Last Stop: Berlin

Overlooking the chamber where the German Bundestag meets

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.

The view from the backyard of the Wannsee House

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.

The entrance gate to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which reads “work will set you free”

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.


Krakow, Poland: A New Perspective on World War II

After an exciting week in France, we flew to Kraków to begin the fourth leg of our journey. On our first day in Kraków we were shown around the city and stopped at a small park to listen to Morgan Moon’s report on the area known as the “bloodlands.” Morgan did an excellent job to provide context on the nature of the atrocities in Poland and the Ukraine beyond the concentration camps. Particularly, she made interesting points about the Soviet’s significant responsibility for the horrors in the bloodlands, as well as an interesting argument from her author, Timothy Snyder, that statistics regarding the Holocaust and the bloodlands should not be rounded, but should rather be presented as exact as they can, in an attempt to humanize each life lost.

We visited the Oskar Schindler museum the following morning, which was located in his old factory. Other than the museum’s failure to acknowledge any Polish collaboration with the Nazis, they presented a fair account of the struggles Poles faced from 1939-1945 and even into the Cold War. Their was one particular section on Polish ghettos that consisted of narrow hallways and dim lighting, which I believe was intentionally designed to make the viewer crammed and uncomfortable.

Additionally, this museum was different from any other we had previously visited because Poland experienced an entirely different war than France and Britain. British museums emphasized how the people persevered through rationing and the Blitz and the French museums focused on how the French survived Nazi occupation and joined the Allies in retaking their country in 1944. The Schindler museum, however, lacked this triumphant nationalism, focusing more on the atrocities they faced and the betrayal they felt after the word watched Germany invade them. Even after defeat in September 1939, Polish authorities did not sign the act of capitulation because they believed help from France and Britain would be coming soon. It never did.

The well-known entrance to the Auschwitz I work camp, which states “work will set you free”

On Wednesday, under a gray and gloomy sky, we visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau. Both subsections of Auschwitz spoke to how systematic the camp and killings were. In Birkenau, 300 buildings were plotted in a massive field, each barrack looking exactly the same, with symmetrical crematoria at the end. Our tour guide took us around the well-known train tracks and we made the same short walk that hundreds of thousands of prisoners made, from boxcar to gas chamber. The gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz I further illustrated the Nazi’s disregard for human life. As many as 700 to 1,000 prisoners were crammed into a space barely larger than an average living room. As Zyklon B dispersed and bodies fell, those who did not die as quickly were forced to climb through dead bodies in a hopeless attempt to survive. The crematorium was a tiny room, unlike what I had previously imagined, where bodies were shoved into brick ovens that were barely large enough to fit them.

The railroad splitting Auschwitz II Birkenau. A crematorium stood on each side of where this picture was taken.

Additionally, the museum at Auschwitz I effectively showed that the victims of Auschwitz were more than just a statistic. There was a display that contained two tons of human hair, which was only a fraction of the total found when the camp was liberated. There was rope and textile on display that were made from this human hair. Our tour guide summarized this well by saying that the Germans valued every little thing at Auschwitz, except for human life. One display contained 70,000 pairs of shoes, including many that clearly belonged to children. Others displayed the pots and pans the prisoners brought with them under the guise that they’d be starting a new life, as well as the tallit from the more religious prisoners.

Nicole Beck and I concluded the evening with a joint site report outside of the wall of Auschwitz II Birkenau. We discussed the timeline of the camp’s creation and purpose, intermixed with discussion of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Nicole finished with interesting points about how the site became a political statement for multiple countries after 1945, and how the anti-Semitism that came with the camp was not fully recognized until after the Cold War, forty-six years later.

The Schindler Museum and Auschwitz both demonstrated that the war did not end in Poland in 1945 like it did in much of the world. The Poles suffered through Soviet occupation from immediately after the war until the end of 1991, so they have only just recently been an independent country for an extended period of time. Thus, their perspective on World War II is much different from the British and French, and I am sure that the German’s will also be unique.

We now depart for Berlin, where we will spend the end of the trip from where the heart of Nazi command was.


Normandy: 73 Years Later

This week in Bayeux has been a heavy dose of history and carbs. We began the week with the Caen World War II Museum, followed by a trip to Pegasus Bridge, where Charlie O’Brien delivered an informative site report on why capturing the bridge was important for the Allies. We visited Utah Beach and the Nazi bunker on it, then had the opportunity to contrast it with the steep cliffs of Omaha Beach and the artificial ports at Gold Beach. We explored Pointe du Hoc, which was a vital German strongpoint between Omaha and Utah Beach. We visited the German, American, and British cemeteries, the Arromanche 360 degree theater, the small town of St. Mere-Eglise, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Mont St. Michel.

Reminding everyone that we attend the Ohio State University at the top of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs

As I did in my first blog, I’d like to focus on a few sites that left the biggest impressions on me. Beginning at Pointe du Hoc, we walked through many Nazi bunkers and got a better understanding of what the fighting looked like from their perspective. Walking along the edge of the massive and steep cliffs illustrated  how daunting the task of the 2nd Rangers was to scale the cliffs and destroy crucial German guns.

The second area I want to focus on is the cemeteries we visited. The German, American, and British cemeteries all provided a somber reminder of just how young many of the troops on all sides were. Many of the soldiers who died at Normandy were born after my grandfather, who recently celebrated his 97th birthday.

