It’s On Us: Honest Retellings of the Past in Berlin, Germany

There was no better place to end my month long stay in Europe than Berlin, Germany. Berlin is a lively and vibrant city whose streets seem to seep with both history and modernity. In my short time there, I found the city to be full of contrast, with remnants from Germany’s tumultuous past preserved alongside the city’s newer additions, buildings that have emerged under contemporary efforts to move forward from that past. The majority of the city as it exists today has been rebuilt in the time since WWII. Yet it was nearly impossible to walk down a street in Berlin without coming across a memorial or marker calling back to the city’s complex and unsteady history. Segments of the city’s infamous wall, for instance, are still scattered throughout Berlin, acting as lasting evidence of the days of Cold War division. Near a popular metro station, the ruin of a magnificent former train station rises as a testament to a past age of prominence, destroyed by the violence of war. And tucked away down a side street, a bronze statue of a pair of Jewish children, arms laden with suitcases and supplies, stands dedicated to the Kindertransports, the pre-war effort to remove young children targeted by Nazi discrimination from their increasingly desperate situation in Germany. These scattered testaments to history, present across Berlin, help to materialize Germany’s national identity, which is rooted in a deep determination not to forget its past.

Memorial to the Kindertransports entitled “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”

The clash of old and new was perhaps none more so apparent than in the reconstructed Reichstag building, which houses the contemporary German parliament. The building’s contrasting design is apparent from its exterior, which combines the stone façade from the original building—burned down during World War II—with a very modern all-glass dome resting on top. This juxtaposition extends into the building’s interior. The main parliamentary room consists of bright blue chairs, and the adjoining spaces—though decorated only sparsely—contain the works of modern artists from the United States, Britain, and Russia. As our excellent and engaging tour guide explained, these bold choices were made in part as an effort to make a complete break from the past, separating the new democratic government from the corrupt regime of old. However, Germany has found a way to navigate this break while still acknowledging the past and its lessons. On the lower floor of the Reichstag, portions of the old Reichstag brick have been preserved and incorporated into the new walls. These segments from the original building are still covered in the graffiti of Soviet soldiers, who marked their victory with coal or chalk when they reached the center of Berlin in 1945. The Reichstag’s combination of new and old features seems to successfully reflect Germany’s modern identity, which has had to emerge out of its dark past and root itself in a progressive and functional new beginning.

Interior of the Reichstag building, beneath the glass dome

Throughout this trip, my experience has been inherently effected by my own national identity. As an American, the narrative of WWII that I have grown up with is the story as defined by the Allies, the victors. Berlin presented me with the opportunity to explore the ways in which the defeated tell history. This is a feat that Germany has taken on with exceptional poise and honesty. Of all the places I have been to on this tour, Berlin seemed to treat the war with the most directness. Rather than shy away from its own brutal role in the war and its horrors, Germany has committed itself to a truthful, open and unblemished historical retelling. This is apparent throughout the city, in everything from the Reichstag, to the “stepping stone” plaques in the sidewalks that memorialize the deported, to the large Holocaust memorial in the center of the city. It is also apparent in Berlin’s museums. The German historical museum, for example, dedicates a very large space to its exhibit on the rise, reign and fall of the Third Reich, acknowledging that this period of time is as much a part of German history as the nation’s brighter moments.

Out of all the German museums we visited, my personal favorite was the Topography of Terror museum, which resides on the plot of the old SS headquarters building. This museum consists entirely of photographs and text, which made for a surprisingly powerful experience. Pictures of gestapo members vacationing and laughing were hung side by side with images of the horrible crimes they committed. Photos of Hitler and Himmler playing with small children rested beside photos of Jewish death camps. The captions to these images were straightforward and blunt to the point of being startling. One image of Auschwitz guards laughing and playing music, for instance, was captioned with the striking “taking a break from mass murder.” These captions were profound, and the exhibit as a whole was incredibly thought provoking. As I discussed with several of my fellow comrades afterwards, the photographs on display were not ones that we had seen before, despite our extensive study of WWII. The images of the Nazis that are widely dispersed and present in the history books tend to depict these men as calculated, serious and cold. Because of this, it can be easy to write Hitler and his party off as monsters. The Topography of Terror offered a reminder that the Nazis were in fact human, and that their capacity to commit evil atrocities is perhaps all the more frightening because of that fact.

