Creating on Borrowed Time

The Nazi party adored art.

Hitler and other high ranking officers inspecting artwork as well as participating in purchases

To be more specific, art that was approved by the Fuhrer himself. Any art that was deemed “undesirable” would be destroyed or taken by the Nazis to be displayed in a degenerate art museum.

Themes that were considered perfect German values would be praised and those that were created by Jews or displayed themes that clashed with these values would be rejected.

While in Berlin, I saw examples of the art that was allowed by the Nazi party and art that was rejected entirely. The German History Museum had an extensive WWII exhibit that featured a portion about art censorship and theft. In this portion, I saw the most iconic example of German endorsed art. This painting, titled “Kahlenberger Bauernfamilie (“Farm Family From Kahlenberg) and painted by Adolf Wissel, represented the ideal Aryan family. Hitler purchased this painting at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1939 because he believed in the message that the work portrayed. Alongside this iconic work were other “acceptable” works for reference and also photographs of Hitler inspecting artwork.

The perfect Aryan family in the eyes of the Nazi party


Another example of Nazi endorsed artwork was a photograph that I saw at the Topography of Terror Museum (located in the exact place where S.S. Headquarters were during the Second World War). This photo shows two Aryan lovebirds who are cuddling on the sand while surrounded by swastika flags. The work is titled “German Vacation Fun with Swastikas” (ca. 1939). The photograph is beautiful and shows young love yet represents the propaganda that was being circulated in Germany at the beginning of the war.

“German Vacation Fun with Swastikas”

To juxtapose the Nazi support of acceptable art, I also visited the temporary Bauhaus Museum exhibit. The Bauhaus School of Art, located in Berlin, was creating designs in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s that were revolutionary and shocking for the art world. As Germany entered the war, the students at Bauhaus felt the pressure of being labeled a “degenerate artist”. While touring the museum, I came across several examples of female students who ultimately ended up in concentration camps for their art. Choosing to not comply with German standards or fundamentally being the wrong race lead to many artists losing their lives. The possibility of new inspiration and creativity was killed along with them.

Female artists who studied at Bauhaus before being sent to a concentration camp

Thankfully, these artists’ stories are finally being told. While reading about both the acceptable and degenerate art in these exhibits, I felt like there was a sort of justice for those who had been lost. Those who collaborated with the Nazis were listed by name. Those who lost the battle were remembered. It seems to me that the creation art during the Second World War was created on borrowed time and we are lucky to learn about the artists’ struggles in the modern day.

Corrupting Christianity

Although I enjoy most of the classes I take, I often have trouble applying the knowledge I learned in real life scenarios. I had never been put into a situation where I utilized the knowledge I learned from all of my classes to figure out a problem and come to a logical conclusion, but this changed when I visited the German History Museum. Here, I was amazed when I stumbled upon an exhibit which called upon what I learned in my German, history, and religion classes.

As I passed by a seemingly simple quilt, I quickly realized there was much more depth to it. It was a very large quilt with embroidered pictures of a Nazi German town with many houses, townspeople, Nazi soldiers, the Hitler Youth, and the League of German Girls marching towards a church in the center of the town. This seemed pretty straightforward until I realized there was also a long German passage also embroidered into the quilt. As I began to read it, it seemed oddly familiar to me. This is when I realized it was the Lord’s Prayer well known throughout Christianity.

Large quilt depicting the Nazification of Christianity in a German town

Once I figured this out, the entire piece seemed to make so much more sense. It was a pure example of the Nazification of Christianity which was seen throughout WWII in the Third Reich. Coming to this conclusion was very rewarding to me because I finally utilized what I’ve learned in several different classes in real life, and I hope to have more of these moments as I continue to further my education.

Part of the quilt which shows a couple lines of the Lord’s Prayer in German

The Objective Perspective

Over the course of the month we visited many, many museums, each of which had its own narrative of the war to tell. The Churchill War Rooms wanted to show that Churchill was an exceptional man of the people and a crucial asset to the People’s War. The museum did this by showcasing Churchill’s everyday routines and hobbies thus making him more average and relatable. The Caen Memorial Museum in France pushed forward the idea that the French resistance was so effective that the Allies were not really needed to liberate the country… The Schindler museum in Krakow clearly laid out the Polish narrative of collective victimhood; our guide continuously made clear that there were good Polish people and bad Polish people, good Jews and bad Jews, and that overall Poland suffered as a whole. But the German museums I found the most interesting because they did not seem to push any sort of narrative at all. They were all very objective and fact based leaving the visitor to interpret the information as such. This objective perspective also seemed to really embody Germany’s collective memory of remorse – we did it, and we are sorry.

