Lessons from the Past

We’ve been across Europe these past three weeks, and I don’t think I’ve been as shocked or as interested in the exhibits as I have been in Germany. I mentioned in one of my previous posts that Bayeux, France has the unique, authentic ability to remember the War since so much fighting took place in Normandy. If that is true for France then that idea definitely extends to Germany as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the exhibits we’ve been to in Germany deal with the war in an upfront manner; they don’t dawdle around the topic of genocide. Rather the museums have exhibits that expand upon the Nazi regime and their deep- rooted racism and anti-Semitism in order to explain how the tragedy of the Holocaust happened.

Perhaps the most powerful manifestation of this lesson hit me when we visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It was first established in 1936 to house political prisoners but then expanded to include a variety of prisoners including Jews, anti-Socials, and other people who were considered racially inferior. Walking the grounds of the camp, there wasn’t as much left to see since a majority of the camp was destroyed in bombing raids, but the things that were left standing were eerie and terrifying. Walking through the stuffy dormitories where people were forced to live and sleep and the old kitchen and infirmary enabled me to at least create a vision in my head of what conditions were like back then. I don’t think it is possible for us to grasp the amount of human degradation that the Nazi regime instigated through the use of their concentration camps, but I think visiting the site where so much tragedy happened was a step toward understanding the suffering of so many people.

My head hurt the whole time I was there. Everywhere I looked I knew that years ago people were walking through this camp, starving, exhausted, and maltreated. I knew that many of the people imprisoned in this camp would end up dying there, most likely losing their family members in a similar fashion. I also knew that as terrible as this camp was, there were so many more just like it functioning throughout Germany and Poland, holding and eventually killing millions of people. It’s enough to make anyone feel sick.

And so nearing the end of our journey we’re faced with one of the most important components of the war, and one that I think is the most visible in Germany. How is it possible that a civilized nation such as Germany could be responsible for the extermination of millions of people? The men that committed these crimes were intellectuals after all with degrees from prestigious schools, which is perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of this genocide. It’s a difficult question to answer, one that I think involves a variety of components based on what I’ve learned during my time abroad.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Elimination of the Unfit

This past semester, in addition to learning about military tactics and wartime policies, I became well-versed in the Nazi ideology of racial cleansing, sterilization and euthanasia. The previous three areas that we have explored, London, Normandy and Paris were full of museums that talked about the region’s involvement in the Second World War and did not provide a well-rounded view of the war. They displayed a one-sided view of the war in my opinion and focused on shifting blame to somewhere other than themselves. The exhibits in Berlin have portrayed every aspect of the war in its entirety, including the subject closest to my heart: the Aktion T4 program and the events leading up to and after it.

There are four times now that I have seen the 1933 Law for Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases and the 1939 Signed Letter ordering the commencement of the Aktion T4 program in the foreground of displays of WWII. At the German History Museum, there was a large section about racial cleansing. I was finally able to learn the literal translation of a piece of famous Nazi propaganda that depicted a man with a disability who cost the state 60,000 Reichmarks and, according to the media, should not be supported and was only a burden. The section there also talked about the six killing centers that were part of the Aktion T4 program and although it glanced over the mechanisms used at them, the exhibit on the ideology was pretty comprehensive. The second time I was impressed by the material presented on my topic was at the Topography of Terrors museum. There was a temporary exhibit dedicated to the subject which was so well put together and displayed in an easy to comprehend manner. It was amazing to see basically my entire research paper from the past semester on display. They also focused a lot on the trials after the war, a subject that I did not focus on. It was interesting to learn about and the exhibit closed with testimonies from people talking about their thoughts and reactions about the program today.

Person with a disability who cost the state 60,000 Rm

Propaganda poster stating that the person pictured who has a disability cost the state 60,000 Reichmarks and is nothing but a burden.

The third time was during a group walking tour through Berlin where we happened to be walking by the Berlin Philharmonic building. This location is the site of the original administrative center for the Aktion T4 program, and there is a long standing memorial near the philharmonic building. There also happened to be an open air, temporary exhibit that outlined the details and events. Another well-conceived exhibit in Berlin, I was elated and impressed.

