The beginning of the end.

Berlin was different from what I was expecting. I didn’t see any skyscrapers and there was a lot of construction. I didn’t understand until later until it was explained that the German people were still readjusting after being separated for so long. Many of the building haven’t changed from the cold war. The first sight we visited was the Bundestag or the Reichstag building, the German seat of government or parliament building. We went on a small tour and saw the parliament room and learned that it changes every four years to fit the seats available for each political party. I also didn’t expect them to be purple.  We saw how they have preserved the writing the Russians did when they captured the Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin.  They wrote their names, locations and other graphite all over the walls and any place they could. They also tried to preserve the bullet holes and some of the other evidence of the battle. We learned that there are only tram cars on the east side of Berlin because tram cars were only in East Berlin. When we went to see the German version of their war museum, it focused on what lead up to and how the Nazi’s gained power. It went through the aftermath of the First World War, the great depression and how the Nazis came to power. It also showed how the aftermath of the Second World War and how Germany was under the Soviet occupation and how it was divided during the cold war. There was no museum that we had visited previously that showed how the Nazi’s gained power. It was very different from the previous countries museums to see the German perspective.  As we were spending time in Germany I realized that I don’t like sausage or a lot of German food but I did like the Weiner Stitzel. Of the other cemeteries, the Soviet one was very different, it was massive and grand but the only grave was the mass grave near the end under a massive statue of a Russian soldier carrying a small child, brandishing a sword and standing on a broken swastika. The Soviets believed that because all of their fallen were seen as equal that they don’t deserve individual graves, thus they have the single mass grave.  Overall from what I had gathered from the different museums and memorials in Berlin, the German people were trying to make penance for what was committed during the Second World War and are still adjusting to the fall of the Soviet Union. This was made clear at the Russian-German museum or the capitulation museum, the sight where the second signing of the German surrender occurred. This museum was the only one that I can recall that focused on the eastern front and the atrocities that occurred there.  That being said, I only saw the German atrocities committed on the eastern front and not any of the Russian atrocities the Soviets committed.

Of everything that we got to see in Berlin, my favorite sight was the civilian bunker that was not bombed in WWII. It was dark and cramped and put into the perspective of how crowded it was and how there were not enough bunkers to cover the 3 million Berliners during the bombing of Berlin.  There was about 25 of us on that tour and there wasn’t enough space. It was hard to imagine how up to 400 to 500 people squeezed into that bunker during the bombings.    This was an amazing trip that I am glad I was able to be a part of and I will miss my classmates and will cherish our experiences together. I am sad to go but now I am heading to my final stop before heading home to the states.

Now I’m off to Florence!

Then we stormed the beaches…

As we progressed onto France, we went and stayed at a hotel in Bayeux. Bayeux is a small country town in Normandy. The air was clear and the people there were hospitable and it was a good place to adjust to the French language. I felt like one of the international students on campus who are in a foreign environment and doesn’t understand the local language. The language barrier was difficult and I don’t know French and what Spanish I do know was unhelpful when trying to communicate with the locals.

Bayeux was the first town liberated from the Germans after the Allied invasion of France called Operation Overlord or also known as D-Day.  The D-Day invasion happened on the Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah beaches. While in Normandy we visited the Utah, Omaha and Gold beaches. The beaches were not what I expected when I learned about them. They were different from what I had imagined. The Utah Beach was the first we visited and it reminded me of the beaches of North Carolina.  With that in mind, I tried to imagine traversing the beach with all of the wet, heavy gear and weapons the soldiers of the D-Day invasion had to carry along.  The wet sand that they sunk into only made their assault harder under enemy fire. Later that week we went to Pont de Hoc, the small peninsula between the Utah and Omaha beaches. Pont de Hoc was where the Germans had heavy guns that could have affected the Allied navy’s assault and the Allied invasion. Pont de Hoc was covered in mass craters caused by the Navy shelling. Allied forces had to climb up the cliff face to surprise the enemy and capture the guns. The sight was beautiful but it was hard to think that it was a battlefield.  Later we went to Omaha and I had my biggest surprise. Most of the beach was flat and then there were tall hills instead of the rock faces that I thought that the soldiers had to climb. It turns out that I was thinking about Dog Green, the farthest west Pont of the beach closest to Pont de Hoc. Dog Green was the rockiest part of the beach while the rest was easier to advance on but the soldiers had to deal with heavy enemy crossfire from down the beach.  I learned that the amphibious transports dropped off there load to far from their intended target range. They were supposed to drop off the tanks 3 to 5 clicks off the beaches in low tide but they dropped them off almost 7 clicks and from there most of the heavy armor and tanks drowned. Through the actions of the transports, the Omaha assault had only 10 percent of their original tanks.  The last beach we saw was the Gold Beach. I didn’t expect to see that it had a town on the beach front. So that when the allies advanced on to the beach, they rolled right up to the town and had to face the enemy in an urban area.

