The Art of Division

Our time in Berlin was spent talking about the end of the war and retribution for the Nazis. We also discussed what happened to the city and the country after 1945. You cannot spend any time in Berlin without facing the reality that it was a divided city for almost fifty years. There are pieces of the infamous Berlin Wall looming over many areas in the city, and even the walk signs give an indication of what side of Berlin you are in.

One of the places where the East-West divide is still evident is at the East Side Gallery. This street art exhibit features large murals painted on a remaining section of the wall. This display showed many beautiful paintings, often depicting how the fall of the Berlin Wall freed the German people.

The most intriguing thing about this exhibit was the difference between the East and West sides of the wall. On the West side there are beautiful murals, skyscrapers, and a busy train station. On the East side there is graffiti, dead grass, the river and old factories. This s divide was shocking to see in the Berlin of 2019.

I think that this just goes to show the lasting effects of war on a people and a country. Even thirty years after the reunification, Germany is still fraught with a difficult national history. While they have begun to come to terms with what the war and occupation meant to them and the rest of the world, there is still a lot of work that they can do to bring the two halves of Germany together.

A mural on the West side of the Berlin Wall

Another mural on the West side depicting the opening of the wall.

The East side of the Berlin Wall, covered in graffiti.

Manipulating the Narrative of Victory and Defeat

As we have traveled across Europe, it has been clear that the national memory of the war is very different in each country.  True, everyone highlights the victories and brush defeats under the rug. But after finishing our time in Poland, I was intrigued with the way that they have presented their collective memory of the war, especially when compared to what we were seeing in France.

On our visit to the Schindler Museum we had a fantastic tour guide. She was very knowledgeable and tried to give us the  fullest picture possible of life in Krakow and around Poland during the occupation during the war. While the museum is located in the former Schindler factory, it is not simply a shrine to Oskar Schindler. They have taken the space and turned it into a very interesting museum that displays how Krakow evolved before, during, and after the war.

Similarly to what we saw in France, there was a big emphasis on the Polish identity topping all other religious or social identity. Our tour guide explained that while there Jews in Krakow, they were Polish first,  just as a French Jew  was French first and Jewish second. One of the striking similarities was also how both countries are manipulating the narratives of the war to remove any  national blame. In France everyone was a resister.  In Poland there were good and bad people on both sides, and the death of the Jews was the sole responsibility of the Nazis. In Poland it is actually illegal to claim that the Poles had anything to do with the Holocaust. While it is not that extreme in France, the sentiment is still there.

There were also some differences that I noticed between the countries. Something that kept coming back to me was the exhibit in Caen that claimed France would be victorious “with or without the Allies.” In Poland there did not seem to be this claim of  self-liberation.  Our tour guide pointed out that Poland never signed an armistice, they just lost the fight. She also brought up how Poland needed the help of the Allies because their army was too weak to defeat the German forces. While other parts of the museum may have downplayed the  conquest of Poland, I appreciated the mild honesty that came when she explained that Poland would not be able to stand alone.

Poland and France are very different countries, and the war is significant for different reasons. I don’t know what I expected when I came to Poland, but I was surprised to see how their national narrative, while still flawed, was  comparable to the French.  I think that it will be interesting as we travel to Germany to think about how the national memory can be shaped and redefined based on who is telling it and where it is being told.

The pre-war street signs displayed at the Schindler Museum.

An example of how the Polish resistance would hide weapons in secret compartments in their refrigerator.

Another example of one of the explanations from the museum in Caen…with a little bit of an editing done by me at the end…

Shaping Young Minds: How We Share History

Throughout our time in Bayeux, I often noticed the way that the French memory of the war is presented to the people there. The first place where this was evident was in the museum in Caen. There was little to no ownership taken for any of the atrocities committed during the war. In their exhibit about the Holocaust, most of the examples of deportations given were from the Ukraine. As we had learned in this past Spring, France was often complicit in the deportation of Jews from their country, and yet this was never mentioned. There was also no mention of the collaboration of Vichy France with the Nazis. Besides a small exhibit about Petain, the leader of Vichy France, Vichy was only mentioned one or two times throughout the museum.

There was also a high level of dedication to the memory of the Resistance. While the Resistance was valuable in some ways, the museums made it seem like every person in France was actively resisting the Nazi occupation, which was not the case. This myth is played up to the point where one of the signs explaining the liberation of France stated that liberation would have been achieved “with or without the help of the Allies.”

While these sources of information are concerning to me as a historian, they are even more concerning to me as a future educator. There were many French school children at these museums. This is the information that they are receiving as the complete truth, which could be problematic as they continue their education. In each museum I grappled with not only how the information was presented to those children, but how information about war and history is conveyed to American students at our own historical sites. It is easy to look at museums in another country and pick them apart, but it is just as important to do this back in the US. It is important to me that my students are able to understand history in a holistic way, and thinking critical about the information we were presented with in Bayeux solidified this as a necessity in my classroom.

One of the panels explaining the role of the Resistance at the Museum in Caen.

One of the only pieces of propaganda which discussed the situation in France…

Fighting The People’s War: Extraordinary Hopes and Extraordinary Men

Throughout the spring semester and while in London, we focused on how the English saw World War Two as the “People’s War.” In this mentality, every person was a part of the war effort and contributed to it in some way. This was evident in all of the historical sites that we visited while exploring the British capital. In the Churchill War Rooms we saw the feelings of the people embodied in one extraordinary man. Though Churchill would probably not be considered one of the common people based on his parentage and life experiences, he truly prided himself on taking the mood of the people and being a source of inspiration. The museum at the War Rooms had an emphasis on why Churchill was a great leader and great Englishman and how he was the one who got the rest of the people through the tumultuous times of war. There were interactive displays entitled, “Why Churchill Was a Great Leader” where historians discussed why Churchill was able to be successful and a well-loved. I felt that these were very telling of the way that Churchill was thought of then and remembered now.

The principle of the “People’s War” was the most obvious at Bletchley Park. What amazed me at Bletchley was the dedication of those who worked there before they even knew what they were doing. All they knew was that they were being brought in for a government job that would be helpful to the war effort and they stepped up to do it. It was interesting to see how this huge operation was made possible through the work of so many extraordinary yet ordinary citizens.

The Imperial War Museum combined many of the principles demonstrated at the War Rooms and at Bletchley. An exhibit that stuck out to me was a poster of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and also the picture of Hitler that hung in his field office. The caption explained that the British people were enamored with Montgomery and would hang the poster outside of the cinema when they were playing war footage. So while the war was truly an effort of all the people we can still see how their hopes and inspiration often laid in a few extraordinary men.

Overall my experience in England showed me that World War Two is still remembered as the “People’s War.” While there were similar feelings about the war in the US, I have never gotten the feeling of collective sacrifice here that I did while visiting the sites in London. The war was personal in England. They were being berated with bombs and losing their homes family members in such a different way than the Americans.  It was very eye-opening to see how the effort of the people both at home and abroad made such a difference in the outcome of the war for the people of Great Britain.

Churchill’s military uniform

The bikes lined up at Bletchley Park, no one lived on site so thousands of people had to travel to and from the Park at all hours of the day and night.

The front of the Imperial War Museum