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.
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.
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.
Berlin Cathedral during the day…
…and at night.
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.