Courage In The Face Of Terror

Our time in Berlin as well as being together as Buckeyes touring Europe is at an end and I have been thankful not only to travel with my fellow students but also to travel with my friends. I have come to enjoy the company of so many who think and interpret history in a way that I do not. It has been refreshing to do “debriefs” after we tour a museum or see a sight and listen to one another. Here in Berlin, we have visited a host of museums and sites dedicated to remembering Nazi atrocities and how they had nearly the entire population swept up in hatred and contempt for anyone deemed “other.”  I have constantly been overwhelmed with emotion as we visited these areas, and mostly filled with a mixture of contempt for those who started this and to those who let it continue on. I have felt deep sadness and dread at the cost of human life and at seeing the cruelty that man can do to fellow man. Learning it firsthand at the actual locations of what took place made it powerful in ways I did not expect. I found this to be more moving than any text I have read, any movie or documentary I have watched or any photo I have seen. As I spoke about in my last blog, the weight of history is all around us and nowhere else has it been so potent and moving and all I could think of is how could anyone let this go on. I felt heavy with this on my shoulders, even though we are some eighty years removed from the Nazi era and even though my only connection to the war is that both of my grandfathers fought in the Army in the push through Europe.  

The Bendlerblock area is rather plain and unadorned; if you did not know where you were going you would stroll by and assume it was just another block of office buildings.  Yet inside, the truth of Germany’s past is laid out, the good and the evil from their time under the Nazi banner. Upon visiting the German Resistance Museum, you must pass through the courtyard where a statue and a plaque are dedicated to the memory of the officers executed here on the night of July 20, 1944 after their failed attempt to kill Hitler. When you walk into the first floor of the museum you are hit immediately with the staggering cost of Nazi ideology. In plain, bold text they have the sum total painted onto the wall, thirteen million men and women. Thirteen million souls snuffed out in the darkness that was the Nazi regime. Six million of them were Jewish, the other seven million composed of anyone the Nazi state decreed wasn’t fit to live, including political prisoners, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, church members and Roma and Sinti peoples, and many other subsets of people defined on ethnic lines. This staggering number–the weight of all those lives that never got to be lived out in full–is the cost of Nazi German ideology. 

Yet, in the blackness of Nazi oppression there was some light, as there were people from a host of different backgrounds who did not trade their moral standings for public conformity. I found each and every one of their stories deeply touching on a human level, as many of them had been willing to risk their lives in an effort to save just one person. Those who followed their moral compass did what they could, as they could in the face of darkness. My earlier feelings of contempt and anger softened, as I did not know the extent of this before visiting the German Resistance Museum, but became thankful to see the scattered accounts of light and to know that in times of great evil, some men and women will stand against it even at cost to themselves. I am glad that we made time to stop here, to read and reflect on the stories, because it  allowed me to grow past my first wave of feelings and develop empathy for those living in such conditions that I hope to never know.

While touring the sites of remembrance, these words, from Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, stuck with me: “We cannot understand, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.” It is now more important than ever to stand in solidarity with all peoples who face targeted attacks from hate groups, and to remain watchful of those who would attempt to unite the many against the few. I will carry with me from this experience a renewed sense of compassion and empathy, not only for the victims but for those who would risk all in order to help. This trip to Berlin has affirmed to me that even in the darkest of times, light will still shine through.

Following In Their Footsteps

As we said “Au Revoir” to Paris and headed East to Bastogne and the Ardennes forest, my mind began to wonder how this area must have looked to the Allies as they made their push onwards to Germany to stamp out the last of the Nazi German resistance. On the drive into Bastogne, I couldn’t help but notice that this area of Belgium that lay sandwiched between France and Germany is beautiful, with rolling hills, dense forest, and winding roads, making me think I was on summer holiday, that I was about to engage in a week of camping fun rather than visit the town of Bastogne and pay my respects to the bloodiest battle in the history of the Army. The Battle of the Bulge was fought among those very woods and hills; the picturesque landscape I had enjoyed seeing was once the killing grounds for the Allied and Nazi forces alike. That was sobering to think about as I looked out onto the hills.

