A Light in the Dark

Our tours through Berlin have been an enlightening undertaking and are a fitting end to our tour of Europe and study of World War II. Much of what we’ve studied thus far has been focused on military aspects of the war, from the Cabinet War Rooms in London to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. We’ve spent much of our time in Europe tracking the Allied advance and learning about their most important events. It’s only fitting we end in Berlin then, where World War II started with Hitler’s rise to power. But instead of remembering the war for its military matters, Germany contends with a much darker history and a facet of the war they can never forget – the Holocaust. But to give the modern state credit, Germany offers a wide array of tours through museums and other historical sites to teach the people what transpired in the Nazi era.

We toured a great many sites, and all of them were deeply impactful in their own right, but the one that stays foremost in my mind was the German Resistance Museum. Other sites rightly focused on how the Holocaust happened and what it meant for the thirteen million lives that it extinguished, and I would argue that they are a prerequisite to view the Resistance Museum. It is almost impossible to convey the dread seen at sites like the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, but thoughts and feelings linger with you. Understanding and coming to terms with the scope of the industrial slaughter that Nazi Germany wrought instills a deep-seated dread and revulsion that sticks to the soul like tar. But it’s necessary that we tour these sights and try to understand how and why it happened. But the reason I look back at the resistance museum with such a keen memory was its profound story of hope. The feelings and thoughts contained within the museum manifested as a small flicker of light within the vast darkness of the Holocaust’s history.

A wreath and plaque commemorating Claus von Stauffenberg who attempted, and failed, to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. He was executed in the courtyard where this wreath is laid.

We learned from a fellow student that German resistance was fated to be a footnote in history of the Third Reich. A resistance that never was, actions against the German state were small, contained, and rather ineffective as a whole against the sheer weight of indoctrination and machinations of a totalitarian state. Many stood on the sidelines as a matter of self-preservation, apathetic to the suffering of their fellow humans, but the Resistance Museum is dedicated to those who fought back in whatever manner they could. Walking through the exhibits and reading the individual stories was almost invigorating in a sense. The tar-like dread that covered one’s soul felt a small bit lighter after reading these people’s exploits and just how many lives they saved doing so.

Almost all of their stories ended in tragedy, though. Few escaped the wrath of the Gestapo, and the debilitating fear of their reprisals frightened most Germans into apathy or compliance. I have generally softened my heart to those who remain on the sidelines in revolutionary conflicts, but cooperation with the Nazi regime is an omnipresent demon that the German people must contend with. I only pray I am never put I such a situation like that.

We also learned a great deal about how the German people remember and commemorate the war in the face of such a dark history. It’s understandable that the resistance museum has become a beacon of commemoration, even bringing the nation’s Prime Minister in a yearly ceremony to remember the men that tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. We won’t be here to see the event take place, but it does bring some amount of comfort that the German people still keep the events of the Second World War in their hearts and minds as they look towards the future.

An interpretive statue in the same courtyard as the wreath. The statue’s nudity and tied hands can be interpreted as laying oneself bare before God before execution.

It has been a reckoning of the soul to experience the history of the Holocaust in Berlin, but I am grateful to the very core of my being that I had the opportunity to learn, first-hand, all that I have from this study abroad. My deepest and most heartfelt thanks go out to every person who gave me this opportunity to study abroad in Europe. I hope you all carry some small measure of pride in creating this opportunity of learning and enlightenment for us on this tour.

War and Remembrance in Belgium


Remains of the Easy Company Foxholes

It was a short but wonderful jaunt through Belgium towards Germany on the last leg of our history trip, but I’m really glad we made time to stop here. Situated on a hill overlooking the town of Bastogne was an incredible Belgian museum as well as a touching memorial dedicated to the American soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. We also made an unplanned visit to some of the preserved foxholes of Easy Company from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Truth be told, they were just humble dents in the ground, but these foxholes were still a physical legacy from the fighting that engulfed this region and that merits some amount of introspection.

Remains of an American tank damaged in the fighting over Bastogne.

In the museum we were treated to a general timeline of the war as it played out in Europe. What immediately impressed me was how the curator chose to narrate the history through the voices of four different characters, two Belgian citizens and two soldiers – one US and one German. It gave a great personal touch to the exhibits, especially when it was revealed that the characters and narrated events were actually real. I found a much more emotionally stimulating experience in this museum than others, but the final exhibit was the highlight of Bastogne to me. For the war’s 75th anniversary, able veterans made their way back to Bastogne to pose for a portrait and give a small interview. I only wish I had remembered to take some photographs of the exhibit for the blog, but it was a truly moving gallery and one I will remember.

A memorial to the 101st Airborne Division who made up half of the town’s 22,000 defenders.

The imposing memorial just beyond the museum was also a show of the overwhelming gratitude of the Belgian people. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Bomber Command memorial in London, but it pales in comparison to the Bastogne monument in scale and commitment to dedication, at least in my eyes. The sheer gratitude towards the American servicemen who fought in Belgium initially caught me off guard, but it was awe-inspiring to see. The humility and gratitude of the Belgian people have been a fascinating cultural tone to see and experience here in Bastogne.

