Wandering Berlin

            To say that I loved being in Berlin is a gross understatement. When I stepped off the plane at Tegel airport, I joked around with Jose that I had come back to my people since all of my ancestry is German. I didn’t realize that I would really connect with this city the way I did during my time here. There’s certainly the possibility that I’ve felt most comfortable in Berlin because of the considerable influence the US had on the rebuilding of Berlin after the war. I’m absolutely positive that there was more to it than that. The people were incredibly friendly and also very encouraging of my rather poor attempts at speaking German. Like everywhere else we’ve been, the food was excellent (how many döners did we eat?). I truly fell in love with the feel and atmosphere in the city. It’s also the most difficult vibe to describe out of all of the cities we’ve been to. Whatever the reason, Berlin and I clicked.

          IMG_8501  You’d think that after a semester of taking classes where I learned about various aspects of World War II and nearly three weeks of actually visiting the sites where the war took place I would have most of my questions about the war answered. Berlin has raised some very interesting questions for me, and I doubt that I will ever actually find a good answer to most of them. The questions almost seemed intangible and hard to put into words when I first started to explore Berlin. I was incredibly taken aback by how straightforward the German Historical Museum was in depicting the crimes and wrongdoings of the German nation (not just Hitler and his henchmen) in the lead-up to and during the war. No detail was left out. Without warning, there were pictures of 18 Jewish Poles hanging in a town square as retribution for the death of two German soldiers. Models and pictures of Auschwitz, Chelmno, Majdanek, and other camps lined the walls of the museum to portray the atrocities committed by German people. I saw one quote printed on the wall of the German Resistance Museum that seemed to encompass what almost all WW2 museums in Berlin were trying to convey. In 1933, at the beginning of the Nazi era, Protestant minister Hermann Maas said, “Every German bears responsibility for Germany, no matter who he is or where he stands, in the homeland and abroad, in public and at home. No one can absolve him of this responsibility. He can transfer it to no one.” It seemed to me that the museum embodied this quote. Instead of only vilifying a single group of people (which they should be vilified), the museums portrayed how the entire German nation was at fault.

The ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

The ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

   As I thought on that idea, I started to sense the question forming, but I still wasn’t quite sure what it was. So, I continued to explore Berlin, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of the war. There were memorials tucked away on nearly every street it seemed. Bullet holes still pockmarked buildings that survived the war. Ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church still stand, but half had been destroyed by bombings in 1943. There are constant reminders of the war that make up the foundation of this city. I wholeheartedly believe that the victims of Nazi terror and the war should be memorialized and remembered. The lessons that can be learned from examining this history is critical to future populations. As I’ve gone through each city on this trip I’ve tried my best to put myself into the shoes of the English, the French, and the Germans and see how their perspectives or narratives differ from our own. So, as an American attempting to view the war as a German would I think I can finally begin to phrase the question: to be constantly surrounded be these reminders is it possible to become desensitized to the true meaning and importance? My question can really only ever be answered by those who have grown up in Berlin or Germany as a whole.  For me, these reminders have been incredibly powerful because they are not things that I get to see every day. What impact will this constant remembrance have on the generations growing up in Germany today? There are still more thoughts and questions rolling around in my head that I will be sure to be thinking about as I return home (with a short pit-stop in Helsinki first). This trip has been more thought-provoking and rewarding than I could have ever imagined, and I’m so sad these three weeks went by so fast. I could not have asked for a better way to end my time as an undergraduate at Ohio State.



Meandering through Paris

Paris was completely unexpected and everything I’d imagined it to be all rolled into one. On our very first day, the group met up at Notre Dame to get acquainted with getting around the city. Afterwards, we had plans of finding our way to the Eiffel Tower before heading back to the hotel. We stopped to consult our maps to find our way to the closest metro station, and when we looked up, we saw an interesting looking alleyway. An impulse decision to go down this (admittedly potentially sketchy) alley led us to some of the most delicious street vendor food I’ve found on the entire trip so far. I would have been completely okay with just eating the crepes from one vendor in particular – especially after he made me the Nutella, banana, strawberry crepe. There seemed to be street performers everywhere I looked. There were people singing opera, flamenco bands, violins, accordions, and other types of performances.

When dinner came around, the weather was fortunately nice enough to sit at a cafe and enjoy some a nice dinner enjoying the company and watching the people moving throughout the city. We never felt rushed to leave or that we overstayed our welcome. Dinner was a social affair, not just something that’s necessary. I even tried the oysters. French food hadn’t done me wrong yet, but attempting to eat oysters that smell reminiscent of Buckeye Lake (for those of you familiar with central Ohio) was not something I enjoyed. I managed to stomach three down before bumming the leftover pasta that Taylor wasn’t going to eat. Despite the poor food choice on my part, dinner was always an great experience. We were in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world! People, cars, bikes, and buses zoomed past to get to their destinations, but at the same time, we’re enjoying a relaxed dinner with friends.

