The Last days in Berlin

The Topography of Terror Museum provided quite a unique experience. The museum consists of dozens of panels that detail how the SS rose to be the premier law enforcement in Germany. The SS originally included followers of Hitler, and as it grew in size, members gained more privileges. Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, made different divisions that all served different purposes. All normal police forces soon were forced to recognize the SS and could not stop them from carrying out their missions. The federal government told the local police that the SS could not be questioned or stopped under any pretense. To me, that is the scariest part because it disposed of checks and balances and jurisdictional boundaries. In law enforcement there are jurisdictions whether it is city lines, county lines, highways, or whatever other jurisdictions there are, that allow certain officers to have certain authorities; the same is true for the federal government. Certain laws have to be violated for federal law enforcement to be involved, and seeing that the SS just took over and told the city police to do what they say is a scary thought to me.

The museum provided extensive details about such SS tactics as public shaming, incarceration, and murder. The SS would shave women in public if they had relations with the wrong person, and they would jail any undesirables. In the end, they would publicly shoot or hang people. All this happened to anyone who disagreed with them, not just Jews, Roma, and Sinti. We learned about Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer who came back to Germany, where he spoke against the Nazis. He slowly lost his rights before he was jailed and shot on Hitler’s orders.

The only thing I would change about the museum regards the display of physical artifacts. The Terror Museum is built on the old SS Headquarters, and it sent all the artifacts to other museums or placed them in storage so that certain items or locations would not become centers for modern Nazi worship. While I understand that rationale, I think that seeing the artifacts is as important as reading the information. We learned in class before this trip that the SS produced a plethora of false information making Hitler a World War I hero of Germany, raising his popularity. I am not saying this museum is making false information, but I like seeing history as well as reading about it. It gives me the sense that it is real. I like touching and seeing history.

Not having artifacts in museums goes further than not wanting to have a place for modern-day Nazis to gather; it also ties in with free speech. Without getting political, Germany has laws that prevent the use of sporting SS uniforms, supporting Hitler, supporting swastikas, denying the Holocaust, or engaging in online talk of the same nature. The German children still learn about the German faults in school by reading and visiting sites, but outside of that, all artifacts are heavily regulated. I feel this is a disservice to the public because history makes it real. I feel it is important to see and be able to have a conversation about all parts of history. I understand the purpose of not wanting a new Nazi movement and not wanting a place that they would idolize, but with that, having free choice is also crucial.

In addition, I was disappointed by the major Holocaust memorial in Berlin, known as the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”. This site, an elaborate collection of concrete stela intended to convey isolation and disorientation, has several problems. First, there are only a few small signs explaining the memorial’s purpose and intentions, but they are not prominent and it seemed that no one was reading them. They also did not acknowledge responsibility. Several of the stelae are already falling apart or leaning off their original foundations. In disregard of the historical weight behind the memorial, many visitors were sitting or eating lunch on it or allowing children to run around as if it were a playground. No one was being respectful, quiet, or reflective of one of the greatest atrocities in history.

The Day in Belgium

After World War I, the United States government established the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Its goal is to create, maintain, and manage cemeteries, monuments, memorials, and markers overseas. Today, ABMC manages 58 properties in 17 countries. Some of the memorials I have seen in France that ABMC manages are the Normandy American Cemetery, Point du Hoc Ranger Monument, and the Utah Beach Monument. All these sites are well managed and properly illustrate the sacrifice of the service members who died fighting for freedom here in Europe.

While the ABMC sites do an excellent job of remembering our loss, one site that is not maintained by ABMC and that we visited was the Baugnez Massacre Memorial at the Baugnez Crossroads in Malmedy, Belgium. I could not find who directly sponsored the building of the memorial, but both the nearby museum and the memorial were made to honor the victims of the massacre. The Baugnez Massacre Memorial on N62 is dedicated to the 84 U.S. Army artillerymen who were gunned down on 17 December 1944 after they surrendered to German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. Capt. Mills of the U.S. Army was moving his men and supporting units along a predetermined route and encountered the 1st SS Panzer division. Vicious fighting quickly broke out which led the Americans to surrender. Commander Joachim Peiper, the German commander, ordered his soldiers to murder, in violation of international law as well as common decency.

This memorial touched me like some of the other ones we have seen. The memorials created by the ABMC are remarkable and do a great job of celebrating the sacrifice our troops made in various battles. The memorials made by private groups or towns mean so much more. They reveal not only what Americans contributed but also how much local peoples appreciate those contributions, which illustrates to me that we fought on the right side making a positive difference. It has significant meaning when another group puts a memorial up and it is relieving to see that others still care about incidents that happened.

The Baugnez memorial is relatively modest: a simple wall with a small black stone depicting the name of each slain U.S. soldier. But its location– across the road from the field where the massacre happened—and the commitment of the local village to maintain the memorial speaks volumes about the tragedy itself and the way the locals remember and commemorate those who were lost. This unfamiliar incident will forever be broadcasted so people can learn the story.

3 Cemeteries

The British, German, and American military cemeteries we visited in Normandy have a powerful silence to them, although each one sets a different mood. I experienced different emotions in each location, probably the result of how each cemetery is organized. The British and the American cemeteries are well put together and honor the known and unknown buried at these locations. The German cemetery, by contrast, feels like the bare minimum for what a cemetery should be, although this was an unintended consequence of delicate negotiations between the victor and the vanquished about how to memorialize German troops. Walking through each cemetery sparked a different emotion about the soldiers and their sacrifice.