Normandy underwent heavy strategic bombing, the allies destroyed the local’s homes and businesses, their communities and had to deal with all of it under the Nazi occupation. It was hard to think that the Normans were thankful to the allies for freeing them from occupation when these same people who freed them also destroyed their property and left their homes in ruins. It was a surprise to learn that the church in Bayeux was unharmed by the allied bombing. The church is called the Notre Dame de Bayeux and it was built in the 1100’s.

While we were in Normandy we went to the different cemeteries. We first visited the German cemetery. It was located near a highway and was not was I expected from a cemetery. The German soldiers who died in Normandy were buried there. Their tombstones were flat on the ground and when closer examined they had multiple names. Many of the graves were shared graves and many unknown soldiers. In the middle of the cemetery, there is a large mound that was actually a mass grave of unknown German soldiers. It was a very despondent sight. How the cemetery was arranged brings to mind trying to remember the fallen but not what they fought for. The other cemeteries we visited were the American and British cemeteries. The American cemetery was close to the ocean, with the well-known white crosses and star of Davis’s. The sheer scale of graves brings into perspective how many died. It is one thing to know the number of those who died and another to be there and see the graves.  The British cemetery was different in that they had tombstones for all who were involved because they believed that in death all of the soldiers deserve a proper grave. They also had the different designs of the soldier’s regiment on their tombstones. What they have written on them was left to the families to decide. This made the graves more personal and hopefully brought closer to the families.

One thing I really liked in Normandy was the airborne museum that had a building to show and inform people of Operation Neptune. Inside they had an area where people had to walk through a replica of a plane that dropped the paratroopers over France and had a small scale of what the paratroopers were dropped over under a glass walkway. It was really cool to see what the paratroopers experienced as they jumped. And then from Bayeux, the group travels to Paris.

The beginning of my travels across the pond

This trip has allowed me to experience a lot of new things.  For my first time abroad, what I have seen and experienced were beyond my expectations. My first international flight felt longer than it was. My excitement and nerves for the trip kept me up for most of the flight and only prolonged the experience. Overall, the trip across the Atlantic was good, but I was not prepared for the jet lag that followed. Even on my last day in London, I was still recovering.

I have enjoyed my first time in London so far and was able to see many of the sights. On the first day, I went to Westminster Abby with some of the other people in my group and we had a good time. The Abby was beautiful inside, and I’m sad that no photos were allowed inside so that I could have shared what I had seen. Before seeing the inside, I thought that it was just a church with lovely architecture both inside and out, but I was wrong. There were monuments and memorials to many renowned people and more history there than I previously thought. Seeing the different monarchs and nobles buried or remembered there reminded me of just how long British history is. This was seen again at many of the other sights.

One of my favorite sights was St. Paul’s Cathedral. The architecture was beautiful and how the black and white artwork contrasted was different from other churches. The glass piece murals on the choir ceiling were stunning and my favorite part of the cathedral. Yet in the church’s history that part of the cathedral was hated by the people because it was perceived as “too French.” All of the artwork and monuments within the cathedral showed again how old Britain’s history is. I didn’t expect to see a small bust of George Washington in a small corner of the crypt. St. Paul’s cathedral was built after the great fire of London demolished the old medieval Gothic St. Paul’s. During the Blitz, a bomb hit St. Paul’s and hit a private altar, it destroyed the altar and blew a hole into the crypt below. After reconstruction, the cathedral dedicated a new statue of Mary holding a small child to commemorate all of the men, women, and children who died in the Blitz so that St. Paul’s could still stand. During WWII, there was a special volunteer fire brigade that stayed at the church to put out fires from the bombs that hit the church and the areas around it.  There is also a special memorial at the back of the east altar behind the choir section that commemorates all of the Americans who were stationed in Britain and who died to defend England. The memorial holds a book that contains all of their names, and the special decoration around the memorial shows the different plants and animals native to the U.S.  During the war and the aftermath, the cathedral was a symbol to the people that they couldn’t give up in the face of the oppressive odds and the hard conditions they endured. If the cathedral could still stand after the bombs than the people could also survive and endure.