Temporary open air exhibit at the site of the Aktion T4 administration

Temporary open air exhibit at the site of the Aktion T4 administration

Finally, at the Wannsee Conference house there was a continuum of information describing the events leading up to the war. Our tour guide took special note to stop by the euthanasia section and read Hitler’s Signed Letter of 1939 to the group. This letter created on 1 October and backdated to 1 September (to imply war related rationale) was the only written order for mass murder throughout the entire war. He also stressed the point that the euthanasia and Aktion T4 program were absolutely necessary for the Final Solution to be carried out. They provided SS officers with training methods on how to kill people and gave “practice” to those in power.

Grey busses used to transport patients from hospitals and asylums to killing centers as part of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program.

Grey busses used to transport patients from hospitals and asylums to killing centers as part of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program.

Overall, I was highly impressed with Berlin’s portrayal of the crucial events directed towards people with disabilities that took place alongside the mass murder of other populations. ​

From Paris, With Love

I remember as a small child watching Rick Steves travel the world on TV with my Grandma. It was the closest at the time that I would ever get to travel the world. I particularly remember Paris being a city I always wanted to visit. It has such a romantic quality associated with it. I dreamt of walking down the Seine and sitting in front of the Eiffel tower. From the writings of Montesquieu and the stories of Hemingway to the paintings of Van Gogh and Monet, Paris is portrayed as the intellectual and artistic capital of the world.  Hemingway himself once said that “there is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”

Hemingway is right. From the moment our bus crept into the city of Paris I can’t help but feel as though I fell in love. London felt like home, Normandy felt like a vacation, but Paris felt different. Strolling the grand streets of Paris in the rain just feels right. The lifestyle seems much slower certainly than it was in London, where Londoners raced in and out of the Underground. Dinner is really an experience to socialized and experience dinner, rather than spending your time on the phone or on the road. The Parisians, seem to me anyway, just to enjoy life. It really is unfortunate Parisians and the French in general are typified as being rude, because that wasn’t my experience for the most part. Plus, in a city that seems bursting at the seams with tourists who don’t speak the native language, patience really can be a virtue.

Of course, it’s quite possible I allow my own romantic notions of the city to cloud my judgment. My first night in Paris I sat and just gazed at the Eiffel Tower, which is far more impressive in person than any photograph or movie. I could have sat there forever disregarding the constant bombardment of people attempting to sell me alcohol. Walking along the Seine is truly amazing. It is far more beautiful than the Themes in London and much more peaceful. In fact, Paris has quite a few more people than London, but it just seems less claustrophobic than London.

Paris just feels much older as well. Walking underneath the city in the catacombs was an interesting experience, but it also really made me appreciate the age of the city. It really is a wonder that it has survived many wars and violent revolutions. In particular, it came out of World War II relatively unscathed at least physically; psychologically it is a different story. Even today, the French struggle to reconcile their collaboration with the Nazis and their part in World War II. The French still play up the myth of the resistance as being integral into the war effort, while glossing over the Petain government. This was especially true in the museum to the resistance. Additionally, Charles de Gaulle seems to be remembered as having had a large part in liberating France, as though it was the Free French fighting alongside the Americans and the British that liberated them. They are proud people, but their memory of the war is certainly a perspective that I do not share.

However, it doesn’t cloud how I feel about Paris or the French people. It is a beautiful country with beautiful cities steeped in a proud and rich culture. Hemingway also said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

I agree, even though my stay in Paris was brief; I do believe it will stay with me forever.

Sleepy Villages Hold Dark Memories

Today Normandy is a beautiful quiet and quant countryside with sleepy little villages. It is quite the contrast from the bustling streets of London. It is hard to imagine the destruction that was levied here nearly 70 years ago. Pictures and movies like Saving Private Ryan seem not only from another time, but also a completely different world.  Omaha beach, in particular, was an area of intense fighting for the Americans unlike the relative ease of Utah beach to the west. However, my experience between them was vastly different. The emotion that ran through me as I looked out at Utah Beach into the English Channel was intense. I did not realize that the 4th Infantry Division, a division that has a long history and whom I served with during the Iraq War had been the first to fight to secure the Utah beachhead.  With all of the monuments and the museum it felt like a solemn place. I thought about the young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944, and I couldn’t help but think of my own friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq War. Even though it was solemn for me, it felt appropriately beautiful and peaceful.

