Remembering the Past to Build a Better Future

On the bus from Krakow to Berlin, I was excited but also a little nervous and not quite sure what to expect in the final part of our journey. As a German major, I have spent the last seven years learning the German language, history and culture, but this would be my first time actually setting foot in the country and interacting with native speakers. However, I was not only ready to test out my language skills, I was curious to see how the Germans would present information on the Second World War in their various museums, given all of the atrocities the Nazi regime committed. While I didn’t get to use my German speaking skills nearly as much as I had hoped, I did learn a great deal over the course of our stay. Berlin is a unique place, and I believe it was the perfect destination to end our trip given its complicated postwar history that is clearly seen throughout the city.

 

Display in the German Historical Museum

The victors are typically the ones who get to write our History, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which the Germans presented us with the hard facts, no sugar coating or omitting of information to show themselves in a more positive light as we saw in France and Poland. The German Historical Museum was a great example of this non-biased factual presentation, but I believe the Topography of Terror Museum that we visited gave the most in-depth information about the war, far more than we have studied in any of my German or History classes at Ohio State. Here was a country that was prepared to take the blame and own up to their crimes, creating a narrative from their grievous mistakes that future generations can learn from.

The top of the Reichstag Dome

Two Narratives, One History

The German narrative presented at the German Historical Museum is detached in comparison to the German-Russian Museum which pushed a triumphant narritve. The German Historical Museum was not being deceptive but lacked a definitive narrative. The museum presented plenty of facts but failed to tie together the uniqueness of the Nazi’s. The German Historical Museum was full of new information for me, particularly in the areas of the Weimar Republic and the political atmosphere leading up to the war. The depth of information almost overwhelmed me with so much text and visual evidence. World War Two is presented as a piece of a larger conflict that began in 1914. World War One, the Interwar period and World War Two are taken as a single piece of history. The method shows how the rise of Hitler, the concentration and death camps and ultimately the extermination of millions occurs. The German narrative gets across how normal people can be twisted and manipulated into evil. In certain ways though this narrative scrutinizes the Allied moral position in regard to strategic bombing and Soviet atrocities. The museum expressed how the Nuremburg trails were a “victors justice” and if the same standards were applied fairly Allied commanders would be war criminals.

 

The Soviet narrative within Berlin portrays the magnificent victory achieved by the Soviet Union against fascism. We went to see two Soviet monuments, both of which were huge, blunt and glorious. The Soviets felt very highly of themselves, as we stood beneath a Soviet soldier, wielding a sword, holding a German child and crushing a swastika, this conquering tone became apparent.

The Soviets killed the vast majority of German soldiers and absorbed the full might of the German military. The size of the Eastern Front is from Boston to Miami in the United States. Millions upon millions of soldiers fought in single battles, waging a war of annihilation against each other. War in the west was more civilized if you could ever say that about war, yet in the east war was unhinged. The Soviets overcame the loss of 28 million people, crushed the Wehrmacht and seized Berlin. The German-Russian museum was lighter when it came to Soviet glory but showed a narrative of Nazi atrocities and Soviet victories. Unlike western museums, this museum gave the Soviets their deserved place. The museum focused on the east and mentioned a few times the western governments and their actions. The war in reality was this way, with the bulk of German forces and atrocities concentrated in the east. Western history has been blinded by political motives to revise the way World War Two was won in Europe.

Acknowledging the Past and Shouldering the Guilt

The Wannsee House.

Throughout the Spring semester and this three-week study tour, I have been exposed to the many Nazi atrocities committed during World War II—from pictures in museums to walking through Auschwitz itself. Arriving in the last country, Germany, I was unsure of how the losing country would portray their experience of the war. Would they shoulder their guilt in the persecution of the Jews, a topic the other countries so thoroughly discussed in their museums? Looking back, I would say that yes, the Germans did so in an extremely factual manner. However, I was particularly struck by their discussion of ghettos at the Wannsee House.

Ghettos, set up to house Jews and cut them off from society, were a devastating element of the Nazi persecution of Jewish people. The “Establishing the Ghettos” display recognized the wrongdoings of the Germans, but it was also the only display I encountered that acknowledged the role of Jewish Councils within the ghettos. It aligned well with a source we read in class in that it highlighted the role of the Councils while still placing the blame on the Germans themselves. It thoroughly reiterated that the awful choices the councilmen had to make were done under German threat of death or punishment. This display, which did not criticize these councilmen for whatever role they played in the death of their fellow Jews, seemed to me a recognition of the Nazis’ wrong-doing.

