Polish Society Under German Occupation- My Site Report

Between 1939 and 1945 Poland existed under the rule of the Generalgouvernment. German occupation of Poland created a vacuum of norms leading to the destruction of social order and a ubiquitous onslaught of misfortune. Already unstable from the effects of the First World War, Poland had inconsistent borders and clashing demographics during the interwar period. The battles on the Eastern Front also contributed to the overall violence. The organization of the Generalgouvernment, along with the random system of punishment and terror, only supported citizens’ rationale behind engaging in activities deemed to be criminal to the regime. This including anything from black market trading, educating oneself on democratic ideals, aiding a Jewish or otherwise “undesirable” neighbor, to defying the orders of a German official. The primary goal was survival, and the hardships that ensued in this pursuit made German-occupied Poland a society unlike the others under German rule during World War II.

Collaboration, cooperation, corruption, violence, and a total reorganization of all traditional institutions defined the country and the era. Under the hate-fueled guise of ideology, the Nazis systematically destroyed Polish society to make room for genocide. Resistance against German rule took place throughout the war, but it was consistently crushed and answered with further oppression and violence. However, there are quite a few stories of heroism and bravery that exemplify the determination of many to fight back against Nazi Germany.

These stories includes that of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a German entrepreneur sent to Poland by the Third Reich shortly after the invasion in order to take advantage of the economic resources and infrastructure there (especially that which had been confiscated from the Jewish population). He used his charm and bureaucratic finesse to take advantage of this situation, and he managed to run his own line of factories and gain a position of power in Krakow. He used Jewish slave laborers from the city’s ghetto and eventually concentration camps in his factories. Schindler is seen today as a savior because he used his position to protect the Jews who worked for him. The administrative building of his original factory still stands in Krakow, and it is used as a museum to commemorate both his efforts and Krakow’s experience before, during, and after the Second World War. (Note: This report was designed to be presented at this museum, and the location was changed to avoid issues with the content and the personnel at this location.)

After gaining independence from the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, the Second Republic was the government in place in Poland. The Second Republic was barely democratic by international standards of the time, and it was ruled and organized with the educated and wealthy elites in power. Poland was a majority Catholic nation, though new borders and displacement from the First World War left the population consisting of a 30% minority. One third of this minority was Jewish. Anti-Semitic sentiments were not at all introduced into Polish society by the Third Reich. The Second Republic political system was quick to fall, the leaders were quick to flee, and the social expectations and national purposes were quick to disappear almost entirely.

Nazi Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939, and the Allies then declared war on Germany two days later with no actual action to follow on behalf of Poland. Punishment, withholding of resources, and general terror against Polish civilians under the Generalgouvernment escalated from targeting minorities such as Jews and elites to a random system of oppression, and without regard for statutes or personal status. This disorder and fear led to ubiquitous desperation where it was understood that it did not matter what activities, “legal” or not, one partook in. All were subjected to aggression and the permanent threat of violence and deprivation. This largely was a result of the lack of centralization.

The governor general and thus the head of the Generalgouvernment was Hans Frank, the former president of the German Academy of Law. However, his credentials are misleading, and he gained his position through personal relationships rather than competence or an ability to lead. He exerted minimal control over those serving under him. His orders would occasionally be ignored completely, and overzealous German officers and soldiers launched unauthorized pogroms and mass slaughters. The Generalgouvernment eradicated the norms and order provided by the Second Republic, and it failed to replace them. Instead of rule, the Germans brought terror.

Success became relative to survival. All forms of social regulation and control, such as the sanctity of jobs, social programs, and schooling, were eradicated, leaving an emptiness in the organization and functioning of Polish society that was filled with fear and uncertainty. The scarcity of material goods and influence in communities led to a new reliance on personal connections as a form of social capital that could make the difference between life and death on a daily basis. This influenced some cooperation with German authorities, but for the most part it led to a reliance on the underground society for food, information, and comradery. Corruption and the black market flourished.

As they invaded and occupied the regions of Poland, the Germans left most mayors and village heads in their place, or they would replace them with more willing collaborators. Other government officials, especially those of German descent and  those dealing with transportation and resource related logistics, were allowed to keep their positions if they cooperated as well, and many used this to take advantage over resource collection and allocation. This ranged from individuals hoarding money and resources for themselves to individuals providing for their communities. It is an injustice to history to ignore the fact that this cooperation, perpetrated by officials of the former Second Republic and Poles, was collaboration with Nazi terror.

What evidence is available from this period shows us that such a removal of norms is deleterious to decency. The Generalgouvernment allowed, encouraged, and fostered violence. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors, and almost the entirety of the Polish Jewish population was wiped out. For many, the most compelling figures during the Second World War were those who perished in work and death camps such as Auschwitz. There were 457 extermination camps in Poland, some with sub camps nearby, and there were additional forced labor and prisoner of war camps as well.

