Visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is one of the most impactful experiences in my life thus far. The grounds’ entrance before the camp looks and feels like any other museum. After briefly looking over the entrance exhibit, I began walking on the main road of the camp, one that eventually would lead me to the front gate. At this point in the tour, I was “museumed out” so to speak, so on the two-minute walk to the front gate, I was mostly just taking in the beautiful nature surrounding the camp. At this point, I was lost in thought when I rounded the corner and saw the front gate for the very first time. Instantly, the air turned heavy. The gate stood before me and you could feel what had happened at this place. As I walked into the camp and turned, I became aware that that gate could be seen from all sides of the camp. As the Audio-guide explained in the next thirty seconds, everything in the camp was designed to terrify and beat down those imprisoned there.
The Germans used their gift of engineering in the most perverted way possible. The camp is designed in an equilateral triangle walled in with concrete, with the main gate exactly in the middle. Starting on the sides of the gate, there was an electrified barbed wire fence and a gravel pathway before the barbed wire fence. Sachsenhausen guards would be rewarded with a bonus and leave they were able to shoot any prisoner who stepped on the pathway. Because of this, desperate prisoners that had given up would race to a relatively quick death on the barbed wire, only to be shot by a guard who saw them as a payday – one of the many sick games played by the SS at Sachsenhausen.
Seeing the medical experiments inflicted on some of the prisoners outlined how the Nazis felt about those who were, to quote the SS, “undeserving of life.” One of the plaques from the medical center explained that the SS doctors did not see anyone in the camp as human, but merely the closest animal substitute for humans. The SS felt no shame in injecting children as young as seven with hepatitis and performing a liver biopsy, all done without anesthesia. But the most impactful part of the concentration camp was the crematorium. This is where the air felt the heaviest and brought up a cocktail of emotions all at once: anger, confusion, and sadness. As I worked through those, I came to a true realization as to why everything is preserved. It is to make sure that something like this never happens again. I recommend everyone reading this who gets a chance to go to Europe to put a concentration camp at the top of their list. It isn’t fun or something to post on your Facebook. But it is the most impactful historical site that you will visit.
“If you tell a lie big enough, and keep repeating it, people will come to believe it.” – Joseph Goebbels – Chief Propagandist for the Nazi Regime
I found Point Alpha to be a very informative experience. I had a vision in my head about what the border between Communism and the Free World would be like, but visiting it helped me fill in the blanks. For one, our tour guide, Mr. Hahn, had grown up on the west/free side of Germany and was able to provide insights about the border that I would have not learned anywhere else. The border was slowly fortified from the end of WWII until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. As we walked through the small museum, we learned about the simple beginnings of the East German fortifications. They began with a simple stop sign and two fences specially built to keep the population in East German territory. From there, the East Germans added mines, double fences, guard dogs, and other experimental methods of controlling the border. As we passed each exhibit, Mr. Hahn would add a personal anecdote about his experiences. His thick German accent and short clipped language only added to his credibility. The story of guard dogs was particularly touching and sad. They were intentionally starved and beaten to make them ultra-aggressive and had to be kept five meters away from each other so they would not attack and kill one another.
This was a stark contrast to the Allied side. On the other side of the wall, small white fence posts marked the West German border. As time went on, and the East Germans were strapped for cash, they began abducting tourists from the border and holding them for ransom. So, the West German government put up a small fence. The border on the eastern side was designed to keep the population in, but American soldiers in towers on the western side were looking for any potential military attacks. The Soviet war plans—recovered after the Iron Curtain fell—dictated an armored frontal assault through the Point, and the small, allied guard would have been the first in combat. American soldiers were kind to the German people with whom they were living. Mr. Hahn fondly remembers getting chocolate, coffee, and his first cigarette from the soldiers.