In contrast, Omaha beach, the bloodiest conflict for the Allies on D-Day felt very different. Today there stands a monument and sculpture to the Americans who gave their lives on the beach, but it is far from what Ernie Pyle describe as a “shoreline museum of carnage.” Perhaps, I was expecting more, but besides the monuments and a few bunkers there are hardly any remnants of the intense battle fought there. Instead, it has become a resort town, where many people come to vacation and play on the beach. I still can’t decide whether it’s appropriate or disrespectful to the thousands who gave their lives on those beaches. After all, they fought for each other, not necessarily to liberate France or end Fascism.

Near Omaha Beach is the American Military Cemetery. It is a display of youthful vibrancy and perhaps arrogance.  It really is a beautiful cemetery, at least the part that we were allowed to walk on by the powers that be. It was strange that in a place so grand, the graves were so simple. A Christian Cross or Jewish Star of David stood to denote the religion of the fallen. Inscribed on each was the rank and name of the individual, the unit in which they served, their date of death, and the state from which they entered service. In contrast the British cemetery felt so much less grand, but so much more personal. In addition to the information the Americans had, the British put the age of the fallen and the option of a quote from the family. One of the most touching to me was of a 27-year-old British soldier that read: “He gave the greatest gift of all, his own unfinished life.” The scale of World War II forces us to talk in terms of abstract numbers, and as result it dehumanizes the conflict. But here in Bayeux lies Private E.W. Burlington, age 27, and his fellow soldiers and sailors whose stories we know nothing about. May they rest in peace and may we never forget their memory as people in a terrible conflict.

The Pink Triangle

Twentieth century German history has an inescapable stain that will remain forever in the memories of people across the world. The Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are central to our understanding of both the Second World War and our human capacity to perform unthinkable acts towards each other.

This trip has given me the opportunity to learn extensively regarding the Holocaust and in particular the history of concentration and death camps. While in Germany our group visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which was primarily a labor camp which housed almost every type of prisoner held by the Nazis. The well-preserved camp included two original prisoner barracks, two medical barracks, and the foundations of the crematorium and gas chamber there. The camp also includes a memorial that the Soviets erected to commemorate the Red Army POWs held and killed at the camp. The experience of being present at the site of mass murder and forced slave labor was intense and somber, and the entire group felt sobered.

A single item piqued my interest more than any other part of the camp. In the prisoner barracks, an encased painting hung on one of the support beams. A survivor of the camp created this painting, and it depicted the different symbols on the prisoner uniforms to identify the type of prisoner that they were. Prisoners were designated as political, asocial, Jewish, or a combination of these or other factors. There was only one symbol missing from the painting, the pink triangle. This symbol represented persons whom the Nazis imprisoned for having or acting on same-sex attraction. The artist that made the painting did not include this symbol, and our guide said that it was most likely because he did not want to mention those prisoners. If you wore a pink triangle, you were the most likely to die in a labor camp because of reduced rations, alienation from other prisoners, and constant harassment and beatings by guards and fellow inmates.

This is not terribly surprising, because public attitudes throughout the world were still extremely homophobic during the 20th century, but this specific omission concerns me. This man, a Belgian political prisoner, suffered discrimination, hatred, and dehumanization in Sachsenhausen, and yet he pointedly excluded certain prisoners. The ability and the tendency for humans to create an “other” group is unfathomable. Even in the case of the Holocaust, victims of discrimination still actively victimized people that were different than themselves.

This week our world has undergone several jarring episodes of hatred. In Brussels, a gunman slayed 3 people at the Jewish Museum, with another person in critical condition. The reaction has been anti-immigration, and not anti-hatred. A movement has begun because of a shooting in California, and #YesAllWomen has yet to be covered fully by mainstream media. The hashtag is a response to the Santa Barbara homicides and suicide by Elliot Rodger. His attitudes and statements towards women have caused a national outcry, yet many media outlets continue to ignore the hashtag. Instead of highlighting underlying misogyny that our society teaches young men, media outlets disregard this reaction and continue to air movies, commercials, and TV shows that perpetrate the notion that women wrong men through rejection.

