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.

Remembering Catastrophe

Before arriving in Poland, we visited sites where most of World War II’s heroic stories unfolded.  In London, the Blitz was devastating. Nonetheless, the allies were victorious, and England’s national identity remained after the war. In France, we visited Normandy and walked the same beaches as those who liberated France. In Western Europe, we saw examples of resilience, perseverance, and triumph over evil. In Krakow, however, the sites and museums did not bear the usual Western European happy ending.

About one-third of Krakow’s pre-World War II population was Jewish. They were intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, and most importantly, people.  Jewish people in Krakow were Polish citizens and were incorporated into life throughout the city just like other citizens. The Nazis quickly occupied Poland and all of this changed. The Nazis treated Jewish people as less than human and made every effort to break the Jewish population. 70,000 Jewish people were relocated to a ghetto with space for 17,000 people; rations were less than three-hundred calories per day; and Nazi terrorized the community as part of their mission to gain living space.  Eventually, Krakow’s Jewish population was nearly exterminated. Outside of Krakow, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest and most brutal Nazi death camps. Over one million Jews and even Polish citizens were sent here, and most of them never left. These atrocities were unfathomable to me, especially considering that they happened in a modern society.

Amidst my shock and attempts to understand how Nazis created a system that murdered millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and other outcasts, I realized how important it is to study these catastrophes and visit sites where they took place. Visiting Auschwitz was hard. Gaining a sense of how many lives weren’t lived was even more challenging. The system responsible for nearly seven million Jewish people’s murder was created through a series of societal changes and motivated by hatred in an attempt to portray someone else as the enemy. Visiting these sites is gut wrenching, but if we don’t take time to pay respect to those who were victims of Nazi Germany or attempt to understand why these atrocities happened, we risk accepting a similar fate in the future.

Fathoming the Unfathomable

View atop a bunker

In traveling to Europe, I had thought that I would be better able to understand the extraordinary experiences that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines went through to liberate Europe.  Seeing the battlefields, for example, would better allow me to see how people my age displayed unthinkable acts of heroism seventy-five years ago.  On the day that we traveled to Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery, and Omaha Beach, I learned that this would not be the case.  Although these sites showed me how large the scale of the battle was, this very same large scale consequently made it even more impossible to imagine the experiences of those in the war.  In short, the unfathomable became even more unfathomable.

Looking East on Omaha

Arriving at Pointe du Hoc, I was immediately awestruck by the torn landscape.  At this landing zone, which was situated between Omaha and Utah Beach, American Rangers scaled 200-foot cliffs with grappling hooks and ladders in order to capture gun emplacements that threatened the rest of the invasion forces.  The effects of a powerful Allied naval bombardment and air attack – the only beach to receive such accurate and devastating bombing in advance of the invasions – were still visible.  Dotting the bluffs above the steep cliffs were several shattered bunkers—“monuments” to the events that occurred there. They told the story, in part, without saying any words.  Standing on top of one of these bunkers, I could simply not imagine the American Rangers attacking the cliffs under fire and fighting within this hellish landscape.

The American Cemetery

Omaha Beach was just as awe-inspiring.  After we arrived at Dog Green Sector, the deadliest portion of the beach, I was shocked at how quickly the tide went out over the span of an hour due to how flat it was.  There were over 200 yards of beach from the water’s edge to a concrete wall, and with the tide being as quick as it was, it became clear to me how crucial timing was to the entire operation.  Along the wall and the hills were menacing bunkers angled just right to produce the maximum sector of fire across the beach.  Bearing in mind Ernie Pyle’s description of the colossal amounts of military equipment strewn across the beach a week after the invasion the entire time I walked along the beach, the same thought kept running through my mind:  How did they survive this?