To me the objectivity was their way of taking responsibility. Sticking to the facts leaves no room for twisting the story into something it wasn’t. German museums were much wordier and held many less pictures; pictures tend to evoke more emotion than words do and leave more room for subjective interpretation. The Topography of Terror was probably the most word-heavy of the museums we visited in Berlin and the pictures that it had were often placed in a very calculated way – pictures of tormented Jews were often

The juxtaposition of photos in the Topography of Terror Museum.

placed in close proximity to pictures of Nazi officers doing everyday tasks or having fun and in this placement a sort of tension and discomfort was created. The museum displays were also hanging from the ceiling. If someone touched them or if the air conditioner was blowing, they would begin to sway. This also created feelings of discomfort and even made me feel as though I was going to pass out while reading them.

As I visited more museums in Berlin, I began to notice that many of them seemed to use this method physical discomfort through layout and

One of the void spaces in the Jewish Museum of Berlin that was intended to evoke feelings of isolation that the Jews would’ve felt.

architecture which I found most interesting. The Jewish Museum of Berlin used tilted floors and dark, empty rooms with 24m high ceilings to create feelings of discomfort and loneliness that the Jews may have felt while in isolation and under oppression. These rooms reminded me of the “sunken place” from the movie Get Outif you are familiar with the film.

Overall, I thought that the German’s most effectively conveyed the message of WWII. The factual perspective exuded a sense of honesty and responsibility that none of the other museums in any of the other countries seemed to acknowledge, especially not Poland and France. I so appreciated seeing that the Germans took this viewpoint because, honestly, I was little nervous to see what they’d say.

Taking Full Responsibility

Acknowledging and learning from mistakes is no easy task even in everyday life. The German people are faced with recognizing how they were a part of one of the most evil and violent regimes the world has ever known, a role in which they whole-heartedly accept. The German National Museum, the Wannsee House, the Topography of Terror Documentation Center, and other sites and museums provide evidence that the German people seek to admit total responsibility for the actions of Nazi Germany. Endless paragraphs of text, factual documentation, and displays fill these museums, no narrative or excuses present in any way.

The German National Museum gives an excellent exhibit on the Weimar Republic, Germany’s democratic government in the inter-war period, and the conditions that allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to rise to power. The Germans are not deceiving on the support they held for Hitler, one quote from the German Resistance Memorial Center states, “Most Germans welcomed the new authorities and their politics. Only a minority mounted resistance…” The same museum also maintains that the Nazis were the aggressors during the war, definitively explaining that the Second World War began when Germany invaded Poland. A quote from the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, holds the same sentiment by asserting, “The Second World War unleashed by the German Reich claims over 50 million lives.”

The exhibits at the Wannsee House continue to refute the claims of Holocaust deniers by providing the document formed there on January 20, 1942 surrounding the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Translations in multiple languages give readers the opportunity to digest the rhetoric that Reinhard Heydrich and other Nazi officials created when determining the fate of all European Jews. Further displays give evidence of how this plan was put into action and the end result of its implementation – the extermination of millions of men, women, and children.

Germany explains how many Nazi officials, party members, and war criminals were able to return to everyday life following the war. They also indicate how widespread acceptance of their nation’s past did not arise until later generations of Germans began learning the full truth about the Nazis. Germany today takes full responsibility for their sinister role in this period of history and seek to educate others about it.

Germany: 75 Years Later

Thinking about World War II from a modern-day German’s perspective is certainly complicated. How do you go about studying such a painful chapter in your country’s history? Throughout the museums and monuments I visited in Germany, it was clear that Germans take responsibility for the war. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of many examples of remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Small “stumbling stones” along sidewalks and streets mark the locations of Jewish victims’ homes prior to the Holocaust and collectively may be more significant than any giant monument or museum. Other museums such as the Topography of Terror and the German Historical Museum explain how the Nazis consolidated power and launched Germany into war. They seem to serve as reminders of what can happen when civil liberties are suppressed, and dissent is punished. Additionally, the museums are not hesitant to admit the widespread support for the German war effort or the quest for dominance over Europe. Still, they honor those who spoke out against Nazism and defied Hitler; people like Claus von Stauffenberg and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The Reichstag building is the perfect representation of modern Germany. The chamber was not the home of democracy for nearly six decades and architecturally it does look like there is a sixty-year gap between the old and the new. From the outside, it is an old building with a long history. The interior, however, represents the future of Germany; with fresh looking blue chairs and a spiraling dome that rises above Berlin, it is an architectural marvel. The Wannsee House, where the Final Solution was finalized, was one of the more memorable sites I visited. The house is gorgeous, surrounded by gardens and looking out over the lake. It is hard to miss the irony while walking on the grounds. How could such a beautiful place be most known for one of the most wicked conferences ever held? It is also fitting that Hitler’s bunker, where he spent most of his final months in Berlin, is now a parking lot. A large sign describes the significance of the location where he committed suicide, but otherwise, you could drive by without having any idea.