The National Gallery was different from what I expected, yet the artwork there and the diversity of the pieces was a pleasing sight.  Morgan Moon and I went to the Sherlock Holmes museum and had a blast. The other museums we saw were the Natural History Museum and the British Museum. The Natural History Museum reminded me of the one in the U.S. and a bit of COSI. There was a lot of things at the British Museum and I kept wondering why they have so much and how did they transport it all. They have an entire Greek temple and huge statutes that weight several tons. How did they move it all and did any pieces get damaged or lost in transition? My main overall thought was that many of these items were on “permanent loan” or was taken when England occupied the different areas. I didn’t see any mention of the Second World War in the museum, maybe it wasn’t affected or I just missed it.

Of my experience of London, there are so many different people who speak many different languages and cultures yet they all somehow fit. That being said, I can’t get over all of the smoking and pollution that fills the city. The first day I was constantly coughing and sneezing because of the smoke and the exhaust. It’s just another part of their culture and another difference from what’s back home.

In Conclusion

May 25th– We left Krakow by coach and began our journey to our final destination: Berlin. Krakow to Berlin is a seven-hour drive, so that is not much to report from the bus. Once we arrived in Berlin, we has no time to waste. We quickly hoped on their metro and went down the Brandenburg gate to walk to the Bundestag. The Bundestag is where the German parliament meets, and one of the workers there gave us a guided tour. Our guide was excellent, and seemed to know everything there is no to know about the magnificent building. The most interesting part of the building is its connection to the past—especially WWII. Up until then I had been a little skeptical of how Germany handled the war and their Nazi past, and no country would want to focus on something so awful. However, I was quick to discover that Germany is handling the war in a respectful way, without glorifying it. The Bundestag features testaments to the war, such as the Soviet graffiti that has been left on the walls. The most interesting part of this is that it is in the middle of their workspace, and even the building has been remodeled since then, the German people have decided to preserve it. For me that was the most interesting part, and they preserved something reminding them of their defeat, which is not something most countries would not be willing to do. Nevertheless, what amazed me the most is the monument in the basement, to those elected democratically in Germany. There is even a box for Adolf Hitler, despite what later happened under his rule. The box had to be filled with concrete however as it was kicked in more than once. Despite his box, the years 1941-1945 are missing, as a mark of the dark times and Germany and the utter lack of democracy during those years. The Bundestag is a central building for German democracy, and yet in it sits a reminder of the dark times they once faced, perhaps to remind them of the importance of freedom in society, and what happens when it is taken away. After the tour, we made our way to an authentic German restaurant for some pretzels.

May 27th

Another day exploring how Germany remembers the war, today focused on the resistance however. Despite the overwhelming Nazi power in Germany, there were resisters, even high in the Nazi ranks. We made our way to the Bendlerbloc-Von Stauffenberg Memorial at the site of the German Resistance Museum to learn about the July 20th, 1944 plot to kill Hitler. On July 20th, 1944, Claus Von Stauffenberg and other high ranking Nazi officials attempted to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. Von Stauffenberg planted the bomb and then returned to Berlin, believing Hitler to be dead when hearing about the explosion later on. However, as all other attempts to kill Hitler has failed in the past, this one had too. Hitler had somehow survived and the resisting officers plan to take power in berlin (Operation Valkyrie) was foiled shortly thereafter. Stauffenberg and those immediately assumed guilty were executed in the courtyard of what is not the museum that night, and a witch-hunt that resulted in the deaths of family members and people unrelated to the attempt followed. The memorial is centered outside the museum, and is in the exact spot the men were shot. The museum is incredibly detailed, and features stories of resisters from all lifestyles. From the church, the army, the public and even the Jewish community, the museum pays tribute to those who lost their lives attempting to stop the Nazi party. It is clear that in constructing these places the German people made no attempts to glorify anything, and the men are by no means made out to be heroes. Rather they are shown as people who just attempted to stop it for a number of reasons, not necessarily because they did not agree with it. After the resistance museum, we walked over to the Soviet memorial in the Tier garden. The memorial is dedicated to the soviets who fought in Berlin, and later captured it. It also serves as an example of Germany’s acceptance of their part in the war, as they allow the victors to construct memorials in the city. We then made our way to the Holocaust memorial that sits right next to the Brandenburg gate. The memorial is made of various sized concrete steels, and is a maze in itself. The intention is to show how fast people disappeared in the war, and how one second someone would be there and they next would be gone without a trace. It is interesting to walk through, and as the ground changes and the steels grow bigger, one gets a sense of uneasiness, such as the Jews in Europe would have felt during the early years of the Nazi regime. It is a simple memorial, but that does not take away from its power. We ended the day at the former Hitler bunker, located about a block from the Holocaust memorial. Rather than preserve it as an exhibit, it is a parking lot. The Germans decided not to preserve it, and one cannot blame them for giving him nothing better—as he did not deserve it. It is a stark contrast to the German resistance museum, and gives a vital look into how the Germans treat the war and their Nazi past, they do not ignore it, but they by no means glorify it or give it no more attention than they feel it deserves.