But living on the border was not as happy as it seemed. Though many East Germans tried to escape, only a few made it through to the west once the Iron Curtain was erected in its full form. This story from Mr. Hahn was the saddest yet. There was a cross, made of birch wood, on the western side of the border. It was in memory of a man who on Christmas Eve had made it through the first fence, through the minefield and other traps, and all the way up to the top of the second fence before being shot in the leg by an autonomous robotic weapon. He fell back down to the east side of the fence. The American soldiers and West Germans listened helplessly to the man cry out in pain for most of the night until he fell silent. Nobody could help him, as crossing the fence could lead to a third World War. When morning came, the East Germans came to pick up the body. It was the best example of the divide between East and West.
Battlefields litter Normandy’s landscape, dating from before recorded history to the Second World War. As a result, the region has a rich military history dating back to and beyond William the Conqueror’s reign in 1066. Normandy was the site of much of the fighting during and after D-Day on June 6, 1944. It took seeing the memorials to realize how many men died in the conflict in Normandy. Seeing so many profound memorials forced me to think about how we balance memorializing the dead and engaging in everyday life. Overall, France does a fantastic job of balancing the historic value of the events that took place on its soil, and the bustle of modern-day living.
One of the ways they do this is to let nature’s beauty reclaim battlefields. We best saw this at Hill 314, where the 30th Infantry Division withstood a massive German counterattack at great cost. A relatively small memorial stands near the chapel at the end of the hill, on well-kept grass, per American customs. But the rest of the battlefield was claimed by nature. It changed my perspective on the right way to memorialize solders who die. It is difficult to position a marble memorial to every soldier who fell in France. But the small memorial at Hill 314, accompanied by a short explanation of what took place, was the perfect way to memorialize the troops who fell there. The lack of a large memorial helped me not only see the battlefield for what it might have looked like, but also a little of what those men saw when they arrived at what would become their resting place. It also allows the town of Mortain to remember, but not to have a large monument dominating the high ground overlooking the town.
I believe that the French have done a fantastic job of paying respect to the liberators of their country while allowing the people who live near the battle sites to move on.
I found the way the British memorialized World War II drastically different from the way the United States memorialized it. One of the first places I went to see after arriving in London was St. Dunstan in the east. A beautiful memorial to the city, the church was left untouched by man after the war, and beautiful ivy and plants are now clinging down once-white walls of the church itself. There are no plaques, names, or any other indicators that this is a war memorial, the monument speaks for itself. It is a place of quiet reflection, where the effect of the war is clearly seen. When walking through the church, I was struck with several questions: What would I have done in a situation like a blitz?” Is there anything to do at all, except keep calm and carry on? St. Duston was the perfect environment to ponder those questions.
The closest comparison in the United States is the Vietnam Memorial. The site is surrounded by nature and is a place of solemn reflection. In both Memorials, the effect on the home country is palpable. Be it the sheer number of names etched in black stone, or the clear scorch marks from German bombs, the effect of the war makes itself known. Every World War II Museum in Britain has a somber feel to it. They remind the British that while they won, England and its Empire paid an extremely heavy price for victory.
In contrast, the war museums and exhibits in America have a very patriotic and general sense of victory instead of introspection. The World War II memorial in Washington DC, for example, has 56 victory wreaths symbolizing the United States and its territories. A large fountain, often filled with children, gives a feeling of grandness and victory, instead of somber reflection. Another difference is the homage paid to their enemies. At the bomber command memorial, the British paid homage to German civilians that they killed in their bombing of mainland Europe. Most British memorials remind the visitor that there were lives lost on both sides of the war, and the memorials feel more human than the ones at home. It is more a monument than a memorial and provokes strong feelings of patriotism. I believe that the memorials we see in mainland Europe will follow the British trend because these countries also felt the brunt of the war firsthand. America was unique in the conflict. We did not personally feel the presence of the war save for one attack on Hawaii, and it shows in how we think about the war and how we commemorate it.
Overall, London was a fantastic experience. It gave me a lot of perspective on how those whose homes, churches, and families were lost remember the war that killed them.