The Final Solution led to the slaughter of 90% of the Polish Jewish population. In addition, about a fifth of the pre-war population was wiped out, the largest portion of a pre-war population to perish out of all of the countries involved in World War II. No articulation of the extent of human loss can properly put this into a perspective that we can truly understand. No matter the difficulty of the subject matter, we have a moral responsibility as humans and historians to prevent such an

Krakow, Poland

atrocity to happen again. The removal of norms, thus the eradication of purpose and shared values in society, led to Poland’s collapse into the abyss of annihilation, opening the door for Nazi Germany to massacre of millions of human beings.

The Land of Infamy

Germany: the ubiquitous “they” throughout this trip, these classes, and all World War II dialogue I had come across prior to this year. The country that annexed the Sudetenland, invaded Poland, blitzed Great Britain, conquered France, and persecuted millions. The other countries that we visited on this trip were, for better or worse, “on our side” throughout the conflict that came to be known as World War II.

My bias-sensors were primed as we started our tour of the German Historical Museum but during my time there I was unable to find any data, opinions, or coverups that went against what I had been taught this school year. The German museums, in my humble opinion, were the most matter-of-fact of any that we visited and did nothing to sugar coat the errors they made and atrocities they committed from 1938-1945. The existence of a Soviet-German War Museum and the Soviet graffiti on the walls of the Reichstag proves how far Germany has come and how willing they are to come to terms with their past. The Reichstag was a particularly fascinating example of how moderate, conscious, and inclusive Germany truly is. Instead of tearing down the building that was set ablaze to bring Germany under military rule, that was nearly destroyed during Operation Clausewitz and the Battle of Berlin, and was vandalized by the victorious Soviets after Berlin fell in May 1945. The post-war 1960’s German government chose to cover these marks of defeat up, but recent movements and reconstruction have chosen to uncover the Russian lettering and make it an integral part of the German parliament building.

Some countries may chose to ignore their past, blur its’ edges, or even re-write their entire national history. It is with great admiration that I conclude that Germany is not one of those nations and has chosen to bravely meet its past head-on, and use it to make their modern state a better place. While it can be argued that Germany had no lee-way to sugar coat their wartime actions during its extensive post-war occupation by foreign powers, I still admire their courage to tell parts of the story that many of the “victors” choose to omit.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

German Teens on Holiday, 1938. Displayed at German Historical Museum.

Nazi Death Camps

Going into this trip, I figured that Poland was going to be the most unique stop on our trip. Poland is the eastern-most stop on our trip, the least tourist-y, and the most conservative. In January 2018, the Polish government passed a “Holocaust Bill” that criminalizes any mention of Poles “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Specifically, referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps.” I wondered how our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would be effected by this new law and if my comrades would need to be wary of prying ears while giving their reports on Polish history.

Our visit to Auschwitz was profoundly austere and chilling. It was my first time at any of the Nazi death camps that I have read so many horrible things about. The tour was conducted by a Polish speaking tour-guide and an English translator. Our guide made a point of calling the camp a Nazi-death camp and explained repeatedly that the Polish town of Oświęcim (“Auschvenken”) was Germanized to Auschwitz.  The Nazi’s eventually evicted the town’s inhabitants evicted in 1940 when the Nazi’s decided to make it a prison for political prisoners, and later into a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Throughout the camp there were statistics and data regarding the persons who had been sent to and murdered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound. Something that stood out to me was that the numbers of Poles and the number of Jews killed here were kept separate, and our tour guide continued to mention Poles and Jews, but never once said Polish Jews. Yet surely, of the 1,100,000 European Jews that were murdered here, a large portion of them were Polish citizens. Many of my comrades mentioned that they noticed this phenomenon as well during our class discussion.

Our tour guides never once said anything in their guides that put their government nor their countrymen to shame. Was this a result of fierce national loyalty, common knowledge, or reflective of the new holocaust law? As a first-time visitor to Poland, it is impossible to say. And yet, one thing that remains clear is the obvious effort by the Polish people to absolve themselves of blame regarding the years of occupation. During our studies here there was no mention of the multitude of anti-Jewish progroms conducted by Polish peasants, an utter split between “Poles” and “Jews” during the war, and an obvious desire to drive home the point that the death camps in Poland were Nazi death camps, a distinction that I always thought was common knowledge.

