How to Tell a Loser’s Story: The Modern German Perspective on World War II

Leaving Allied territory, we ended our tour of Europe at the start of it all: Germany. In control of Hitler and the National Socialist (NAZI) Party, Germany initiated the Second World War and some of the most terrifying historical events. Compared to the triumphant atmosphere and memorials of the Allied Nations, the modern perspective of the war in Germany takes a much different approach: the ownership of atrocities while memorializing the victims.

Unlike sites in France and the United Kingdom, Germany has very few memorials due to the nature of the war they fought. In memorializing the attempted coup against Hitler on July 20, 1944, the German Resistance Memorial Center highlighted a different battle. The memorial center highlights resistance efforts through the lives and stories of those who did what they could to oppose Hitler and the Nazi regime. One explicitly highlighted story was that of Georg Elser’s assassination attempt on Hitler on November 8, 1939. While this museum memorialized those deemed outliers in society, it aimed to make one think of what they would do in a government that denied human rights to its citizens.

What impressed me in the German museums is the ownership of their actions during World War II, especially regarding the atrocities the Nazis committed. In contrast to the Allies’ museums, German museums have very few, if any, artifacts and are supplemented almost entirely by photographs and textual historical information. This especially holds true in the Topography of Terror Museum, set upon the ground where the SS headquarters once stood, and the sign denoting the location of Hitler’s Bunker, now a parking lot.

The Topography of Terror extensively covered the Third Reich police state, the SS’s institutions, and the war crimes committed by Germany. While I learned that women, too, were involved in the SS, I found the end of the primary exhibit to be the most important. Unlike French museums, which lack acknowledgment of the collaboration of the population, the Topography of Terror owns up to the German atrocities and the lack of punishment for most perpetrators in the postwar war crime trials.

Unlike the Churchill War Rooms, Hitler’s Bunker is nearly impossible to find without the sign, as a parking lot covers its remains. The fact that the bunker and its contents were destroyed aids the telling of the loser’s side of the story, as without the bunker, Nazi Germany and Hitler could not be memorialized, and in turn, hate ideals cannot be glorified.

The most emotionally heavy sites we visited were the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. I found these locations particularly moving as it is one thing to read about the Holocaust but another to be on the ground where it happened. I also appreciate the German effort to memorialize and shed light on this event, even if it was a stain in their history.

Despite its controversy and my prior uncertainty with the memorial, I found the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe valuable. Located on a prime real estate surrounded by buildings, it is hard to miss the many dark, gray stone blocks—a sight which I felt was symbolic to the German population knowing of the horrors of the Holocaust. The blocks were bare, reflecting how the Germans saw those “unworthy” as blank, nameless individuals. Walking into the memorials, I began to see less sun and hear less of the city, which made me reflect on how the victims must have felt: separated from society and lost with no clear light at the end of the tunnel.

Ultimately, reflecting not only upon the winners’ glory but also the losers’ story is valuable. Memorializing those who unjustly lost their lives does not take back a nation’s actions. Still, it shows ownership of the deeds and educates the current generations so that we can prevent the same story from happening again.

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