I will not dwell on the museum too much that we visited in Bastogne, though it was informative and tastefully done with a theme based on four, interconnected, true stories of people who experienced the battle (an American soldier, a German soldier, a Belgian schoolteacher, and a Belgian child). The part of the museum that I found most impactful was a remote, outdoor annex about 4 kilometers from the main museum. Visiting that site revealed powerfully to me just how hard the conditions were for the American soldiers who repulsed the last gasp German offensive and how they effectively turned the attacking Germans into a retreating force. It was the post museum trip to the original 101st Airborne foxholes in the forest outside the city of Bastogne that the weight of history really settled upon my shoulders. We visited the foxholes on a bright and sunny day, the temp was hovering at about 63 with the wind blowing softly as we walked in the dense forest shade, and I was absolutely freezing even with my jacket and hoodie on, in the month of May no less. Staring at the foxholes and feeling how the wind cut right through me on the top of that knoll made me reflect on the misery that the men of the 101st and other units must have suffered in the depths of December with temps as low as -15, without winter uniforms or hot food. The men who defended Bastogne answered the call, bore their misery with as much stamina as they could muster, with a good amount of gripes thrown in (I imagine that they used language our mothers would not have approved of), yet still they held the line and repulsed the Nazis, holding steadfast in the face of adversity. I walked away with newfound respect and awe for all the stories I had read about the battle and the conditions it was fought in and I worked to keep that in mind as we headed out for Remagen the very next day.

​ The city of Remagen is tucked into the hillsides that dip and dive around the Rhine River. If I had had no contextual knowledge of the battle fought here (the one in which the U.S. Army captured its first bridge across the Rhine and used it to drive deep into Germany), I would have seen Remagen as nothing more than a beautiful travel destination. During World War II, the Ludendorff Bridge spanned the Rhine River and though it was not in the most ideal location for an American crossing of the river, it was a bridge and it was intact and that was enough reason for the Allies to capture it. German attempts to blow the bridge failed and all their counterattacks to repel the American forces were defeated.  The first American soldier to cross the Rhine was Sgt. Drabik, who ran the span of the bridge head under fire, reached bomb craters on the eastern side, and drove off German counter-attackers long enough for his comrades to join him. This small story brings me immense pride, because he was a northwest Ohio native just as I am!

After we had visited the museum, I walked along the riverfront biking and walking path and just really started to soak in just how hard it would have been back then to capture the Ludendorff Bridge, ford the river, or install temporary pontoon bridges . I could see that the Rhine is wide, swift, and deep; I could imagine the stout German defenses including threat of V-2 rocket attacks; and I could thus feel the immense stress the G.Is must have felt. Reading over how the bridge was taken as well as being able to take in the sights for myself and once again feel the weight of history in this location gave me a strong feel for what it must have been like over 80 years ago. On this trip I have been filled with thanks and gratitude for those that had come before and once again I reflect in awe at those men who did the impossible and made the superhuman just a regular part of their lives.

​Ultimately, being able to visit these locations has added a dimension to my knowledge that reading about and seeing photos of the sites does not provide.  To stand among the trees in Belgium or gaze to the distant other shore of the Rhine puts into perspective just how much logistical difficulty the war presented. I feel as if I have a much larger appreciation for the adversity everyone experienced, that went beyond fighting a determined enemy, and included battling the terrain around them. As we leave this area behind us on our push into Berlin, I give the entirety of my respect to those who had to endure bitter cold, muddy hillsides, and raging rivers to carry on and bring the war to a close.


How We Grapple With The Past.

We as a class have finished our last day here in Normandy, France in the small town of Bayeux, and I have been immensely thankful to have eaten many good meals, sipped some of the finest coffee I’ve ever had, and sampled more pastries than I care to admit. I would love to go on praising the fine French food and the many wonderful sites I’ve seen, but this isn’t a foodie or a travel blog, this is a blog dedicated to history. So now I’ll pivot to the real reason we are here, and that is to discuss the impact of the historical areas we have seen, how they have made us feel and what we can take from these sites after we are gone. For the focus of this post, I have been mulling over just how a nation remembers and confronts their past–no matter what it may have involved.

​When reading about life in Occupied France and under the control of the Vichy government, one often hears about the French Resistance, how seemingly every man and woman resisted in some way and contributed to the overall fight to free their nation. We read countless stories about their bravery, acts of sacrifice, and pivotal roles in overthrowing Nazi occupation of their country, and how they helped to bring down the Vichy government. This mindset is backed up by the many displays we saw in the Caen Memorial Museum, which speaks of their established history with the British SOE and how they helped facilitate the dismantling of the French railway system. Statues also cropped up in the small towns we would pass through in our travels. Great praise of the Resistance was expressed in the Airborne Museum, highlighting how, after receiving their activation phrase, resistance fighters had “risen up in their multitudes to bring about the end of the Nazi oppression”. The airborne museum struck me as a strange place to sing the glories of the Resistance, because the museum focuses on the U.S. soldiers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and how they led the way in predawn hours of D-Day.