Remembering France Through Occupation, Liberation, and Collaboration

This last week traveling throughout the Norman countryside has been another extraordinary adventure in our tour through history. Our journeys led us through some of the first crucial battles in the Allied liberation of Europe with Utah and Omaha Beaches as well as other locations like Hill 314 and St. Mere Église. Caen also hosted a phenomenal museum dedicated to the war overall with a unique perspective of its own. Just like how the British sites told the story of the British point of view, the French perspective is keenly felt throughout the Memorial de Caen.

Our professors explained to us that the museum was built to showcase the darker facets of war, particularly its human cost to both soldiers and civilians. After some thought, I wasn’t too surprised that the French people decided to focus on such a perspective. The military campaign against Germany was shockingly quick whereas their occupation lasted years. A bloody and intense fight for liberation left its own scars on the land and had a profound effect on the cultural spirit of the French people. And to give them credit, I think this is showcased well in the memorial.

Aerial photograph of the bombing of Caen.

This message is shown even in the details of the museum’s location. Caen was bombed thoroughly during the war and over 70% of the city was reduced to rubble. To build a museum meant to commemorate the price of peace upon the ashes of your own broken city is one of the most poignant and personal messages I can think of. The museum also hosted some thought-provoking pieces about different facets of the war. It’s no surprise that they covered much of the humanitarian tragedies of the Nazi regime such as the deportation of Jews, concentration camps, and a fair bit about France dealing with the Nazi occupation and its associated evils.


Bust of Philippe Pétain, leader of Vichy France. Below is the Statut des Juifs.

Tucked in a small corner though was a piece of their own dark legacy with the Statut des Juifs, France’s own Nuremburg laws, that relegated its Jewish population as second-class citizens and was an important stepping stone for their deportation and death in the extermination camps. It’s a hard thing to reckon with the evils of one’s past, but relegating such an important document into a small corner about Vichy France feels almost dismissive of its weight and impact. There was also much talk about the bombing of France by Allied bombers, and it’s another fantastic example of France’s perspective bleeding into their works. We understood the cost of the bombing campaign and its necessity, but the death of their own countrymen was a tragedy personal enough to memorialize.

An anti-Semitic poster depicting Jewish caricatures rallying behind Charles De Gaulle. The red lettering reads “The Micro General, Quartermaster of the Jews”

It’s also evident that the builders intended to cover more than just the Holocaust and the occupation. Exhibits about the Siege of Leningrad, the Nanking Massacre, and even the atomic bomb showed how the war touched every corner of the world. The Holocaust is often shown as the pinnacle of human tragedy in the war, and rightly so in so many cases, but it is almost comforting that these other events do not go unnoticed in a museum dedicated to peace. And for the most part I think that the museum does a fine job exploring this subject. The people of France certainly don’t have a monopoly on the suffering of the war, but they do have their own special stories to tell at the hands of both friend and foe here in Caen.

The “People’s War” in Great Britain

The first part of our study brought us to London with its myriad museums, memorials, and other historical sites to study Britain’s history as it relates to World War II. But more than just their history, we also had the unique opportunity to understand the war from their perspective and how it is taught to the public today. One fascinating example came to mind while I was touring the Imperial War Museum exhibit about the defeat of France. I characterized Britain’s predicament as one of solitude and loneliness as they fought against the German army alone. But the British people were never alone. The museum showcased Indian, African, Canadian, and other colonial militaries that illustrate the Empire’s reach and diversity. The museum also showcased different recruitment posters from around the empire, which attempted to convey a sense of responsibility and duty towards the Commonwealth. Other views of the people, such as their “business as usual” attitude, came through as well. Part of an exhibit showcased quotes from civilians who lived through the Blitz, and it conveyed well their ability to keep moving under the pressures of war, although the disparaging quotes and some of the people’s unease towards the war was informative too and provided a counterargument to my views, a vocal human one no less.


Another enlightening aspect of the British museums, and almost an antithesis to American storytelling, was the focus on the populace and their struggle as an entire nation. The British portrayal throughout all of the historical sites was one of unity as every citizen played their part in the war. There was, of course, the military personnel who played their vital roles, but monuments like the Bomber Command memorial showcase the airmen’s sacrifice as a duty towards the country, not as a military conquest of an enemy. In the same vein, Bletchley Park’s 9,500 inhabitants worked around the clock crammed into huts to decode thousands of messages a day for the war effort. The Cabinet War Rooms also showcased this solidarity. Staff would evacuate underground in the war room to continue guiding the country and the war effort in the same devoted fashion as those in Bletchley Park. The “Peoples War” in Britain was alive and well in every facet of society, and the historical sites in London give me an unparalleled window into the hearts and minds of the British people as they look back on their country’s history.