Germany’s Honesty

The museums in Berlin differed significantly from any of the museums we had seen before. First, The Topography of Terror is very clear in laying out Nazi Germany’s crimes. It has pieces about the persecution and execution of Jews and tries to bring attention to all the countries that suffered because of them. Most museums only focus on Poland and France when talking about nations that were invaded, but the Topography of Terror has information on Greece, Denmark, and many others. I also appreciated the Topography of Terror’s blunt and straightforward presentation. For example, there are few artifacts or objects to look at, but lots of information to read, for example on the Nazi rise to power and persecution of Jews. The information is clear and well organized, which makes it easy to understand. While the museums in London and Paris predominantly focused on their main leaders during the time, such as Churchill and de Gaulle, Germany’s museums discuss members of the Nazi party other than Hitler. It was helpful to learn about the other leaders because it clarifies how the Nazis exercised power. It was not only Hitler who murdered Jews and started WWII, but many others who worked with and followed him.

In contrast to other nations’ sites, Germany faces Nazi crimes honestly, as its own crimes. The museums in France and Krakow seldom mention collaboration with the Nazis or abusive treatment of Jews. They do not readily admit to their countries’ crimes like Germany does. France and Poland’s crimes were not as severe as Germany’s, but that makes Germany’s admission of guilt the more compelling. We also saw mentions of WWII outside of museums. We toured the Parliament building and our guide discussed how they carefully constructed parliament in the post-war era to prevent another party like the Nazi’s from accumulating so much power. On the ground floor, our guide showed us graffiti left by the Red Army when they took Berlin. It is proudly on display as a reminder of their dark past. Even the Berlin Zoo has a small note about which buildings were destroyed and which survived during the war. The horrors of the past are not avoided in Berlin, and they use their history to learn from it and be better in the future.

How Poland Remembers

There were many aspects of the museum in Krakow that reflected Poland’s claim to national innocence during WWII. The museum focused on the severe punishments forced on the people of Krakow under Nazi occupation. Public executions and arrests occupied much of the museum, especially in the first exhibitions. Next, the museum detailed the suffering of the Jewish population because of Nazi occupation in Krakow, such as being moved to the ghettos and concentration camps. The order of the exhibits implied that what the non-Jews in Krakow went through after occupation explained, and perhaps excused, why so few of them decided to help the Jewish people and why some even betrayed them. Our tour guide even said repeatedly that she did not think we should blame the Polish people for refusing to help because helping would mean putting themselves and their families in danger. I do agree that helping Jewish people would have been a risk for many Polish people and their loved ones. However, to insist that they should not be blamed for remaining silent and even betraying Jews felt unfair. The Poles in Krakow would not have had the power to defeat their Nazi occupiers but that does not remove the blame from those who chose to betray Jews.  

To be fair, the museum did showcase complicity for some of the Poles. Exhibits showed that even those who did help had ulterior motives for doing so, and that there were many who denounced their neighbors for aiding Jewish people. The Krakow Museum also had first-hand accounts of Jewish people, including children, who were moved to the ghettos. It was refreshing to read the experiences of Jewish people that went through it, rather than just being told the information. The museum allowed Jews to tell their own stories, which was more beneficial than getting the facts second-hand.  

French Sites and Insights

The sites and museums we visited enhanced my understanding of liberated and occupied France from what I researched during my spring studies. The D-Day beaches we visited were the most helpful to me, especially Utah and Omaha. My comrades and I walked all the way down to the shoreline of the beach at Omaha and just turned around to look back up at the sand and at the cliffs. We stared and talked about what it must have been like to run up the beaches under fire and carry large equipment. The low tide provided us with a somewhat accurate image of how grand the beach was on that day. The breadth of the beach showed how easy it was for the Germans to spot American soldiers Allies coming up the beach. Standing there, I could better understand how fearful they must have felt knowing they were out in the open with enemies up on the cliffs ready to fire at them. From where we stood, you could not see far up the cliffs, especially on a dark and foggy day like D-Day. Yet the Germans could look down on them and fire without even being spotted. It is one thing to learn about the beaches in a classroom, and another to be there entirely.

The Liberation Museum in Paris supposedly is dedicated to the French Resistance.  As we learned in spring semester, we learned that only a small minority of French participated in the Resistance.  Yet the museum made it appear as though all the French were resisting in some way; resistance, the displays seem to suggest, was universal.  And yet Charles de Gaulle was the focus, and they made it appear like all the people in France rallied around him. After seeing the museum, I understand better how the French used universalism to bring pride back to the people after their occupation. All the French resistants in the museum were spoken of with such pride for fighting against their occupiers. Along the wall at the start of the museum were about 1000 members of the Resistance that they wanted to showcase. The French people needed to feel that collectiveness after their ignominious defeat. Yet one problem with universalism is that specific and minority groups are left out of specific recognition, despite also being important resistors. For example, my spring studies focused predominately on the Communist Resistance, which did not support de Gaulle, but the museum suggests that all resistors did support him. The Liberation Museum in Paris clarified the mindset and impacts of French universalism post-WWII.

London: The People’s Pride

While walking around London, there seemed to be a great deal of national pride. It was the coronation weekend, so it made sense that spirits were raised, and people were happy, but I do not think it was only that. The British flags hanging around every street and the shop windows with King Charles III were most likely because of the coronation, but the national monuments that are constantly around are a part of people’s lives every day. On our first day in London, we saw red guards marching down the street and everyone, even the British people, stopped and turned for them. We heard a few gasps and whispers as they walked by. I often wonder how the British people view the monarchy, and to be there for the coronation of a new king brought some light to that. I stood in the crowd and waited with people for the coronation. People brought champagne bottles, flew British flags, and cheered when the king was crowned.

Photo during the coronation of King Charles III

The patriotism made it surprising to see how much emphasis the British focus on the unity between the allies in the WWII museums. There was always mention of “The Big Three” and how Britain was able to win only after they had their allies fighting with them. It was not just at the museums when this came up. I was talking with one of my peers at Bletchley Park about the friendship between Churchill and Roosevelt specifically. We mentioned specifically the correspondence between them that we read and how Churchill was more open in their friendship. A British woman came up behind us and said, “Well, that’s not a surprise. We kind of needed you.” It was lighthearted, and we all had a nice laugh about it, but it was surprising to hear it said so bluntly.

Bletchley Park poster telling workers not to talk about the intelligence operations they were performing.