May 28th

Today was focused on one of the most complex relationships of the war, the Soviet and Germans. We rode the train out to the Soviet cemetery, which differed from every cemetery we had seen thus far due to its lack of single graves. It is still a powerful place however, as it houses a statue carrying a child and stepping on a swastika while impaling it. It was there we discussed operation Barbarossa, and how it is believed to have ultimately cost Hitler the war. Though originally the Soviets and Germans were “allies” in the sense they had a non-aggression pact, but that soon faltered when Hitler decided to invade Russia. Hence, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler assumed the Soviet Union would fall as Poland had, and decided to invade and conquer planning on a swift victory. He found anything but that with Stalin and the red army. The red army had more people, and despite its initial struggles eventually pushed back the Germans and took Berlin. Hitler’s invasion forced the Soviets into an unlikely alliance with the allies, and thus gave him a two-front war with his enemies coming at him from both sides. The Russians, though eventually successful suffered mass causalities during the war, with both civilians and soldiers dying at unprecedented rates compared to their fellow allies. The Soviet Cemetery houses the remains of about 5,000 soldiers who fought for their freedom and helped win the war, and stands as a testament to the enormous sacrifices Russia made during the war.

After the cometary, we headed to the German-Russian museum, which offers an unprecedented look at the battle in the east and how it truly devastated Russia. The museum focuses on the Russian civilians, and how the Nazis imprisoned many of them in attempts to end communism. The museum is very Russian- centric however, and tends to avoid how Stalin treated his own people, but that is a point for another time. Rather it places the blame on the Germans, and how they decimated Russia during their invasion. Overall, it was not my favorite museum, but I left appreciating the sacrifices of the Russian people in order to help the allies win the war.

May 29th

Our final day in Berlin was spent at the Wannsee house, a spot where it is said that the Final Solution was officially determined. Though there is no definitive proof that this was determined here, it is still an eerie feeling to walk through the place where Hitler and other officials may have decided to murder the 11 million Jewish people living in Germany. The museum is small, but has a grander purpose: the intentionalist v. functionalism debate. The museum takes a intentionalist perspective, and therefore highlights the idea that the mass murder of the European Jews as Hitler’s goal from the beginning. This is highlighted in excerpts from his speeches in the early 1920s which blame the Jews for the loss of WWI, as well as the concise timeline showing the rise of fascism and the ultimate creation of “death factories” for the Jews. This view is something that can be ignored, however it is not the only explanation behind what ultimately became the final solution. There is also the functionalist view, which is the idea that the final solution came about after a series of failures by the Nazi regime and was not the original goal, but the reaction to what they faced as they attempted to answer the so-called “Jewish question”. I personally believe neither is right over the other, and when one looks at the final solution there are elements of both theories, and what should be focused on the is systematic murder of 6 million people. The regime had the goal of ridding Europe of the Jewish people from the start, but whether they had the goal of murdering all of them is unclear. Making it seem to be the result of troubles normalizes it in a sense, as it makes it seem that they would not have turned to this had things worked out. However, this cannot be normalized; it must be treated as abnormal so that it does not happen again. What must come out the debate is that people died, and no matter what ultimately determined their fate, they must not be ignored or become simply the byproduct of theories.

On a lighter note, our final stop in Berlin was the Olympic stadium. Having never seen an Olympic stadium before, I could not help but smile knowing the incredible events that happened there. Including the world record and full gold medals earned there by fellow Buckeye—Jesse Owens. Jesse Owens is a personal idol of mine as I also run, and his performance at these Olympics is nothing short of legendary. Despite Hitler’s racist regime watching, Owens went on to win four gold medals and only annoy Hitler, as he was proved wrong. Seeing where Jesse Owens once ran was nothing short of incredible, and knowing he shared my passion is what makes him someone worth looking up to for me. I took quite a few pictures with his sign, in starting race position of course.

After our day out, we reconvened for our final group dinner. It was full of German food, beer, and many laughs as we reflected on all we had learned—and the bonds we had forged throughout the semester. It amazes me how vibrant Berlin is, for a city divided just under 30 years ago. It is diverse, it is colorful, and yet it is still healing. Germany has by no means had an easy past, and its presentation of that blew me away. They accept responsibility for what they did, and they own their history in effort to teach others. Berlin holds years of history. From Soviet graffiti to the Berlin wall, it stands as a testament of the ability of people to bounce back from bad times, and even though Germany is still a country healing from its deep wounds, it is a country that has managed to showcase both the worst of humanity, and even the good as they attempt to right their wrongs and open their past to educate the world—no matter how painful it is.