The issues that arise in our world today almost all stem from discrimination. This “other” mentality is the root cause of violence and hatred. Yet we fail as a society to teach or inform people about it. In fact, in the case of the Belgian prisoner, even amidst terrible conditions humans have the ability to hate others based on differences.

This attitude is extremely bleak and cynical. I know that there are people out there striving to better the world and stop hatred everywhere. However, the problem will continue unfettered until we, as humans, stand up and say that it is enough. Until we create governments and societies that treat people as truly equal (a utopian ideal), needless conflict and violence will persist. Many people believe that the genocide of the Holocaust will never happen again because we learned our lesson as humans. I believe that a systematic murder of people based on racism on prejudice occurs every day across the world. It is happening today, and through my experience at Sachsenhausen, I believe that even those most affected are participating. I implore you to keep the Belgian prisoner’s prejudice in mind.

Berlin and its Monuments: With the past lost, only the future remains

Tourists in the midst of sightseeing are often awed by the towers, columns, and memorials that help them remember the heroes or inspiring events of a country’s past. In London, stepping into Trafalgar Square, one immediately has a sense of the power of the British Empire. This great open space is the center of the city and the site of art exhibits and demonstrations. However, it commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when an outnumbered Royal Navy, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard the HMS Victory, defeated French and Spanish ships off the coast of Spain. The combined French and Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships while the British did not lose a single one. This victory confirmed British naval supremacy and highlighted Nelson’s innovative approach to engaging the enemy. Lord Nelson was fatally wounded during the battle and is one of Britain’s greatest war heroes.
Trafalgar Square
​In Paris, the Eiffel Tower is a commemoration of French innovation. As it glistens with light at dusk, the entire city joins the show and lives up to its name—the City of Light. The grandeur of French history and Napoleon’s power are on display at every turn. The Arch of Triumph, the Champs Elysees, and the Place de Concorde are all clear reminders of the glory of France.
Eiffel Tower

Les Invalides
​Here in Berlin, German history and its memorials are entangled with the legacy of fascism. There are monuments to its wars and its colonial empire, but they have been relocated and muted. The Victory Column rises above the Tiergarten Park with large bronze images of Prussian military leaders without identification. A huge statue of Otto Von Bismarck marches beside Atlas holding the world and Siegfried making a sword in celebration of Germany’s industrial might. There is also a model of Germania overpowering a panther and a goddess reading the book of history, but it is located in a park, not a city square. Now that the events of the world wars are past, these proud symbols seem out of place.
Otto Von Bismark-Versailles
Monuments in all cities are meant to boost national pride and predict a glorious future. In Berlin, the glory of these nineteenth century memorials must be measured against the realities of the twentieth century events. Ironically, the Victory Column and the monument to Bismarck were moved by Hitler from their places in front of the Reichstag to make space for another monument that was never completed. Hitler meant to recreate German society in a totalitarian environment, so the memorials of the past were defaced and repurposed. Today, there are large empty areas in the city center. Hitler had planned large scale buildings that were never finished as he turned all his resources toward war. He and his designers even tested construction sites to see if the huge buildings that he had in mind could stand on Berlin’s soft earth, but experiments proved that the ground would not bear the weight of the architecture.
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​Hitler’s chief architect was Albert Speer, and one of his most elaborate designs for Berlin was the Tempelhof Airport. It was part of his plans for Berlin to be a new capital of Europe named Germania. Like many of Hitler’s plans, most of it was unfinished until after the war. During the war, the building was used for manufacturing arms. The design had a dramatic amphitheater with long, black spaces, gates, and places for flags. Hitler thought that all buildings should remind people of the great times of history, but many of their buildings, like the concentration camps, only remind us of the terror and hate of the Nazis. Many of Hitler’s buildings have been repurposed, but most have been destroyed. Today, the only monument at the airport is a memorial to the Berlin airlift that saved the people of Berlin during the Soviet blockade.

