Lessons from the Past

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

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

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

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

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Elimination of the Unfit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Paris, With Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepy Villages Hold Dark Memories

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

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

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

The Pink Triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Left! First Days in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parking Lot Party

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

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

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

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

Afraid of the Past



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

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

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

A Refusal to Forget


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


Berlin’s a pretty forward place. And I don’t mean modern, though it certainly is. I mean forward. There’s no beating around the bush or hiding the past. Not anymore, anyway.

I’m given to understand that after the War, Germany didn’t know quite how to feel about the whirlwind it had just been through. Lucky for Germans, their country was thrust straight into the Cold War, so they had other things to worry about. But this all meant that for years, Germans couldn’t face their Nazi past. There was no dialogue and no honesty, only trepidation and nagging discomfort.

Decades later (especially after the reunification), Germans began to talk a bit more openly about their experiences during the War. From what I can tell, the way they talk about their War embraces all of the moral uncertainty and guilt that comes with it. They are acutely aware of the murder that their parents and grandparents either committed or helped. But they’ve collectively decided that the only way to deal with such guilt and disillusionment with national identity is to talk about it. And they do: every tour guide I’ve had here and every museum I’ve been to have mentioned German atrocities during the war, and not just ones committed by the Nazi regime. There’s plenty of talk about civilian complicity. And though it would be easy to make excuses for the Germans’ behavior during the war, they don’t. By law, by convention, or by determination to end hate, they force themselves and everyone else to remember.

The most powerful example of this that I’ve come across is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a massive grid of gray concrete blocks sitting smack in the middle of Berlin. It’s impossible to ignore, probably by design. Even the name is matter-of-fact: It’s not just to the victims of the Holocaust; it’s to the Jewish victims who were murdered.

What I like about the Memorial is that it’s interpretive. It doesn’t put a clear face or name to those slaughtered by the Nazis, which forces you to think about the victims and what they went through. Or maybe it forces you to think about why exactly the Holocaust is so important to remember. Either way, the Memorial stands as a constant reminder and thought-provoker to everyone who passes it. Here are some of my thoughts, which I jotted down as I walked through the site:

–       The Memorial, like the Holocaust, is systematic, deliberate, and organized.

–       It’s enormous, but one can’t really grasp its size except from the outside. I think this is similar to how it’s difficult to perceive the enormity and terror of the Holocaust except with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.

–       From the inside, it’s dark and somber, but when you look up, you see sunlight. Despite the darkness people are capable of, there’s always a ray of hope.

–       The blocks are all of different heights, but they are of the same color. This reminds me of how the people murdered by the Nazis were of so many different backgrounds, but were the same in that they were unwanted (by virtue of their religion, nationality, mental ability, etc.).

–       It’s a collective memorial to all of the Jews killed. I interpreted this as a reference to the mass graves in which so many Jews were buried during the Holocaust. The only difference is that the Memorial has individual blocks, almost like gravestones. Maybe this is an attempt to honor each individual killed.

–       There’s no rhyme or reason to the direction in which you walk through the Memorial. I read this as a reference to the lack of any sense or logic behind mass murder and hatred.

I could keep going with the interpretations, but that seems adequate to describe what the Memorial means to me. Obviously, I have no way of telling if any of this is what the designers actually intended, but I like that the thoughts that the site stirs are deeply personal.

I wanted to feel sad when I visited the Memorial. Sorrow is the only emotion that really feels appropriate to me when it comes to remembering the Holocaust. I can’t help but think about how had my family and I been alive at the time, we would have been, by law, subordinate and unwanted. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with a life of fear and violence like that. And it pains me to think of those millions of people who suffered and died because they were different.

For some reason, I didn’t feel pure sadness at the Memorial. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I think there was a sort of comfort in knowing that an entire nation had put so much thought and energy into memorializing something so important to me. After I’d spent about twenty minutes standing in the center of the grid, I tried my best to get exactly what I was feeling on paper. Here’s what I wrote:

“[It] does seem almost hopeful. I’m not fully sad here, weirdly. It’s stark, and it’s striking. It makes me want to remember all those people. My people. I didn’t know a single one of them, but they stood like stones in the face of certain death. I’m proud to be one of them. What an odd thing to feel Jewish pride at a Holocaust memorial. But I’m proud. I’m deeply sad; moved. But always proud.”