Memorial plaque in Birkenau

Remnants of the barracks

Discussing WWII from the German Perspective

I was unsure of what Germany would be like not only in its historical presentation of WWII, but also in its language and culture in comparison to the United States. What I first noticed upon arrival in Berlin was how many people were fluent in English. It seems harder to find someone in the United States who is fluent in two or more languages, especially if they have lived in the United States their whole lives. Germans are also more straightforward, evident in interactions I had with them and also in the way they present their history. When we went to the German Historical Museum, which is the national museum for German history, the designers of the museum laid out very plainly how Hitler took control of Germany. As the museum weaves through the years before, during, and after WWII, it is much more factual than emotional. The German Historical Museum was also very different than other places we have visited because there was a stronger focus on what happened prior to the start of the war and after the war ended rather than actually during it. In the United States and in the other countries we visited as a class, there is more of an emphasis on the events in the war. Due to this focus within the German Historical Museum, I gained more detailed knowledge as a historian about how Germany as a country views and understands their own history before 1939 and after 1945. In most of the places we went in Berlin, the people who design the museums do not shy away or make excuses for the events of WWII and the deaths of millions of people at the hands of the Nazis. Even in the Topography of Terror Museum, which showcases how the Nazis executed their plans during their control, it provokes reactions but shares the information with little emotion, only to tell what actually happened. In one instance, a picture of laughing Nazi men and women had a caption that said they took a break from murdering people at one of the concentration camps to take the photo. The Topography of Terror Museum also had many photos that I had never seen before in classes I have taken about WWII, mostly the photos of lower-ranking Nazi men and women. This museum was very matter-of-fact in the way they acknowledge the roles of Germans in carrying out the murders of millions of people, identifying them clearly through their use of pictures and text to convey the history.

I was also unaware by how much Germany, particularly Berlin, ingrains WWII and its aftermath into their culture. In the United States, there are obviously memorials, museums, and statues commemorating WWII, but not to the same extent as there are in Berlin, and especially not to the same extent in looking at the aftermath. One of the biggest examples in Berlin of how culturally significant the war is in Berlin would be the markers and remnants of the Berlin Wall. Another example of how WWII still affects Germany is in the Reichstag Building. The Reichstag Building is where the German Parliament meets. On our tour of the building, our guide talked often of the efforts made to make everyone happy and equally represented, from the design of the building itself to the setup of the German Parliament. As a class we learned how WWII still affected the culture of the government. The guide explained that the president is now more like a figurehead and has a smaller role in the government. The Germans have organized their government to insure as much as they can that no one person will gain as much power as Hitler did again.

A+ in Productivity

From its prevalent street art to booming businesses, the city of Berlin is a modern haven amidst the antiquated, historic cities of central Europe. Additionally, Berlin has a strong tie to its history, and the city’s character is built around that connection. Out of the four countries we visited, Germany was the most adamant about building its present and future on the lessons learned from the past. This ideology is evident in how Germany deals with its turbulent past with complete openness; the country does not ignore the messiness and does not try to overshadow it with the seemingly cleaner parts of their history. Instead, Germany faces the facts straight on.

The country has achieved a level of transparency in dealing with their history that translates into the transparency they keep with their government. Our visit to the Reichstag was my favorite thing we did in Berlin and one of my favorite things we have done over the past month because the building so clearly illustrated the transparency between the state and its people in its architecture and symbolism. As a Reichstag worker took us around the building, the symbolism became more and more evident. The most striking feature for me was in the main hall where parliament meets. On the second level of this hall is where the media and citizens can sit-in on meetings, and, as with most things in the building, this setup has symbolism. Traditionally, the boss sits above the rest of the people, so when the citizens sit above parliament, they are meant to be watching and keeping the government in line. This symbolic feature of the Reichstag is one of many features that utilize the events of the past to direct the course of the future.

While I could clearly see the history of the war in every country, Germany by far was the most productive with their history. There are elements around the city that remind residents and visitors alike of the events of WWII, but the city does more than just remember the events; they build this history into their future, fostering a contemporary culture of remembrance and constructiveness.

Germany is Held Together by Scaffolding

The trip has finished. As Jeremy Cronig said in his Topography of Terror Site Report, all roads led to Berlin. A general theme of our adventure was that for some reason, nearly every monument, museum, or landmark, was covered in scaffolding. Berlin’s scaffolding was, however, a little more symbolic than most; Berlin is a city rebuilt with a reconstructed image. The Allies leveled the city by the Nazi surrender, and in the decades since Germany has worked tirelessly to present itself as a nation which remembers its past and will not repeat it.

As we walked through Berlin I kept wishing to see the same sort of grand architecture seen in Paris or London, and then I had to remind myself whose fault it is that all of those buildings were destroyed. Our hotel was near the site of Berlin’s prewar train station, Anhalter Bahnhof, which now only survives as a single wall of the former entrance, the only piece which survived American bombing. Its replacement, Hauptbahnhof, is a beautifully modern building, similar to Pottsdamer Platz, where, after reunification, architects flocked from around the world to reconstruct Berlin’s commercial heart. This structural modernization, and all the scaffolding it entails, is representative of today’s Berlin. That same modernization can also be seen in the way Berlin presents its own history.

Our first museum visit was to the German Historical Museum, which gave and honest and transparent presentation of Germany’s role in WWII and the Holocaust. This museum was not shy; it openly displayed Nazi artifacts, anti-semitic propaganda posters, and photographic evidence of the holocaust. When describing the interwar period and the rise of the Nazi party, the museum tried to explain the origins of Germany’s rampant antisemitism, but never to justify it. This trend was followed at the Topography of Terror, a museum built on the site of the headquarters of the SS, the Gestapo, and the Reich Security Main Office. The museum demonstrates how the Holocaust was administered. It names names, shows faces, and directs visitors towards the basement prison and torture cells. These museums do not try to hide, nor separate themselves from their past but to show that Germany has grown past the Nazi era.