Overall, Berlin taught me a lot about Germany both in the mid-20th century and today. Fortunately, after nearly fifty years of division following the end of the war, Germany has come together over the past three decades and become a world power once again. I believe the rest of the world can learn a lot from the way the Germans remember their past and how they prepare for the future.

Germany’s Atonement and France’s Blind Spots

By the end of our time in Berlin, I couldn’t handle the huge paragraphs of text that German museums presented me at every turn. I often thought that several museums would be more effective with their information placards printed and bound in a book rather than hanging on walls. Why do the Germans dote upon documents and details? Why don’t the French or British?

It’s hard to be peppy in Germany when museums are filled with chilling thoughts instead of glowing triumphs. The Topography of Terror museum, for example, exhibits the below photo of Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division and supervisor of war crimes in Normandy, celebrating at a reunion for Waffen-SS soldiers. Like many SS men convicted by West Germany and the Allies, Meyer’s sentence got his sentence commuted. He was free by 1954.

Kurt Meyer (front left), war criminal, celebrates with other former members of the Waffen-SS in July 1957. The Topography of Terror museum prominently displays this photo along others of Nazis who “got away with it.”

The French deal with war criminals in their museums, but not with their Meyer equivalents. Moreover, they almost never mention their own men who participated in the Holocaust (save Laval), let alone draw attention to the leniency that the Republic showed the perpetrators. Instead, they choose to overstate the role of the Résistance in liberating France, despite the group being militarily irrelevant for most of the war. Funnily enough, the Deutsches Historisches Museum and Topography of Terror exhibit had greater documentation of French collaboration with the Nazi occupation than did the French themselves. Recent French media, like the film La Rafle (an account of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup in Paris), have begun to deal with the realities and complexities of resistance and collaboration, but most museums lag behind.

In this candid, a French gendarme confers with an SS officer. Source: not a French museum, but the Wannsee House, in Potsdam. The French prefer to devote space to the Maquis of the Resistance.

The French also have a messy totalitarian legacy in Pétain, dictator of the “French State” in World War II, but they don’t have Germany’s neo-Nazi/Holocaust-denier problem. Germany has volunteered its leadership in combatting the bad history of those above plus others who perpetuate myths like the “clean Wehrmacht.” That added anti-Nazi goal can alone explain why the nation’s museums stick so closely to documents: it’s hard for an apologist to argue with a huge body of primary sources. Like the Poles at Auschwitz, the Germans seek to warn the world far more than entertain: the Deutsches Historisches Museum spends as much space on the rise of Nazism as it does on its effects of the war.

“Officers of Tomorrow.” The Germans do not point at old propaganda with glee, as many French may with old signs for Free France, but with abjection. One might remember that boys were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth so that they would die for the state by the millions. The most glee propaganda in the German museums is also the most chilling.

The Wannsee House’s exhibit ends with a series of quotes from Holocaust survivors and their families. One stuck with me, from Joseph Wulf: “I have published 18 books here about the Third Reich, but this had no impact. You can publish things for the Germans until you’re blue in the face, there may be the most democratic government in Bonn, but the mass murderers wander about freely, have their little houses and grow flowers.” Mr. Wulf, perhaps not enough Germans had learned the lessons of the National Socialist dictatorship by the 1960s, but today, the Germans go to the ends of the earth to disprove Holocaust-deniers and apologists with exhaustive and unflinching documentation.

Coming to Terms with the Past

Looking toward the lake

When we arrived at Wannsee, a longtime “getaway lake” for Berliners, I was immediately taken back by how familiar it looked to my ocean-side hometown.  Walking along the lake’s edge to hear water gently lapping against the dock, boats clinking against pylons, birds chirping, and a small outboard motor putting across the flat water was reminiscent of Merrick, New York.  The place was utterly peaceful it was.  Turning away from the lake, I was greeted by a beautiful villa surrounded by bright pink flowers.

It was at this seemingly peaceful location, however, that some of the most sinister documents in human history were created at the Wannsee Conference.  On January 20th, 1942, the 90-minute meeting took place, led by Reinhard Heydrich, to define the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” of how to annihilate the Jews.  This conference defined “Jewishness” and what it means to be a “mixed blood” German (someone who had one Aryan and one Jewish parent or grandparent, for example), the Jewish demographic within different occupied countries, and how easily those Jewish populations could be dissolved.  Most disturbingly, however, was the ambiguity behind how this persecution would be carried out.  The documents do not mention the methods for which the “solution” was to be carried out, but do state that mass-deportations to “‘so-called’ ghettos”

The house on the hill

should be carried out at once in the occupied territories so as not to let the local populations become “apprehensive.”

