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.

The Inter-German Border: Living Divided

Entering the final leg of our program, we left France for Belgium and Germany to explore their perspectives on the war. While this class focuses on World War II, it is essential to look at the war’s aftermath, particularly on Germany and its people.

As World War II ended, despite being allies, the United States and the Soviet Union distrusted one another. The defeat of Germany opened debates about what would happen to Europe in the post-war period, especially the future of a Nazi-free Germany. To answer the German question, the Allies divided Germany into allied sectors at the Potsdam Conference. This solution was supposed to be temporary; however, it lasted for forty years.

When Nazi Germany collapsed, a vacuum of power ensued. The United States, as a global economic power and the world’s leading democracy, wanted to create a democratic, capitalist Germany. In contrast, the Soviet Union wanted to create an authoritarian, socialist Germany. By 1950, it was apparent that there would be no unified Germany any time soon as the United States and the USSR could not compromise. As a result, the Inter-German border was established to separate the east and west. Berlin was likewise bisected, affecting the free movement to civilians.

A torch is signifying freedom at Point Alpha.

The Point Alpha Memorial does a great job of discussing the military and civilian life in Germany during the Cold War. Our guide Arthur Hahn, having lived through the Cold War, offered a personal take on the history of the period while informing us of the day-to-day lives of those in each part of Germany. Explaining the creation of a border for population control, Hahn discussed the drastic measures East Germany would take to avoid escapees. From weapons triggered by tripwires to landmines and dogs, the East German border service had towers lined up to observe and prevent civilians crossing the border into West Germany. The measures were so strict that he told us about his father being unable to visit his family on the other side of the Iron Curtain – something I could not imagine today.

When discussing living in West Germany, Hahn mentioned that he never believed the Iron Curtain would come down. West Germany gained an increased American presence with the creation of NATO, and the United States sent armored cavalry regiments to the border to detect threats from the Warsaw Pact. I was surprised when Hahn explained that he felt safe and that West Germany had a very friendly relationship with the Americans. He threw in fun little details about how children would play in the woods and befriend the Americans for things that were hard to come by, like chocolate. He also mentioned sharing his first beer and cigarettes with American soldiers!

While America offered relief measures such as the Marshall Plan to West Germany, the East grew impoverished. Hahn shared the story of two men seeking opportunities in the West who tried to cross the walled border on Christmas Eve. One was killed, and the other was shot in the legs and left in no-man’s land until the next afternoon. Unfortunately, the one who was shot would be detained and face the amputation of his legs. As a result, those on the border in the West would hold a ceremony every Christmas Eve – something Hahn said he participated in when he was young.

A Soviet Union Tower from East Germany.

Aside from the West German perspective, I enjoyed having the American perspective from both the museum and the personal experience from Professor Mansoor, who served on the border as a captain in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. I did not realize how many fewer control measures were established on the western side – especially the number of towers. Professor Mansoor clarified that the American Army’s goal was to identify potential military attacks, not to act as border patrol, hence the lack of towers compared to the number on the eastern side. I also found the significance of the placement of the American flag at Point Alpha to be fascinating. The American flag is observed to be hovering over the ground and not planted into it. From the tour, I learned that this was because the Americans were not there to occupy Germany but to defend it.

American flag hovering over the ground at Point Alpha.

As I left Point Alpha, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to live in the United States and in a time of relative peace. The isolation from my family, especially my sick grandfather during the pandemic, is as close as I can get to feeling the German families’ separation from one another. The lost opportunities I faced now seem minute compared to the restricted lives of the East Germans under Soviet control. Again, visiting the sites of history has humbled me beyond measure, and I could not be more thankful for the opportunity to explore them.

Cemeteries in Normandy: How We Remember Those Who Gave the Ultimate Sacrifice

The next stop in our journey was a little town named Bayeux, where we visited sites corresponding to the invasion of Normandy, including Utah and Omaha Beaches. While these sites were interesting, I found how each nation buried its dead to be the most compelling and emotion provoking aspect of Normandy.

How the cemeteries addressed how to bury those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Normandy invasions are vastly different. The difference between the Allies buried on French soil versus the burial of the enemy fallen on Allied ground is notable. However, each cemetery had the goal of remembering the lives that were lost. Coincidentally, it rained at every cemetery I visited, which felt like I was experiencing the weeping of those who lost their son, husband, or father in war – making me reflect and be thankful for what I have and those who have served.

