We started the trip off with a long bus ride to Berlin from Krakow, and almost immediately went to visit the Bundestag. The actual building, the Reichstag, was last renovated in 1999, and I thought it was so cool that the architect, Norman Foster, decided to preserve the Soviet Union graffiti and bullet holes throughout the entire building; this added a lot of character to the building and was a nice tribute to the building’s history.


I also found it absolutely ingenious that the chambers were reconstructed every 4 years to match the number of delegates per number of seats in each party. The iconic dome on top also offered a nice 360 degree view of the city. I really enjoyed our tour of the Bundestag because I had known absolutely nothing about it, and it was a great way to get introduced to Berlin. While in Germany, we also visited the Cathedral, river walk, Museum of Terror and the German Historical Museum. A large group of us also ventured out to Prater Gärten, the oldest biergärten in Berlin. The atmosphere was very relaxed and calm, and I really enjoyed just spending time with the group underneath strings of lights, munching on hot pretzels, corn on the cob, and schnitzel.


As we visited each museum and exhibit, I was impressed that Germany made almost no excuses for their behavior during WW II. The nation owned up to their actions, both of the proactively violent SS soldiers and gestapos, and of the German citizens, who acted as bystanders and allowed the atrocities around them to exist with little resistance. Having just come from Auschwitz, I was nervous that the Germans would try to downplay the Holocaust and pin the blame on just Hitler, but the museums told the truth and didn’t sugarcoat or gloss over their unforgivable behavior.

On our last full day, we traveled to Potsdam and visited the Wannsee House, where the Wannsee Conference took place. The property itself was beautiful, and the surrounding lake and greenery were picturesque; it seemed like the perfect place to have a picnic. The house itself was also preserved nicely, and I could tell that it was an impressive building in its day. This beauty provided a stark contrast to the menacing and dark decisions that were made within the home’s walls. Just imagining that Hitler had walked in the same rooms as I was now strolling through, bringing even the most minute details of the Final Solution to fruition was very eerie, and in the end, took away from a lot of the charm the house would have otherwise had.

Our last meal and night out were very bittersweet. Every country we traveled to brought the group closer and closer, so by the time we made it to Berlin, we had become a family. I don’t think anyone was prepared for how well the group dynamic would work, or how much fun we would all have just playing cards or sitting around talking. There was never a dull moment and I could always count on someone to call out a funny inside joke on the bus or send a hilarious meme into the group message. Not only did I learn far more about World War II than I thought possible, but as I got to know everyone more and more, I realized that I was so lucky to be in the same group as so many talented, intelligent, and high achieving people. I know that the friendships I made on this trip will last as long as the memories, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have been a part of this experience.

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Upon arriving in Berlin, my perspective on World War II had certainly evolved since the morning that I disembarked from my plane in Heathrow Airport. Seeing so many landmarks face to face, like Auschwitz-Birkenau and the beaches at Normandy, gave me a more nuanced and fully realized interpretation of the events of the war. I knew that being in Berlin and learning about that period through the eyes of a country that had rebuilt itself after committing unspeakable atrocities and coming out on the losing side would be informative in a completely different way.

No automatic alt text available.

Some of the Soviet graffiti

Berlin does not shy away from its history, and that could not have been more evident than at the Reichstag, which is the seat of the German Parliament. The history of the Reichstag is closely intertwined with the history of World War II. It was a fire in that building, started by a young communist, that gave Hitler the opportunity to assume total power. Although the Nazi government was never conducted from the Reichstag, it remained so symbolic of German power that the Soviets made a point to seize it when they marched on Berlin, scrawling graffiti all over its walls. Some of this graffiti remains at the Reichstag today. Our tour guide explained this as a conscious decision to acknowledge every aspect of the building’s past. It was fascinating to look at the individual names and symbols written on the walls and wonder what state of mind those men must have been in after surviving the hellish Eastern Front and finally taking part in the fall of Berlin.

No automatic alt text available.

