The German Perspective

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

These past twenty days have been quite the whirlwind adventure. I’ve seen London, Normandy, Paris, and I’m finishing this amazing journey in Berlin. I’ve made wonderful friends, been to the most amazing places in these cities (sometimes going underneath them) and I have gained a much better understanding of the age I’ve been devoting my History Major to since I enrolled at Ohio State.

But the greatest revelation has probably been how each country treats the war and their role in it. America has seen it as “The Good War,” where American soldiers valiantly fought for freedom and democracy. The Russians saw it as a patriotic war where they defeated the fascist forces in a clash of ideologies. The British saw it as a war of survival where they beat back an enemy poised to invade their land and destroy them. The French have dealt with the subject by trying to downplay their role as collaborators and instead focus on their role as resistors. And the Japanese have somehow gotten it into their heads that they were forced into the war and came out the greatest victims of it.

But what of the Germans? What is the attitude of the nation that thrust the world into the Second World War and manufactured one of the worst tragedies in modern history? That was probably my biggest question as we went to the German Historical Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum this past Saturday. What I found has been quite interesting: the Germans have tried to both admit their role in the war and at the same time detach themselves from it.

Let me explain this more in depth: the German Historical Museum, the Topography of Terror museum, and Sachsenhausen Prison Camp all carry the reminders, in photos and exhibits and the very buildings themselves, that Germany was the perpetrator of horrific crimes during the Nazi era. However, the focus has seemed to be on the individuals who were part of the Nazi machine, not on the German people themselves. This seems to me that perhaps the German historians, or whoever hired those historians, are trying to excuse the German people and their contemporary descendants of the guilt that has probably plagued the descendants of those who had a direct hand in the war and in the Holocaust.

Although I can understand the idea behind such a detachment—who would want to basically tell children that their ancestors perpetrated horrific deeds in the name of a racist ideology?—I’m not sure ethically it’s the right thing to do. On the one hand, the ancestors of many of today’s Germans were probably just soldiers or civilians. They may not have had that big a role in the horrible tragedies of the past. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that at the very least many citizens of Germany went along with the Nazi agenda and at the very worst outright supported it. Acknowledging that has been an important part of Germany ensuring that such tragedies as the Holocaust never again come to pass.

My first view of Sachsenhausen, a place of overwhelming despair.

My first view of Sachsenhausen, a place of overwhelming despair.

Then again, German children usually visit Holocaust-related places at least twice before they finish school, so maybe that does more than any statement condemning the German people in full for World War II and the Final Solution to prevent another war or genocide or even just a fascist state from rising.

In the end, though, the thing we must take away is that Germany can’t escape its past, and that it’ll live with it until probably the end of the Earth itself. At the very least, it may ensure that the Germans and all other peoples who’ve been held accountable for the horrors of genocide will remember what has happened and not let it happen again.

Now here’s one more question: what do the Chinese think about the Second World War? Half the time they were fighting the Japanese, and half the time they were fighting each other, depending on their political allegiances. What do they think of The Good War?

How Paris Deals With Vichy and Collaboration


What can be said about it? It’s pretty, it’s opulent (to the point of being a little too much), it’s a wonderful city to be in (provided you have plenty of money and know where the heck you’re going). In short, it’s a very lovely city to be in.

But its relationship to World War II is a rather difficult one. France was both a collaborator in Nazi atrocities as well as a resistor to them. The capital city, which was mainly untouched by the war, has a mixed history and is rather ashamed of its darker aspects. It seems to me that Paris has tried to make things easier, perhaps for the French people, to emphasize the parts of the war that look favorably upon Paris and France as a whole. For example, at the Musee de l’Armee, the WWII section is also the WWI section, but it begins in 1879, highlighting France’s relationship to Germany since the Franco-Prussian War. Also, while there is great detail on the specific events of the wars and plenty of glorification of the military, there is not a lot of information on the collaborationists, though there is plenty on the Resistance.

And similarly at the Memorial for Deported Martyrs, the memorial, which is designed like a sunken temple to the departed, seems more like an elaborate memorial for soldiers than innocent victims of Nazi brutality. There’s a reason why it’s called the Memorial for Deported Martyrs: it makes the victims seem like soldiers who gave their lives for France.

So France has a very complicated past when it comes to the war. Not surprising, when you consider Charles de Gaulle bred the belief that all the French took part in the Resistance. However, I think France would do some good by admitting to its darker side of its past and then dealing with it by preventing such situations from arising again (and believe me, genocides have occurred since WWII, so don’t discount another Holocaust or Bosnia occurring in Europe again). No one in the US is proud of our past of slavery and racism (though some try to cover it up in shame or hatred), but we remember it and we deal with it in order to prevent it from reoccurring (usually).

On another note, I’m having a blast in Paris. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve been amazed and wowed. If I have another chance I’ll write on some of what I’ve seen. Keep reading for updates. I’m looking forward to seeing how Berlin deals with its horrific past.


An anti-aircraft gun pit. It was safer to be in than some of the craters, believe me.

An anti-aircraft gun pit. It was safer to be in than some of the craters, believe me.

Today we went to Pont-du-Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American cemetery here in Normandy. It’s truly at the sites of actual battles, as well as where the victims of those battles lay, that you get a very powerful perspective on just how awesome and history-making these battles were. For example, at Pont-du-Hoc, we were able to see not only the ruins of several of the German embankments and bunkers, but the craters left behind by the bomb blasts! Some of those gaping holes, now full of grass and plant-life, were about ten feet deep and several feet across in diameter. And not only that, but the length of the battle was so long, like nearly a kilometer or so. You always think battles seem so contained, like they only occupy a single large field or a single building, but in reality, this was widespread, just like the chaos of war. It was mind-blowing to see all that with my own eyes.

