Germany’s Collective Memory and The Bundestag

Berlin is filled with historical sites relating to World War II. After the Battle of Berlin, much of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing. Berlin had to be rebuilt. However, some of the destruction is still on display in the form of museums and memorials. The creation of national museums and memorials on sites previously critical to the Nazi regime help the German people confront their crimes. Before the Nazis seized power in 1933, the Bundestag was the building that housed the German Parliament. Adolf Hitler and many other Nazis were members of Parliament during this time. However, once the Nazi regime was established in Germany, the Bundestag was used to house the offices of high-ranking Nazi officials. Now, the Bundestag stands as a symbol of German democracy. This is one way the German people strive to establish a collective memory of World War II—one that deals with guilt and justice.

The Bundestag was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in early May 1945 during the Battle of Berlin. Capturing the Reichstag was a very symbolic victory for the Allied forces. The bullet holes from the battle are still on display today. Also still visible is the graffiti that Soviet soldiers left on the outside of the building. Leaving the evidence of the Battle of Berlin reminds the German people of the atrocities of World War II.

Soviet Etchings in the Reichstag Building

An art piece inside the Bundestag named Archive of German Members of Parliament by Christian Boltanski demonstrates this idea well. Boltanski, a French Jew, created the piece in 1999. It consists of around 5,000 metal boxes that display the democratically elected members of German Parliament from 1919 to 1999. It includes those members of Parliament who were murdered during the Nazi regime while also including those who were members of the National Socialist Party. Therefore, while it commemorates the achievements of German parliamentary history, it also takes witness to its failures. In this way, the German people remember the terror of the Nazi party, while also bearing witness to their own guilt in supporting the Nazis.

An image of the Archive art installation. It is a brown hallway with multiple hanging lights on the ceiling, and the walls are built of tiny boxes which each have a label on them to show which member of the German parliament they represent.

The Archive of German Members of Parliament

The Confrontation of Inhumanity at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau was initially established to intern Polish and Soviet political prisoners in 1940, but it was later expanded to carry out the Final Solution—the Nazis’ plan to exterminate European Jews. Millions of Jews were deported from occupied countries to Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1942 and 1945. Prisoners were beaten, starved, and murdered by gassings, executions, or medical experiments. In an academic setting, the size of the camp does not fully translate. However, when walking through the extermination camp, I was directly confronted with the inhumanity of the Nazi regime.

I did not truly understand the expansive nature of Nazi destruction and inhumanity until I walked through Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camp seemed like an infection that metastasized as the Nazis continued to expand the original camp. The preservation of the extermination camp allows people to grasp the massive nature of the Nazi Final Solution. Seeing the hair from the thousands of women who died for the Nazis to make profit from them, and the thousands of shoes from people who were blind sighted by the Nazis makes this realization shocking. That the camp worked like a “factory” made the camp seem even more horrific. I was constantly thinking about whaat each area sounded like, smelled like, and looked like while I was in Auschwitz. While I believe that it is essential to learn about Auschwitz-Birkenau in an academic setting, I felt like I did not truly understand the extent of the horror of the Nazi regime until I stepped through Auschwitz’s gates.

Differing Interpretations of the Épuration in France

After Germany established control of France in 1940, many French citizens collaborated with the Nazi regime, while others resisted. When France was liberated in 1945, the French Resistance initiated the “épuration” — the purge of those who collaborated with the Nazis. The tension between resistance and collaboration within France is seen today in the different representations of the épuration in their national museums.  

The Memorial de Caen is a groundbreaking museum dedicated to demonstrating the atrocities of war and the destruction of society as a consequence of human conflict.  The museum describes the Vichy Government, led by Marshal Pétain, and its collaboration with Nazi Germany. The museum discusses the épuration executed by the French Resistance movement after the liberation of France, during which “La Resistancé” lynched, executed, or deported collaborators. The Memorial de Caen is critical of the French Resistance and its épuration during the post-war years.  

This is different from the depiction of the épuration in the Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération in Paris. The museum is located within the Robert de Cotte Building of the Hôtel National des Invalides, an 18th-century Parisian compound that houses museums commemorating French military history. Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération’s prestigious setting indicates the importance of the French Resistance. According to this museum, the Resistance was significant both actively and symbolically. The Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération represents the épuration as the Resistance punishing those who were corrupted and collaborated with the Nazis. It praises the Resistance in their efforts to purge collaborators and create an image of France wholly resistant to the Nazi regime.

Although both museums discuss the épuration, their interpretations of the French Resistance’s intentions differ. The Memorial de Caen’s display of the French Resistance is critical of the Resistance’s role after the war. However, the Musée de l’Ordre de la Libération praises the Resistance’s efforts in carrying out purges against collaborators. The strikingly different depictions of the relationship between collaboration and resistance within France by the two museums show the difficulty that French society still faces in coming to terms with its past. The Memorial de Caen represents the more critical sector of French society that is open to taking witness of its past, while Le Invalides represents the more nationalistic and patriotic sector that is only willing to remember the most heroic aspects of the past. 

Seeing London and Sorting it Out

While making my way through the bustling streets of London, I was struck by its eccentric yet calm energy. London is quite a large city, so Londoners are constantly on the move. However, the city never felt daunting or impersonal. England’s national character is polite and stresses tradition. The character of the nation is what made me feel as if I instantly belonged. On my first day in London, I chose to have lunch in a small establishment called Sheila’s Café. The workers and owners of the café were genuinely interested in speaking to be about my travels and encouraged me to explore everything that London has to offer. While traipsing around London, I found the city dwellers to be extremely polite and patient. This politeness gave the city structure, which is not something I am used to in other large cities I have visited. A common sense of helpfulness makes one feel that there is an order to the chaos of London.

“See it, Say it, Sorted” is the phrase announced on every trip on a London Underground train. This announcement asks passengers to look out for one another and report any unusual activity on the trains. “See it, Say it, Sorted” completely embodies the sense of camaraderie felt in the city. It makes apparent the expectation of helping others and stresses common politeness. However, I wondered if this politeness might work against London “Tube” workers as they strike for better conditions. The Elizabeth line workers, in particular, “see” their pay disparity, but when they “say” something to get it “sorted,” politeness becomes a weapon to be used against them. My first thought was ‘how inconvenient for all those passengers.’ This makes change and social justice difficult to achieve in a city like London that emphasizes politeness, camaraderie, and tradition.