This trip has brought me new insight into the war, and how it is treated in a global context. I have learned about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Though I may be leaving where it happened, I can now understand why it has such a global impact, and why is it still studied even today. It was a truly incredible experience, and I cannot begin to describe how this trip has affected me in ways I have not seen yet.  Not only has it given me 22 new friendships, but it has made a better historian—and that is truly a gift in itself.

Reichstag building

Wansee House

A night out in Berlin

Memorial to Van Stauffenberg

 

 

 

The German Collective Memory

Reichstag Building

The final leg of our journey landed us in Berlin, Germany after a seven-hour bus ride. Immediately after arrival, our group rushed to the Reichstag, which houses the German Bundestag. Based on what I understood from our tour guide, this functions as their parliament. During active sessions, the chairman, government, Bundestag,and Bundesrat meet to debate laws. The system functions similarly to our government, but the presence of the Bundesrat allows for the local governments to have more say in the functioning of the state. The site itself is full of history, still bearing the marks of the Soviet capture of Berlin. Our guide dispelled an incorrect assumption I’d made—Hitler didn’t use the Reichstag to conduct government business. Today, the government building is a monument to the balance of government power and tolerance. There is even a room for meditation designed as a nondenominational place of worship or simply a place to contemplate or escape from the hectic environment of a session. This is a clear message about German intentions to never again let something like this happen.

Section of the Berlin Wall, a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain

The memorials we visited often looked to the heroes of the Resistance in Germany, which came far and few between. However, it is also worth noting that these attempts at honoring those who were cut down by the Nazi regime also have their flaws erased from the collective memory. In the case of Von Stauffenberg, he is recognized as a hero. But even if he had succeeded in his attempt to assassinate Hitler, he and his associates hoped to sue for peace with the Western Allies and continue the war in the east against Russia. The various German museums, including the Wannsee House and the German Historical Museum, look much more critically at the actions of the Nazi party. The Wannsee House does bear an internationalist message, placing much of the blame for the Final Solution on Hitler instead of acknowledging the actions of not only his subordinates but the action or lack thereof among the German people.

The Topography of Terror Museum sits on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters that was destroyed during the bombing of Berlin as the war came to a close. Throughout the Soviet occupation of East Berlin, the ruins remained in what can be called a dead zone between the extension of the wall. When the iron curtain fell, the museum was built. But in 1996, the Berlin Senate voted to stop funding the museum. Based on information from the website, it is now a privately funded operation. This is a relatively new memorial, developed to symbolize a unified city for the first time since World War II. It demonstrated the difficulty of the German citizens who must balance accepting responsibility for the actions of their country and individuals who acted or chose not to act while not glorifying the Nazi party and its soldiers. It also demonstrates an attempt to rebuild a national identity that distances the German people from the actions of the Nazis and move forward as a peaceful nation.

 

Closing Remarks

Tuesday morning, I boarded a bus from Berlin to Prague with five of my fellow classmates.

Standing on Charles Bridge in Prague

This marked the end of my WWII study tour and while I was excited for Prague, I was sad to be ending the course. Never in my life had I been more upset to finish a class.

However, when I arrived in Prague, I couldn’t help but look at everything as if I was still on the study tour. Obviously, the war affected Prague, but how exactly?

Memorial for the Second Resistance Movement in 1938-1945

Unfortunately, there were no WWII museums on my Czech itinerary. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help myself from looking at the city from a historian’s perspective. What did each statue represent? Who built them? For example, there was a Czech Flag monument near our hostel.

After a closer look, I realized it was a memorial for the second resistance movement to the Nazi Occupation in Czechoslovakia from 1938-1945. Reminders of the war are present almost everywhere you go. My trip made that abundantly clear.

Friends in London

Since I arrived in Dublin, Ireland on May 5th, I have been to 6 countries seen over 15 museums and created 22 close friendships.

View from old bunker at Pointe du Hoc

In London, I explored the city, learned about Churchill and was privileged to hear a first-person account of the war. In Normandy, I stood on the actual beaches where soldiers fought on D-Day.

Today is June 6th, 2017 and it is insane that exactly seventy-three years ago, men stormed Utah and Omaha beach and climbed Pointe du Hoc to liberate France from Germany.

Sitting outside the Louvre

Next I went to Paris, saw the Mona Lisa and learned about Charles de Gaulle from the French perspective.

In France, he is placed on a pedestal. It’s no wonder they named an airport after him. Then in Kraków, I had my eyes opened at Auschwitz.

Me and Dr. Steigerwald

I visited a camp where 1.1 million innocent people were murdered. No book is the same as walking through the actual place. Lastly, the trip ended in Berlin. I never made it to Checkpoint Charlie, but I did enjoy time with my close friends.