Hitler’s box

Another interesting way the Reichstag acknowledged the Nazi Party was an art piece that listed the names of every democratically elected German official on individual boxes, stacking them together to symbolize the foundation of the German state. Controversially, the artist chose to include NSDAP members who had been democratically elected. Certain boxes looked like they had been punched or kicked in, and Hitler’s box had to be reinforced with concrete to prevent further damage. I do feel as though including the Nazis in the piece was the right choice, as it serves to recognize that they were initially democratically elected by the German people.

Image may contain: tree, sky and outdoor

The Soviet War Memorial

The Soviet presence still is heavily felt in Berlin, whether through the prevalence of Soviet Bloc-style architecture on the Eastern side or the multiple Soviet memorials scattered throughout the city. The most impressive and imposing one was at Treptower Park and featured a gigantic statue of a heroic Russian man holding a child in his arms while crushing a swastika beneath his feet. It also featured a series of smaller concrete blocks that depicted scenes of not only the Red Army but also women and children. This seemed to convey that the Russians remember the devastation of the war as having impacted every single civilian.

Our visit to the German Historical Museum made it clear that the Germans want no part in covering up the darker parts of their country’s history. Here, as opposed to certain French and Polish museums that deemphasized the collaboration of their own citizens, every aspect of Hitler’s rise to power was covered in detail. It paid specific attention to the conditions in Germany during the 1920’s that allowed the Nazi Party to become successful. Their country experienced a similar economic boom to the one in the United States, and Germany refers to their period of prosperity as the “Golden Twenties”. The 1929 stock market crash impacted the German people even more harshly than it did the Americans due to their country’s lingering debts from World War I. The widespread poverty and resentment brought forth a political climate that was rife to absorb Hitler’s rhetoric.

Although my blog entries focus mostly on the educational and historical aspects of the study tour, my time in Europe has meant so much more than that. I am endlessly appreciative of the opportunity it has given me to see so many uniquely beautiful cities. Most importantly, however, I could not be more grateful that I could share this experience with 22 of the best people I’ve ever met. I am also especially thankful to Dr. Steigerwald and Lauren for being such great travelers and teachers and making this trip the amazing experience that it was! I know I will never forget the memories contained in these past few weeks!

Image may contain: 14 people, people smiling, people standing

Group picture at Prater Garten!


Au Revoir / Do Widzenia / Auf Wiedersehen / Goodbye!

Poland Blog

I came into Poland with a sense of relief stemming from “D-Day fatigue.” After spending so much time in Normandy, the D-Day story almost became played out (I don’t want to say it this way but don’t really know how else to put it). Coming into Poland gave us a new perspective on the war, as we were now in a land that was invaded by Soviets, then Nazis, then Soviets again. The Polish people have no triumph as the French and British do. There was no People’s War here in Poland and there was no government collaboration to deny existence of. In Poland there was only humiliation and defeat. The Oskar Schindler Museum and the visit to Auschwitz gave an incredibly humbling idea of what the Polish and Jewish people went through. I don’t really feel comfortable talking much on Auschwitz, as I really don’t think there are sufficient words to describe the experience there in the present day, let alone trying to describe how unimaginable it must’ve been during the Holocaust.

The Schindler Museum is my favorite museum that we’ve visited so far. It gives the Polish account of the war starting at with the close of World War I. The most moving aspect of the museum is that it is primarily told from the perspective of various children from the Krakow and other Polish ghettoes. Seeing how such innocents perceived their dreadful surroundings strikes a chord, especially when they were so young that they can’t have known much else then the oppression surrounding them.

Learning Schindler’s story was particularly interesting to me, as I have not seen the movie and didn’t really know anything about what he had done during the German occupation of Poland. It was fascinating to learn that Schindler had a history of weaseling his way in and out of shady business deals, and that he had a history of taking advantage of various different businesses and people. To see his transformation into somebody who reportedly had very personal relationships with his workers and cared so deeply for them that he went to great lengths to protect them from the Nazis was very fascinating, and a good way to see the way that care for humanity was not completely lost among the invading Germans.

On the whole, I greatly enjoyed our time in Poland. It was very refreshing to see the war from a perspective other than that of the victors, and this experience has continued into Germany and seeing how the Germans attempt to atone their war experience.