Photographs on display at the Topography of Terror depicting Auschwitz guards taking a break

Germany’s ability to account for its past has led me to reflect on how we in America convey our own history. Like Germany, the United States is a nation with its fair share of dark moments. Since my time in Berlin, I have thought a lot about how we as a nation deal with the shameful moments in our own history. Although the United States may have been on the right side of WWII, we still seem to struggle with coming to terms with other, darker parts of our past. American classrooms and museums tend to skirt over issues like our treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam War. These are events of immense importance that have had a massive impact on the U.S.A.’s political, social, and cultural climate today. I believe Germany’s response to WWII offers insight into how one can maintain pride and patriotism towards his nation while still acknowledging the moments when his country has been in the wrong. Because of this, I believe America would do well to take a page out of Germany’s book. As I make my return to the states, it is with the revitalized hope that the U.S. will grow to acknowledge the times in which it, too, has acted as an oppressive and corrupt nation. After all, if I have taken anything away from this trip, it is the immense importance of public history, and in extension, a deep appreciation for the ways in which the past can and should endure.

Segment of the Berlin Wall, now part of the East Side Art Gallery

Tours of the Inconceivable: A Visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau

Walking through the main “Arbeit macht frei” gate of the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, in Poland was for me the most powerful moment of our study tour thus far. Even as we had approached the camp that morning, driving through the short stretch of trees and grass that separated the place of terror from the surrounding Polish neighborhoods, I had not known quite what to expect from our trip there. I was thinking about the context of Poland’s new Holocaust laws, which ban open discussion of Polish collaboration or complicity in the events that took place at concentration and death camps across the nation. After all our discussion about this new law in class, and our introduction to a Polish guide and translator, I was mindful of how our tour of Auschwitz might be effected by such a law, and on high alert for moments when the implications of the new rules might be made apparent in the words of our guide. However, when our scheduled tour began and we rounded the corner, entering the enclosure of barbed wire and witnessing the infamous black metal gate before me, this issue was momentarily set aside under the immediacy of what I was seeing. Here was the path that millions once tread as they endured the deep evil and oppression of the Nazi regime. The majority of individuals who walked through those gates lost any chance of returning to the world beyond the barbed wire. Walking across the same soil years later was a chilling experience that is difficult now for me to put into words.

Main gate at Auschwitz I


Although we were only in Poland for a few days, the sites we saw there, particularly at the former concentration and death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau, quickly became some of the most important and memorable. In the main camp, Auschwitz I, our class took a guided tour that led us through the barracks where prisoners had slept and washed, the courtyard where they had stood for hours during daily roll call, and the gallows and gas chambers where they had been murdered. In Birkenau, the adjoining death camp, we witnessed the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers abandoned by the Nazis in their retreat, and the memorial that has since been erected to commemorate the millions who lost their lives there during the years of the Holocaust. Seeing these sites firsthand was very poignant, adding new layers to my existing knowledge of the genocide. The Holocaust was no longer just a list of facts in my mind but fully materialized in front of me. I gained a more formidable understanding of the horrors of the concentration camps as I stared across former prisoner barracks now lined with photographs of the dead, and entered rooms filled with piles of dishes, shoes, suitcases, glasses, and human hair, remnants of those wiped out by the Nazis. The enormous loss of human life struck me as I envisioned the people behind those artifacts, the women, men and children who had carefully packed their suitcases full of personal valuables and boarded trains bound for death. After visiting the camps, these are images that I will forever hold in my mind.

In addition to the high emotion I experienced at Auschwitz, the visit also prompted me to consider the purpose of historical preservation and the ways that history can be effectively retold. Today, Auschwitz/Birkenau, once a mechanism of murder, is a popular tourist destination. Even with the structure of the guides, there were many who treated it as an attraction on the basest level. Before we had even entered the camp, I saw many individuals taking selfies and photographs of themselves by the gate and barbed wire. Later, despite a sign prompting silence, one school group spoke loudly and disrespectfully in the crematoriums. These instances of insensitivity made me reconsider the effectiveness of allowing public tours of a place like Auschwitz. Doing so seemed to open up the possibility of important sites being taken less seriously or being treated as bucket list checkmarks or photo ops for social media. This diminution takes away from the historical resonance and importance of the site, as well as creates a channel for disrespect toward an extremely sensitive topic.

Ruins of the crematorium at Birkenau

Despite these complications, my own experience at Auschwitz ultimately made me realize just how important it is to provide access to places like the concentration camps. Our guide emphasized the purpose of keeping Auschwitz open to the public as a way to preserve the truth of the past and carry its lessons forward toward a better future. The weight of this mission was something I felt deeply as entered the barracks at Auschwitz and walked alongside the railroad tracks at Birkenau. The narrative being told at the camps was highly controlled, aided by many photographs, statistics, and informative signs. In order to visit Auschwitz, it is also necessary to take a guided tour, a method that ensures that everyone is given access to the same structured narrative. This system helps to prompt tourists who come to Auschwitz to do so critically, engaging them in conversation guided by access to facts and information. There is an irrevocable chasm that can never fully be bridged between the Auschwitz prisoners who once were forced to be there and the millions who walk through the site today. Those who were not there cannot possibly understand fully what it was like to suffer the Holocaust. Visiting the camps, properly conducted, certainly makes the gap a little narrower, bringing into firmer reality the suffering that so many underwent during the war, and ensuring that the lessons of the tragedy endure well into the future.