This idea was most featured in the rebuilt Reichstag. Originally constructed by the German Empire, the building now is an almost entirely modern building inside a historic façade. The building fell out of use after the 1933 fire and was further damaged by the Soviet invasion of Berlin in 1945. It remained unused until reunification, when it was reopened as the new home for the Bundestag in 1999. The modern Reichstag is a completely symbolic building, its austere interior was designed to prevent distraction, its many windows represent the parliament’s transparency, and the parliamentary chamber was designed such that no politician will ever sit above their constituent. There are, however, a few preserved sections of the interior: places where Soviet soldiers graffitied the walls after taking the building in 1945. The Reichstag was reconstructed to imply that Germany is a modern democracy which remembers its past.

Scaffolding is often placed to maintain, but Berlin is a city which has gone through a metamorphosis. The scaffolding on Notre Dame in Paris or Big Ben in London was there to keep those monuments the same they’ve always been, despite time. Berlin’s scaffolding is close to the opposite. Berlin was a city that had to change, it was known to the world as the capital of Nazi Germany, and then as a divided city which represented the Cold War. Since reunification, Berlin has renovated itself to become a modern European capital city, who willingly recognizes its past. Instead of being an excuse for power to be consolidated, the modern Reichstag serves as a symbol that never again will Germany lose its democratic way. Berlin still has room to grow, many museums point out who committed the Holocaust, but shy away from the consequences beyond the Nuremburg trials, or how the German people let it all happen. Luckily, there is plenty of scaffolding to go around.

It’s On Us: Honest Retellings of the Past in Berlin, Germany

There was no better place to end my month long stay in Europe than Berlin, Germany. Berlin is a lively and vibrant city whose streets seem to seep with both history and modernity. In my short time there, I found the city to be full of contrast, with remnants from Germany’s tumultuous past preserved alongside the city’s newer additions, buildings that have emerged under contemporary efforts to move forward from that past. The majority of the city as it exists today has been rebuilt in the time since WWII. Yet it was nearly impossible to walk down a street in Berlin without coming across a memorial or marker calling back to the city’s complex and unsteady history. Segments of the city’s infamous wall, for instance, are still scattered throughout Berlin, acting as lasting evidence of the days of Cold War division. Near a popular metro station, the ruin of a magnificent former train station rises as a testament to a past age of prominence, destroyed by the violence of war. And tucked away down a side street, a bronze statue of a pair of Jewish children, arms laden with suitcases and supplies, stands dedicated to the Kindertransports, the pre-war effort to remove young children targeted by Nazi discrimination from their increasingly desperate situation in Germany. These scattered testaments to history, present across Berlin, help to materialize Germany’s national identity, which is rooted in a deep determination not to forget its past.

Memorial to the Kindertransports entitled “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”

The clash of old and new was perhaps none more so apparent than in the reconstructed Reichstag building, which houses the contemporary German parliament. The building’s contrasting design is apparent from its exterior, which combines the stone façade from the original building—burned down during World War II—with a very modern all-glass dome resting on top. This juxtaposition extends into the building’s interior. The main parliamentary room consists of bright blue chairs, and the adjoining spaces—though decorated only sparsely—contain the works of modern artists from the United States, Britain, and Russia. As our excellent and engaging tour guide explained, these bold choices were made in part as an effort to make a complete break from the past, separating the new democratic government from the corrupt regime of old. However, Germany has found a way to navigate this break while still acknowledging the past and its lessons. On the lower floor of the Reichstag, portions of the old Reichstag brick have been preserved and incorporated into the new walls. These segments from the original building are still covered in the graffiti of Soviet soldiers, who marked their victory with coal or chalk when they reached the center of Berlin in 1945. The Reichstag’s combination of new and old features seems to successfully reflect Germany’s modern identity, which has had to emerge out of its dark past and root itself in a progressive and functional new beginning.

Interior of the Reichstag building, beneath the glass dome

Throughout this trip, my experience has been inherently effected by my own national identity. As an American, the narrative of WWII that I have grown up with is the story as defined by the Allies, the victors. Berlin presented me with the opportunity to explore the ways in which the defeated tell history. This is a feat that Germany has taken on with exceptional poise and honesty. Of all the places I have been to on this tour, Berlin seemed to treat the war with the most directness. Rather than shy away from its own brutal role in the war and its horrors, Germany has committed itself to a truthful, open and unblemished historical retelling. This is apparent throughout the city, in everything from the Reichstag, to the “stepping stone” plaques in the sidewalks that memorialize the deported, to the large Holocaust memorial in the center of the city. It is also apparent in Berlin’s museums. The German historical museum, for example, dedicates a very large space to its exhibit on the rise, reign and fall of the Third Reich, acknowledging that this period of time is as much a part of German history as the nation’s brighter moments.