It shouldn’t have taken 11 million murders for us to realize how poisonous it is to hate people. But it did. So let’s follow Berlin’s example and keep talking about the Holocaust. Let’s remember it for the torture and violence and destruction and slaughter it was. Let’s never, ever forget.

DSC_0654 DSC_0666

Sweeping It Under the Rug

I love Paris. Maybe that’s just the shameless Francophile in me, but there’s something about the city that moves me. The architecture makes me feel like I’m walking through a scene from the Second Empire. The people wear slim, dark clothes that ooze all kinds of cool. And, of course, there are crêpes with Nutella available at every street corner. For me, this is about as good as it gets.

Toward the end of our time in Paris, I was chatting with my mom about the various things I enjoy about the city. Despite all my gushing, I let slip that it didn’t seem like there were a whole lot of noticeable remnants of WWII around the city. I knew it had avoided the worst of the War’s violence, so it made sense that there weren’t visible scars of destruction. But I got the sense that Parisians had no desire to talk up their experiences, even after the resistance and Liberation. At this point, my mom asked a very understandable question: “Why is Paris even on the trip?”

The answer was complicated, and didn’t come to me immediately. In fact, I’m still formulating an answer in my head, so this is more a stream of consciousness than a definitive decision. In any case, I should probably explain what I mean when I say that Paris’s War history is a bit hard to see. When we were in London, it seemed like there was some sort of monument, memorial, or museum to the War on every street. Frankly, it was kind of astounding how frequently we came across War-related stuff (see “Londoners Remember”).

Paris is not at all like that. Even in the places that are supposed to commemorate the War, one has to dig a bit to find any sort of meaning or emotion. The WWII exhibit at Les Invalides, for example, has a spectacular collection of uniforms and weapons from the War, and documents its history quite well. What it excludes (purposefully or not) is any comment on the intricacies of collaboration and resistance in Paris during the War, except to say that they existed.

Invalides wasn’t the only site to leave out pertinent details. The Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, heart wrenching and starkly beautiful as it was, never once mentioned that it was Paris’sJews who were ripped from their homes and sent to their deaths. Obviously, Jews weren’t the only group persecuted during the War. But one of the overwhelming legacies of the Vichy regime is the way it seemed all too happy to rid France of its Jewish population, without much of a push from Germany.

This all seemed off to me. Aren’t the French supposed to be outspoken in their beliefs and opinions? Aren’t they supposed to be the collective bastion of liberté? And if so, how could a whole city’s worth of museums and monuments completely lack a critical reading of Paris during the War?

Sure, things like the failure to mention the deportation of Jews might just be holdovers from the ideal of the Revolution: French people are French first, everything else second. Through this lens, it makes some sense that the memorial would commemorate French deportees, not Jewish ones (even though basically all French deportees were Jewish).

But I think Paris’s trepidation about the war goes deeper. I think the city’s ashamed of itself. Yes, some of its residents resisted the occupation valiantly and successfully. Not all Parisians were collaborators or Jew-haters. But in the end, Paris still capitulated without much of a fight. Its leaders resigned themselves and their countrymen to a life of cooperation with one of history’s most vile regimes. And the city sent a vibrant segment of its population to its death, all in the name of making the best of its situation.

What this means is that the inklings of War history that do exist in Paris are buried, and aren’t very profound. There doesn’t seem to be the same pride or nostalgia for the War in Paris as there is in London. I get the impression that Parisians would rather move on with their lives than focus on what can only be called a blemish on the city’s fascinating history.

I’m glad Paris was part of this trip, because I think the War nostalgia it lacks speaks louder than the memories it does choose to display. For me, this particular visit to Paris was dedicated to preserving the memory of the city during the War. If a Paris is willing to sweep years of collaboration and complicity under the rug, then I/we have to make sure that we don’t forget. Otherwise, we’re just modern collaborators, standing idly and letting intolerance and hate run wild.

DSC_0431 DSC_0519

The Gray Area

We went to Utah Beach yesterday. I’d really been looking forward it, mostly because it was to be my first actual contact with the invasion beaches that I’ve spent my whole life hearing about. Just after we arrived, though, something stole my attention away from the beach. Near the little path that leads to the beach, there was a monument to the US 90th Infantry Division, which came in through Utah on the night of June 6th to reinforce the first waves of the invasion.