I learned a lot about WWII, as well as my capacity for bus travel and my tolerance for hotel packed lunches.

Most importantly, I learned about myself. I love history and I love to travel. There is still so much out there to see and this study tour was the best possible introduction to Europe I could have had. Thank you to everyone who made this trip so amazing. It was a life changing experience.

Best,

Charlie

Everyone at the Olympic Stadium!

Berlin Blog

While I was very excited to visit all of the locations that we have traveled to on this trip, Germany was perhaps my most highly anticipated destination. German history has long been one of my historical interests and I relished the opportunity to visit the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, and the many other sites of historical significance in Berlin. Similarly, I was eager to practice both my German language skills with the local Berliners and my ability to quaff large amounts of meat, bread, and beer in the Berlin beer gardens. For sure, Berlin did not fail to meet all of my expectations. Almost everyone that I interacted with was amiable, polite, and spoke excellent English; likewise, the city itself is relatively clean, aesthetically pleasing, and possesses both an efficient transportation network and an abundance of quality eating establishments. One aspect of Berlin that I found interesting was the juxtaposition of old and new that is manifested throughout the city. While most European cities, particularly those affected by the world wars, obviously possess both old and new buildings, the architectural contrast between past and present in Berlin is particularly stark. Since about 80% of central Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, a great amount of the city is relatively new; the multitude of construction cranes that dot the city’s skyline exemplify how Berlin is a modern, dynamic metropolitan area. At the same time, Berlin possesses a number of older structures that more or less survived the maelstrom of World War II like Charlottenburg Palace and the Rotes Rathaus, many of which date back as far as Prussian times. Even in areas where no old buildings currently stand, there are often plaques that commemorate important historical locations such as the former palaces and ministerial buildings on the Wilhelmstraße.

My perception of Berlin’s urban landscape, that of an open and honest acknowledgement of and engagement with the past while looking ahead towards the future, matches my impression of the German perception of World War II. The German museums that we visited were very impressive in their thoroughness, attention to detail, and frank portrayal of the crimes perpetuated during the Third Reich. The German Historical Museum in particular caught my attention with its painstakingly detailed and nuanced depiction of the interwar period and the rise of the Nazis. The exhibits made no excuses for the German nation but, at the same time, thoroughly explained the specific circumstances in which the Nazis rose to power and accurately surveyed the regime’s misdeeds, naturally highlighting the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, the Topography of Terror Museum openly and objectively detailed the inner workings of the Nazi terror state and strenuously emphasized its many and varied victims while the Museum of the Capitulation surveyed the course of the Eastern Front from both sides, sparing neither Germany nor the USSR from critical analysis. The famous Holocaust Memorial, the ubiquitous commemorative plaques for Berlin Jews, and the prominence of Holocaust exhibits at almost every museum underscore both Germany’s  persistent guilt for Nazi crimes and its continual determination to educate both foreigners and natives of the horrors committed during the Third Reich. Some may think that this German guilt is almost neurotic in its intensity and persistence and that this guilt skews the German historical perspective. In this vein, both the Resistance Museum at the Bendlerblock, which commemorates the various elements of German society that opposed the Nazis, and the Wannsee House, which maintains a staunchly intentionalist view of the Holocaust that accentuates the guilt of the Nazi elite, can be seen as German attempts to salvage historical memory by not implicating concretely the German populace as a whole. However, I think that Berlin’s evident acceptance of history, typified by the continuing existence of Soviet war memorials like at Treptow, the presence of Soviet graffiti in the Reichstag, and the present reconstruction of the Prussian Stadtschloss, demonstrates that Germans find solace by firmly acknowledging the complicated reality of their nation’s history and dutifully preserving that history for future generations. While it is not always easy, I think that the German commitment to truthfully portraying both the good and the bad of their history is an admirable effort that I hope I can replicate as an aspiring historian.

Finally, there are many people that I must thank for this amazing experience. Firstly, I thank my parents and the generous donors of the World War II program for making this trip possible for me. Of course, I thank Professor Steigerwald and Lauren Henry for organizing and leading our program and for being amazing role models for an aspirant history professor such as myself. Last but not least, I sincerely thank my colleagues on the trip for their fellowship. While the World War II Study Program’s stimulating coursework and exciting locations were amazing in their own right, the presence of 22 fantastic people solidified this trip for me as one of the greatest experiences of my life thus far.

Dankeschön and auf wiedersehen,

Ian Jones

Berlin

When Michael and I were sitting in a Dublin Pub together, a day before this trip started, I remember us both saying to each other that an entire month abroad seemed too long. We were worried that we would get worn out. But now, six countries later, a day before we go back home, I’d give anything to be sitting back in that Pub. Truly the time of our lives…so far.