On The Spree

Instead of an Airbus A300, I’m currently on a Boeing 767 and am directly south of Greenland. My knees are smashed into the seat in front of me, and my trip has come to an end. I also was able to visit Prague. I’m still thinking about my experience there, so I write about our time in Berlin, Germany. Berlin is the capital of the country, and its fall to the Soviets brought about the end of the war in Europe in 1945.


Upon coming off our well heated bus that left from Krakow, we sprinted to the Bundestag building. The Bundestag is currently where Germany’s parliament meets, and has had many uses throughout history. It was torched in 1933, and that incident led the Nazi party scapegoat the communists as the perpetrators, leading to the banning of their party. During the war it was rarely used. One of the most famous pictures of the war came from the Soviets raising a flag over the taken building. There are still pillars and portions of the building that are decorated by original Soviet graffiti. One art exhibit in the basement had post card sized boxes with every member of the Parliament democratically elected from the 1910s to the 1990s. Some boxes are noted with a tag reading, “Opfer des nationalsozialismus” along with a date. These dates correspond to that member’s death at the hands of the Nazis. Out of the thousands of members, one could find names like Hitler, Himmler, and less infamously, Angela Merkel. Boxes belonging to Hitler and Merkel have had to be filled with concrete to prevent vandalism (Hitler’s box is low to the floor, so it typically receives a swift kick to the tin). We then went to the roof and the top of the reconstructed dome and caught some beautiful views.


After this, we navigated back past the Brandenburg Gate and took a metro to Potsdamer Platz the center of the city, or so. Through the middle of the plaza runs a brick line marking where the Berlin Wall stood. That night we ate a place that served one liter steins of beer, so I have no complaints.


The next day we went through two museums, the German Historical Museum and the Topography of Terror museum. The Historical Museum was split in half, with one half discussing about Germany from World War I to present day. It covered the political discord in Germany before World War Two and had many artifacts. The Topography of Terror museum was very intriguing, sitting at the site of the one time Gestapo Headquarters, there are excavated portions of jail/torture cells used during the Nazi regime. One part that was especially interesting was the bastardization of protective custody. In Nazi Germany, the term did not mean you were being sheltered from possible violence, but that you were being taken in to protect the state and masses. This type of custody sent many people who did very little into Gestapo custody, and typically into a concentration camp.


The next day consisted of a trip to St. Mathias Church, the Benderbloc/German Resistence Museum, one Soviet Monument, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the now car park that was once the site of the Fuhrerbunker. At St. Mathias, we learned from my trip roommate Chris Herrel about Friedrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance in the war via the church. The Benderbloc was the office space of the Home Armies in WWII, and much of the July 20th Plot fallout took place there, such as the execution of Claus von Stauffenberg. The museum at the site dedicates itself to people from those involved in that plot to German youths who listened to swing music. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was also a thought-provoking sight, with stone blocks of varying sizes laid over uneven ground.


My favorite moment of the day does not come from any of the things we did as a full group though. Once we finished, a few friends and I decided to stop at the ice cream shop near the hotel, where you could buy a kugel (scoop) for a euro. When we were nearly finished, a motorcycle pulled up on the sidewalk, and the man riding it dismounted and began talking to us. We didn’t catch his name, but he was certainly a proud Berliner. He told us about the office he works at having a facade that is pockmarked by bullets, and detailed defenses of the Berlin Wall that are typically forgotten about now. The Berliner was fourteen years old when the Wall fell, and had many stories of it. Talking to him about his city and seeing how proud he was of it may have been one of my favorite parts of Berlin.


We saw a few more things after this, like the massive Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, and the Wannsee House, where some details of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was planned out. My favorite part came at our group dinner on the last night. This was the same restaurant from the first night of the trip, and having everyone together celebrating the trip was incredible. For me, it ended a journey that began in Fall Semester of my second year on campus. During a study abroad expo, I met David Steigerwald and learned about the program, but avoided going due to cold feet and a lot of indecision in my life. I decided that the trip was one i could not pass up, and worked to figure out a major and class schedule to help me take it. With the trip over, I couldn’t help but to see how far I have came as a person, with this study abroad playing a factor in that as well. I have now transferred onto a massive thirteen row jet from JFK to Columbus, and miraculously I am not white knuckled like I was when I first touched down in Heathrow so long ago.


