Nuance and Honesty: The German Treatment of WWII History

Throughout the group’s stay in Berlin, I was consistently impressed with the honesty of German WWII historiography. In contrast to the French Liberation Museum in Paris, which treated Nazi resistance as the norm, the German Resistance Memorial Center explicitly distinguishes the resistors as a few brave individuals. The students of the White Rose group that distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets, the few religious leaders who stood against genocide and euthanasia, and the Wehrmacht officers who participated in Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler were the exceptions within a population that generally acquiesced to – or actively fostered – Nazi totalitarianism. Furthermore, the narrative did not treat these main actors as infallible saints. The tour guide that gave our group a fifteen-minute introduction to the museum’s contents made it clear that the motivations behind the July 20th assassination attempt came primarily from a lack of confidence in his military leadership to win the war. Many of these military and civilian figures did not care to end the Holocaust or fascist rule, they merely feared the inevitable Allied victory.

The nuance present in the exhibit is commendable on all fronts. Fortunately, this deep care for accurate history is not unique to the Resistance Museum. The Topography of Terror Museum, dedicated to describing the specific mechanisms of Nazi violence, makes it clear that Hitler’s Reich could not have survived without widespread popular support. This sentiment’s inclusion is particularly important to the historiography here: a museum that describes the pervasive oppression of Nazi policy could easily absolve the rest of the German population.

Our group had walked through the WWII branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow the week before. During our tour, the guide repeatedly emphasized that Poles had no choice other than collaboration with the Nazi oppressors and were therefore not to blame for any complicity or involvement in atrocities on Polish soul. The German museums make no similar concessions. By the end, Nazi rule was terrible for most citizens involved, but complicity and support in the face of mass genocide should still not be treated as victimless acts – and they are not in the museums of Berlin.

A Jew at Auschwitz Birkenau: Past Tragedy and Modern Victory

The day I spent at the former Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland was an emotional experience that began even before the group’s bus arrived at the site. As a lifelong Jew and recent student of WII, I knew that the tour would be harrowing but had no way to truly prepare for the four-hour visit. Staring outside the bus window at the massive forests leading up the complex, all I could think about was the experience of my fellow Jews, who went to the camp under very different conditions eighty years ago. Unlike them, I had a choice. They were forcibly crammed into a tight train car with hundreds of other people for days; I was scrolling on my phone and sipping on clean water comfortably reclined in the upholstered seat. 

This deep contrast colored the entire experience. The tour guide brought us through the barracks, sleeping quarters, and holding cells while reiterating the litany of Nazi atrocities committed on the ground where we stood. While I gained a holistic view of the main camp, many victims only saw a few of those buildings for their entire dismal stay before perishing from disease, infection, starvation, or direct violence. Most of the Jewish victims only saw one structure: a gas chamber. As I walked through one, I pictured myself stripped down and bald: a Holocaust victim being ushered to their death. Tears rushed down my face, and I glared up toward the holes where Nazis dropped Zyklon B (the poisonous gas used in the chambers) on the unsuspecting victims. Then, in bittersweet victory, I left the room. Unlike any Jew 80 years ago, my feet carried me through an open door, and I took a breath of fresh air. I silently thanked God for the first time in years. Six million died, but I was still standing happy, healthy, and very much alive. The now long-gone Nazi Reich systemically exterminated a third of the Jewish population, yet my Jewish friends, my Jewish family, and my Jewish self are still here. 

Mourning and Monuments: Comparing the U.S. and British Military Cemeteries at Normandy

While in Normandy, our group paid respects at the U.S. and British national cemeteries where the dead from the Battle of Normandy are interred. Both countries meticulously designed their respective site with reverence and respect for the dead, but their approach took starkly different forms. 

The U.S. cemetery’s layout forced every visitor to walk through a federal museum on the invasion; the exhibit included personal stories of war dead and survivors along with general praise for the actions of the U.S. military in Normandy. The graves stood high on a cliff directly next to Omaha Beach, with humongous Greco-Romanesque structures and statues separating the plots next to highflying American flags. The headstones came in one of two shapes, a Christian cross or a Jewish star, and exclusively included each veteran’s name, branch, home state, and death date. In order to protect the well-manicured lawn, only families of the dead could walk down the aisles of graves.

The British cemetery was intimate and serene. Instead of large monuments or national flags distracting me from the gravestones or a museum placing the D-Day invasion into a larger mythos surrounding the British armed forces at large, there were trees and small buildings providing shelter from the ongoing rain and benches providing respite for visitors. Each headstone included the soldier’s regimental symbol, rank, death date, age, and a personalized message from their family. Religious symbols were optional, and a burrow of soil separated each row, with various kinds of flowers and vegetation growing from the burial sites. The American cemetery housed only U.S. soldiers, while the British included the unclaimed Polish, German, American, and Soviet dead. All attention was focused on the individual veteran’s death as a tragedy, and I could freely walk through the rows and carefully read each name and message.

The U.S. cemetery was beautiful and glorious, but this grandiosity distracted from the dead. Honestly, this is unsurprising. Within American popular memory, the military is frequently mythologized and revered as the world’s primary peacekeeping force. U.S. soldiers are not just protecting their country; they are protecting the freedoms of every peace and democracy-loving world citizen. This noble cause deserves monuments akin to the great classical heroes of old, not a serene cemetery for personal reflection. On the other hand, the British cemetery venerates the old imperial mythos. WWII eventually brought the empire’s demise, but the British worldview surrounding the white man’s burden and the moralizing force of the Empire firmly rooted themselves into the national consciousness for generations. The act of burying foreign soldiers was noble but reflects the idea that all world citizens rightfully belong to the British Empire.

My own sense is that cemeteries should be spaces hospitable for grief, not ostentatious sites of nationalism and military propaganda.

Britain and the Monarchy During Coronation Week

The atmosphere in London during King Charles’s coronation was not what I expected. To me, the British Royal family always seemed more like reality tv-esque celebrities than influential national figures. I knew that the Windsors were generally popular with older citizens but also assumed that the country’s younger and more progressive population cared little for the institution. Both assumptions were challenged on my first day in the British capital. 

Eager to see iconic London sights, many of my fellow WWII students and I walked through the area surrounding Westminster, Hyde Park, and Big Ben as soon as we landed a few days before the coronation. Countless tents filled with devoted older Londoners filled the sidewalks along the king’s planned path to Buckingham Palace. Local law enforcement corralled everyone walking through the area down tight corridors, while people of all ages, races, and ethnicities excitedly took photos of royal monuments from afar with their families and friends. I continued the walk with my program comrades towards Big Ben where a very different atmosphere was immediately palpable. A large protest of older citizens holding European Union flags and picket signs expressing anti-royal sentiment blocked oncoming traffic. Loud rock music emanated from the demonstration, drowning out the clock tower’s hourly ringing for those in close proximity.


Both pro and anti-royal sentiment was easy to spot in all corners of the city during the next few days in London. Posters reading taglines like “God Save the Nepo Baby” and “Pray Tell Sire, How Much Will This Coronation Be Costing?” lined the walls of London’s busiest neighborhoods. At the same time, people of all ages (although mostly white) dressed in lavish traditional wear to celebrate a national institution very dear to their sense of self and country I also saw young Londoners my age wearing t-shirts with anti-royalty slogans and others with stickers and signs expressing excitement for the coronation as a unifying, generational event. As a lifelong U.S. citizen, I know that American discourse is nuanced and complex. Now, after seeing the country with my own eyes, I see it in Britain as well.