The Wannsee Conference Building is today a memorial and museum.  Within its walls are a chronological display and explanation of anti-Semitism in Germany dating back to the 18th century as well information on the horrible atrocities and the people who committed them throughout the war.  The most striking part of the display, however, is the meticulous use of documents, images, and recordings from the Nazi-era to produce a numb and strictly fact-based museum.  In fact, the only touch of a personal narrative was through the explanation of three Jewish families’ stories throughout this period, from Kristallnacht to capitulation.

The displays within this museum and others in Germany are reminiscent of an idea that I have studied in previous classes known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.”  The process of overcoming guilt with the war is one that Germany has been forced to face.  They are stewards to their own history – a national shame that affects the world – and have come leaps and bounds in recognizing the horrible acts of Nazi Germany.  Whereas in the past the Nazi atrocities were simply not talked about, they are now displayed to the most minute detail.  In fact, it is even illegal in Germany to deny that the Holocaust happened.

These museums also prove that the German narrative of the war has no room for error.  No story can be embellished and no experience undermined.  In other nations, museum displays presented the historical narrative quite differently.  In Paris, France, at the Musée de l’Armée, the war was painted like a story with colorful verbiage inflating several events to mask the blow of defeat.  When describing the Battle of France in 1940, the museum said that, “The Maginot Line, even encircled, resisted at every attack and did not capitulate.”  Unlike in France, the Germans cannot inflate their war narrative and this shows in the fact that it is displayed in a very impersonal and emotionless manner.  Military heroes are few and far between, and the atrocities that were committed can only be depicted as rote fact.

Looking toward Wannsee


Interpretations from I to Us

By Matthew Bonner

We arrived in Berlin, Germany on May 24th after a day-long charter bus ride from Krakow. While in Berlin, we visited numerous museums, but two that stood out the most were the Topography of Terror and German Resistance Memorial Center. The Topography of Terror is located on the site of the previous SS and Gestapo headquarters. The museum is at a cross section of Berlin’s history, as a portion of the Berlin Wall is still standing in the complex along with recently excavated SS underground torture chambers. The German Resistance Memorial Center is a museum dedicated to German resistance in all forms. The center is located on the site where members of the failed July 20 plot that attempted to assassinate Hitler were executed.

Both museums are examples of the theme we discussed in class of the German struggle with the reality of mass support for the Nazis. The museums are unique compared to other countries’ museums because they focus on the individual, rather than the collective. The Topography of Terror is one of the only museums that focused on the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of Nazi persecution. The exhibits highlight how individual German Nazis were supporters of the Third Reich’s actions. One of the most shocking and disturbing takeaways from the museum was the human element of perpetrators, as a photo revealed SS men and women having a fun time on a sunny afternoon only a short distance away from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Topography of Terror exhibit depicting SS men and women at a retreat 30 km south of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In the German Resistance Memorial Center the focus was again on the individual, taking us through different assassination attempts and resistance by Christian Churches, networks of Communists, and Social Democrat groups. Though it is overwhelming to read about all the different resistance movements and individuals active in opposing the Hitler regime, the museum does not disguise that a majority of Germans supported the Nazi Party and that there was never an effective large scale resistance movement mobilized. The two museums in Germany both highlight individual stories and actions in an attempt to come to terms with the actions of a whole country and “the resistance that never was”.

A wall showcasing the individuals behind resistance efforts at the German Resistance Memorial Center.

This depiction and focus on the individual from Germany is in direct contrast to the museums we visited in Krakow, Poland. Poland largely interprets the war and its aftermath as a claim to national innocence and focused on how the war affected the unified people of Poland. Specifically, the Schindler Museum walked us through the war’s impact on both Poland and the city of Krakow. We were guided by a tour guide from Krakow, who added an extra level of insight through her Polish perspective. For example, she constantly mentioned how the war was a war against all Poles and described how Jews had been assimilated into Polish society for centuries. In addition, one of her main themes throughout the tour was that there are always both good and bad people in a society as a way to explain many of the atrocities that occurred in the country under occupation. In the museum, the exhibits largely focused on the Polish people, instead of individuals and specific populations. Oskar Schindler himself was only allotted two rooms in the museum to describe his contribution, with the focus instead on the Polish experience during the war as one collective memory.

Recreation of Oskar Schindler’s office where he worked to save 1,200 Jews from concentration camps.

Both the individual and collective interpretations can be harmful for a society post-war. Many German museums highlight the individual in an attempt to showcase the heroes during a horrible time in its history. However, other museums vitally depict how the German people were largely complicit in the Nazi rise to power. In contrast, Poland focuses on the collective – often washing out individual stories – with the claim that the war was terrible for everyone. This collective memory fails to acknowledge the stories of specific populations in Poland, such as Jews, that had drastically different experiences in the war. Ultimately, this duality is critical to understand because the best way to come to terms with the war is through a combination of both the individual and collective perspectives. History and people are not clearly defined as good and bad or black and white, and only through a comprehensive and inclusive look at the past can we begin to fully understand World War II and its impact.

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.