Thank you for reading and auf wiedersehen,


Beau Bilek


I was fortunate enough to stay in Krakow in south Poland for a few days with my study abroad. Krakow is the second biggest city in Poland, as well as one of the oldest. The city is notable for its main square, which dates to the 13th century and is a center of the city’s culture. During World War II, the city was the capital of the German General Government. According to the Nazis, Krakow was an ancient Germanic city.

The sights of the city are wonderful, the city avoided bombing in World War Two, so its pre-war architecture is still intact. For example, St. Mary’s Basilica dominates the northeastern side of the main square, and it was finished in 1347. Wawel Castle is also another notable landmark which was actually used in WWII. During the war the Castle was used as a residence by Hans Frank, the Governor General of the German-Occupied Polish territories.

Our first order of business in the city was touring the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, or more commonly, the Schindler Museum. The museum sits at the site of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, where he saved some 1,200 Jews via employment. Interestingly, the museum does not focus on this, but teaches about Krakow’s role in WWII. This gave an interesting point of view, as Poland was overtaken but had technically not surrendered. When it came to Schindler, the museum had a large glass box filled with enamel ware made in the factory that one could walk into  on all sides were the names of prisoners that Schindler saved.

Our second related journey during the Poland leg was a trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These were concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis, and 1.3 million people were sent there. Of those 1.3 million, at least 1.1 million died, and 90% were Jewish. Words cannot fully describe what I saw, and being there was completely surreal. In one room of Auschwitz I, human hair was piled from floor to ceiling. This hair was typically used for textiles and taken from inmates involuntarily. In another room, 75,000 shoes were gathered in a similar fashion.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the portion of the camp where cattle cars full of people were unloaded. Directly after this, the new prisoners were evaluated and either kept as workers or sent to one of two gas chambers nearby. In the latter choice, victims would take the “Walk of Death,” which we also did. At the end of the road, the two gas chambers are destroyed and a memorial marks the grounds. We eventually walked back to the tower that stands over the rail line that led so many to their deaths, and a spot of sunlight cut through the clouds to a distant land.


Do widzenia,

Beau Bilek

Moving Forward

We arrived in Germany on a Thursday. The bus ride from Krakow to Berlin felt like a lifetime. Immediately after arrival we rushed to the Reichstag for a guided tour. The Reichstag is their Parliament building. I was really impressed with the history behind the building. The Reichstag’s interior is beautiful, with floor to ceiling windows. During World War II, the building was heavily damaged and the walls were vandalized by Soviet soldiers as they took Berlin in 1945.
Soviet soldiers signed their names and short phrases on the walls of the building. The graffiti, written in Cyrillic, was uncovered in 1960 when architect Sir Norman Foster converted the building to house the new parliamentary chamber of the Bundestag. Foster decided to persevere parts of these walls and incorporate them into the new building.
As you walk along the streets in Berlin you may notice cobblestone-size concrete cubes with a brass plate inscribed with names and dates. These brass plates are called stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks”. These “stumbling blocks” remember victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. The stolperstein project, which is still ongoing, began in 1992 by artist Gunter Demning. The purpose of this project is to remember each individual person at the last place of work or residency before they fell victim to the Nazi regime. As of 31 January 2017, over 56,000 stumbling stones have been installed in twenty-two countries. The majority of of the stumbling stones commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The stolperstein project is the world’s largest decentralized memorial.
As our time in Berlin came to an end, one of our last days was spent visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I thought the memorial was a very artistic and modern way for Germany to honor the victims of the Holocaust. The memorial consists of concrete steles in various sizes. I appreciate that the meaning behind the memorial is not straight forward – it’s very thought provoking. As you walk through, you are forced to look up. It is almost like it is acknowledging the horrors of their past and those innocents who lost their lives, but also saying that all there is to do now is to ask for forgiveness, repent and look toward the future. As a whole Germany has taken many strides in acknowledging their wrong doings. Although there is still work to be done, they are on the right path to reconcile their past.

