Accepting Responsibility

As I explored the museums in Berlin, I observed a strong effort to maintain what the conflict meant for Germany, even when it was difficult or reflected poorly on the nation. The Topography of Terror Museum explained the horrors committed by the SS and Gestapo. The museums was simply laid out and long text descriptions retold the history in detail. One display  that described the murders of Soviet POWs by Gestapo and SS agents stood out to me in particular. Another image showed Gestapo and SS officials enjoying dinner, possibly after executing three Poles earlier that day. Both these displays underscored the brutality of the Gestapo/SS when dealing with Eastern Europeans and how industrialized their actions became.

Gestapo Dinner

The German Resistance Museum gave a different perspective but still maintained the same level of detail. Numerous walls were devoted to acknowledging the Germans who actively resisted the Nazi regime, even when it cost them their lives. The museum also gave special attention to the failed July 20th assassination attempt and commemorated Claus Von Stauffenberg for trying to kill Hitler. Similar to the Topography of Terror Museum, there were long text descriptions, but there were also far more photographs sharing the faces of Nazi resistance.

Even though these museums share very different sides of Germany in WWII, they both provide the same perspective on the country’s collective memory of the conflict. Germans accept their role in starting the conflict and the atrocities that were committed over the course of the war. These museums didn’t try to cover up the Nazi’s actions or rid themselves of the blame, they presented the information bluntly. At the same time, there is a desire to remember how the German people did maintain some sliver of humanity, which was evident in the Resistance Museum. Out of all the countries we visited, the museums here interested me the most because I wasn’t sure how the information would be presented. Although it may have been a bit much to read sometimes, the museums provided the information clearly and it was fascinating to be in spots where history took place.

Auschwitz: A Chilling Lesson in Scale

In the spring, we were taught statistics and shown images of the murders that occurred at Auschwitz and other death camps. Visiting Auschwitz both aligned with that information and made it seem like they were an underwhelming representation of the true scale of the camps and the horrors committed within them. We visited the camps while it was raining, which fit the ghastly and sickening tension that permeated throughout our visit. Our tour guide, although he spoke quickly and without much inflection, conveyed the severity of the atrocities committed there by how bluntly he described the murders and abuses toward Jews, Poles and other groups.

Being at the site taught me more about how the camp was structured and just how industrial the operation was. In one room, a display case held two tons of hair cut off of murdered Jewish women in order to create fabric. As I walked through this room, I could feel my stomach twist, and I tried to fight back tears as our tour guide explained how this was just two of seven tons that were actually collected. That was just one of several instances where I felt like I could no longer walk, and all I wanted was to be back home in Cincinnati away from the darkness of one of humanity’s worst episodes.

The scale of the camp operation became even clearer once we visited Birkenau/Auschwitz II. Compared to Auschwitz I, much of the camp was cordoned off and you could see the camp stretch a distance that isn’t really captured well in the pictures. I found myself unable to bear the sight of it and tried to keep my head down and focus all my attention on taking my next step forward. Despite my distaste for being there, visiting the site was important because it emphasized the industrial nature of the Final Solution was and reminded us just how much hate lied at the heart of Nazi ideology and Hitler’s regime.

Auschwitz II/Birkenau Camp


The Parisian Experience: Ratatouille vs. Rat-patootie

I had never been to Paris before coming on this trip, and the images in my mind had come from movies like Ratatouille and Midnight in Paris: a romantic city of lights with an enticing charisma. After roaming through the city center and seeing what it has to offer, I can say that that city definitely exists, but so does another that can be best summed up by what Linguini, the rat-controlled rising chef, says in Ratatouille while in a drunken stupor: Rat-patootie.

Evening in Paris

The city certainly has a majesty that exemplifies Parisian life. Cafés stand on every street corner, and impressive gothic buildings surround the Seine, which is dotted with stone bridges, some of which are very ornate, like the Pont Alexander III. The Louvre is a sight to behold, and I found myself admiring both the interior and exterior architecture as much as the paintings themselves.

The ceiling facades at the Louvre

However, there was another Paris that I experienced, one that felt like an ugly dose of reality. The poor, deteriorated air quality left my nose and throat a scratchy, volatile mess. I witnessed two examples of public urination in places with high foot traffic. Our coach driver into the city, Jean Louis, pointed to a homeless encampment crammed between the street and highway and said, “This is Paris.” The street edges were littered with cigarette butts, and annoying tourist scams clogged major sites like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower.

Paris has a distinct and well-known reputation for romance and grandeur, but my time there served as a reminder that the city is still a crowded urban center. It suffers from the same issues that affect other major tourist cities. But it also confirmed that the city has a flare that separates it from the rest. Despite all the rat-patootie, the energy of the city was exciting and alluring and I find it difficult to say that I will never come back and dine again.




The Worms’ War: British Museums Make World War II about the People

The Churchill War Rooms were the headquarters for the highest level of the wartime government. As a museum, it exhibits focus on the life and legacy of Churchill, punctuated by some very amusing quotations, such as the Prime Minister’s “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.” But, the exhibits also highlighted the others who worked in the bunker and the conditions they put up with. People like his secretary, Elizabeth Nel, and his wife, Clementine, spoke during the audio tour devoted to sharing what life was like for them in the war. Early in the tour, we got a look at the “dock,” a cramped basement area where guards, secretaries, and others slept while having to deal with rats and other inconveniences. The British idea of the “People’s War” was front and center at the CWR: the idea that the war involved every citizen in some way.

At Bletchley Park, the exhibit also focused more on those who worked there than what was actually done. They introduce codebreakers and engineers like the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service), intelligence officers, and mathematicians – explaining their contributions to Allied intelligence and the war effort. A bulletin listed every member of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley in 1939. Speakerphones throughout the compound played recordings of actual Bletchley workers describing their experiences at this critical division. In addition to details about the codebreaking operation, these recordings also shared seemingly mundane information, like how the work bored them, how the compound food tasted, and the joy they felt when some American visitors brought pancakes with them. It became clear that although the museum was meant to educate people about Bletchley Park, it was also meant to celebrate the people behind its success, like Elizabeth Granger and Claude Henderson.

It was clear from these museums that England chooses not just to remember the soldiers who fought in battle, but also the thousands of citizens who were mobilized to support the war effort however they could. This national memory seems to have grown out of the solidarity of a nation ravaged by bombings designed to destroy the country’s morale, instead having the opposite effect. Winston Churchill may have been the head glow-worm, but perhaps during that war, the rest of the British people turned into glow-worms as well.