Our last stop was Berlin Germany. We had become professionals abroad. Not even ten-hour bus rides, IBIS hotels, or Jon’s jokes could keep us down. The daily processes at this point had become routines. To me, I felt like this group could take on any country thrown at us. I felt like any country would feel familiar. Yet, keeping with the theme of each place having its own unique interpretations. Berlin too, didn’t feel the same as the others. Until Berlin we had spent the entirety of the trip looking at the war from the point of view of the victors. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect in regard to what the Germans would say about the war. I didn’t know if they’d blame themselves and feel shame for it or interpret it in a different way. I came to find out that this is the intentionalist vs functionalist perspective and the Germans have been debating it for some time.

With functionalism, the Germans claim that the Holocaust and other subsequent German actions during the war was a by-product of much smaller decisions. Eventually, over time, the consequences of decision making led the Holocaust to happen. Almost like a sequence of dominoes. In contrast, intentionalist claims that the Holocaust was entirely a product of Hitler’s madness and that the German people should not be held accountable for one man’s actions. At the Wannsee House, where the plan of the final solution was said to have been agreed upon by top Nazi officials, Katie explained to us the difference between the two and what exactly she believed. Like Katie, I don’t think that the German interpretation is exactly one form or the other. On one hand, Hitler should hold much of the blame for the acceleration of the hate. But, I don’t think you can say that every single German citizen shouldn’t be held accountable.  There were those who followed the cause wholeheartedly, as well as those who wanted nothing to do with Hitler. In reality, citizens had little choice. Therefore, I feel as though the German interpretation is a good mix of intentionalist and functionalist perspectives.

With these thoughts in mind, we also visited the Claus von Stauffenberg Memorial and German resistance museum. But, as the museum would explain there really wasn’t such a thing as German resistance. Claus and his crew ran the most recognizable act of resistance during the war. They were responsible for the attempt on Hitler’s life with a briefcase bomb in the summer of 1944. From there they would have staged a coup and proposed a surrender with the Western Allies. Stauffenberg lost the support of Hitler once he witnessed the hated Hitler had preached in the front. This was a huge feat to accomplish. These resistance fighters gained a lot of publicity, yet the actual size of the German resistance was a couple hundred people. Miniscule in comparison to say the French resistance. Like I said, the German people didn’t really have much of a choice of whether to follow Hitler. I understand how the intentionalist argument gets a lot of light, but that being said, you would expect the resistance to be larger if Hitler is supposed to get all the blame.

Some of our last stops were at the Soviet Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Both of these memorials I found captivating. The Soviet memorial to me illustrated triumph and Humiliation of the Nazis all while commemorating Remembrance of all the Soviets who died taking the city. The Holocaust Memorial illustrated loss by having tight corridors and uneven elevated surfaces. These were supposed to illustrate how easily someone can come in and out of your life. When you walk through the memorial no same person can walk with you the whole way. Both these memorials were necessary inside Berlin. Too many were victims of the Nazis.

 

So, this is it, we made it. The last dinner with everyone inside the Sony Center was the perfect way to end. As I told Michael, it felt like every one of us had just started to become incredibly close just at the trip’s conclusion. Like I said before I’d give a lot to be sitting back in that Dublin Pub with the mindset I have now. But, I won’t look at it like that. This trip above all else not only created great memories, but gives the opportunities to continue creating them.

Berlin: The Final Destination

Arriving in Berlin, I again had few expectations for what the city would be like and I had an overwhelming curiosity on how this country would portray and remember its involvement in WWII. All around Berlin, there seem to be reminders of the war. If not through historical sites, there are plenty of monuments and memorials to commemorate the war. Even in the Bundestag, where the legislative Branch of Germany’s government carries out business, there are remnants of the walls from war period which were covered in graffiti by Soviet soldiers who captured Berlin signaling the end of Nazi Germany. Germany does not seem to be intent on forgetting about this war, which is a rightful mindset. The country uses the war as reminder, so that these events never occur again and to recognize their past as an example. I do believe these constant reminders can prove to be somewhat detrimental to German identity.

