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.

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.

Wandering Berlin

            To say that I loved being in Berlin is a gross understatement. When I stepped off the plane at Tegel airport, I joked around with Jose that I had come back to my people since all of my ancestry is German. I didn’t realize that I would really connect with this city the way I did during my time here. There’s certainly the possibility that I’ve felt most comfortable in Berlin because of the considerable influence the US had on the rebuilding of Berlin after the war. I’m absolutely positive that there was more to it than that. The people were incredibly friendly and also very encouraging of my rather poor attempts at speaking German. Like everywhere else we’ve been, the food was excellent (how many döners did we eat?). I truly fell in love with the feel and atmosphere in the city. It’s also the most difficult vibe to describe out of all of the cities we’ve been to. Whatever the reason, Berlin and I clicked.

          IMG_8501  You’d think that after a semester of taking classes where I learned about various aspects of World War II and nearly three weeks of actually visiting the sites where the war took place I would have most of my questions about the war answered. Berlin has raised some very interesting questions for me, and I doubt that I will ever actually find a good answer to most of them. The questions almost seemed intangible and hard to put into words when I first started to explore Berlin. I was incredibly taken aback by how straightforward the German Historical Museum was in depicting the crimes and wrongdoings of the German nation (not just Hitler and his henchmen) in the lead-up to and during the war. No detail was left out. Without warning, there were pictures of 18 Jewish Poles hanging in a town square as retribution for the death of two German soldiers. Models and pictures of Auschwitz, Chelmno, Majdanek, and other camps lined the walls of the museum to portray the atrocities committed by German people. I saw one quote printed on the wall of the German Resistance Museum that seemed to encompass what almost all WW2 museums in Berlin were trying to convey. In 1933, at the beginning of the Nazi era, Protestant minister Hermann Maas said, “Every German bears responsibility for Germany, no matter who he is or where he stands, in the homeland and abroad, in public and at home. No one can absolve him of this responsibility. He can transfer it to no one.” It seemed to me that the museum embodied this quote. Instead of only vilifying a single group of people (which they should be vilified), the museums portrayed how the entire German nation was at fault.

The ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

The ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

   As I thought on that idea, I started to sense the question forming, but I still wasn’t quite sure what it was. So, I continued to explore Berlin, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of the war. There were memorials tucked away on nearly every street it seemed. Bullet holes still pockmarked buildings that survived the war. Ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church still stand, but half had been destroyed by bombings in 1943. There are constant reminders of the war that make up the foundation of this city. I wholeheartedly believe that the victims of Nazi terror and the war should be memorialized and remembered. The lessons that can be learned from examining this history is critical to future populations. As I’ve gone through each city on this trip I’ve tried my best to put myself into the shoes of the English, the French, and the Germans and see how their perspectives or narratives differ from our own. So, as an American attempting to view the war as a German would I think I can finally begin to phrase the question: to be constantly surrounded be these reminders is it possible to become desensitized to the true meaning and importance? My question can really only ever be answered by those who have grown up in Berlin or Germany as a whole.  For me, these reminders have been incredibly powerful because they are not things that I get to see every day. What impact will this constant remembrance have on the generations growing up in Germany today? There are still more thoughts and questions rolling around in my head that I will be sure to be thinking about as I return home (with a short pit-stop in Helsinki first). This trip has been more thought-provoking and rewarding than I could have ever imagined, and I’m so sad these three weeks went by so fast. I could not have asked for a better way to end my time as an undergraduate at Ohio State.



Das Ende

As we flew away from the Parisian skyline, our final destination loomed ahead. Berlin, the heart of the Third Reich and focal point of the Cold War. As with Paris, people gave me a less than favorable impression going into it with the city being referred to as, “ugly,” “Communist-blocesque,” or “just go to Munich instead.” Oh boy howdy did Berlin just shatter those misconceptions. I loved it, favorite city on the trip by far – it beats London simply because London was way too expensive (shout out to Greece for tanking the Euro). The culture, history, even food, were just fantastic. In addition, the monumental task of remembering the past is approached in an effective and brutally honest manner.

Approaching the wrongdoings and crimes of a society’s past is an incredibly difficult duty to preform. It’s oftentimes easy to distance oneself, thinking “I’ll never do anything like that; in that situation I would do the right thing.” While honorable, this mindset quickly dissolves in the social and political climate created by the Nazi’s. The museum the Topography of Terror showcases the their ability to maintain this atmosphere through the brutal use of the Gestapo and SS. Taking you through the rise of those organizations within the Nazi party to their ruthless and horrific tactics and finally the repercussions for those in charge, this museum spares no detail. It includes the murderous persecution of all political opposition plus the “undesirables” (Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc.) and their large role within the Holocaust. This is presented in an incredibly exhaustive text heavy exhibition with pictures. There is no altering of the historical narrative and no hiding of details. The museum seems to accept the fact that the men behind these organizations were German. They know that these men were in some way responsible for the death of millions. The museum takes this burden and turns it into education, letting those who visit the horrors perpetrated by these organizations. The end of the museum was particularly disturbing to me. It showed the major players in both the Gestapo and the SS and the fates they met. Most of the time, many of the more low profile members who were just as much at fault as Himmler ended up facing short prison sentences or even no ramifications at all. It was troubling and even frustrating to see this. Why did they get away? It could possibly be due to an inability to confront the past, which should highlight the danger of not doing so.

This idea of historical remembrance and presentation of a narrative was one that confronted us throughout the trip. The sites from London to Berlin really showcased how nations come to terms of the past, whether it is the victors (England), the conquered/liberated (France) or the aggressors/defeated (Germany). Paired with my American upbringing and education I realized there is no straightforward answer in history. Everything has an angle; everyone has a bias – big or small. The danger does not lie in those differences, as they are inevitable. But I believe societies should know their wrongdoings and should attempt to come to terms with them. These could range from the killing of civilians in the bombing campaign over Normandy or something on a much larger scale like the Holocaust. Educate people about them, let them know what happened 70 years ago, so killing and suffering on that scale won’t happen again.

This trip really has opened up my eyes to these ideas in addition to some amazing cultures. Traveling to London, Paris, Berlin and even Normandy is something I can cross of my bucket list. It has been a truly unforgettable trip with an amazing group and I will forever be thankful for this experience.

Lessons from the Past

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

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

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

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

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

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

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

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

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

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

Afraid of the Past



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

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

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

A Refusal to Forget


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_0654 DSC_0666

The German Perspective

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

Propaganda poster from the German Historical Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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