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.
The wall quote at the entrance to the Churchill War Rooms.
One of the many meeting room tables in the Churchill War Rooms.
The main meeting desk in the Churchill War Rooms.
Our class learned about and discussed multiple aspects of World War Two in seminar all semester, and the term “People’s War” was thrown around a lot in discussing the English experience. The reality of the term “People’s War,” truly did not hit me until I visited London and the Churchill War Rooms. The theme of a “People’s War” in Britain is emphasized throughout the museum. Before visiting London and the War Rooms, I always thought of World War Two as a battle between militaries and leaders, for example, Hitler vs. Churchill, or RAF vs. Luftwaffe. After leaving London, I see how much effort individual people made during the war, especially in England! Getting the support and help of a country is difficult, and it is extremely impressive that Winston Churchill was able to do just this. Each Churchill speech or statement was strategic in that it made the country rally together to fight the Axis powers. In the museum, there was a tablet with around fifty Winston Churchill quotes, broken up by date. The most powerful came in his first speech as prime minister in 1940, when Churchill said, “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.” Thus Churchill conveyed to his people that the war was not world leader against world leader, or even military against military, but a total war of country against country. This quote left such an impression upon me, I even jotted it down in my cell phone. Seeing London and the War Rooms allowed me to fully comprehend the “People’s War” in England.
Once the Second World War had come to an end, the people who had lived through the war were left to process what had happened. Coined the “people’s war”, WWII truly called upon all who could further the war effort and demanded that personal sacrifices would be made. Artists were among those who needed to come to terms with the horrors that they had seen and had lived through during this period of war. Something that was crucial to further creativity would be to define how these people, who had been told to change their lives for the war effort, could return to a creative state post WWII. After individually defining what journey each artist had gone on, they began creating again. The result of this new movement of art was a cathartic and sinister collection of works.
I experienced a small sampling of this phenomenon while walking through the Tate Modern in London. After casually walking from exhibit to exhibit, I came across a large room that had walls lined with almost uniform art pieces. There was not one painting or sculpture in the room that wasn’t covered mostly with black or dark colors. Depicted in these art pieces was everything from the defilement of a soldier, bodies strewn across a road, and more abstract works that were angular and evil. From Jackson Pollock to Matisse, these artists had obviously experienced a shared trauma. I finally came across the description of the curated exhibit and it was art works from 1945-1955. This exhibit is designed to show artists having to redefine art and how they began to create again. Though not the most affected people (in terms of fighting), artists had the task of showing what happened to the people in the “people’s war”.
What struck me the most was the fact that these artists didn’t gather and discuss a large collaboration of similar works for an exhibit, they were creating their own stories. Every experience with war is different yet all of the pieces seemed to make a large cohesive story of pain and loss. Nothing is more organic than paint on a canvas, showing the horrors of the “people’s war”. We may have photographs, journal entries, first hand accounts, and documents that paint the picture of war but I felt the pure essence in that room of people who were frightened. I felt the inner turmoil of trying to show the trauma to be able to move on with creativity.
As our World War II Study Abroad group explored London, many site visits prompted us to discuss the push and pull between old English customs and newer, modern-day influences. I noticed the juxtapositions in simplicities such as the food, which ranged from Thai and Indian cuisine to full English roasts and high tea, to the museum content, where British imperialism’s impact resonated through almost every piece of the nation’s cultural history. Throughout our studies to prepare for this trip, we discussed how the People’s War affected the British citizenry and the English mentality. Practically every site we visited explored this sense of British perseverance reminiscent of the wartime mindset; however, the persistence of the citizenry seemed inextricably entwined with the troubling sources of the new. I was surprised to see the prominence of Churchill’s imperialistic mindset and be reminded repeatedly that colonialism’s effects are still distinctly present in English society today.
The Churchill Museum presented a comprehensive view of the focus of British political influence outside of the war effort. As an individual, Churchill not only gave the British people someone to believe in and look towards for leadership; he kept a nation that was fading in their influence relevant in the global sphere. But the museum went beyond these leadership qualities and acknowledged his influence outside the war and his policy programs in England, showing that Churchill impacted the Middle East. An entire room in the museum explored Churchill’s unwavering commitment to expanding the British Empire. Among all of his accomplishments during WWII, this room alluded to the negative consequences of Churchill’s decision making. His failure to grant Indian independence and view of colonial people as inferior was a sharp contrast to his commitment to social welfare and the working class of English society.
The Imperial War Museum addressed the impact of British colonialism from the wartime era. The current rotating exhibit explored modern terrorism in the UK and we had the opportunity to speak with survivors of terrorist attacks, hospital workers, and first responders in a roundtable discussion. At first thought English imperialism may seem contained in earlier centuries, strictly within the stolen artifacts of the British Museum and the V&A; however, the Churchill War Rooms and IWM made the effects of the expansive British Empire in the modern era unavoidably apparent. Visiting these museums allows one to trace actions from decades ago to reactions that are ongoing today.
Each site visit presented Churchill’s maintenance Britain’s relevance as a Western world power and the persistence of the British people throughout the war as an important takeaway, but when one visits the sources first-hand, the lasting effects of Britain’s troubling past and commitment to colonialism are increasingly interwoven into the historical narrative. Churchill’s influence not only emerged through his special relationship with Roosevelt and presence in the “Big Three,” but in his dedication to expanding the British Empire and reluctance to grant independence to occupied nations. While colonialism at first thought may not directly connect to World War II, it was a clear stain on every site and museum we visited. Seeing the sites first hand allowed me to create a more comprehensive