Looks are deceiving, these were not good.

Looks are deceiving, these were not good.

My favorite crepe maker making the best dessert crepe of all time!

My favorite crepe maker making the best dessert crepe of all time!

Without a doubt, my favorite experience in Paris was laying under the Eiffel Tower just taking everything in. Groups of friends, families, and couples gathered around the base of the Eiffel Tower to relax, drink wine, and enjoy the nice weather. Some groups sang and played instruments. Others laughed loudly with their friends. Some cuddled silently. We were free to live life and enjoy our time how we wished with no judgment or concern from anyone around us. Looking up at the Eiffel Tower was incredibly surreal. It seemed impossible that I was actually in Paris. There was so much to take in around me – all the beautiful sights everyone tells you about. I did not expect to be so enthralled by the small things – the company of my friends and the atmosphere around me.

Tess, Taylor, and I on our second night enjoying the  Eiffel Tower

Tess, Taylor, and I on our second night enjoying the Eiffel Tower

Tess, Wyatt, me, and Jose made our way to the Eiffel Tower

Tess, Wyatt, me, and Jose at the Eiffel Tower

Strolling through Bayeux

Coming to Bayeux has been one of the most intriguing, thought provoking, and worthwhile trips I have taken. This sleepy, French town is packed with citizens and tourist alike during the day and by 9 pm there is barely a soul in sight. I’ve dined on more baguettes and pastries than I ever have before (especially since I haven’t eaten anything with gluten in it in almost 2 years). I’ve eaten and enjoyed escargot, duck, chicken liver in an apple/calvados based sauce, real strips of bacon on a salad (attention America: let’s get behind this idea, no more bacon bits!), and SO MANY CREPES. Aside from the tourists who are obviously visiting to see the nearby WWII sights and souvenir shops, there’s no major evidence that the town had once been occupied by German soldiers and was liberated soon after D-Day. A few short bus rides from the town told a different story, though. At Pointe du Hoc, bomb craters and the remains of bunkers were strewn throughout the cliff. Evidence of one of the toughest objectives of D-Day was all around us. Of about 250 Rangers who took Pointe du Hoc, only 90 were able to fight again in the war.

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

The bombings didn’t stop after D-Day. One common theme that came up throughout the museums and films we saw was the French civilian suffering of allied bombing during the liberation of France. I unintentionally sparked a debate on the portrayal of French suffering after watching the short film “100 Days of Normandy” that was shown in Arromanches. While I did disagree with some of the others on a few small points, I felt that the majority of our disagreement was actually a misunderstanding of my criticism – especially since I was still chewing over all of the information I had taken in over the last few days. Wandering the streets of Bayeux on my last night here gave me the opportunity to really think on all of the information I’ve learned here in Normandy.

The French experience during WWII was unique. In 1940, France fell to Germany and the German occupation of France began, not ending until the liberation by Allied forces beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The first indication I saw of a difference in the WWII narrative was in the Caen Memorial Museum. There was an entire section of the museum dedicated to French life during occupation and liberation. In this section, one panel addressed the question of Allied bombing of the French countryside. Strategic bombing of the French towns and railways were crucial to securing the defeat of Germany and had been approved by the French Resistance leader, Charles de Gaulle. The panel, part of which I’ve shown here in this blog, really took me by surprise when I first read it. It is extremely critical of the Allies and their methods of securing freedom for France. The text following the question “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” did not explain the reasons behind the bombings; rather it seemed to be a question posed to the U.S. itself.

Why bomb Normandy's towns?

This panel, located in the Caen Memorial Museum, criticized the use of and effectiveness of Allied strategic bombings on the French countryside.

This sort of language appeared repeatedly throughout the various museums, but in my opinion, it appeared most strongly in “100 Days of Normandy.” There were many sequences of shots depicting allied bombing, then showing French women and children. Towns were destroyed. The French people were suffering. The destruction depicted in the film inflicted by the Allies, not the Germans. The Germans were shown surrendering, but all shots of bombardment were from the Allies. In my interpretation of this film (because there can be more than one), I believe the director was once again asking the question: “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” When I was asked my opinion of the film, I responded that it left a bad taste in my mouth, which received some backlash from nearly everyone else. I tried to explain (unfortunately with a poor choice of words) that I believed the film presented a skewed view of WWII. The best way to explain this belief, I think, is to look at the U.S. narrative of WWII.