Berlin’s grandest memorials are in East Berlin where the Russians took control. The Fernsehturm, or Berlin TV Tower, is one example. It was constructed in 1965 as a symbol of Berlin and it is visible from most parts of the city. It is the tallest structure in Germany. The Russians also constructed an enormous war memorial over the bodies of Russian soldiers who died during World War II. They used thousands of German workers to memorialize the sacrifices of Russians. The monument is more about the human cost of war than a celebration of victory.
Brandenburg Gate
One of the most striking memorials in the former West Berlin is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a church that was hit in an air-raid and left as a memory of the suffering of war. After the war, Germany struggled with ways to remember this historical period. They made laws against using Nazi symbols, and even the use of the German flag was troubling. There is no memorial in the city center for the Germans who died in the two world wars. It is as though monuments are only raised when a country is victorious. The memorials that do exist are hidden away in church cemeteries or in private spaces. There are only memorials for the victims of the Nazis such as solemn monuments expressing grief for the Holocaust and the emotion-filled concentration camps.
Checkpoint Charlie
​The Berlin Wall is neither a monument nor a memorial, but it is the most famous structure in the city. Churchill described it as an “iron curtain.” Like many of Berlin’s buildings, it was repurposed, used for graffiti, and finally demolished. Ironically, its symbolism endures. The city is still separated into east and west, though these are not points on the compass. Checkpoint Charlie is a major tourist attraction where actors pose as border guards. The pieces of the Wall that still remain are memorials to those who tried to escape over it. There are other strange memorials as well such as small mountains of debris from the war.
Section of Berlin Wall
Modern artists try to fill the void where Nazi projects failed or where war destroyed the past. The “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe” near the Brandenburg Gate is one example. It has almost 3000 concrete slabs, one for every page of the Talmud, in a grid. They are set on a slope, but they all stand at right angles. The remarkable visual image is confusing and almost insane, like the ideas that created the Holocaust. Nowhere in the memorial are plaques or explanations. There is only a sense of loss.
Holocaust Memorial
​This sense of loss is a unique quality of Berlin that sets it apart from London or Paris. People are gone with no space to remember them. Buildings are gone leaving only an empty shell. The few heroes that remain are tucked away on side streets. In a city with a buried past, only the future seems to matter.

This sense of loss is a unique quality of Berlin that sets it apart from London or Paris. People are gone with no space to remember them. Buildings are gone leaving only an empty shell. The few heroes that remain are tucked away on side streets. In a city with a buried past, only the future seems to matter.

Look Left! First Days in London

David Corrigan, Nick Gelder and I arrived in London early on Wednesday morning and made our way to the heart of the city by bus from Luton airport. We checked in and began to explore the city and stake out some areas that we would like to spend more time in. We have had quite a bit of free time in the past three days, and we have been able to see much of what the city has to offer in both contemporary and historical terms. The food here has been amazing. It is very similar to the food home, but we have all noticed a difference in portion sizes. The first morning, Emily Cunningham and I found ourselves getting up three or four times to refill our water glasses at breakfast. The variety of food that is offered at breakfast is also different from what I am used to. I saw people eating baked beans and tomato slices alongside eggs and bacon. The city itself is much cleaner than the large American cities I have toured, including New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The people are generally friendly, but they tend to keep to themselves unless directly spoken to.

We headed out around nine on Thursday morning for the Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Museum. We took the Tube south and walked a little ways before we got to the museum. The war rooms were sealed immediately after the war and weren’t reopened until the 1970’s. They’ve since been renovated to their original specs and are an incredible resource in exploring the war from the British perspective. We had an audio tour and overall I really enjoyed the experience.

The Churchill museum was especially interesting because of the complete picture it gave of the former Prime Minister. I had expected all Brits to worship Churchill and his leadership during the war, but this was not at all the case. Winston Churchill is certainly well respected and remembered fondly, but the museum made sure to provide the whole picture of his political career. Churchill came dangerously close to dooming his run for power several times and was called a radical by some. His leadership during WWII was also called into question several times, especially concerning the amount of power he wielded in the decision-making process. The English are critical of the former Prime Minister and do not hesitate to recognize his faults, but they are also extremely proud of their role in WWII and credit Churchill with having been crucial in their success.

Friday morning we met a little before nine and took the tube to Euston Station where we caught the train to Bletchley Park. It was about a forty-five minute ride out of the city. When we got to the Park we listened to Vince Hayden’s site report on the breaking of the Enigma code and Alan Turing. Professor Steigerwald then talked for a little bit about the air raids on London as retaliation for the accidental RAF bombing of residential Berlin. We had a guided tour through the park grounds that was a little hard to focus on since there was a lot of construction going to prepare for the restoration of the park that would conclude in June. The museum was interesting and the mansion on the grounds was a conglomeration of several different types of architectural styles, which made it a bit of an eyesore to the locals.

