Meandering through the national memorials of fallen soldiers from the Soviet Union, Germany, and America, I noticed that each country’s displays of mourning were fundamentally different in grandeur. Acting as a representation of the nation’s status at war’s end, the gravesites told a deeper story than a first glance allows.
The American site sits on the Normandy coast. Alongside the memorial is the beach where so many Americans initiated the fateful invasion of Europe. Crashing waves and chirping birds fill the air. With the bright marble gravestones and perfectly kept grass, I got the sense that in the wake of tragedy, America was proud of its contribution. Each deceased soldier also rested in a plot of their own, showing an appreciation for the sacrifices of the individual.
A different story emerged when entering the Soviet memorial in Berlin. The landscape is expansive. A vast swath of grass leads to the statue of a Soviet soldier holding a child in one hand and a sword in the other. Pinned underneath the sword is a Nazi swastika, crushed into several pieces. The statue stands hundreds of feet tall and seems more like a monument to an omnipotent nation in a dystopian movie rather than a memorial to perished troops. So imposing and grandiose is the monument that it totally distracted me from the fact that thousands of Soviet soldiers were buried on-site. I got the sense that I was not supposed to leave remembering the countless Soviet deaths, but instead the USSR’s brazen defeat of Nazi Germany. Really, just as in the war, consideration of individual Soviet lives seemed to be secondary to the maintenance of a titanic national image.
Finally, the memorial to German soldiers told a story of shame. Beneath each faded, jagged gravestone lay two or more soldiers. At the center of the site is a large mound, wherein hundreds more soldiers are buried. The surrounding scenery is bare; trees and bushes scatter the site in haphazard formation. The cemetery is devoid of flourish and commemorative depth, demonstrating Germany’s willingness to shamefully swallow its losses.
Each national memorial was designed to tell a particular story— a story of vanquish or victory. Even an untrained eye can notice the differences of each site, but having an understanding of history allowed me to appreciate the deeper meaning of these differences.
The entrance sign of Auschwitz I (Taken by Ian Mintz)
Pictured is just a small segment of the thousands of shoes left behind by victims of Auschwitz (Taken by Ian Mintz)
Stepping foot into the Auschwitz I complex, the original part of the notorious death camp, I was left chilled by the seeming inoffensiveness of the buildings in front of me. The metal sign hanging above the grounds reading “Work Sets You Free” in German rings hollow only because history has taught me the utter falsity and depravity inherent in its message. However, despite knowing that Auschwitz is the site of the single largest mass murder, I was surprised to find myself incapable of visualizing the past evils. Ahead were simply rows of brick buildings, washed of their original purpose. I realized my view was not far removed from that of the victims arriving on site. To them, these buildings appeared to be nothing but humdrum working and housing quarters. Without historical hindsight, they seem no different.
Once I actually entered the quarters, the mounds of human relics taken from the fallen victims jarred me. Baby shoes, hair, kitchenware, filled the rooms— the final and most tangible symbol of the lives lost. Such sights provoked in me emotion that was both unregulated and overwhelming. Trying to fully picture the camp 70 plus years after its use— removed of both its criminals and victims— felt impossible. The personal items provided the clearest exposure to the genocide, and yet they offered an inadequate glimpse. No relic, movie, or building replica could transport one back to the unfathomable realities of Auschwitz— a fact that left me simultaneously heartbroken and relieved.
Driving through the countryside in Normandy, France, I was struck by the American flag’s omnipresence. Whether it be a corner creperie or a rustic homestead, the flag was invariably hung alongside a French flag for passersby to see. I was not sure whether this phenomenon represented an undying appreciation for the Allied liberation of Normandy nearly 75 years ago, or a pandering to the masses of American tourists who visit the city annually. However, an encounter with the mayor of St. Mere Eglise made me confident that gratitude for the Allied sacrifice in Normandy persists deeply among locals to this day.
Winding down the gravel roads, the WWII program bus eventually stopped in front of a tall, aging church. As we exited the bus we were met kindly by the mayor, who through translation welcomed us to the landmark. Inside the church Robert Wright, a 1934 Buckeye graduate had set up an aid station during the war to save both Allied and German troops injured amid the battle of Normandy. As we walked between the pews, blood stains from the conflict 75 years ago remained unfaded. Pictures and excerpts dedicated to Wright’s service scattered the church walls, and a large gravestone dedicated in his name laid in the center of the cemetery outside. We planted a Buckeye flag next to the stone and stood in silence alongside the mayor to pay our respects. Afterward the mayor thanked us for visiting the site, stressing the importance of such visits to ensure contributions like Wright’s stay in memory. We soon left and waved adieu to our new friend and his family. Thanks to locals grateful for the sacrifices made in Normandy, stories like Wright’s live on, and the tragedies of the war, although devastating, feel less in vain.
When visiting the Churchill War Rooms, I was most struck by the exhibit dedicated to the life of the man himself, Winston Churchill. In the dark, cavernous room, artifacts from throughout Churchill’s life were illuminated under bright lights and memorialized in great detail. In one step I went from looking at Churchill’s childhood report cards to an encasement of a magnificent velvet romper— a kind of socialite outfit representative of the leader’s flare. Filling an expansive room with such diverse Churchill relics went a long way to show how contemporary England lionizes its wartime leader. Although given to arrogance, crudeness, and histrionics, Churchill spun these features to be endearing, not condemnable. In fact, one station took visitors through a virtual circuit of Churchill’s zaniest quotes from adolescence to death. Strolling through the exhibit, it is clear that the collective memory of Churchill is still one of admiration. As a viewer, I smiled at the school records outlining Churchill’s disobedience. I laughed at the timeline showing Churchill’s never-changing daily ritual (which included several drinks, baths, and cigars). Walking through the exhibit, I began to understand why Churchill remains so revered by people across the world. His leadership showed grit, rebelliousness, and passion. During the Second World War, the Allies needed a leader to inspire the public toward victory at all costs. Churchill fulfilled that role.
It is no wonder why affixed to the central wall of the Churchill exhibit is a quote by Beverly Nichols of the Daily Telegraph stating, “he [Churchill] mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.” The leader used his gifts of rhetoric and performance to steel the Allied populations. When morale was low, like in the wake of Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, Churchill called for perseverance and pushed the people to keep fighting. During a time of unprecedented destruction, the free world needed a leader willing to speak honestly and fervently to the people, and they got that leader in Winston Churchill. In a way, Churchill’s distinctive leadership during the war allowed his transformation from man to myth in the public memory.