After bussing from Kraków to Berlin on Thursday, we began our time in Germany with a guided tour of the Reichstag building, where the German parliament meets. Over the next week, we visited the German Historical Museum, the Topography of Terror Museum, the German Resistance Museum, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the Soviet War Memorial, the German-Russian Museum, a bunker used during World War II, and finally the Wannsee House. We ended our trip by stopping by the Olympic Stadium, where Buckeye Jesse Owens dominated in the 1936 Olympics in the face of racism.
My first observation from the many museums we visited this week was that the Germans focused significantly more on the pre-war period than the other countries that we visited. The German Historical Museum spent as much or more time discussing the period from 1918 to 1939 as they did the war. Given that the Germans started the war, it makes sense that they focus on how the situation escalated to the point that it did. The German Historical Museum provided interesting context as to just how bad the German economy was after the Great Depression, which enabled Hitler and the Nazis to come to power. Money was worth less each hour and it had to be stamped with a new value every so often because the state could not keep up with the inflation. Overall, this first museum focused sparsely on specific battles and strategy and more on atrocities like genocide, the euthanasia program, the domestic effects of total war, and policies targeting Jews.
Following this theme, we visited the Wannsee House, where the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 sketched out the details for the Final Solution. The Wannsee House did well to discuss anti-Semitism in Germany back to the nineteenth century, showing that these ideals did not begin with the Nazis. However, the Wannsee House presented an internationalist view to the Final Solution, suggesting that the plan to murder Europe’s eleven million Jews was explicitly ordered and had always been the plan. This view implies that anti-Semitism inherently leads to an attempt to eliminate Jews and places all of the blame on the Nazis, absolving complacent German citizens of any guilt. Despite this controversial presentation, the Wannsee House ended the exhibit effectively by showing that the struggle for Holocaust survivors did not end in 1945. The last room contained powerful quotes from a dozen or so survivors and family members of survivors, with some saying they could no longer feel anything or trust anyone after the Holocaust. Not only did multiple “survivors” commit suicide, but the room also mentioned that Primo Levi and Joseph Wolf did so in 1987 and 1974 respectively. Despite living thirty to forty years after being liberated from the concentration camps, many were never the same.
Along with Dr. Steigerwald and two other students, I spent my free time on Saturday visiting the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen was used primarily for political prisoners, but conditions were still horrid. It was around eighty degrees outside that day, but the barracks felt significantly hotter than that. There was a small washroom in the barrack we visited, maybe ten feet by ten feet, where the SS forced hundreds of prisoners to cram in during the summer while in their winter uniforms. Additionally, Sachsenhausen provided more context as to just how big Auschwitz-Birkenau was. It took a few hours to walk around Sachsenhausen to see its entirety, but the size of Auschwitz-Birkenau dwarfed Sachsenhausen. Even when we saw Auschwitz II-Birkenau from a higher vantage point, the rows of barracks looked never-ending, eventually becoming too small to see in the distance. This helped to understand the massive resources put into the Final Solution and how the Nazis were able to murder 1.1 million people at Auschwitz alone.
Switching gears, we also visited the German Resistance Museum, where we learned of the small group of resistors within the German military. Connor Mason explained the July 20, 1944 coup plot to kill Hitler, sue for peace in the west, and continue to fight the Soviet Union. Even when their chances looked bleak, the few resistors stated that they were determined to be on the right side of history. Hitler survived this plot, like multiple others, with the help of inexplicable luck. The briefcase with the explosives was moved to the other side of a table leg, likely saving Hitler’s life. This can be applied as a general theme in war that we have now observed multiple times: Despite the obvious importance of strategy and tactics, outcomes are often influenced by pure luck.
I write this blog over the Atlantic Ocean, wondering how the last three weeks flew by so quickly. Visiting five cities and four countries has allowed me to put an image to everything we learned about in class and further my knowledge of topics like the Blitz in London, D-Day and the subsequent breakout from the beaches in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the bloodlands and atrocities in Poland, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. More than that, visiting many museums has taught me that the war was very different for every country involved. In the United States it was the “Good War,” in Britain it was the “People’s War,” and in France it was persevering through Nazi occupation and helping to retake their country. In Poland, however, it was a somber period characterized by destruction of life and culture. In Germany there was a similar feeling of sadness, as many of their own, especially youth, died for an unjust cause. However, this was coupled with the sense that the Germans especially view World War II as a war to be learned from, not on the battlefield, but politically and culturally.
I conclude with a massive thank you to everyone who made this study tour possible. While my blogs were academically focused, these three weeks have done so much more than teach me about World War II. To everyone who made this possible, and especially Dr. Steigerwald and Lauren Henry: Thank you for this incredible opportunity.