Out of all the German museums we visited, my personal favorite was the Topography of Terror museum, which resides on the plot of the old SS headquarters building. This museum consists entirely of photographs and text, which made for a surprisingly powerful experience. Pictures of gestapo members vacationing and laughing were hung side by side with images of the horrible crimes they committed. Photos of Hitler and Himmler playing with small children rested beside photos of Jewish death camps. The captions to these images were straightforward and blunt to the point of being startling. One image of Auschwitz guards laughing and playing music, for instance, was captioned with the striking “taking a break from mass murder.” These captions were profound, and the exhibit as a whole was incredibly thought provoking. As I discussed with several of my fellow comrades afterwards, the photographs on display were not ones that we had seen before, despite our extensive study of WWII. The images of the Nazis that are widely dispersed and present in the history books tend to depict these men as calculated, serious and cold. Because of this, it can be easy to write Hitler and his party off as monsters. The Topography of Terror offered a reminder that the Nazis were in fact human, and that their capacity to commit evil atrocities is perhaps all the more frightening because of that fact.

Photographs on display at the Topography of Terror depicting Auschwitz guards taking a break

Germany’s ability to account for its past has led me to reflect on how we in America convey our own history. Like Germany, the United States is a nation with its fair share of dark moments. Since my time in Berlin, I have thought a lot about how we as a nation deal with the shameful moments in our own history. Although the United States may have been on the right side of WWII, we still seem to struggle with coming to terms with other, darker parts of our past. American classrooms and museums tend to skirt over issues like our treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam War. These are events of immense importance that have had a massive impact on the U.S.A.’s political, social, and cultural climate today. I believe Germany’s response to WWII offers insight into how one can maintain pride and patriotism towards his nation while still acknowledging the moments when his country has been in the wrong. Because of this, I believe America would do well to take a page out of Germany’s book. As I make my return to the states, it is with the revitalized hope that the U.S. will grow to acknowledge the times in which it, too, has acted as an oppressive and corrupt nation. After all, if I have taken anything away from this trip, it is the immense importance of public history, and in extension, a deep appreciation for the ways in which the past can and should endure.

Segment of the Berlin Wall, now part of the East Side Art Gallery

A Historian’s Perspective

Our time in Bayeux, France was a reflective experience. If you take twenty-four history nerds to half a dozen museums and then deposit them in a quaint, Wi-Fi-deficient town, reflective commentary on their experiences is inevitable. The invasion beaches were sobering; the American Cemetery was numbing, but the museums were invigorating. Our museum visits sparked discussions from hushed exchanges in the museums’ dimly lit corners to fiery debates in the park over our cheese-and-baguette picnics.

Our first stop on our Normandy tour was at the Caen Memorial Museum, and Mary introduced the site with her report on the citizens’ experiences in Caen during the Normandy invasion. Additionally, she discussed the museum design, specifically the initial spiral ramp that takes visitors through the interwar period representing the deterioration of the political climate during this time. The design pushes visitors from the bottom of the spiral into a gripping film exhibiting the fall of France. However, the film took a different approach to the capitulation than what I learned this past semester. Instead of discussing France’s own faults in the defeat, the intentional, strategic placement and language of the video removes French responsibility in the defeat and paints the country as a victim of a historical oddity instead. While watching this film, I began to question how the museum presented this information and how I was absorbing the information.

My suspicions elevated as I continued through the museum; I started searching for biases, and they were prevalent. The exhibits suggested that France played a much larger, useful role in the war than the material I studied this semester suggested. While I was scrutinizing every word and finding “mistakes” in the way France was presenting its own history, I realized this problem was not unique to the French: there were certainly biases in England, and I expect Poland and Germany to have biases as well. I also realized that if I could recognize these national biases in France, I need to reconsider how I so obediently absorb the history of my own country without questioning and challenging its presentation.

After coming to this realization, I stepped back from scrutinizing every word in the Caen Memorial Museum and focused more on the overall historical presentation. France was simply qualifying their strengths in moments of immense weakness; this trait is certainly not unique to the French. Biases are inevitable, but historians should not ignore biases; they need to recognize those biases and how our perceptions of the past are shaped by them.

Rising from the Ashes

My favorite moment in London actually came out of a time-crunching, anxiety ridden search for food. The evening of May 11th, I found myself in a group of seven scurrying along the streets of London to grab a quick bite to eat before seeing As You Like It in William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I learned from my prior adventures in Dublin that the best sights within a city are those you happen to stumble upon when exploring the streets, but the only discovery on my mind at this moment was dinner; my eyes were set only on food and getting to the show on time. While we hurried past St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I had explored the previous day, a member of our group pointed out a statue on the south side of the cathedral. Our curiosity got the better of our stomachs, and we made a quick stop to investigate further. What caught my eye first was the profile of a man with his arms thrown up and pointing at St. Paul’s, and I knew instantly this statue was a memorial for the Blitz. As my eyes followed the man’s fingers to the cathedral, the famous image of St. Paul’s standing strong amid the congesting smoke from German bombing consumed my mind and the meaning of the simple figure went from modest to profound in my mind.