The British Cemetery and Memorial are beautiful. The headstones are a bright and vibrant white that allows for clear reading of the information. Each headstone was also unique and personal to each person laid to rest, presenting their biographical information followed by an inscription selected by the family. While some inscriptions are Bible verses, others are very heart-touching and bring tears to the reader’s eye. The family aspect is the number of flowers on each headstone; all the flowers make it an inviting place to pay homage. The cemetery also contained the graves of soldiers from four commonwealth countries, as well as such allied states as Poland and France. It was nice to see that they included other countries that fought for British interests. The nearby war hospital treated all soldiers, which is why there are many different nationalities buried here. There were also a handful of Polish gravesites and a whole section for Germans that the staff care for. The missing-in-action memorial that listed the names of 1,800 troops was very powerful. It was heartwarming to see that even though the mortal remains of these men were never found or identified, they are still remembered.

The German cemetery had a very cold and uninviting appeal. It is nothing but black headstones with engravings depicting the soldier’s name, rank, and dates of birth and death. Each grave contained the remains of two men, an efficiency measure that made it seem like there was limited care for each one. Nothing in this cemetery feels like it was done with love or care for the soldiers. Under restrictions imposed by the Allies, there could be no religious, triumphal, or ideological messages on the headstones or around the cemetery. The last thing that felt off about visiting this site was the huge mound in the middle that had an observation deck on top. Within the mound were around 300 dead, known and unknown. It seemed inappropriate and unsettling to stand atop a towering mass grave of 300 dead Germans.

Like Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., the American Military Cemetery in Colville-sur-Mer is a heart-touching exhibit of care for lost sons and daughters. The entrance is an unbelievable display of the sacrifice our soldiers made. At the exit of the visitor center, there is a rotunda where voices stoically recite the names of every soldier buried on the grounds. The most tear-jerking thing for me was the replica of a soldier’s impromptu grave on Omaha Beach, with a rifle stuck into the sand and topped by a helmet. I also found heartwarming the missing-in-action wall, because there are medallions to the names of those MIAs who subsequently were identified. Knowing crews are still actively identifying Americans causes a wonderful feeling. It is breathtaking to see evidence of an effort to make making every headstone perfect and every burial plot perfect. The uniformity, brightness, and cleanliness of the grounds provide a triumphant feeling. The most shocking thing I am still trying to grasp is that this cemetery, with its 9,300 graves, contains only about 20 percent of the Normandy campaign deaths.

I was holding tears back on all three visits. These stories are humbling and inspiring of what anyone can amount to be. I can only hope when a situation arises, I can have a fraction of the courage these men had.

The Mystery of Bletchley Park


Visiting Bletchley Park–and seeing first-hand the nerve center of British intelligence operations during World War II–was an incredible experience. I was unsure what to expect, but walking through was an adventure. Every building and most of the equipment on campus were the actual items used during the war. The museum was arranged amazingly well, and the purpose of every building was made clear. We saw small buildings like the meeting hall, where leaders arranged entertainment, and the lunchroom, where most of the 9,000 staff dined regularly. I also toured Hut 3, Hut 6, and Hut 8, where personnel conducted the tedious work of cracking the German codes. By using the interactive screens, I felt like I was participating in the decoding effort. Hut 11 had a different feel: because the original staff destroyed all their top-secret equipment at the war’s end, the museum had to reconstruct the facility based on the original staff’s memories and the few surviving photos. Hut 11A had replicas of the “Bombe” machine made by Alan Turing and his team. Watching the Bombe operate made me feel like I was waiting for outputs that would help us win the war! The machines made had variable inputs and outputs meaning there could be different values every time, making the first computer. After the war, these code-breaking machines led to huge advances in technology. Alan Turing went on to continue making strides in technology and drafting papers about computer intelligence, which is now artificial intelligence that is becoming a part of everyday use. 

Visiting the garage near the barracks provided new insights into the complicated logistics behind the codebreaking operations. I learned that during the war, motorcycle-riding “dispatchers” logged thousands of miles carrying thousands of vital communications between intelligence centers. So important was their cargo that the dispatchers were granted special privileges to race past roadblocks and to travel at all hours. By visiting Bletchley, I learned about the number of people who worked on the campus. My reading last semester left me with the impression that hundreds of people were employed there, but I realized during my visit that the wartime staff peaked at about 9,000—including 6,600 women, just over 73%. This out-of-town rural location allowed the compound to work in peace and not have to worry about spies and bombings. The secrecy of the location and meaning of their work was essential to the safety of Britain and was effective in passing useful information to the front lines. It allowed for almost 9,000 souls to coexist efficiently–to work, eat, and sleep together while maximizing space. 

I also took an interest in Bletchley’s monument to Polish intelligence officers, a fitting tribute to those soldiers who shared their anti-Nazi expertise with the British after their own homeland was overrun in 1939. The memorial reinforced the lesson that the Poles made significant contributions to Britain’s successes at Bletchley. Overall, the location hidden in the farmland was a crucial component of the war effort and its teams made major breakthroughs that affected the modern era.