I was able to learn about a lot more at the Wannsee House than just the ghettos, however. In fact, the Wannsee House showed in-depth the anti-Semitism that was prevalent throughout Germany before Hitler took power, a topic we discussed only briefly during the semester. The first section of the house emphasized how multi-faceted this anti-Semitism was by using both a large amount of text and images of German propaganda. Its in-depth discussion of the dehumanization of Jews in pre-war Germany provides important context to the Jewish experience during the war. Overall, I think the Wannsee House did a thorough job in acknowledging the German role in Jewish persecution prior to and throughout the war.

 

View From the Top

As I looked down from a small green hill in Normandy, I tried to feel something, anything. Below me, small brown rectangular headstones laid flat on the ground, with a short iron cross presiding over the remains of every five or six bodies. It did not look like a graveyard. The plots were too small, the graves lacked flowers, and the people visiting did not seem to care about remaining quiet. You see, the green hill that I peered down from, as I was later informed, was a mass grave of fallen Nazi soldiers at the German cemetery in Normandy. Even though Dr. Steigerwald put the visit on the syllabus, I never fully believed we would go there; the very concept of such a place didn’t seem real to me. After all, why would the French maintain a memorial to the Nazi invaders, given the extent of their crimes both inside and outside of France?

The view from the top of Treptower Park, the Soviet memorial and cemetery in Berlin, inspired similar feelings of confusion within me. From the top of another hill, I felt this space to be almost infinite in its grandiosity and power. There were no individual graves; the designers instead built large friezes of heroic Soviet actions, replete with quotes from Joseph Stalin. Flanked by imposing, perfected statues on either side of the entrance and on top of the mound, the celebration of Soviet contributions was on full display. Yet I could not fully be swept up into the narrative the memorial tried to create. I could not stop thinking about how Dr. Breyfogle told us that people colloquially refer to the monument as the “Tomb of the Unknown Rapist,” because of the mass rapes committed by the Red Army. Again, we have a population with memories of an invading force brutalizing them. What purpose does maintaining such a memorial have?

Memorials, it seems, serve other purposes besides honoring the dead. At the German cemetery, Dr. Steigerwald explained that the memorial came to be as a result of careful negotiations with West Germany, and they meant it as a step towards healing the wounds left from the past decades of Franco-German hostilities. The Soviets, on the other hand, built their own memorial in occupied East Berlin to honor their own dead, without whom we could not have won the Second World War. As we talked about in class, the Soviet contribution of 25-27 million lives often goes unnoticed by Americans and the other Allies. In this case, the humble existence of the German cemetery and the opulence of the Soviet cemetery makes sense – both memorials have an underlying purpose beyond what can be initially seen. Yet as I stood at the tops of each and struggled with how to feel in those moments, I realized that whether or not they actually work to overcome such horrific events is another story entirely.

The Art of Division

Our time in Berlin was spent talking about the end of the war and retribution for the Nazis. We also discussed what happened to the city and the country after 1945. You cannot spend any time in Berlin without facing the reality that it was a divided city for almost fifty years. There are pieces of the infamous Berlin Wall looming over many areas in the city, and even the walk signs give an indication of what side of Berlin you are in.

One of the places where the East-West divide is still evident is at the East Side Gallery. This street art exhibit features large murals painted on a remaining section of the wall. This display showed many beautiful paintings, often depicting how the fall of the Berlin Wall freed the German people.

The most intriguing thing about this exhibit was the difference between the East and West sides of the wall. On the West side there are beautiful murals, skyscrapers, and a busy train station. On the East side there is graffiti, dead grass, the river and old factories. This s divide was shocking to see in the Berlin of 2019.

I think that this just goes to show the lasting effects of war on a people and a country. Even thirty years after the reunification, Germany is still fraught with a difficult national history. While they have begun to come to terms with what the war and occupation meant to them and the rest of the world, there is still a lot of work that they can do to bring the two halves of Germany together.

A mural on the West side of the Berlin Wall

Another mural on the West side depicting the opening of the wall.