I discovered several facts that help construct a fascinating narrative and relationship between the memorial and the cathedral. The structure’s official name is the National Firefighters Memorial, and it was built to commemorate those firefighters who lost their lives during the Blitz but now stands as a memorial to all firefighters who have lost their lives in the United Kingdom. The standing Fire Officer clearly points to St. Paul’s, but he more specifically indicates the phoenix on the front of the cathedral with the Latin inscription “resurgam” or, in English, “again.” The phoenix and Latin inscription combination suggests that no matter what obstacle London will rise from the ashes again. In the context of the Blitz, the narrative demonstrates the resilience of London and its people.

The British people felt the pain of World War II more than any prior war in their strong nation’s history. No longer was the fighting contained to a distant battlefield experienced only by those willing and able to fight for his or her country; World War II brought the fight home. The war affected the people, thus emerging as the “People’s War”; evidence of the “People’s War” in Great Britain is scattered around the country’s capital in notable, substantial monuments but is also found in smaller, less recognizable structures along the streets such as the National Firefighters Memorial. The vast presence of WWII memorials scattered throughout London demonstrates the immense reach of the war on the people of Britain.

When I walk around Washington D.C., I feel patriotism in independence and freedom, but when I meandered the streets of London, I felt the resilience and perseverance of London and its history. This fundamental aspect of British national identity is rooted in an extensive history of triumph and defeat, but it was largely altered and shaped in the modern world by the “People’s War” from World War II.

Berlin: Remembering the Facts

After bopping around Poland for a few days, the comrades and myself then travelled to Berlin on May 26th. The historical journey leading up to our arrival in Berlin really set the stage for the sites and museums that we visited there. In London, the history of WWII was portrayed very much the same as it is in America, as this history was written by the victors. In France and then Poland, that history became a little bit different, coming from the perspectives of two nations that were occupied by Nazi Germany. After visiting Poland, where the people seemed very much in denial of their own role in the Holocaust and World War II, Berlin felt like a breath of fresh air. However, this feeling was short lived.

At first, it felt as though the German portrayal of the history of World War II aligned almost exactly with what we learned in our Spring studies of the topic. But then the closer we read into the information presented to us, it became clear that something was missing. The German presentation of World War II is very matter-of-fact. Every museum that we visited seemed to lay out a very objective story, void of emotion, but full of reality. The German Historical Museum was the most notable in this sense. The museum was filled with information about the end of World War I, through the modernization and “Americanization” of Germany in the late 1900’s. However, I felt as though the information was fragmented and sometimes hard to follow. No section about the war seemed to be missing, but the museum did not tell a complete story. It merely presented the facts as though they were sufficient in telling the narrative of Germany during the war. A mere presentation of the facts is definitely not sufficient when telling the story of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. This feeling that something was missing from the narrative also troubled me when we visited the Wannsee House. The exhibition inside did a tremendous job of telling the story of the Third Reich and the top Nazi officials who met there in January 1942. However, even the room that focused specifically on those individuals neglected to explain just how they arrived at the positions that led them to the Wannsee Conference.

The many sites and buildings that we visited in Berlin serve as a reminder, not just to Germany, but to the rest of the world, of the tragic events that occurred there during the 20th century. The German government, down to the reconstruction of the Reichstag building, has put in place many measures that will, hopefully, keep any official from gaining the power to commit such acts again. While the structure of the government is ultimately the path that Hitler used to gain power, it was not the only factor that allowed him to consolidate the Third Reich under his command. What seems to be missing from the German historical record is the political, emotional, and social environment that produced a leader such as Adolf Hitler. These aspects are just as important, if not more so, than the methods Hitler used to gain power. After all, it was the people of Germany, not the structure of the government or the Treaty of Versailles, that produced a leader powerful and depraved enough to begin the Second World War.

The French Facade

Moving on from London, I spent about a week in Bayeux, France and a few days in Paris, France. During our time in France I was able to use my French language abilities to assist with translating for our professors and to get around day to day life. My travels in France interested me more than those in England, as the different language and the diverse types of spaces we saw made it a more fulfilling exploration. From the small town of Bayeux, the seaside villages near Caen and St. Marie Eglise, to the city of Paris, I feel I saw and learned quite a bit about France. I did not come onto this program with any particularly strong focus on the American involvement and experience in World War II, but my time in France- especially in the museums- bolstered a newfound expectation towards this.

Like many Americans, I have personal connections to the losses incurred during the war. Both of my [maternal] grandparents’ fathers served in the Army during the Second World War, coming from the same small, rural Ohio community. My grandmother lost her father to this at a very young age, and this is something that affected her deeply. Knowing this, and therefore valuing the memory of my late Great Grandfather, Joseph Ferrell, who was killed in action in Belgium, I found multiple French accounts of their version of history that did not do my family’s loss, nor those of other families, proper justice.

An example of this includes the framing of Allied Victory as French Victory in the Caen Memorial Museum (among others). One of the many text boxes adorning the artifact encasements, timelines, and portraits actually stated that the French would have liberated themselves (Paris) even if the Allies had not invaded. Many of my comrades also found this to be a shocking statement, as it goes against the facts. In addition, we came to this museum with the memory and images of the bloody destruction of American forces during the invasions (Utah and Omaha Beach, more specifically). Though the Free French Army was still in existence and moderately active (relative to not at all), it is not the case that the success of the invasions and of the defeat of Germany can be accredited to France at the level in which it was.