The Woman I Met on the Plane

On my flight to Europe I met a woman. I don’t know her name, but she was approximately forty or so and she loved conversation. She grew up around Manchester and was visiting her family. Her parents moved to Greenwich in 2005. I told her I was going on a study tour and visiting Europe for the first time. Her excitement was obvious. She was genuinely happy that a stranger was about to experience all these new countries. Naturally, I enjoyed talking to someone so welcoming and when I told her I was going to Berlin, she was even more enthusiastic. After living in Germany for over 10 years and marrying a German banker, this place was her home. She was flying from Newark, New Jersey because she had some sort of business trip prior to seeing her family. Unfortunately, her reaction to my program was less positive. I told her that this study tour was related to WWII and before I had the chance to speak about all the different museums on our itinerary and the fascinating memorials we were visiting, she started to rant. Ranting to me, a stranger! One who was completely unprepared for a kind woman on a British Airways flight to air her frustration regarding Germany and the Second World War. I suppose that while growing up in England, she learned about the war the same way I had. Germany was the enemy. Hitler was German, as were the Nazis and the people who murdered over one million Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp I visited in Poland a few days ago. But then she moved to the country and fell in love. “Berlin is beautiful” she told me, “as is the rest of the country. There’s a culture that extends far beyond this war that people can’t stop talking about and how the hell can we move on if a war from seventy something years ago is still holding us back?” Bear in mind that we were three hours into the flight, it was approximately midnight in New Jersey and I was tired. I clammed up. I wasn’t ready for her outburst and it did not stop there. While impatiently waving her hands around she said, “Germany did this and that et cetera et cetera! Not every single German was guilty! My husband didn’t do anything, our friends didn’t fight anyone. How can we move on if this damn war is still hanging over our heads?” Of course, I didn’t have an answer ready. She wasn’t angry with me, rather she was frustrated with the German reputation.

Reichstag Building

After seeing Berlin, I understand what she meant by all this. The war is still visible in the city. Buildings with bullet holes are standing and functional.

The Reichstag, the building for the German parliament, has graffiti from the Russians on its walls. When the Red Army captured the city in the Battle of Berlin, the soldiers wrote their names on the walls as well as vulgar statements. The crude comments have been concealed, but the signatures are visible.

Reichstag walls with Russian graffiti

And unlike the Paris WWII museums, nothing is left out. In Paris, the Musée de l’Armée jumped from 1941 to 1944 completely passing Vichy France, a period in their past that reflects poorly on the French reputation. However, in Germany, it was all there.

Soviet War Memorial

Memorials to the Soviet Union still stand, as well as the Wannsee House, the building where Hitler possibly gave the order for the Final Solution to exterminate all Jewish people. It now functions as a museum which I had the privilege to walk through.

View of the lake from the Wannsee house

The scars from the war are still visible in Germany. WWII is part of their identity now. Anti-Semitism still exists, as does a small Nazi party. In the British schools that this woman attended, Germany will always be their enemy in WWI and WWII. These things are hard to forget.

Fortunately, I was able to walk through the city and gain a new perspective. Berlin is beautiful.

Berlin Cathedral

I sat in front of their cathedral at night and walked by Brandenburg Tor during the day. The bratwurst is delicious as was the Prater Garden we went to as a group.

Friends enjoying a meal at the Prater Garden

Personally, I don’t think the world will be able to let go of what happened in WWII. At least not while there are still people alive who endured it. My grandmother lived in the Philippines and she was there when her father, a doctor, was taken from her home and forced to work for the Axis Powers. She never saw him again. While these people remember the war, Germany will not be able to completely move past it.

Perhaps this is necessary. If we forget the past, it will repeat itself. That is why museums exist and buildings are preserved. However, it is unfair for innocent people to suffer due to the actions of someone else decades ago. I wish I could speak one more time to the woman I met on the plane. After spending time in Berlin, I believe we could have a more in depth conversation and hopefully, I would be more coherent rather than groggy halfway through a seven-hour flight. Overall, I really enjoyed the city. I feel as though I gained a whole new perspective on WWII and the German identity after seeing it.