The East side of the Berlin Wall, covered in graffiti.

The Pride of The Soviet Union

The narrative of the Soviet War Memorial was one of pride and triumph, which is extremely similar to the Soviet pride held in their national war experience.  The Soviets thrust into World War Two with a Total War of the country, meaning that every citizen of the Soviet Union was devoted to the war, as well as the Soviet Economy. Everything centered around the war. Because of this, the Soviet Union was extremely proud of their contribution to ending World War Two and crushing the Nazi Regime. In the center of the memorial is a mass grave mound, containing over 700 Soviet soldiers that died during the war. Atop the mound stands a Soviet soldier, carrying a small German boy that he saved from crossfire, and standing on a swastika, crushing it to pieces. Seeing this statue, I could feel the pride of the people of the Soviet Union in terms of their war efforts. At the memorial, Dr. Breyfogle reminded us all that The Soviets were responsible for 80% of Nazi deaths during World War Two. The immense contribution of The Soviet Union during World War Two is something that has been purposely left out of American curriculum since the end of the war. This memorial was the first time I got to witness the pride of The Soviet Union in respect to defeating the Nazis. I saw how proud the country is of itself and the contributions made.

Another museum we visited for the class was the Wannsee House, which was the site of The Wannsee Conference in January of 1942. The conference is the site of a meeting called by leader of the Nazi RSHA, Heydrich, and is credited with being the birthplace of “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” I was anticipating visiting this museum throughout the whole trip, because The Wannsee Conference was my special focus topic for the past semester. The museum did a fantastic job not only giving the details of the conference, but also the build up and the aftermath of the conference and The Final Solution. Facts were given without opinions and interpretations, which allowed the museum visitor to interpret the conference themselves. The fact that Germany was not trying to diminish the importance of the conference showed me that Germany was taking responsibility for the atrocities of the conference, and wanted to focus on educating future generations so the conference and The Final Solution would not be repeated.

The Wannsee House on Wannsee Lake, Berlin. This site of the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942.

Original meeting minutes of the Wannsee conference.

Statue at the Soviet War Memorial.

Remnants of a Divided City

Before beginning our study tour, I was sure that Paris would be more glamorous, and that London would be more comfortable than Berlin. I thought that stereotypical German efficiency would interfere with the city’s charm. Because of its postwar reconstruction, I anticipated it would lack the historical architecture that overflows in other ancient European cities. All of these assumptions could not have been more incorrect. Ironically, it quickly became one of my favorites destinations on our tour (admittedly, after I visit anywhere, it’s typically added to my list of favorite spots), and it did not fall short on the character scale.

Up until our visit to Germany, we’d talked about and seen what happened during World War II, and Berlin was a forum for us to conceptualize what happened after the war. We even visited Cecillienhof, a mansion that hosted the Potsdam Conference after the war. At this conference, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupied zones. As political divisions increased between the occupiers, so did tension between the West and the East German blocks. The city was once divided into East and West Berlin, occupied by Axis and Allied powers, respectively. Today, the two sides are still distinguishable from one another, although they’re integrated into one free, democratic city and country. Ruins from the Berlin Wall, which was erected in the early 1960’s, and fell in 1989, are still noticeable throughout the city and represent a shift from communism to democracy and the end of Soviet occupation.

Additionally, Berlin is full of World War II museums, exhibits, and notable sites that complimented our pre-departure curriculum. We saw the place where the July 20th assassination plot against Hitler was attempted and visited the Wannsee House, where the “Final Solution” for Europe’s Jewish people was decided. In these places and museums, I noticed a reoccurring apologetic tone. In these exhibits, Germany took full responsibility for its Nazi controlled and genocide-ridden past.

As I reflect on our study tour, Berlin represents the perfect ending place. Our time here allowed me to understand how powerful a dictator’s influence can be and how it can change a country’s fate, even decades into the future. I was wrong about Berlin. The city reminded me how important our decisions are as we decide how history will unfold. Although Berlin is no longer divided, its history represents what division can do to a nation.