And if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the bombs and the battle going on around me.

Later on when we went to lay roses down on the graves of OSU veterans at the American cemetery, I saw a fraction of the casualties sustained because of the war, and I was completely stunned. Sometimes people talk about interventions in other countries or showing some force against those who threaten America (or whatever country one may belong too), but they don’t see the results, the many horrific deaths. In Normandy, those many, many crosses, with Stars of David interspersed here and there, are a stunning reminder of what happens when you go to war . Perhaps more people would be less likely to talk about using force if they saw these graveyards more often.

It’s strange how the past finds echoes in today’s world. I still find more reasons to remember the Second World War with every passing day, how it continues to influence my life in so many subtle ways. And I wonder what’ll happen tomorrow, what echoes I’ll come across or what shocking reminders I’ll find that war touched this tranquil corner of France?

The American cemetery.

I’m sure I’ll find out soon.


Bayeux’s Living History


That’s the only way to describe what we’ve encountered the past two or three days in Bayeux, which is a small, genteel town on the Norman coast not too far from where D-Day took place. Of the morning on the day that I am writing this post, we went to Utah Beach, where the Allied troops had by far the easiest landing (tomorrow we go to Omaha Beach, which was, without a doubt, the most difficult landing). Here on this beach, men landed, fought and died for the right of others, most of whom they’d never met, to live in peace and not have to fear totalitarianism or that whatever family or people they were born into would get them killed.

Standing at the beach or by the museum we would later go into, you can see memorials all over the coast, commemorating the many people who fought and died on that bloody day nearly seventy years ago. And all around the area, you see white and blue signs marking a spot where an Allied soldier was felled. When you reach the town of St. Mere-Eglise, you can go to the church and how the paratroopers who helped to liberate the town have been immortalized on the outside of the church and the stained-glass windows depicting paratroopers on either side of the Virgin Mary.

After roaming through the Musee Airborne, you finally go to the German War Cemetery, kept and maintained as a reminder of the atrocities of the war and how peace should be preserved.

One sees all this, and one can’t help but feel humbled by all that they’ve been witness too. This is the marking of history, of powerful events that still resonate in this area of France today. It’s like being hit by a shockwave from the past that flows through you and makes you aware of the gravity of the battle for the liberation of France.

Tomorrow I go to visit more beaches and cemeteries. I don’t think that feeling of humility will be diminished. In fact, I’m willing to bet money it’ll be just as awe-inspiring as Utah and everywhere else I was today, if not much more than that. And I look forward to documenting every minute of it, both in photos and in my memories (though the latter tends to be really spotty sometimes).

See you when I write again!

Becoming Grounded In History

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

Selena Vlajic, me, and Henry Dolin getting onto the HMS Belfast.

There’s so much I want to say about this trip, so much I want to tell everyone about. I want to talk about the weather, or my impressions of the city, or what I love and hate about our hotel, or about visiting so many cultural sites. Basically, I want to convey everything I’ve seen and experienced since I arrived at Heathrow this Wednesday.

I guess I can sum up everything with a quote from a quote from Sweeney Todd: “There’s no place like London.” Up until even this past semester, reading about London, even knowing that I’d be visiting it soon, was like reading about a fairy-tale kingdom. It was so distant, it didn’t seem real. But being here, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the city have brought home the history and the reality of where I am. I’ve visited the Churchill Museum, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Bletchley Park, the Shakespeare Globe, and so many more. Finally, London feels real to me. I’m actually here.

And not only has London become more real to me, but so has the war I’ve been studying for nearly my whole college career. Yes, it has always seemed real to me. There’s too much information and too many testimonials from veterans and survivors for me to have felt the war to have been anything but a reality. But when I stepped into the Churchill Museum and began exploring where Churchill helped to plan the war and where soldiers slept, ate and worked round the clock to keep Britain from being invaded, I felt myself become part of the war; I could see my place in history and how it related to me.

And then in Bletchley Park, I had another one of those moments when I saw the war through a whole new light. Standing there among the huts and the mansion where the British Army, Navy, and Civil Intelligence Services broke the Enigma codes, which helped to end the war a few years earlier, I realized I was standing in history, where important events took place and without which I might not be around to write about this study abroad trip. As I went through the museum at Bletchley and saw a full-length Nazi flag displayed near the code-breaking exhibit, I thought to myself: “If it weren’t for the people who were part of the Bletchley Intelligence Project, I couldn’t be sure where I’d be now. I might not even exist.”  Standing there in that museum, I put my hand on the swastika and sent it a mental message, as if to address Adolf Hitler’s ghost: “All that you and your followers stood for, the people here helped defeat. And I live to remember it.”

With the statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

So what can I tell you about my study abroad trip so far? Only that it has been edifying beyond belief, and made the Second World War more relevant to me than ever before. As the days go by, and as we travel between locations, to different museums and battle sites and historic places of note, I’m sure that awareness will only grow deeper. And at the end, I will be able to look back and know that this trip has greatly influenced not only broadened my knowledge of WWII, but also made me appreciative of all the sacrifices that were made so that someday I could come here and write about it.

I will write again from Normandy. Look forward to more musings and photos and discussions of the places I’ve been. Good night everybody.