Remembrance : the French and the Germans

Because of its role in the end of the war in Europe it is fitting that the final destination of our trip is Berlin. It was also the most anticipated stop for me and many of my classmates for a multitude of reasons. First, we were excited to experience German culture and to witness Dr. Davidson in his natural habitat. Although I very much enjoyed French cuisine, I often found myself still hungry after most meals; I found comfort in the mere idea of a filling meal consisting of pretzels and bratwurst instead of the petite French portions. In addition to this, the we had been told by many that the Germans are a very kind and hospitable people, and that many of them can speak English very well (Hurray!). All of this turned out to be correct. The food and drink have been amazing thus far, especially the street food (I think I’ve had around twelve döners in only a week’s time), and the German people have been amazing. But experiencing the culture was only half of the reason for our anticipation of Berlin. The other half was that we were curious to see how the German people and government view their nations culpability in World War II. After witnessing the French myth of resistance, how would this extremely dark chapter in history be remembered in the museums and culture of the country that is by far the most guilty?

The answer to this question was extremely satisfying. The Germans make no attempt to save face or push the blame elsewhere. They confront their culpability head on. There were three things that stood out to me in Germany as distinctly different than what I saw in France. The first difference occurred to me during our time in the German War Museum. Here there was no attempt to hide the Holocaust portion of the exhibit as was done in France. In order to continue on to the next portion of the museum one had to pass by the exhibit. In addition to its visibility the quality of the explicative writing was much greater. It was not simply a cold retelling of distant events with statistics, but rather a moving piece that shed light on the suffering of victims.

The second difference between French and German remembrance initially occurred to me in the German War Museum as well, but was exceptionally stark in the Topography of Terror Museum. This discrepancy can be shown by quoting one seemingly simple sentence from the exhibit; it reads “The Germans conducted the war against the Soviet Union as a war of extermination”. The significance of this sentence lies in the fact that it says “The Germans” and not “The Nazis”. There is no mincing of words. This is just one example of the Germans acknowledging their culpability, where on the other hand, the French often said “the Vichy regime” when referring to terrible acts committed.

The third difference between France and Germany that I noticed was that there were banners, posters, and the like all over Germany signifying important events, many of which pertaining to the Holocaust. There was none of this in France. Even the State issued memorial to the deported Jews (of all European Jews might I add) was hidden from view. This is in direct contrast to the stumbling stones in Berlin, which signify the location where individual Jews were deported.

The German museums, as well as the city of Berlin with all of its posters, tell a very straightforward story of the Second World War. No detail or event is omitted, no matter how grim. To do so would be a great injustice to not only history, but to the future. In all, it seems that the German people have done have done an excellent job of not only coming to terms with the past but also preserving the lessens that have been learned.

I’d now like to take a moment to sincerely thank any and everyone that had a part in making this trip possible. I came hoping to get a better understanding of cultures other than my own and how they remember the events of World War II; I succeeded in both. However, during the course of this trip I also became proficient in many different forms of transportation (which is astonishing because I’ve never been in a big city or flown in a plane before), learned a lot about myself, and had the time of my lif all the while making friends that I intend to keep in touch with for rest of my life. I’m a better person for having this incredible experience. I will cherish the memories I’ve made forever.

Paris: A Continued View of France and the Holocaust

Although I really enjoyed our time in Bayeux, it was time to go. Ready to leave the laid-back style of Normandy, I was very excited for the hustle and bustle of a large city. I managed to maintain this excitement even through the multitude of discouraging reviews of Paris claiming that it was a disgustingly dirty city, with a virtually unnavigable metro, and is filled with rude Parisians and pick pockets who would take my shorts if I didn’t hold on tight enough. Despite these accounts, I found Paris to be very enjoyable. The rich history of the city was palpable in its beautiful buildings and the food was phenomenal. The metro was difficult to navigate at first, but this was to be expected since this was our first encounter with a language barrier in a large city. However this was something that we were able to get used to fairly quickly and by the end of our stay we were able to get around with relative ease. However, to be perfectly honest, we did run into our fair share of snide locals and a few duplicitous individuals who looked all too eager to follow our group that was obviously unfamiliar with the city.

Although it is certainly part, touring the cities and experiencing their culture is not the main objective of our trip, but rather to experience how each group of peoples remembers the role that it played in World War II. This is the reason that I was most excited to visit Paris. In Normandy, most of the museums seemed to accentuate the role of the French Resistance while skimming over French compliancy with both the Nazi and Vichy regimes. I was eager to see if this trend of de-emphasizing the role played in the Holocaust would continue in Paris; for the most part, it did. The distancing from the Holocaust was evident nearly everywhere we went, and was initially observed in the first museum that we visited; the Musée de l’Armée.

The museum was quite extensive (especially when it came to uniforms, hats, and guns) and had a good bit on both World Wars. Although I was constantly searching, I could not find much on this event that, although its horror is beyond words, is forever a part of this country’s (and other’s) past. Nearly ready to give up, I stumbled upon a small exhibit (what seemed a mere 15 by 30 feet) in a side room at the very end of the museum, not 50 feet from the exit. Inside this dimly lit, walled off section was a cold recounting of events and statistics of the Holocaust. Here I did not see any mention of the French or their compliance with the Nazi or Vichy regimes and, to make matters worse, there was a video playing on a small screen that displayed some of the most gruesome images of the Holocaust that I have ever see. It seemed to me that the people in these images deserve more than this bare bones display.