Berlin: The Final Objective

Our westward track towards Berlin to finish up the trip was fitting considering that this was how the Soviet Red Army finished off Nazi Germany and thus the war in Europe. However, Berlin was a fitting end in more regards because it was also the site in which a wall rose and the Cold War began. The conclusion of the Battle of Berlin was the marking of both an end and a new beginning. Personally, although on a much more positive note, I know that I grew tremendously from this trip as an individual and an academic in many regards. Perhaps one of the most important areas of growth was in regards to perspective. This journey challenged me not just to understand the perspective of these nations in regards to WWII but to appreciate and integrate them into my own thoughts. Germany offered our group one final perspective on our journey.

One of our first stops was the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. It was on this building that the famous picture of the Red Army soldier raising the Soviet flag was taken. We were given a splendid tour of the building with the most intriguing parts being the original graffiti left behind by the Soviet soldiers that took over the Reichstag. A lot of the writing consisted of family names and places they had been. For instance, from Stalingrad to Berlin was written several times. The graffiti discussing the battles the soldiers were in was especially interesting because it brought my mind back to a discussion our class had about why the Western Allies did not march on Berlin. I imagined not only reading words, such as from Normandy to Berlin, on the walls but also what the world may have looked like today if that decision was made. This is still something I have yet to answer satisfactorily.

OHIO in front of Reichstag
(left to right: Beau, Katie, Natalie, myself)

Russian graffiti in Reichstag

The German story about the war was largely made of analysis as to the rise of Hitler. In the German Historical Museum the displays on the rise of the Nazis was longer, at least if felt much longer, than the war itself. The German narrative also makes no attempt to deny the terrible acts committed by the Nazis. I believe this, in combination with the focus on the rise of fascism in Germany, serves as a sort of reconciliation for the German people and a service to humanity to try and prevent future atrocities. Another important stop in our story of Germany during the war was the courtyard in which Claus Von Stauffenberg. Stauffenberg, along with his fellow conspirators, attempted to assassinate Hitler and establish control over the Third Reich. This was the story in the film Valkyrie, which featured Tom Cruise who really does look quite similar to Stauffenberg. Anyway, Stauffenberg represents a part of the small disjointed individuals that did seek to end Hitler. Stauffenberg’s intentions were not entirely pure because he only sought peace with the Western Allies and a continuation of the war on the Eastern Front. Regardless, the actions of him and his comrades serve as a reminder that not everyone supported Hitler in Germany.

Where Stauffenberg was shot with his fellow conspirators

Another interesting aspect of the telling of WWII in Berlin is the presence of Soviet memorials and museums. These interject the Soviet perspective into the telling of the German one and I am curious to know if there are any American or British monuments in their previous sectors. Regardless, the Soviet monuments make sense. I believe it is often lost on Americans simply how brutal the Eastern Front was. It was an ideologically death struggle in which the victory of one power meant the complete and utter destruction of the other. The Soviets suffered tremendously and Berlin served as their prize.

Soviet memorial, note the swastika he is stepping on and the child he is holding.

Soviet monument

I want to take the final bit of this final blog to discuss what made this trip so incredibly memorable: the people. This begins with the generous donors who allowed my colleagues and me to have the experience of a lifetime and grow tremendously in many regards. It is something that I am incredibly grateful for and cannot do justice for in words. Additionally, the faculty that led this study abroad were simply exceptional and the trip would not have been the same without them. Dr. Steigerwald: the man, myth, and machine and Lauren Henry never failed to make every moment memorable. Finally, I left Europe with twenty-two individuals that I am proud to call friends. They are amongst the remarkable individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and it was hard to watch the trip come to an end. From the pubs of London and shores of Normandy to the museums of Poland and the beer gardens of Germany we never stopped making memories.

The study abroad family

Thank you to all of these individuals for both an efficient and aesthetically pleasing journey.

-Tyler R. Webb

Berlin: The Final Push

Throughout our trip, we frequently discussed the ways that World War II is presented and discussed between different nations. Our American perspective is of the Good War, the English collectively fought the People’s War, and France maintained resilient in resistance. These national memories are all generally positive. However, this is not the case for every nation. In Poland, we saw a nation who was devastated by the war only to come under an oppressive regime in the postwar era as well. Finally, in Germany, we saw a nation who started, lost, and then had to reckon with the atrocities of World War II.