Now please do not mistake me, countless stories of French resistance are true, and many brave French men and women did pay the ultimate price in the pursuit of freedom.  Each time I came across a new accounting of how they did what they could, I was filled with awe and respect for their steel coated souls. I am moved by how, with limited arms, they harassed the Germans in an effort to  take an active role in their own liberation. 

Yet, the vast majority did not join the Resistance, nor did they participate in any acts of resistance such as passing out leaflets or sabotaging arms manufacturing. Many adopted a “wait and see” approach, while some chose outright collaboration and welcoming of Nazi rule and occupation. Reading the plaques and the museum accounts of the French resistance that have been peppered in generously while seeing little to no mention of their collaboration or indifference has been a running contradiction of what I’ve learned in my own research and other history courses I’ve taken that touch on the Resistance movement. This experience has led me to question just how do we as a nation remember, how do we come to terms with the portions of our histories that we would rather not deal with?

It seems that in order to bolster national unity and soothe the pride wounded by a crushing defeat, France has elected to praise the Resistance and to highlight it as the focus of their reimagining and retelling of the events, and to downplay the actions of those who collaborated and worked willingly with the Occupation. 

​I make this observation with humility, because I have never had to live under an occupation and I pray that I never have to. And yet I sense that what I have observed about French historical memory will stay with me long after I leave Normandy, and I will ponder just how we Americans reckon with our own past, especially the painful parts of it. I will continue to mull over this question, to seek out those smarter than me, to ask them their thoughts, and to ponder deeply why we recall and celebrate some parts of our history and deny or forget other parts.


An American’s Perspective On British Remembrance

Our three days in London touring sites related to World War II has been a powerful experience for me and has led to a lot of introspection. Our visits to the Churchill War Rooms, the Imperial War Museum, the Bomber Command Memorial, and Bletchley Park have been nothing short of amazing. I have been consistently thankful to be a part of such a trip with my fellow students and friends.

Each site we have visited was filled with artifacts and mementos of the war, captured war trophies, memorials to those who paid the ultimate price in the line of duty, and even some displays dedicated to the homefront such as warning posters about blackout regulations and issued sugar and meat ration booklets. Yet what has struck me and stayed with me long after I have left the museums and gone about my day, sightseeing and enjoying some fish and chips, is the constant mention of the sacrifices that the nation had to make, and the declarations that although times were bleak, the British Empire would pull upon interconnected threads of togetherness. While touring the Imperial War Museum this came across. I repeatedly read the refrain that Britain would never stand alone–that even when France fell, Britain could lean on the bonds of the Empire to stand firm against the tyranny that had been unleashed upon Europe.

While touring, I had expected to read tales of dashing heroes committing acts of bravery in the war, to see the war remembered as their ultimate triumph and not to see mention of hardship. I had expected to read bragging and bombastic reports of how the British had struck back at Hitler and the Nazis with extreme force, of how victory was never in doubt no matter the odds. I had expected more bravado, something more in line with what I have seen in some museums in America. Sure, the British museums did display plaques mentioning extraordinary wartime deeds done by great men and women, but always the focus came back to the strength of the people and their collective efforts. This sense of humility and modesty came across clearly in most of the displays I saw, and this impact has changed my perception of how war and victories can be commemorated.

This wave of feeling coursed strongly through my tours of all the museums, but came across most clearly while touring Bletchley Park, where some nearly 9,000 British people (and several hundred Americans) gathered for the single purpose of breaking the German and Japanese codes so that Allied intelligence officers could read their secret communications. The museum clearly depicts how these people solved the incredibly complicated mathematical puzzles needed to decipher the German Enigma code. By reading and listening to the personal recollections of those involved in monumental effort, I came to appreciate the complexity and importance of their work. I came to admire the remarkable accomplishments of the math genius Alan Turing, but also the heroic contributions of the everyday men and women who had served under this mission and did so without praise or laurels.

Ultimately, I will leave London with a greater appreciation for the efforts of not just the soldiers, sailors, and other active-duty service members, but with a deeper respect for and appreciation of those on the home front, those in the un-sung and un-praised roles.  While the stories of brave heroes and charismatic leaders are fun to read, the contributions of those behind the scenes drove the ultimate victory over Hitler and the Nazis.