Barbed wire surrounding the Auschwitz I camp

Striving for Peace: The Cemeteries of Normandy, France

As I stood on the sand at Omaha beach in France, I recalled the words of reporter Ernie Pyle, a reporter, as he described the sight of the beach just days after the initial D-Day landings there: “The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable.” These words were published on June 16, 1944, in a dispatch Pyle titled “The Horrible Waste of War.” Today, nearly 74 years after the D-day landings, there is no sign of the tanks, weapons, equipment, fortifications, personal belongings, or human bodies that scattered the beach on June 6, 1944. Now, an empty stretch of sand meets a clear ocean and open skies, with only the contemporary monuments, museums and flags on the shores left to mark the monumental events that once took place there. These later additions—the American flag side by side with the French, the statues of fallen soldiers and the poppy wreaths carefully arranged around monuments to all who fought—serve both to commemorate the past and to offer a warning for the present and the future.

The American cemetery in Normandy

During my past week in Normandy, I have been faced with near constant reminders of the extraordinary price that thousands paid in France, both the Allies on their path to ultimate victory, as well as their German opponents. This was no more apparent than when I visited three of Normandy’s major cemeteries, the American, the German, and the British. These cemeteries were very distinct, and all seemed to embody the individual cultures and collective memories of the nations they represent. The American cemetery, for instance, immediately reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Thousands of white crosses sat atop neatly trimmed grass, aligned into careful rows. A large monument to freedom made up the base, with the American flag flying on each side and a pond resting in the middle. The grounds were impeccably maintained. Despite these distinctly American features, the sound of Omaha beach below brought home the fact that the men entombed there died in a foreign land, fighting an unpredictable battle without an assured outcome. As our class lay flags alongside the graves of the Ohio State alumni who perished in the Normandy campaign, I felt a deep connection to the men buried there, many of whom were my age when they landed on the beaches and lost their lives. However, beyond the personal connections I felt from my vantage point as an American, this cemetery was most striking because of its sheer size. The graves, extending for rows and rows in all directions, seemed to place emphasis on the scope of the American sacrifice in World War II, aligning in this way with one of the dominant American narratives of the war.

The British cemetery in Normandy

This American cemetery distinctly contrasted with the cemeteries of the British and the Germans. While the American cemetery, with its long rows of identical tombstones, gave me a sense of the extent of death during the second World War, the British cemetery brought home the individual lives of each solider who perished. At the British cemetery, the graves were highly personal. Each one included a unique inscription, many of which were personal statements of love and remembrance from the family members of the deceased. Additionally, each gravestone was situated within a bed of flowers. These features helped express Britain’s desire to commemorate the people involved in the war, the individual men who fought and lost their lives in Normandy. Meanwhile, the Germany cemetery offered insight into how the defeated are remembered. The cemetery consisted of flat gravestones that each denoted the names, birth and death dates of multiple soldiers. Groups of five stone crosses were interspersed throughout these grave markers, and in the center a grassy mound overlooked them all, bearing an inscription in German reading “God has the last word.” The simplicity of this cemetery seemed to make it all the more poignant, offering a somber reflection on the toll that war took on the enemy as well as the Allies. As I took a closer look at the some of the graves, I recalled the startling ages of the German soldiers in Normandy, many of whom were in their teens or late 30s or 40s. Many of the younger men had come from the Hitler Youth and been indoctrinated into the culture of the Third Reich, while others had deeply believed in the twisted ideology that would eventually bring about their downfall. Though certainly their beliefs and choices varied greatly, the soldiers buried in all three cemeteries prompted me to consider the overarching way in which these men had actually been alike, each of them human beings whom war destroyed.

The German cemetery in Normandy

Together, these three cemeteries seemed to speak to Pyle’s reflections on the expendable nature of war. Looking at the countless graves of named and unnamed men on both sides of the front, it was hard to avoid thinking about the enormous human waste that is so intrinsic to wars to this day. The cemeteries therefore seemed to act above all as a call for peace, bespeaking a warning against the consequence of vast military conflicts. This notion was made explicit in the visitor’s center connected to the German cemetery. In this room, an entire wall was dedicated to images from the gruesome conflicts that have occurred since World War II, interspersed with quotes that speak to the destructive nature of war and express deeply anti-war sentiments. These images included photographs from many of today’s ongoing conflicts, including the turbulent climate of the Middle East. This contemporary reflection on the cyclical nature of war and death added a new layer to the cemeteries, indicating that they serve not just to memorialize the past, but also to strive for a more positive and peaceful future. At the top of this panel of wall, a large quote from Omar Bradley read “We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than about living.” These words seemed to echo the emotions I felt as I looked out at the rows and rows of tombs and reflected on the contemporary implications of advanced warfare. War takes as its victims the victors as well as the defeated. This immense drain on human resources and lives is embodied in the cemeteries of Normandy. Their long rows of gravestones seem to denote an urgent call to learn from the mistakes of the past in the hopes of preventing future headlines that declare “the horrible waste of war.”