We first visited the German cemetery, which was orderly and serious. The cemetery was very uniform, with plaques in rows listing the rank, name, and dates of birth and death of each fallen German. Between the rows, clusters of five crosses were interspersed. Unlike in the American and British cemeteries, the landscaping was plain. The cemetery was surrounded by trees, but there was no color other than the green grass and gray plaques and crosses. OK. Here’s proper description.

The La Cambe German Cemetery in Bayeux, France

The American cemetery had many similarities, but was significantly larger. Like the German cemetery, it was very uniform, with each tombstone containing the same information. The American cemetery overlooked Omaha Beach, where many of the Americans in the cemetery lost their lives in their fight to liberate France. This allows the cemetery to memorialize not only the men that died there, but also their cause.

The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach

However, neither of these cemeteries provoked more thought on this account than the British cemetery. Unlike the uniformity of the first two cemeteries, the British cemetery added a personal touch by allowing family members of the fallen British troops to add a short quote to the tombstone. From poetic verses like “A wonderful nature so loving and kind, a beautiful memory left behind” to lines as simple as “Until we meet again,” each grave reminded that for every serviceman that was killed, a number of people lost a loved one too soon. A tombstone that particularly stuck out to me was that of a 28-year old Private, which bluntly read, “Some day we will understand.” These cemeteries, along with Brandon Fawbush’s compelling site report on the annihilation of the American 29th division at Omaha Beach, served as a chilling reminder that there is nothing glamorous about war. To think of war as a game undermines the massive and devastating human cost that comes with it.

The British Cemetery in Bayeux, France

We are now settled in comfortably in Krakow, Poland, where I will be posting from soon!

Au revoir France,


Also, here are some pictures from Paris:

History in London

London’s effort to preserve and display history is remarkable. Over the last week, I have observed this dedication to history by visiting the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, and the Imperial War Museum. I also visited Westminster Abbey, Kensington Palace, the Royal Guard Museum, the HMS Belfast, and Greenwich Park.

The view of the Thames River from the HMS Belfast

The Churchill War Rooms do well to show the impact Winston Churchill’s powerful rhetoric had on the public. For the British, World War II was the “People’s War” and Churchill emphasized that there was no effort too small in helping the British cause. It was fascinating to observe that Churchill never claimed that the war would be easy, but he rather promised a great struggle that would have had horrific consequences had they failed. We were privileged to listen to Michael Hanscomb’s story, who reiterated the important role that Churchill’s honest and inspiring speeches played in allowing Londoners like himself to persist through the Blitz. After studying how the British people endured the Blitz with a “stiff upper lip” in class, it was interesting to listen to Mr. Hanscomb’s firsthand account to support this.

The mansion at the heart of Bletchley Park

At Bletchley Park, we learned the history of the estate and its function during the war. I found the intensity of the secrecy that Bletchley demanded most interesting. The huts of Bletchley were filled with posters which bluntly stated that failure to keep secrets was equivalent to supporting the enemy. Workers were forbidden to discuss their role at Bletchley during the war, and they had to continue their silence for 30 years after the war. While this caused the codebreakers of Bletchley to never get the credit they fully deserved, it was relieving to learn that President Roosevelt and Churchill both acknowledged their vitality to the Allied victory.

On our last day in London we visited the Imperial War Museum. This was my favorite stop in London and I explored the museum for over five hours, visiting exhibits on WWI and WWII and concluding with a beautifully designed section on the Holocaust. The WWI and WWII exhibits allowed for a particularly fascinating opportunity to see many of the various weapons of the war that we previously mentioned in class. I spent the bulk of my time, however, in the Holocaust section. My first impression was that the exhibit did well to intertwine the events of the Holocaust with the major events of the war to provide context. Secondly, given their clear appreciation for history, it came as no surprise to see the incredible detail put into the exhibit. The exhibit went well beyond conventional teaching of the Holocaust with an extensive focus on the escalation of anti-Semitism that preluded the concentration camps. Additionally, I was impressed by the detailed model of the entrance to Auschwitz, a somber display of confiscated shoes, and personal stories and artifacts from Jews of many different nationalities and experiences. I also found it interesting how the museum, albeit briefly, discussed Jewish emigration to Palestine, which was a British mandate at the time. Overall, I enjoyed the exhibit’s strong focus on the conditions that led to the Holocaust. I have previously visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and Yad Vashem in Israel, and it is interesting to observe what each museum chooses to focus on and how they display the information.

I am excited to visit more Holocaust museums and memorials moving forward, but first we are headed to Bayeux to visit the beaches of Normandy!

Get to Know Me!

Hi all,

I am Jonathan Schulman, a rising senior at Ohio State. I am majoring in political science and international studies, with a focus in security and intelligence. I am also minoring in history and Russian. When I am not in the classroom, I am probably somewhere on campus conducting research. Over the last year, I worked with the Ohio State School of Communication on a study exploring the phenomena of echo chambers in both online and print media. We presented this research at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum alongside 650 other undergraduate researchers.

Upon returning from Europe, I will be shifting gears and beginning work on my senior honors thesis, where I will analyze some of the long-term effects of the Vietnam War on the Soviet Union. After graduating in the spring of 2018, I plan to further improve my research skills by attending graduate school, and eventually working in national defense.

I am beyond excited to travel across Europe and visit many important World War II sites. I am also intrigued to study World War II from the British, French, Polish, and German perspectives. I am especially looking forward to exploring the beaches of Normandy. Lastly, I am grateful for the opportunity to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp.

I encourage anyone reading this – family, friends, classmates, or others – to engage with my blog posts. I hope that you follow along with my trip and post any comments and questions that may come to mind. Lastly, I would like to thank the incredibly generous donors who made this study tour possible.

See you in London!