Acknowledging the Past and Shouldering the Guilt

The Wannsee House.

Throughout the Spring semester and this three-week study tour, I have been exposed to the many Nazi atrocities committed during World War II—from pictures in museums to walking through Auschwitz itself. Arriving in the last country, Germany, I was unsure of how the losing country would portray their experience of the war. Would they shoulder their guilt in the persecution of the Jews, a topic the other countries so thoroughly discussed in their museums? Looking back, I would say that yes, the Germans did so in an extremely factual manner. However, I was particularly struck by their discussion of ghettos at the Wannsee House.

Ghettos, set up to house Jews and cut them off from society, were a devastating element of the Nazi persecution of Jewish people. The “Establishing the Ghettos” display recognized the wrongdoings of the Germans, but it was also the only display I encountered that acknowledged the role of Jewish Councils within the ghettos. It aligned well with a source we read in class in that it highlighted the role of the Councils while still placing the blame on the Germans themselves. It thoroughly reiterated that the awful choices the councilmen had to make were done under German threat of death or punishment. This display, which did not criticize these councilmen for whatever role they played in the death of their fellow Jews, seemed to me a recognition of the Nazis’ wrong-doing.

I was able to learn about a lot more at the Wannsee House than just the ghettos, however. In fact, the Wannsee House showed in-depth the anti-Semitism that was prevalent throughout Germany before Hitler took power, a topic we discussed only briefly during the semester. The first section of the house emphasized how multi-faceted this anti-Semitism was by using both a large amount of text and images of German propaganda. Its in-depth discussion of the dehumanization of Jews in pre-war Germany provides important context to the Jewish experience during the war. Overall, I think the Wannsee House did a thorough job in acknowledging the German role in Jewish persecution prior to and throughout the war.


What Story Do I Tell? Poland Versus France

Having completed my time in Poland, I am fascinated at the differences in the museums between there and France. Leaving France I was dissatisfied with some of the museums, specifically the Caen museum, and the interpretations of the French war experience. I was frustrated with the lack of recognition France had for its role in the murder of its Jews. It mentioned the deportation or killing of other European Jews before it mentioned French Jews. It also tended to focus more so on the role of other countries in the Holocaust as opposed to France’s role. Before going to the Schindler Museum, I believed the interpretation of Polish war experience would be similar to the French: overshadowing, if not outright denial, of complicity against the Jews. I was surprised, however, to listen to our tour guide discuss how there were both good and bad Polish people. For example, she discussed the Volksdeutsch, Polish people who were able to become German and gain advantages under the German occupation, sometimes at the expense of the Jews.

Text at the Caen Museum. The mention of Belgium Jews comes before that of the French Jews.

Another stark difference between the Schindler Museum and the Caen Museum was the attitude towards defeat against the Germans. In the Caen Museum there was a poster that read, “Invaded but not Conquered.” For the French, the identity of France as a nation still remained, only temporarily controlled by the Germans. The Schindler Museum showed that Poland’s experience was not the same. Even though they had been preparing for a German invasion, their defeat meant being conquered and not merely invaded. These two differing attitudes also meant they viewed their resistance differently. The Caen museum portrayed resistance as exemplary, so much so that a quip stated that France was liberated by the summer of 1944 with or without the help of the Allies. While the Schindler Museum recognized Polish resistance, the tour guide also explained the uncomfortable acceptance of Soviet help to expel the Germans. Altogether, these differences helped exemplify the differing war experiences between the two countries, and how each remembers their own story.


French propaganda poster at the Caen Museum.


Beginning in the second paragraph, the Caen Museum dismisses the Allies crucial role in liberating France.

The Ordinary Solider

While in Normandy I had the opportunity to visit the La Cambe German Cemetery. This cemetery honors the German soldiers of World War II; in the middle is a hill-shaped mass grave of nearly 20,000 German soldiers. Also, as opposed to normal headstones, the cemetery contained smaller plaques. Most grave markers had no flowers, crosses, or items of remembrance by them, giving the place a uniformly plain appearance. One grave, however, was adorned with the typical offerings: Michael Wittmann’s grave. Wittmann was one of the most famous Panzer officers. In comparison to the other graves, his had flowers, candles, coins, and a cross. Buried with other tankmen killed alongside him, only his grave received this level of recognition. Professor Steigerwald noted that there was concern over whether neo-Nazi fanatics made pilgrimages to Wittmann’s grave.

The La Cambe German Cemetery.

Professor Steigerwald’s comment made me think about the recent rise in the alt-right. However controversial this might be, I think removing Wittmann’s grave would be a positive thing to do. It stymies neo-Nazis’ opportunity to worship a horrible killer, but at the same time would not hurt the remembrance of the ordinary Nazi solider. Through my research and reading during our spring seminar class I had the chance to learn about the ordinary German soldier. As in other countries they were drafted into the army without much of a choice. Thus, I think recognizing them is most important because it is a testament to the folly of war experienced on all sides, of the lack of choices many men faced. And with the 75thanniversary of the D-Day Invasion approaching, the persisting relevance of Nazi philosophy appears striking to me. There is a grave in the La Cambe that might be contributing further to the very problem that these men so bravely died fighting against. How does one grapple with this honoring of both sides fallen soldiers and the indiscriminate toll war takes on all sides? To me, I see recognition of the ordinary soldiers on both sides as the key to that answer.

The mass grave at the La Cambe German Cemetery


Michael Wittmann’s grave is pictured at top, surrounded by flowers, candles, and a cross. Coins have been laid on his marker. The two grave markers below are the tank crew members that died in the same incident at Wittmann, but no similar remembrances are left for them.


Close-up of Wittmann’s grave.

The War Fought off the Battlefield

Just outside London, half way between Cambridge and Oxford, sits the town Bletchley. During the war Bletchley Park was home to British intelligence operations; men and women worked nonstop to crack German enigma codes and aid the Allies on the frontlines. To me, Bletchley Park is a prime example of Britain’s “People’s War.” The “People’s War” is the historical interpretation of British involvement in WWII, emphasizing the importance of civilian contributions to Britain’s total war effort and success. What really reinforced the idea of a “People’s War,” however, was oddly enough the coats, hats, and purses that hung on the walls of the different huts. While these people played an important role in the success of the Allies, they were still just ordinary citizens. Daily work life at Bletchley included women riding their motorcycles to deliver important messages and huts working together to decode German codes. Their offices were nothing glamorous, and at the end of each night they got on the bus or rode their bike home just like any other person. Despite this sense of normality, their work was crucial to Britain’s success.

Additionally, our tour guide reiterated several times just how important secrecy was at Bletchley Park. It is intriguing that even after the war these women and men kept secret what they did. No one attempted to glorify themselves but instead continued on with their lives normally. Walking through the grounds and hearing the tour guide say this both reinforced the interpretation of a “People’s War” and made me question it. For one, their avoidance of the spotlight suggests a group effort towards the war, a sign of the collective effort that was prominent throughout Britain. On the other hand, the work done at Bletchley Park was left out of historical accounts until it was revealed decades after the end of WWII. By that point in time the interpretation of Britain’s war as a “People’s War” was already existent. Standing in the different huts I couldn’t help but wonder if the “People’s War” interpretation has expanded at all since the uncovering of what men and women at Bletchley Park did to greatly aid the war effort. To me, the people of Bletchley Park perfectly embody the interpretation of Britain’s WWII experience, that of a “People’s War.”