The next place regarding the Holocaust we visited was the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation. Even though I had walked by it on multiple occasions I was unaware of its existence. Despite its location directly behind Notre Dame, the site is well hidden underground and facing the river. It too is severely lacking.

The third site I hoped to learn about France coming to terms with its culpability with the Holocaust was the Shoah memorial. This memorial was outstanding in detail and content. The exhibit, beginning by tracing anti-semitism to its ancient roots, gave a much need objective view of the holocaust and the role that France played. It did so by not only providing details but by placing both the Jews and French collaborators in a particular place in time, rather than simply spitting out facts. However, this memorial was constructed by a Jewish organization, while the first two were made by the French government. After seeing how the French government remembers the culpability of its citizens I’ve very interested in what we will find when we travel to Berlin.


Remembering the Dead

Due to the incredible number of soldiers from a multitude of countries that gave their lives on its beaches and in its fields, Normandy offered a unique opportunity to observe not only how Germany, the United States, and England remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice while fighting for their country but how they remember World War II as well. In only three days we traveled to the three different cemeteries, each managed by a different nation (or people from that nation), allowing me to compare and contrast the fresh thoughts and emotions brought about by each site. There is a lot to be said about each cemetery and what it tells about how the war is remembered by each nation. However, I found the Germans the most interesting. How would those who are often thought of as evil (no matter how strong or weak the individuals tie was to the Nazi Party) be put to rest?

It was the first cemetery that we visited; tucked away behind a little grove of trees. Immediately upon entering, the cemetery impressed a somber demeanor. After walking though a small granite building, the rustic graveyard opened before us and a large dark cross loomed over all that was in view. The next thing that I noticed was the cluster of crosses used to mark off the different plots. These cross were cut from the same dark brown material, and were just as coarse. One plaque placed on the ground was used to display the names of the soldiers who were buried on either side of it. Quite often the name of the soldier was unknown, and the inscription “a German Soldier” took its place. These plaques were in neat rows like most cemeteries, but nothing more than that. The graves did not fall into a straight line everywhere you looked, as they did in the United States and British cemeteries. It seems as though in choosing the style that they did, the makers of the cemetery were attempting to remove these soldiers from their Nazi ties, no matter how large or small they may be for each individual. The style is not what one would consider characteristic of the Nazi Party, but rather of a Germanic tribe. Perhaps attempting to pronounce that they were in fact Germans, a distancing them from the Nazis. They also seem to downplay the individual – there is not a prominent headstone standing tall for each soldier, but rather a cluster of crosses at the front of each plot. In addition to these observations, I noticed the words written in the cemetery at the foot of the mound. The end of the inscription reads something to the effect of “God has the last word”. Undoubtedly the intention of this was for there not to be judgment cast on those who are buried here, believing that only God has the right to judge a person.

After seeing this cemetery I am very interested in seeing how Germany remembers this dark chapter of their past.



Having never been outside of America, I didn’t know what to expect during our time in London. My only knowledge of the city and its inhabitants came from various forms of entertainment as well as many history classes throughout the years. From these sources I had gathered that the British are generally friendly and well-mannered people, who are normally more reserved than their American counterparts (except for when they “get a little pissed” according to Sergeant Justin Scholes of the RAF, a man whom I met at a bar). In addition to this I also was aware that the British are very proud of their island nation’s rich history.

The first thing I noticed upon my arrival in London (and during the long DLR ride from London City Airport to Bank station) was the city’s remarkable blend of old and new; stone buildings dating to Imperial times adjacent to chic business towers made of glass. However, this realization, much like my previous background information on London, was superficial. It was during our exploration of the area around Trafalgar Square that I first began to realize and appreciate just how much the British value history and its impact on their culture.

When visiting sights such as the Tower of London, London Bridge, HMS Belfast, Buckingham Palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral I was able to gather a very real sense of the historical events that occurred there. Despite their importance and beauty not one of these extraordinary places came close to matching splendor of Westminster Abbey. For me personally, this location was truly awe-inspiring. Even before I entered the building the historical significance of the site and its contents was palpable; once I was inside, I was dumbfounded. Here lay so many of the historical figures that I have learned about since my early childhood. Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Mary Queen of Scots, various kings and queens to name only a few. All congregated in one final resting place. Many of whom were laid to rest a mere meters (centimeters in some cases) away from each other. It was difficult to wrap my head around the importance those who are buried there. To see the grave of Charles Darwin was especially incredible. For the past four semesters I have been in a biology course of some sort. All of which have spent a considerable amount of time (a week and a half at the very least) in teaching the discoveries and theories of Darwin. In seeing his burial place I was utterly beside myself. In addition to the significance of its inhabitants and its magnificently ornate architecture and craftsmanship, the sheer age of Westminster Abbey was breathtaking. There was a mural that was over 770 years old. 770 years old!

One of the greatest parts of this trip so far has been my classmates. It’s great to share this experience with people with similar interests as me and who get just as excited over a 770 year old painting. I’m sad to be leaving London, but I’m very excited for the rest of the trip!

Peter WestPeter London