German Stride and Symbolism

Though my time in Germany was disrupted with an overnight hospital stay and some time off due to illness, I learned a lot from the sites I was able to visit. In Berlin I found the Reichstag and the Holocaust Memorial to really speak to the history of the nation in addition to what I learned in my Spring studies at Ohio State. The Third Reich and the rule of Nazism over Germany before and during the Second World War is clearly a dark time in German history. The German initiative to acknowledge and move forward from this history as a nation was exemplified through their historical markers and strivings to change their representation through symbols such as architecture.

We were lucky enough to have a brilliantly thorough and knowledgeable tour guide for our tour of the Reichstag. The decision processes that went into the creation and building of the new German Reichstag and central government buildings after the Second World War and following the Cold War were extensive and complicated. As is also apparent in our own country, politics extend further than power and policy. Political influences went into the entirety of the process of building and adorning the Reichstag, from the location to the seat colors. All decisions were influenced both by partisan pressures and by the persistent goal to move away from anything that ties the new Germany to the old Nazi Germany.

Coming to Germany from Poland, where we visited Auschwitz and learned more about the devastation and demise that came about as a result of Nazi Germany, our perceptions began with bitterness and sadness. I was particularly interested in seeing how the Germans were going to acknowledge their nation’s past actions, as I studied Polish Society Under German Occupation for my specialization on this trip. I found that museums did little justice to this necessary acknowledgement, but I was impressed by how moving the Holocaust Memorial was. It was centrally located with the most important buildings, such as the Reichstag, which symbolized its importance to the history. The Holocaust Memorial represented a determination to keep such a tragedy from happening in the future while it also showed the build-up to genocide and loss that occurred. I however believe that the reality of the genocide that took place in the name of Germany should be approached in a way that better expresses its value as amongst the worst acts of humanity more clearly through museums and other historical reminders .

Polish Resilience: Determination and Denial

Going into this trip, I was most looking forward to Poland due to my extensive studies of the nation through both my International Affairs Scholars Program Capstone Project (Interwar Polish History) and through my specialization project for this study abroad (Polish Society Under German Occupation). I received a Polish Studies Initiative Scholarship from the Center for Slavic and Eastern European Studies at Ohio State, and I was excited to present the second portion of my Polish Historical Studies research that went along with receiving it. From what I learned through extensive readings about Poland, especially by historians Jan Gross and Norman Davies, I came into the country with an image of a dynamic yet distressed country that has experienced invasions, war, and changing borders and demographics for centuries. To no surprise, I found a national character of resilience apparent through sites and attitudes.

There were monuments and symbolic acknowledgements of the destruction Poland faced during World War II at every turn in Krakow. However, at the same time there were symbols and clear examples of strength through successful commercialization and the beautifully preserved and maintained city center. This spoke to the national character of resilience and determination against the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Poles and the Soviet attempt to replace Poland with a Russian satellite. In addition, the augmentation of a future and a continued Polish nation through family pride and community development was clear in the society that stands today.

Though the determination of the Polish people is a positive national characteristic, the refusal of the Polish people to fully acknowledge the facts of the Holocaust is most definitely negative, and it is widely noticed today through international news. Recently, a bill was signed that bans any accusations of collective responsibility by the Polish Nation or State for Nazi Germany’s war crimes. The basic premise of this bill asserts that all collective action during the Holocaust was at the hands of Nazi Germany. However, as I illegally announced in a public park, this is not the case. The collaboration that took place was at a relatively small scale, but it is still relevant to understanding the functionality of the systematic genocide that took place in Poland. It is the responsibility of all nations to accept, acknowledge, and strive to counteract their dark pasts. It is now the responsibility of Poland to step away from bans on free speech and to step towards a more thorough understanding and acceptance of its history. This begins with the acknowledgement of the nationality of the Polish Jews that perished in the Holocaust (90% of the nation’s Jewish population).

Berlin: Dealing with a Nazi Past

It was incredibly interesting to see the way that Germany wrestles with its past regarding World War II. Despite being the main perpetrators of the atrocities of World War II, I was left with a feeling of appreciation for how Germany has dealt with the war. This was evident all throughout Berlin. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament building. During this tour, our group saw how even the architecture of their parliament and governmental buildings reflects their attempt to deal with WWII and Nazism. Mainly, these features represent their distaste for strong federal power and leadership and their efforts to engage citizens in democracy. I was struck with the openness and accessibility of the Bundestag, which was done as an effort to create more participation in government by German citizens. The architecture of the city, which was almost completely rebuilt after World War II, also has deep metaphorical meaning relating to the war. The Holocaust memorial, a sprawling concrete structure, is placed basically in the center of the city, just down the street from the famous Brandenburg Gate and the United States embassy. Russian memorials can also be found in very central locations in Berlin as well, such as the Russian war memorial in the Tiergarten. This memorial still contains two large Russian tanks overlooking Berlin’s most famous park. Almost 75 years after the conflict ended, Germany still has enemy tanks within its capital city of Berlin.