We learned that a 19-year-old woman named Mavis successfully broke a coded message that allowed the Royal Navy to turn an Italian ambush on its head and end all Italian naval operations until the end of the war. We also learned that Alan Turing was the father of the modern-day computer, because he first theorized that a computer could be created to do all things number based, the idea upon which modern computers were created. Bletchley had about 8,000 employees by the end of the war, 75% were women and most were young women.

I got the feeling that a prominent theme in the British interpretation of the war is the righting of past wrongs. The Churchill War Rooms and Bletchley Park both had large exhibits to take a more critical view of their past attitudes. Churchill’s ambition and goals were called into question in the Churchill Museum, and Bletchley Park had exhibits devoted to recognizing the 6,000 women who contributed so much to the war effort and who went unrecognized until the 1980’s. Bletchley also had a lot of exhibits about Turing, who was prosecuted for being a homosexual; and for that reason, his achievements for the war effort went unrecognized until the recent pardoning of his conviction and apology by the government.

The British also take great pride in the alliance they shared with the Americans during the war. The Churchill museum had many references to the close friendship and collaboration between the Prime Minister and Franklin Roosevelt. Bletchley Park has exhibits on American code breakers who came to work at the facility and their contributions to the war effort. This affinity for the Americans comes with distaste for the Russians and their role in the Allied strategy. I got the feeling that the British resent Stalin’s harsh demands for scarce men and materiel and the lack of communication between the two countries.

London has been an amazing experience even though it is also the most expensive city I’ve ever visited. The people are lively and pleasant and the food has been delicious and widely varied. The city is accessible, and it has been amazing to see the monuments I have only seen pictures of. I love London, and I look forward to exploring the city even further before invading Normandy.

Parking Lot Party

I have almost completed my European adventure, and I am so glad the last leg of my journey took place in Berlin. The city is completely different from the other three we have visited, and the culture is also markedly different. There are not nearly so many people walking around the streets of Berlin as there were in Paris and London. Tourists do not seem to be commonplace, but many people here speak excellent English. The population of the city is incredibly friendly and welcoming, much like the cultural atmosphere of Columbus. The city is clean and organized in a way that ensures efficiency in everything from ordering food to getting around on the trains. The food had been absolutely amazing and is very similar to the meals my mother made for my family and me when I was growing up.

There are historical sites all over the city, and a lot of evidence of the events that took place during the Second World War. The contemporary culture in Berlin is intertwined with the city’s involvement in the Great War. It is impossible to discuss the contemporary culture of Berlin without talking about the German attitude towards their country’s history. The city is bright and lovely, but places like the Topography of Terror are a sobering reminder of the destruction and death that took place 70 years ago.

The frank and forthright attitude of the Germans was instantly noticeable upon arriving in Berlin. I thought that learning about WWII from a native German would be an awkward and dodgy affair, but I was surprised to find our guide to be honest and complete in his telling of the story. Every guide we have had has openly acknowledged the atrocities of the German state and expressed support for the education of future generations on the topic.

The Germans are very aware of the role their country played in the destruction that resulted from the Second World War. They have used the last 70 years to come to terms with their past rather than creating a victim state that only focuses on the positives. I have gained a lot of respect for the contemporary German culture throughout my stay in Berlin. The people are friendly, and the city is exploding with life. Berlin has shown what a united and self aware group of people can accomplish, even with a past that holds some of the greatest atrocities in human history.

Afraid of the Past

 

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Germany has a strong remembrance of its World War II past. Unlike France, it does not see World War II as simply an extension of World War I. In fact in the German Historical Museum, World War I has a very small exhibit and the guide says it is normally glossed over in school. However when remembering World War II history there is a cultural struggle between separating Germany and the Nazis regime and being ashamed of the past.

