listening to a woman tell me how she would wake up, start working and continue working all day, only to go to bed and repeat the same process the next day told me exactly how dedicated everyone involved in the behind the scenes of the war was to this cause. This museum was a lot more specific to what kind of work these people were able to complete and how it helped the outcome of the war overall.
Bletchley Park was similar to the Churchill War Museums in how it focused primarily on one thing, which in this case was codebreaking, but it differed because it explained how the workers did their jobs. Bletchley Park focused on explaining the Enigma machine, and all over the park there were little interactive games that explained the process of codebreaking. The first thing I saw when I walked into the museum was what looked like a little gear. I found out that this “gear” was actually a ring of letters that made up a rotor. This rotor was then set to a certain order of letters (depending on which code was being used) and there was a plugboard that lined up each letter typed to what the coded letter would be. Despite seeing the enigma machine being taken apart in front of me, I still don’t completely understand how it works. This helped me to develop a deep respect for those that worked here and understood such a complex concept. This respect was only grew because there were pictures of young women all over the walls next to explanations about how they worked all day every day to break this code, yet they couldn’t let anyone know what they were doing. They were about my age, or even younger which completely blows my mind. This museum was different because it explained the process of how information was gathered and how workers did their jobs instead of simply explaining the overall effect this work had on the war.
These museums represent history in completely different ways, but I find this valuable as it shows how there are many ways to view a national war. Every single person has a different memory of WWII, and seeing so many different museums has let me start to understand that the collective memory of WWII is insanely varied. Depending on what your experiences were or what you’re focused on studying, you can view WWII completely differently than someone else which I has made me love learning about it even more.