These structures and memorials are a part of daily life and serve as a reminder to the German people of the consequences of Nazism. The willingness of the German people to take ownership of their faults and work to never forget WWII was incredibly impressive. This was in stark contrast to the way that both Poland and France refuse to adequately deal with their history of collaboration with Nazism and the holocaust. I feel that Germany is a model nation for confronting its troubling past and attempting to prevent injustice from occurring in the future.

Tours of the Inconceivable: A Visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau

Walking through the main “Arbeit macht frei” gate of the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, in Poland was for me the most powerful moment of our study tour thus far. Even as we had approached the camp that morning, driving through the short stretch of trees and grass that separated the place of terror from the surrounding Polish neighborhoods, I had not known quite what to expect from our trip there. I was thinking about the context of Poland’s new Holocaust laws, which ban open discussion of Polish collaboration or complicity in the events that took place at concentration and death camps across the nation. After all our discussion about this new law in class, and our introduction to a Polish guide and translator, I was mindful of how our tour of Auschwitz might be effected by such a law, and on high alert for moments when the implications of the new rules might be made apparent in the words of our guide. However, when our scheduled tour began and we rounded the corner, entering the enclosure of barbed wire and witnessing the infamous black metal gate before me, this issue was momentarily set aside under the immediacy of what I was seeing. Here was the path that millions once tread as they endured the deep evil and oppression of the Nazi regime. The majority of individuals who walked through those gates lost any chance of returning to the world beyond the barbed wire. Walking across the same soil years later was a chilling experience that is difficult now for me to put into words.

Main gate at Auschwitz I


Although we were only in Poland for a few days, the sites we saw there, particularly at the former concentration and death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau, quickly became some of the most important and memorable. In the main camp, Auschwitz I, our class took a guided tour that led us through the barracks where prisoners had slept and washed, the courtyard where they had stood for hours during daily roll call, and the gallows and gas chambers where they had been murdered. In Birkenau, the adjoining death camp, we witnessed the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers abandoned by the Nazis in their retreat, and the memorial that has since been erected to commemorate the millions who lost their lives there during the years of the Holocaust. Seeing these sites firsthand was very poignant, adding new layers to my existing knowledge of the genocide. The Holocaust was no longer just a list of facts in my mind but fully materialized in front of me. I gained a more formidable understanding of the horrors of the concentration camps as I stared across former prisoner barracks now lined with photographs of the dead, and entered rooms filled with piles of dishes, shoes, suitcases, glasses, and human hair, remnants of those wiped out by the Nazis. The enormous loss of human life struck me as I envisioned the people behind those artifacts, the women, men and children who had carefully packed their suitcases full of personal valuables and boarded trains bound for death. After visiting the camps, these are images that I will forever hold in my mind.

In addition to the high emotion I experienced at Auschwitz, the visit also prompted me to consider the purpose of historical preservation and the ways that history can be effectively retold. Today, Auschwitz/Birkenau, once a mechanism of murder, is a popular tourist destination. Even with the structure of the guides, there were many who treated it as an attraction on the basest level. Before we had even entered the camp, I saw many individuals taking selfies and photographs of themselves by the gate and barbed wire. Later, despite a sign prompting silence, one school group spoke loudly and disrespectfully in the crematoriums. These instances of insensitivity made me reconsider the effectiveness of allowing public tours of a place like Auschwitz. Doing so seemed to open up the possibility of important sites being taken less seriously or being treated as bucket list checkmarks or photo ops for social media. This diminution takes away from the historical resonance and importance of the site, as well as creates a channel for disrespect toward an extremely sensitive topic.

Ruins of the crematorium at Birkenau

Despite these complications, my own experience at Auschwitz ultimately made me realize just how important it is to provide access to places like the concentration camps. Our guide emphasized the purpose of keeping Auschwitz open to the public as a way to preserve the truth of the past and carry its lessons forward toward a better future. The weight of this mission was something I felt deeply as entered the barracks at Auschwitz and walked alongside the railroad tracks at Birkenau. The narrative being told at the camps was highly controlled, aided by many photographs, statistics, and informative signs. In order to visit Auschwitz, it is also necessary to take a guided tour, a method that ensures that everyone is given access to the same structured narrative. This system helps to prompt tourists who come to Auschwitz to do so critically, engaging them in conversation guided by access to facts and information. There is an irrevocable chasm that can never fully be bridged between the Auschwitz prisoners who once were forced to be there and the millions who walk through the site today. Those who were not there cannot possibly understand fully what it was like to suffer the Holocaust. Visiting the camps, properly conducted, certainly makes the gap a little narrower, bringing into firmer reality the suffering that so many underwent during the war, and ensuring that the lessons of the tragedy endure well into the future.

Barbed wire surrounding the Auschwitz I camp