The German Historical Museum had a lot of information about the formation of the Nazis party and how it came to power. There were very few times in the museum that talked about Germany in a negative life. Most of negative aspects were described as being perpetrated by the Nazis state. The museum skips the battles in the war and instead highlights the height of the German empire and then the downfall. Although there was a section highlighting the Holocaust, it was the only section where the descriptions of the artifacts were not in English, which seemed to indicate shame. Also, there has been some discussion as of late to rename the 1936 Olympic Stadium after Jesse Owens. This indicates that the Germans intend to keep the memory of the past visible in society, which is a shift in ideology, because immediately after the war there was a period of silence when the war was not talked about.

The guide at the museum said that it was illegal to print a copy of Mein Kampf. However reading about the past is important to preventingthe same mistakes in the future. Giving power to a book is a mistake, because children grow up thinking that it is more than just a book. At Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside of Berlin, we learned that it is a mandatory part of the curriculum for students to visit a concentration camp. Although it is important for children to learn about the past I think that making it a mandatory trip somehow places the blame on future generations. The past of the United States is not without incident and yet we do not shift the burden to the next generation. As the next generation of German children grows, they risk growing up under the fear that this level of cruelty could happen again instead of learning from the past and then moving forward.

A Refusal to Forget

Berlin:

Berlin had always been the ultimate goal for both the Allies and our small landing party, but I never realized just how much the city had to offer. I think I liked Berlin more than Paris and London because it isn’t a huge tourist destination. That doesn’t mean the city is dead, however. In fact Berlin is quite the opposite.
Berlin is the capital of what today is a strong and confident Germany. However, Berlin is a city that doesn’t shy away from its past. On the contrary both the city and its people are more than willing to recognize both the good and the incredibly bad aspects of German history.
Berlin shows this in the way that it chooses to remember WWII with monuments to the victims of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. We had the good fortune to visit many of these solemn sites during our time in Germany. One of the first museums we visited was the Topography of Terror, a museum on the grounds of what once held the headquarters of the SS. This amazing museum provides a detailed look at the SS from their conception all the way to their downfall.
As the museum chronicles the various atrocities of the SS, it also shows the men of the SS as regular German citizens, which is what they were. There are pictures of Himmler laughing at his desk with a colleague, and pictures of SS members on trips, hanging out, and just goofing around in their off time. I found this hard to take in, because I always think of these men as monsters who perpetrated one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. However, there in front of my eyes was proof that these men and women had also been normal Germans. It is a realization that everyone, even Germans today, have to cope with.
Another very emotional site that we visited was Sachsenhausen, which was a concentration camp not far from Berlin. It was the first ever concentration camp, and it served as a model for the concentration camps that would spring up all over occupied Germany. Our guide around the camp was a German historian, and he didn’t shy away or try and explain away what happened at the camp and others like it. I found this refreshing because in France there had been an overall sense that they wanted to forget their compliance with the German occupation and roundup of Jews and other people.
Germany has the complete opposite mindset of France when it comes to its Nazi past. Our tour guide at the concentration camp was the first one to mention this state of mind. He informed us that it is required for every German child to visit at least one site of Nazi terror such as the Topography of Terror or a concentration camp. I think this is a very important thing, because it helps so that the future generations of Germans never forget what could happen if they forget their Nazi past.
Germany has taken some steps to avoid this, as we learned at the Bundestag, the modern seat of the German Parliament. Our tour guide there mentioned at one point that the German people no longer directly have a say in the election of the prime minister or other critical offices. Their interests are represented by the members of the parliament. He jokingly said that this is because the German people are no longer trusted in such decisions, yet he went on to say that this in a sense is true. The German people very clearly remember how Hitler was able to manipulate the masses, and they are determined to never let such a thing happen again.
The Bundestag itself was a very interesting building. It was designed with a modern feel and a plethora of glass. This represents a new transparency in the German government. However, at the same time they have left some of the original walls from the Reichstag that still holds the graffiti that conquering Russian soldiers wrote on the walls.
Our adventure through Europe has given us a whole new understanding and appreciation of just how massive the war really was. For me it has been a very emotional, incredibly life-changing trip that has taken me through not only the history of my own country but that of several of the countries effected by war. In the future I hope to visit the other theaters of war such as Italy, Africa, and the Pacific so that I can truly get a feel for just how global the war was. Until then, however, I am excited to be returning to my home in America so that I can resume my way of life that so many fought and died to protect. I only hope that one day I will be able to say that I earned their sacrifice.