Germany: 75 Years Later

Thinking about World War II from a modern-day German’s perspective is certainly complicated. How do you go about studying such a painful chapter in your country’s history? Throughout the museums and monuments I visited in Germany, it was clear that Germans take responsibility for the war. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of many examples of remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Small “stumbling stones” along sidewalks and streets mark the locations of Jewish victims’ homes prior to the Holocaust and collectively may be more significant than any giant monument or museum. Other museums such as the Topography of Terror and the German Historical Museum explain how the Nazis consolidated power and launched Germany into war. They seem to serve as reminders of what can happen when civil liberties are suppressed, and dissent is punished. Additionally, the museums are not hesitant to admit the widespread support for the German war effort or the quest for dominance over Europe. Still, they honor those who spoke out against Nazism and defied Hitler; people like Claus von Stauffenberg and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Reichstag building is the perfect representation of modern Germany. The chamber was not the home of democracy for nearly six decades and architecturally it does look like there is a sixty-year gap between the old and the new. From the outside, it is an old building with a long history. The interior, however, represents the future of Germany; with fresh looking blue chairs and a spiraling dome that rises above Berlin, it is an architectural marvel. The Wannsee House, where the Final Solution was finalized, was one of the more memorable sites I visited. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by gardens and looking out over the lake. It is hard to miss the irony while walking on the grounds. How could such a beautiful place be most known for one of the most wicked conferences ever held? It is also fitting that Hitler’s bunker, where he spent most of his final months in Berlin, is now a parking lot. A large sign describes the significance of the location where he committed suicide, but otherwise, you could drive by without having any idea.

Overall, Berlin taught me a lot about Germany both in the mid-20th century and today. Fortunately, after nearly fifty years of division following the end of the war, Germany has come together over the past three decades and become a world power once again. I believe the rest of the world can learn a lot from the way the Germans remember their past and how they prepare for the future.

Poland and the War in the East

In the months leading up to this trip, I had guessed that a few places would open my eyes in some way, but Krakow’s Schindler museum, which occupies the site of the factory at the center of Steven Spielberg’s renowned Schindler’s List, was not at the top of that list. However, after touring the museum and listening to our tour guide discuss the war from a Polish perspective, I certainly was left pondering some new thoughts.

As an American, I learned to think about World War II in a much different way growing up than Eastern Europeans, especially Poles. I always viewed the outcome of the war as an ultimate Allied victory and total liberation of Europe. Although my recent studies in this class and others have opened my eyes to the other perspectives, I did not realize the extent of the legacy the war had on the Poles. Without going in depth about the history of Poland and its highs and lows, the brutality it experienced at the hands of both the Nazis and Soviets in World War II cannot be overstated. That is not to mention the atrocities committed against Polish Jews by both invaders and, in some cases, native Polish gentiles. Numerous pogroms that resulted in the murder of thousands of Jews were carried out across the eastern front. Many Poles were complicit if not active participants in the persecution and murder of eastern European Jews. This is a reminder of the widespread antisemitism already present in Europe before the rise of Nazism. The museum portrayed all Poles as victims of the war and did not offer much explanation for antisemitism on the part of the Poles. It frankly left out a great deal regarding the role locals played in pogroms. Our tour guide really opened my mind to the impact a violent and oppressed history has had on generations of Poles.

From the museum, I gained a better understanding of the Polish experience under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. I did not realize the extent to which the Poles suffered starvation, racism, and mass murder. The museum told a different story from the ones in London, Normandy, and Paris. Those museums tended to focus on the global impact and military history or the Holocaust. I had nearly forgotten about the east when I arrived in Krakow. So much of my attention was centered around the Allied invasion from the west or the Holocaust. At Auschwitz, obviously, I was thinking about the Jews of Europe and other minorities who were persecuted and murdered.  Though the museum in Krakow doesn’t necessarily leave out or dispute those aspects of the war, it highlights the Polish experience in a specific manner and approaches remembering this time period in a different way. The Nazi march to the east left millions dead and millions more starving and oppressed. In Poland especially, it’s easy for a casual observer of history to forget that Poland was not truly liberated after its suffering during the war but incorporated in the Soviet Bloc.