My great uncle, Abe Greenberg, fought with the 90th in Normandy. He was a replacement, so he didn’t join the division until a week or so after the initial landings. But he, like the other members of the 90th, came through Utah Beach. And he, like many other members of the 90th, was killed in action. He died during intense shelling on July 26th, 1944, his 19th birthday.

Abe is my namesake (my middle name is Abraham). A little before I was due to be born, my grandmother, Abe’s older sister, came across a few of the letters he’d sent home while he was with the army. Even from the tiny amount of material they had, my parents could tell just how bright, funny, and caring he was. So they named me after him, as a tribute to how wonderful a man he seemed to be.

Abe is my link to WWII. I’ve always loved to explore history, but ever since I was old enough to understand Abe’s story, I’ve felt a kind of special connection to the history of the War. I never knew Abe, but I love him. Every time I read his letters, I’m in awe of how he was constantly out to soothe the minds of his family, even if he was going through the kind of hell that no 18-year-old should ever have to. No anything-year-old should have to, for that matter.

In any case, Abe is why I’m on this trip. I want to learn more about where he was and what he did, sure, but I want to honor him. I want to do him proud in the only way I really know how, which is to jump headfirst into every learning opportunity I get (especially ones that involve a little time abroad).

All of these thoughts flooded my brain when I bumped into the monument yesterday morning. Somehow, through all my research on Abe and his unit, I’d never come across this monument. It completely took me by surprise, and I was so excited/proud/sad/sentimental when I saw it that I had to take a few minutes to sit there and let my emotions go a bit berserk.

A little later on, we went to the German war cemetery at La Cambe. I really enjoyed the way the cemetery was laid out. Nothing was showy or ornate. The graves were simple, dark, and somber. There didn’t seem to be any political or ideological agenda. It was just a simple memorial to the fact that these people, regardless of their background or ideas, fought and died for something.

But I couldn’t help but remember that these were the guys who killed my uncle Abe. I didn’t feel angry exactly, but I didn’t feel at peace either. I was trying to feel for Abe and for the German soldiers all at the same time, and I couldn’t come to any sort of neat conclusion about what to think.

To me, things like this capture how much of a gray area war is. Even in conflicts as seemingly “good vs. bad” as WWII, it seems to me that no one side is entirely good or entirely bad. I love my uncle Abe, and I know his death caused my grandma and her family indescribable pain. But it’d be ignorant of me to say that Germans didn’t sacrifice as well.

I didn’t come out of Utah and La Cambe with some idealistic notion that we’re all fundamentally good and that we should all just forgive and forget. The opposite, really. I think the ideas behind Nazi Germany were fundamentally evil. And, at the end of the day, it was German soldiers who took my uncle Abe away from his family. Regardless, I think today solidified my understanding of how confusing and ambiguous war is.

It seems that the more I learn about the War, the less I know what to think about the people involved in it. It’d be easy to say that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, but I think masking the War’s complexities prevents us from understanding it. What I do know is that Abe has an amazing story, and that today helped me feel closer to him. I’m looking forward to soaking up the rest of Normandy (probably in a whirlwind of emotions), and, if all goes well, to making Abe proud.


The German Perspective

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

These past twenty days have been quite the whirlwind adventure. I’ve seen London, Normandy, Paris, and I’m finishing this amazing journey in Berlin. I’ve made wonderful friends, been to the most amazing places in these cities (sometimes going underneath them) and I have gained a much better understanding of the age I’ve been devoting my History Major to since I enrolled at Ohio State.

But the greatest revelation has probably been how each country treats the war and their role in it. America has seen it as “The Good War,” where American soldiers valiantly fought for freedom and democracy. The Russians saw it as a patriotic war where they defeated the fascist forces in a clash of ideologies. The British saw it as a war of survival where they beat back an enemy poised to invade their land and destroy them. The French have dealt with the subject by trying to downplay their role as collaborators and instead focus on their role as resistors. And the Japanese have somehow gotten it into their heads that they were forced into the war and came out the greatest victims of it.

But what of the Germans? What is the attitude of the nation that thrust the world into the Second World War and manufactured one of the worst tragedies in modern history? That was probably my biggest question as we went to the German Historical Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum this past Saturday. What I found has been quite interesting: the Germans have tried to both admit their role in the war and at the same time detach themselves from it.