Of all the places we visited, the German museums were the most objective and detailed in their presentation of the war. I believe this presentation of the war in its entirety stems from an effort by Germany to own up to its history. Here, WWII is not celebrated, only presented. With this presentation, one would be hard pressed to accuse the museums of glossing over or otherwise covering up any aspect of WWII. I find this to be a great success of the German narrative of the war. War, and particularly Germany’s ugly connection to WWII, is not glamorous. None of the museums we visited portrayed it as such and they were very open about the horrors committed by the Nazis. In this the Germans have given account of their part in the war without attaching any higher agenda other than that of remorse.

Our first museum in Berlin was the German Historical Museum.

Courtyard in the German Historical Museum.

The exhibit on World War II here began like others with an acknowledgment of the end of World War I and how its unstable peace influenced the interwar period. Unlike other museums, the discussion of the interwar period, the rise of the Nazi party, and the development of Hitler’s military state were the most detailed of our trip. The same was true of the museum’s discussion of the parts of the war that didn’t involve the Western Allies as directly, particularly the Eastern Front and the Holocaust. These areas often get brushed aside in favor of Western heroics but in the German museum they received their due diligence. This theme carried over as we visited the Topography of Terror Museum which discussed the development of the Nazi terror state under the Gestapo and SS. The pervasive employment of fear to bring the populace of a nation in line with the wishes of the state was the topic discussed here. This museum demonstrated again the unique history of Germany during WWII when compared with the other nations we visited.

Later we visited the German Resistance Museum and Memorial. This museum is situated at the Bendlerblock, headquarters of the Nazi Reserve Army and later the conspirators of the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot, also known as Valkyrie, was organized by military officers who could not abide by the actions of Hitler’s regime. After their attempted assassination and coup failed, they were executed in the courtyard which now houses a memorial to all forms of German Resistance to the Nazis.

Memorial to those executed the night of July 20, 1944 in the aftermath of the Valkyrie Plot.

The museum discusses how German Resistance was far less common than in other areas and that those who did resist were truly the exception. Different rooms in the museum focus on different resistance groups and the running theme is that these were the bastions of society that the Nazi’s could not dominate. Try as he might, Hitler could never bring such things as the military leadership, clergy, or academia completely within his grasp. This owes to the nature of these organizations which transcend political power. Each one has existed before and after regimes around the world throughout history.

Memorial to German Resistance Movements

Our time in Berlin also featured visits to a few Soviet memorials erected in occupied East Germany after the war. These grandiose displays were less objective in their portrayal of the war.

Soviet memorial for the Battle of Berlin.

A common theme was the valiant, collective triumph of Communism over the evil of National Socialism. At Treptower Park large statues, murals, and quotes by Stalin dominate the large area and surround the central statue. This statue depicts a Soviet soldier crushing a swastika underfoot and is situated atop a mass grave of Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin.

Treptower Park.

Central statue and mass-grave.

Later, we visited the German-Russian museum. The museum is housed in the same building where the Russians forced Nazi Germany to sign a second, much harsher peace accord the day after signing its original surrender to the Allies. The exhibits here focused exclusively on the bloody war between Germany and the Soviet Union. The racial ideology and dedication of unprecedented resources on both sides lead to the bloody conflict that still pervades the memory of both nations.

We again confronted the Holocaust with our visit to the Wannssee House. This is where senior Nazi officers met on January 20, 1942 to discuss the Final Solution.

Wannssee House.

The museum within presents both the Functionalist (attributing the Holocaust to Nazi officials and bureaucrats working towards their understanding of Hitler’s goals) and Intentionalist (attributing the Holocaust solely to Hitler’s instruction) interpretations of the Holocaust but leans more towards the Intentionalist interpretation. Our discussion afterwards highlighted the merit of both arguments and what they mean for our understanding of the Holocaust and genocide. The Intentionalist argument makes the events of the Holocaust unique to the Nazis. The Functionalist argument holds that similar atrocities could be committed by any group unto another.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Wannssee House’s focus on the Intentionalist side recognizes that the Nazi leadership played a large part in the murder of Europe’s Jews. But, this interpretation also warrants criticism for inherently absolving idle German citizens of their part in allowing the Holocaust to happen.