The Resilience of a Nation: The British Citizenry in the Second World War

As I depart from London, England and browse through the photographs I captured there, I am reminded of just how much World War II seems to have impacted Britain’s national identity. In one photo, a statue of the British home forces, with the men’s hands pointing towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, commemorates the Blitz that destroyed a portion of its walls. In another, the bomber command memorial opens to the sky, with bronze Royal Air Force pilots looking outward toward the heavens. In yet another, Winston Churchill rises in a prominent space in parliament square, indicating his enduring importance in the national ethos. Together, these pictures indicate the permanent impact of war on the British, an impact which today pervades the streets of London. Though we visited several sites directly relevant to the war, I encountered additional references in unexpected places, including Westminster Abbey and the monuments of Trafalgar Square. These sites all shared a common foundation: a focus on the British people and the crucial role they played in Britain’s ultimate victory in World War II. Britain, from 1939 to 1945, experienced a people’s war. The conflict impacted everyone, from those working in the Cabinet War Rooms and Bletchley Park, to the families who sent their men to fight and endured sustained air raids on the home front. The deeply personal impact that war had on the British population was an important component of every monument and museum I visited during my stay.

The Bomber Command Memorial

All of Britain’s war memorial sites emphasized the importance of everyday people, who worked hard to aid the war effort in ways they may not have even realized at the time. At the Churchill War Rooms, which acted as the underground hub of the British war effort, the work of the government relied greatly upon the work of civilians. These employees were telephonists, typists, and personal secretaries who helped make possible the work being done by Churchill and other government and military officials. At Bletchley Park, where the British intelligence staff was housed, civilians fulfilled similar roles, working there as engineers, translators, and typists to help intercept and decode German messages. At the Bletchley site, now a museum, a book has been created to list every individual’s name known to be associated with the site, with flyers available to submit additional names. The museum’s inclusion of this book indicates Bletchley’s ongoing effort to preserve and commemorate the efforts of its wartime staff. The Imperial War Museum had an entire World War II section dedicated to the People’s War. To showcase the experience of living in Britain during the war, this museum traced the experience of one London family from the beginning to the end of the war. This section allowed visitors to see into a typical family home and learn about the lifestyle of its inhabitants, from the ration books used to buy limited groceries and the dresses that were hand sown from recycled fabric, to the newsreels playing in cinemas across the nation.

Particularly striking was all three sites’ emphasis on oral history. Each site made a concerted effort to give voice to the everyday citizenry of Britain who had lived through the trials of war. Videos and audio interviews allowed visitors to hear the personal experiences of individuals who contributed to British victory through their own personal resilience and motivation to keep up the fight. In the Churchill War Rooms, an audio headset shared the story of a typist who had worked in the bunker space. She discussed her perspective on the monotony of her work and the pride she that nonetheless found in aiding Churchill. In Bletchley, a similar setup followed a woman explaining the struggles of working as a translator and living in a world at war. Finally, at the Imperial War Museum, a woman’s recollections of the fear of aerial bombardment and claustrophobia of air raid shelters played inside a replica of a government issued backyard bunker. These oral accounts really touched me, particularly because so many of them came from women who, at the time of the war, were about the same age as I am now. Seeing the ways in which their lives were effected and made drastically different by the war brought home the war’s enduring impact on ordinary people. In many ways, the recollections of these women and their counterparts keep the legacy of the war alive, making it an intrinsic part of contemporary historical memory.

By giving voice to ordinary people, Great Britain has shaped a history of world war II that is rooted in the actions and morale of its wartime population. This was prevalent throughout the sites we visited in London and Bletchley, and made even greater by the personal experiences we heard voiced by Michael Handscomb, who had experienced the Blitz as a child and saw the war through its duration. As a whole, my experience in London opened my eyes to the multiple ways that the war changed individual lives. Firsthand accounts add a strikingly personal facet to historical retellings, and the emphasis of these accounts in London indicates Britain’s desire to keep the personal stories of the past alive for future generations.

Monument for the Blitz located next to St. Paul’s Cathedral