Let me explain this more in depth: the German Historical Museum, the Topography of Terror museum, and Sachsenhausen Prison Camp all carry the reminders, in photos and exhibits and the very buildings themselves, that Germany was the perpetrator of horrific crimes during the Nazi era. However, the focus has seemed to be on the individuals who were part of the Nazi machine, not on the German people themselves. This seems to me that perhaps the German historians, or whoever hired those historians, are trying to excuse the German people and their contemporary descendants of the guilt that has probably plagued the descendants of those who had a direct hand in the war and in the Holocaust.

Although I can understand the idea behind such a detachment—who would want to basically tell children that their ancestors perpetrated horrific deeds in the name of a racist ideology?—I’m not sure ethically it’s the right thing to do. On the one hand, the ancestors of many of today’s Germans were probably just soldiers or civilians. They may not have had that big a role in the horrible tragedies of the past. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that at the very least many citizens of Germany went along with the Nazi agenda and at the very worst outright supported it. Acknowledging that has been an important part of Germany ensuring that such tragedies as the Holocaust never again come to pass.

My first view of Sachsenhausen, a place of overwhelming despair.

My first view of Sachsenhausen, a place of overwhelming despair.

Then again, German children usually visit Holocaust-related places at least twice before they finish school, so maybe that does more than any statement condemning the German people in full for World War II and the Final Solution to prevent another war or genocide or even just a fascist state from rising.

In the end, though, the thing we must take away is that Germany can’t escape its past, and that it’ll live with it until probably the end of the Earth itself. At the very least, it may ensure that the Germans and all other peoples who’ve been held accountable for the horrors of genocide will remember what has happened and not let it happen again.

Now here’s one more question: what do the Chinese think about the Second World War? Half the time they were fighting the Japanese, and half the time they were fighting each other, depending on their political allegiances. What do they think of The Good War?

The (Not Really) New City

In the week between the end of the semester and my departure for London, I researched each city on our itinerary to find activities I could do in my free time. By the time I had looked up London and Paris, I was too tired and confused by Berlin to spend much time researching the city. As a result, when I arrived in Berlin, I had no expectations of the city.

On the surface, Berlin is a modern city, comprised primarily of modern buildings and technologies. To many of us, it bares a remarkable resemblance to many American cities, Columbus included. However, it resembles modern American cities because of the war’s complete destruction of Berlin. Berlin had its rich architectural and cultural history almost obliterated because of the bombs and demolition during the war. As a result, most of the buildings that we could see in Berlin were either newly built or heavily repaired, thus telling Berlin’s story from the perspective of the war and the post-war conflicts.

Berlin, I believe, is a city defined by its struggles in the twentieth century. Over the course of the past seventy years, it has been a heart of an empire; a heavily fought-over enemy hub; a metaphorical and physical reminder of the struggle between the capitalist West and socialist East; and the center of rebuilding and reunification after years of conflict. In my mind, Berlin’s current identity seems to be heavily influenced by World War II and the Cold War conflicts arising from the war.

I am always fascinated by architecture and the stories that can be told through it. Berlin’s primary architecture revolves around the years after the war. The absence of any pre-war buildings is a painful and constant reminder of the consequences of total war; the nonexistence of the old buildings emphasizes the relatively new constructions that stand in the city today. The conglomeration of different buildings, from the concrete utilitarian structures to the post-modern glass and steel creations, tell the story of post-war Berlin, the Berlin that exists today. Berlin was defended, fought over, destroyed, split, secured, and reunified, all stages that I believe can be seen in the buildings that stand—or are not standing—in the city today.

However, Berlin is a city that is still being rebuilt. Memorials are still being created in remembrance of the atrocities that the wartime Allies and Germany refuse to let the world forget. Only twenty-five years after reunification, Berlin is finally now able to begin dealing with the events of the past century by remembering, atoning, rebuilding, and ultimately moving forward.

In a way unlike any of my experiences in other cities, I have been deeply struck, impressed, and shocked by Berlin’s history. I separate “Berlin: The Historical City” from “Berlin: The Real City” in my mind. However, the two are deeply intertwined. Berlin as a city is a deeply historical city; even when we cannot see direct remnants of past events, they happened on these streets. And yet, despite the years of terror and bloodshed on many of Berlin’s streets, Berlin seems to be moving forward with honesty and a vision of a future remarkably different than that of its recent past.