This museum is about the suffering of Poles and how the major events throughout the war affected people within Poland. The events that took place in the east are easily overlooked by too many Americans, me included, and should not be dismissed when thinking about World War II. Overall, the museum fails to acknowledge some of the atrocious acts committed by Polish gentiles, but still manages to deliver a powerful story about the Polish experience during World War II. It was one of the biggest highlights of my experience and left me thinking about the eastern theatre of the war much more critically.

Two Images of D-Day



Crater at Pointe-du-Hoc

Omaha Beach

Throughout my life, I have realized the many stages that learning can have. Sometimes stories and events can be understood relatively quickly without setting foot anywhere near where it happened. However, after visiting places like Gettysburg I realized that it takes being there myself to gain a greater appreciation of the history. My time in Normandy has been a prime example of this. Pointe-du-Hoc, where some 240 Army Rangers scaled the cliffs in the early hours on June 6, 1944, is a surreal place. Walking through the grass at Pointe-du-Hoc, across the craters left by Allied bombs seven decades ago, left me with a new perspective of D-Day. I climbed into abandoned German bunkers. Looking out across the cliffs below and along the coast I imagined the typical day of a German soldier who would have stood and gawked at this sight for months. What would it have felt like to look out one morning to see thousands of enemy ships floating towards me rather than the usually empty sea? Although it may sound obvious, standing on the same ground as those who made history so long ago adds an essential element to the understanding of what happened. The farmland and hedgerows throughout Normandy made me look at the war through the soldiers’ perspective more so than I would in a classroom. I found myself constantly putting myself in the shoes of an American GI or Nazi soldier seeing the same green fields as me under much different circumstances. One of the most dramatic sights I experienced was walking up Omaha Beach and glancing to my right at the bunker where a German machine gunner shot down dozens of Americans who stood near me. That bunker is still nestled in the hillside above the beach as it was in 1944. Though we had talked about this in class and I imagined standing there before, making that walk myself and seeing the bunker had a whole new meaning. The few days I spent in Normandy have had a profound impact on my understanding of World War II, and I am so incredibly grateful I was afforded this opportunity.

London: Tradition, Legacy, and the Future

Through my experiences in London, I have gained a greater understanding of the British historical memory. The sites we visited display a British attempt to allow the good, bad, and ugly to coexist. They blend pride in what they have accomplished and a reasonable degree of acknowledgment for past transgressions. The Churchill War rooms, for instance, exemplified the British admiration for their wartime leader and reinforced his place in British history. He is remembered as an inspirational leader, a maverick politician, and the most iconic Englishman of his generation. Some of his flaws were addressed to a small extent such as his dealings with India and negative comments from leaders who didn’t get along with him. Nonetheless, the exhibit is an expected tribute to his wartime leadership and contributions to the empire.

The major theme I took away from London was the celebration of British royalty and tradition and the legacy of the empire in a modern age. Despite being a well-established democracy, the monarchy is honored in many of the same ways it has been for centuries. The English have kept the tradition and morphed it into a coexistence with modern culture. Although the monarchy has little political power, the celebratory role it plays is a major aspect of British society. The crown jewels, royal palace, the castles, and the luxurious lifestyle are all components still prevalent. They represent a proud heritage for the British people and exemplify the importance of tradition. I was able to visit the Palace of Westminster where even more tradition was on display. A statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the doors symbolizing the shift from authoritarian to democratic rule. The halls are filled with gold and extravagant paintings that celebrate the empire and aristocracy. Although much has changed culturally and politically since the implementation of the royalty and the first parliament, the old still has a role within modern British culture. The British do not believe that any outdated remnant need be destroyed, but rather recognized in a way that remembers them, but does not necessarily celebrate them. Today, London embodies the culture of an ethnically diverse city. The history and tradition of the empire is still obvious to anyone who ventures around the city, but it is intertwined with a sense of the contemporary rather than stuck in the past. The beautiful gardens and busy streets are full of people with their nation’s history in mind but well prepared to look into the future.