The most memorable portion of the day was the American Cemetery where nearly 10,000 servicemen are interred.  In such a somber place, I was awestruck at how “alive” it was.  These men were laid to rest in a way that reminded me of a unit ready for an open-ranks inspection.  Walking along the graves and watching the rows pass between each other also produced an optical illusion reminiscent of the feet of a large formation of soldiers marching in step past an onlooker.  In seeing workers cleaning the marble tombstones, mowing the lawn, and sweeping the pathways, I was left with an indescribable gratitude at how these young men are taken care of, but this more than ever emphasized to me Ernie Pyle’s idea of the human cost of war.  In his articles about the invasion, he described seeing personal mementos strewn across the beach even weeks after the invasion.  These personal items, like family photos and letters, or even a tennis racket, belonged to men whose lives could have been extinguished forever.  These sons, brothers, and fathers will never slip into historical ambiguity; their efforts, no matter how unfathomable, will never be forgotten.

On that small plot of American soil overlooking the beaches of Normandy, they will forever stand in their final formation.


Paying Homage in the Hall of Eagles

View of the alter from the balcony level

St. Clement Danes, the Church of the Royal Air Force (RAF), was established in 1958.  This church is a “hall of eagles,” honoring generations of men and women who have fought for the British Empire since the RAF’s creation 100 years ago.  The British historical memory of the sacrifices of these men and women is breathtaking.  This church embodies the national idea of the importance of their sacrifices. It has shown me, an “outsider” to the United Kingdom, the cultural significance of these men and women, and specifically, their impact in the “People’s War.”

In the Battle of Britain (1940), pilots and radar operators became the front line soldiers and the Supermarine Spitfire became a symbol of national pride against the bomber threat that affected so many.  Citizens worked in factories to make the aircraft, rationed materials to make them, and kept a close watch for downed airmen in their areas.  In the Summer of 1940, it would be hard to imagine that any man, woman, or child would not have their head turned skyward in observance of “the Few” as they flew in combat missions over their homeland.

Bomb damage on the rear side of the church

Bearing this in mind, it is easy to imagine that those who fought and died in this conflict, and others, have been memorialized at St. Clement Danes.  With the air war affecting the large majority of the population, this building is a fantastic way to pay homage to those who dedicated themselves day and night to the defense of Great Britain.  The building itself is a monument to the shared experience of thousands of Britons during the Second World War.  Walking up to it, one sees that the facade is peppered with bomb damage and that the stained-glass windows are no longer, both a result of London’s “Blitz.”  Outside the church is a statue of both Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the commander of RAF Bomber Command.

Walking into the church, I was immediately struck by the symbolism and imagery everywhere I looked.  The floor at the opening to the church contains the RAF “eagle,” but also has a several miniature logos for different Commonwealth Air Forces:  Pakistan, India, Iraq, New Zealand, and Australia are all honored.  The floor is also adorned with slate carvings of the patches of every RAF unit that has ever been in service over its 100-year existence, with one section dedicated entirely to Polish squadrons who fought in the Second World War.  Elsewhere in the church are gilded sculptures of eagles and winged angels, an organ donated by the United States Air Force, monuments to specific units, and retired squadron flags.


The most remarkable part of the Church, however, are the “Books of Remembrance” that line its walls.  In these volumes are the names of more than 150,000 airmen who died in service of the RAF.  Their names are organized by date and mention any awards that they may have earned in their service.  Tucked in a back corner, however, was a sight very familiar to me: the crest of the United States Air Force.  Below it, illuminated prominently, was a book containing the names of all of the United States airmen who perished in the Second World War, and next to it, a portion of the Gettysburg Address.  Interestingly, The Ohio State University adopted a similar practice in the aftermath of World War One.  Through research into the efforts of Ohio State into the First World War, I found Ohio State’s own “Book of Remembrance:” a 500-page book that contained not only the name of every Ohio State “doughboy” that died in combat, but also when and how they died.  Rather than being displayed on a monument, these names are in a list that can be taken into a private home.  Like at Ohio State, the RAF Books of Remembrance are an incredible example of memorialization maintained by a smaller community for all the public to see.

The United States Air Force Book of Remembrance