As far as German portrayal of the war, there was nothing that appeared as if Germany was trying to downplay any portion of the conflict based on the sites we visited. At the German Historical Museum specifically, I got the impression that the Germans were owning up to everything that was done in the war. The section on WWII was packed with information and when it began to focus on the concentration camps, there was information on multiple groups of people including some that I had previously never seen mentioned as victims of the holocaust, such as black people and middle easterners. After going through this exhibit it was almost as if I could hear the people who put the exhibit together saying ‘Alright, we’ve mentioned every group affected, talked about every occupied country, explained how Hitler came to power. We’ve said it all. No one can say we’ve left anything out’. This exhibit showed, in multiple ways, the general outlook towards German history. It had an expansive, overpowering section on WWII that flowed into postwar conflicts with soviet occupation and the division caused within the country and further slowly branched out into advancements in German society. This all showed the way in which German identity has been clouded by the events of the war. Even though so much progress and good has come out of this country, there seems to be a real question of how to be proud of a country with such a negative period in history.

On our last day of the trip, we traveled to Potsdam to see the Wannsee House where the Wannsee Conference was held and plans for the Final Solution were discussed. The Wannsee House overlooked a picturesque lake and the area around was overwhelmingly beautiful. It didn’t seem at all fitting that in such a beautiful place, such horrible things could be planned. The museum in the old house characterized the actions of the Nazis as being widely intentionalist rather than functionalist. In other words, it expressed that the Nazis were always planning to exterminate those that were not identified as Aryan from the beginning of their seizure of power rather than being the result of a series of events within the Nazi party. We discussed as a group, the ability for both schools of thought to be correct in understanding the events of the Holocaust and the way in which so many things are more complex than they may seem on the surface.

As I sit in my room back in Kansas, reflecting on this trip and reviewing all the stories that I have told my friends and family, I am astounded by how much I have done and learned in such a short amount of time. This trip enabled me to see the realities of WWII, the people and places it touched, and its effects across the European continent. Most importantly it allowed me to see the events of this war through the perspectives of other countries besides America. WWII had been raging for over 2 years before America’s involvement and to see the memory of the war from countries involved from the beginning, truly enhanced my knowledge of WWII as a global war. Because of this trip, I was able to see places, I never thought I would see with twenty-two other remarkable students. I am so thankful for all those who helped to make this trip a reality for me as it was truly an experience I will carry with me for a lifetime.

Germany: Lessons of War

Finishing our trip with Germany seemed only suiting. We discussed, in Poland, the historical narratives that were depicted in each countries museums throughout the trip. England really pushed the “People’s War” agenda, while France, in bold font, highlights the contributions of the Resistance. Even Poland, had a particular theme throughout its many sites – victimhood. Poland, of course, rightfully deserves this title but nonetheless, themes of collaboration during the Nazi occupation were absent in all their museums. Each country had an agenda and left out certain events that would tarnish this image. Germany, on the other hand, put its worse face forward. Germany does not hold back on its dark history and promotes peace by highlighting their many mistakes even in the various metro stations.

The first site, where this was evident, was the tour of Bundestag – the house of parliament. The building, called the Reichstag, houses the Bundestag parliament. During our tour, we learned that no Nazi governmental actions actually took place in this building, due to the Reichstag fire in 1933. However, the approaching Soviet forces believed the building to be a prime objective during the Battle of Berlin. Thus, the Red Army forces fought valiantly to capture it and their enthusiastic triumph can be seen by looking at the Soviet graffiti and bullets that cover the walls of the building. The Reichstag makes no move to cover their past, including their defeat. When the new building was constructed following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the architecture decided, instead of removing the graffiti, they would preserve it.

The only fallacy in the historical narrative, that our group noticed, was the tendency for the narrative to take an intentionlist approach. While in the Wannsee House, the location where the Final Solutions was supposedly put into action, the narrative follows that Hitler had a decisive impact on the actions leading up to the Holocaust. Throughout the museum, it would say, “decision already made at the highest level before the conference.” To me, this seems like a way to push atrocities off the whole community onto a scapegoat. While Hitler was by no means a good man, he was only human and could only carry out his mischievous deeds through massive support.

After our tour, we discussed the importance of acknowledging both sides of the argument. Functionalist state that there was a build up to the final solution – with no preconceived idea. The final solution was the result of error and adaption to policies meant to rid the Jews from Germany and did not begin as mass extermination. It is important, as a historian, to not focus completely on Hitler. It is important to study the various reasons inside and outside of Germany that lead to the mass extermination of Jews and other groups.

Wansee House – Beautiful Location with a Dark History

Germany was the last stop for this amazing program. Our last dinner together felt like a family meal – full of inside jokes and immense laughter. For some, the journey through Europe was far from over but nonetheless, the group was splitting ways the following day. We had grown and learned together throughout the trip. While I am sure our friendships will continue upon our arrival back in the states, the last day was bittersweet for all. This trip taught me what I hoped for and more. This program really strengthened the foundations of my undergraduate education in military history. I am forever thankful to all the donors who made this experience possible.

Forever Humble.