In the U.S., we aren’t taught about the suffering and bombing of the French people. Before spring semester, I had been completely unaware of the magnitude of French civilian casualties of the war. I knew that there had been some strategic bombing, but I was never fully aware of the implications it had on civilian life and death. Even then, it is difficult to imagine through reading the damage that can be inflicted by bombings. It wasn’t until I was standing in a 71-year-old bomb crater that I even began to fathom the destruction that was inflicted on the French countryside. The American narrative in the European Theater only has one theme: liberation. We were always taught that the U.S. was essentially savior of the French and all other countries under German occupation. This narrative focuses on national pride and gives the American people cause to believe in our country’s leadership and aims. There’s so much more to WWII, though! By promoting national pride, we’ve completely ignored the suffering we caused.

Now, let’s look again at the French narrative. How can a country bounce back from falling to Germany in less than two weeks? From collaboration with the Nazi regime? From needing to be liberated? The focus on elements that will bring them together – national pride. All of the museums highlighted the role the French Resistance played in the success of D-Day operations and the liberation of France (to an extent that almost seemed to exaggerate its role). They memorialized the citizens they lost. The entire country came together to remember these people and to rebuild instead of focusing on the German occupation. By ignoring and trying to forget the occupation, the necessity of Allied bombing comes into question. Thousands of French civilians were killed by Allied bombing – not German bombs. There is no doubt in the American narrative that the bombing was necessary to end the war, but in France, the bombings are called in to question and the Allies are criticized.

With all of this said, I will still say that the film left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s the same taste that is left when I (now) read American history books that exclude the French perspective. My time in Normandy has allowed me to really contemplate the true issue: the fine line between promoting national pride and distorting complete historical picture. To me, both the U.S. and France have crossed that line and contributed to misconceptions about the war. I believe 100% that it is important to remember the French civilian casualties caused by the American bombings, but I also believe it is important to remember why the bombings were necessary and the contributions they made to the war effort in shortening the war and reducing overall casualties.  The experiences I’ve had here in Normandy have truly opened my eyes to a new facet of the war – one that I could never have even comprehended before coming here.

Running through London

Taken from the courtyard of the Cathedral

The view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the courtyard  

As soon as I stepped off the plane in London, I could feel the change in the atmosphere. Everyone was in a hurry everywhere they went. Stand on the right if you’re not one of the people running up the escalator because stairs that do all of the work for you just aren’t fast enough. It was so easy to be swept up into the Londoner mentality – to rush and rush and rush. Over the course of five days I saw Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral (Three times. By the third time I saw it, I finally had the lay of the city), the Imperial War Museum, the HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, St. James Park, the Globe Theater, Westminster Abbey, the cavalry guard, Big Ben, Parliament, the Churchill War Rooms, Bletchley Park, rode the London Eye, finally figured out the Tube, and walked (rather quickly) through miles and miles of London. I’m getting exhausted all over again just reading that list.

It was quite easy to get lost in the city – especially since the only cell service I had in the city was the occasional free wifi from Starbucks. I wanted to get lost, though. I wanted to get lost in the history of the city. Instead of rushing from tourist trap to tourist trap, I wanted to take in the city (which is hard to do while sprinting across the city). One of my favorite moments in London was laying in the grass, looking up at St. Paul’s Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral was rebuilt nearly 400 years ago and is the one that stands today, but the original cathedral was built in 7th century. I was absolutely in awe of the history at which I was looking. St. Paul’s Cathedral was untouched by the bombs that rained down on London throughout World War II. As I laid in the grass, I tried to imagine looking up at this building, still standing, as smoke billowed from the rubble of buildings throughout the city. It was difficult to imagine since now the city is filled with modern, glass skyscrapers, and there were no clouds in sight – nothing reminiscent of the smoke that would have filled the city throughout the war (except maybe the cigarette smoke from Londoners walking by).

There’s so much history throughout London, it’s easy to miss if you’re always hurrying to the next destination. After touring the Tower of London (which was PACKED with tourists and an hour long line to see the crown jewels), Taylor and I decided to look in an old, nearby church. There were only a couple other people touring the church, which was really quite surprising since we were so close to the Tower of London and since this happened to be the oldest church in London. We made our way to the basement where we saw the original tiled floor – built by the Romans in the 2nd century! A little further down the hallway, there was a memorial to William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who had been baptized in this church. Then in a small nook, there was a memorial to the members of the congregation who had been killed during World War II. In the middle of this ancient church was a somber reminder of how much was lost during the war. Buildings could be rebuilt, redesigned, or refurbished. That’s evident by the hundreds of new buildings surrounding the ancient landmarks of the city. These men were lost forever. This was also the first time I’d seen any memorial in London that listed the actual names of British soldiers that died during the war – in the basement of an old church of all places. I’m so glad Taylor and I wandered in off the street and took a little time out of a hectic day to discover such rich history.

Found in the basement of  the oldest church in London

Found in the basement of the oldest church in London