Differing Perspectives

In Krakow, Poland, we visited Oskar Schindler’s Enamel factory. In the beginning of World War II, Schindler viewed the factory and cheap Jewish workers as a way to earn a higher profit. However, greedy feelings developed into heroic actions and Schindler’s factory became a tool he utilized to help save 1,200 Jewish lives. Today, Schindler’s factory has been transformed into a museum that showcases both the lives of Schindler and the people he helped save, as well as the Polish experience during World War II.

While walking around the museum our fantastic tour guide explained the ambiguous morality of everyone during the war. She claimed there were good and bad guys on all sides. She also mentioned repeatedly how it is unfair to judge other people’s past actions without understanding their full story. I thought it was interesting how many times she reinforced this idea. Her tour highlighted the victimization of the Polish population, Jews and Christians alike. Yet, there was a distinct lack of mentioning the culpability of some within the Polish population. After reflecting, I believed this to be noteworthy. I did not know until after the tour that in Poland it is illegal to discuss Polish accountability for the Holocaust.

Politics in Poland are to be blamed for this law. During the war, although, it is easy to look at both Polish citizens who were helpful and those who were complicit, there is instead a political movement to erase any guilt surrounding the Polish narrative of World War II. I cannot generalize and say everyone in Poland agrees on this historical misrepresentation or omission, but it is what numerous people voted for. I think this represents Poland’s national character as continuously sensitive to their past involvement in World War II. For some of the Polish population, the experience of the war still appears to be a wound that has not fully healed.

In comparison, while in Berlin, Germany, we visited the Topography of Terror museum. At every exhibit there were a multitude of pictures that showcased the Nazi’s horrific actions throughout the war. For example, there was a picture of Nazis beating up an elderly man on the ground in the middle of the street while onlookers watched speechless or in amusement. The museum’s representation of terror highlighted how the Nazis utilized emotional manipulation, especially of fear, to force people to follow their agenda without question. This museum was blatantly honest with Germany’s past actions. There was no omission or denial of history, like in Poland.

I took away from this museum, and the many others we saw while in Berlin, that majority of the German population acknowledges and continues to acknowledge their murderous role in the Second World War. Germany does not want to hide the past so everyone can forget, instead, Germany wants everyone to remember to ensure that their past actions will not be repeated.

In conclusion, the differing national perspectives of World War II were extremely interesting to see within such a short time frame. Going from Poland immediately to Germany really enforced how differently the war is discussed amongst the general population. Both nations are dealing with a complicated past in two different ways. While I understand how hard it is to grapple with victimization as well as culpability within a nation. I think Germany does a decent job in representing their personal narrative as accurately as possible.

Two Sides to Every War

Germany accepts the guilt for Nazi atrocities and uses those historical events to present a commentary about the innate evil found within humankind. These events— the rise of Hitler, the formation of death camps, the persecution of the Jews—warn others that ordinary men are dangerously capable of committing horrific deeds. Of course, this is a valuable lesson on how easy it is to be sucked into the fervor of a political movement. However, this narrative also allows Germany to criticize their enemies from WWII without downplaying their own guilt.

A striking example of this is found in an exhibit on Nazi propaganda in the German Historical Museum:

German propaganda depicting French and Belgian occupiers in the Ruhr region as savage and animal-like.

The caption reads: “The occupiers’ brutality and arbitrary exercise of power were the central motifs of German propaganda. This imagery is barely distinguishable from the anti-German propaganda of the Entente from 1914-1918.” After World War I and the formation of the Treaty of Versailles, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region in Germany. By including this in the museum, the German curators point out the ugly truth that the Nazis were not the only occupiers of the 20th Century. The Versailles Treaty devastated Germany, a legacy which inspired German fear for the post-war world: “The Germans were afraid of having to submit to a peace treaty dictated to Germany and of severe punishments for the crimes committed in Europe.”

Furthermore, the museum emphasized the devastation of the German homeland. About 4 million German soldiers died during the war and few buildings remained after the final Allied assault. Germany did not benefit from Nazi atrocities and did endure its fair share of suffering at the hands of the Soviets and the Western Allies. However, including this information in the exhibits rounds out the viewer’s understanding of the German experience rather than shortchanging the suffering imposed by the Nazis. Germany is remembered as “evil” because of the Nazis, which alleviates the responsibility of the Allies to remember their own atrocities. Germany’s interpretation of the war gently reminds historians that victory does not erase moral culpability and that the Allies also share responsibility for the devastation of Europe.

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.