It’s been one hell of a month and one that I won’t soon forget. This trip has taught me so much about the history of World War II and has also given me a deeper connection to that history by confronting it in-person. To anyone who helped make this trip a reality: thank you. To Dr. Steigerwald and Lauren Henry, who helped us navigate Europe and imparted lessons on academics and life alike: thank you. To my fellow travelers, with whom I’ve made countless wonderful memories: thank you. See you stateside!

Outside of the Reichstag, home of the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament.

Bundestag chamber.

Berlin Cathedral during the day…

…and at night.

Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin’s Sony Center.

With Dr. Steigerwald “The man, the myth, the machine.”

My partner in crime and roommate, Patrick O’Connor. Outside the 1936 Olympic Stadium where our fellow Buckeye, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals.

Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau

As soon as I stepped foot on the streets of Krakow’s old town, I knew that my blog post about the city would be conflicted. Krakow is beautiful and is one of the only parts of Poland that was able to retain some of its pre-World War II historical architecture. There were shops all throughout the main square selling, not just kitschy touristy items, but jewelry and some incredibly comfy looking scarves that I kind of regret not buying. The exchange rate between US dollars and Polish zloty makes it so that you can buy huge amounts of food for amazing prices. I ate my fair share of pierogis during our limited time in Krakow, and I am sure that once I get home I will find the frozen grocery store ones to be lacking. Overall, I had some of the most fun of the trip so far in Poland, so I want to be mindful in balancing that with a sensitivity for the most important reason we were there: Auschwitz.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

Some art on the streets of Krakow


The Schindler museum was a fitting precursor to the experience. It is built in Oskar Schindler’s original factory and features exhibits dedicated to his efforts to save 1200 Jews, as well as a general history of the Nazi occupation of Poland. The museum offered a welcome contrast to the many others we had visited in France as it presented history more from a social than military perspective. The Schindler Museum’s design was considerably effective in giving the viewer some idea of the environments that the Polish people had been forced to inhabit. The room that covered the initial Nazi invasion was filled with swastika insignias; the tiles on the floor were even swastika-shaped. This atmosphere served to reinforce how completely the Nazis took over Poland and turned it into an unrecognizable place. Most impacting to me, however, was the exhibit dedicated to the ghettoes. It took you through a dimly lit hallway, and mounted on the wall were written personal accounts from people who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto. It was deeply moving to read descriptions from children as young as five-years-old who had seen their loved ones be killed right in front of them. It was even more devastating to realize that most of those Jewish people would have later been killed in death camps. It is those personal touches that help me to fathom such massive devastation on a smaller scale.

Image may contain: sky, cloud, grass, tree, outdoor and nature

Looking through the barbed wire at Birkenau

Without a doubt, touring Auschwitz was a deeply moving and important experience. The exhibit that affected me the most emotionally was the room filled with 70,000 shoes belonging to the men, women, and children who had been killed at the camp. Most of them were practical leather, but some were decorative heels, and far too many looked as though they could have belonged to toddler-aged children. Witnessing that sheer scale and looking at the separate types of shoes drove home that every person killed during the Holocaust was a real human being. Even worse was the realization that those shoes belonged to only a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million individuals killed at Auschwitz. Another powerful experience was walking through the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium. It was hard to fathom that so many people had lost their lives in such a relatively small room. The last thing that helped to drive home the reality of the Holocaust was walking along the train tracks at Birkenau toward the remnants of the burnt down gas chambers. It felt surreal to stand in the spot where thousands of Jews were sentenced to death after disembarking from their crowded train cars, especially because I had previously seen so many photographs of it happening. Still, I expected to be more emotionally affected by the tour of Auschwitz. I think a large part of the problem was our tour guide. She was effective in conveying facts and statistics, but she seemed too rehearsed. There was a lack of emotion in her delivery that made it hard for me to connect the sites I was seeing to the atrocities that had been committed there in the past. Because of this, I appreciated Jon and Nicole’s site reports. Hearing the story of Primo Levy personalized the experience of being imprisoned at Auschwitz more than our tour guide was able to. His closing words also served as an important reminder that there is no bright side to the Holocaust and that we should not disrespect its victims by trying to search for a happy ending.