The first cemetery we visited was the Commonwealth Cemetery in Bayeux. Unlike the other cemeteries, this cemetery housed thousands of British graves and Soviet, Polish, and other Allies’ graves. The cemetery also housed a few hundred German graves, which was shocking to me.

I thought the Commonwealth Cemetery portrayed a warm feeling. White marble headstones were personalized with different scriptures and quotes. Flowers adorned the front of the headstones, adding vibrance and a feeling of the resilience of those who continued without them. The lack of uniformity made me feel like I was looking at individuals with different personalities and lives. The layout of the cemetery, being in ranks, did offer a sense of camaraderie. Although they were individuals, they stood and fell together, fighting for their country.

This cemetery was also the first on my trip to answer the question of how we should commemorate enemy dead. German graves were lined with somber stone headstones with a name, the German symbol, and not an ounce of personality. While there were flowers on these graves, it is apparent in the material alone as to whose graves were to receive more dignity – the victors.

The rows of graves at the British Cemetery.

The German Cemetery at La Cambe continues to answer the question of commemoration of Wehrmacht dead but in terms of an entire cemetery. Being buried in allied land, the cemetery designers had to be careful not to memorialize Nazism but to give a resting ground to fellow humans – however, elements of this cemetery air on the controversial side as the goal is to not associate religion with the beliefs of the Nazi Party and Hitler. Two elements that stick out as possible associations with Christianity are the sets of five crosses in a row and the statues of a man and woman at the top of a hill. The architects argued that the crosses are not Christian but rather German, and the statues on the hill, which look like Mary and Joseph, and rather German parents grieving for their lost sons.

Aside from the controversy, this cemetery did a great job meeting the fine line between glory and disrespect in a solemn atmosphere. While not glorifying the Germans, the cemetery offered a respectful resting ground for those who had lost their lives for a cause in which they may or may not have believed. Something I found surprising was that the graves were two or more people deep. This takes out the space to add any additional information to the headstones, removing the sense of individualism.


The German Cemetery with sets of five German crosses lining the grounds.

The last cemetery we visited was the American Military Cemetery in Coleville sur Mer, established and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Growing up as an Army Brat, I have attended my fair share of military funeral ceremonies and cemeteries. The American Cemetery in Normandy exudes the same general feeling of those in the United States: heroism and glory to the fallen. The cemetery was rather extravagant, with red paths into fields of green and perfect formations of pure white marble headstones. Row after row, column after column, great pride is taken into the cemetery’s upkeep. I mentioned to one of my classmates that I almost forgot that I was in France due to the surroundings making me feel as if I were home.

Compared to the previous cemeteries, the American Cemetery portrays the feeling of bravery as a giant bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” overlooks the thousands of graves, representing the unconquerable spirit of the men who served. The purity of these young men is displayed through the cleanliness of the cemetery and the crisp white accents. Comradery is displayed through the perfect ranks of graves and the placing of dozens of brothers and sons and fathers together. It meant a lot to me that I could connect with those buried as I got to place a flag on a Buckeye who was in the 101st Airborne Division, the same unit in which my father served.

After seeing the lines of graves and hearing of the twins (I am a twin, so this resonated with me) who enlisted, died, and were buried together, the American Cemetery put the losses we amassed during the war into perspective. Unfortunately, the young men had lives ahead of them and did not make it past Normandy. As a result, I reflected on those in my life and how thankful I am for their service and company, knowing that tomorrow is uncertain.

The “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” statue at the American Cemetery.

Bletchley Park: Codebreaking and the War Effort

Bletchley Park was by far my favorite location in London. As someone studying engineering with a passion for history, I enjoyed expanding my knowledge of Alan Turing and those who worked with him at Bletchley Park.

Having learned of Ultra’s importance and selectivity, I imagined the Bletchley Park operation to be relatively small and capable of operating in a single building. The site, however, comprised more than 9,500 individuals. Operations started in a singular mansion that became cramped over time, forcing the creation of specialized huts that were not allowed to communicate with each other about the other’s discoveries.

Of the nine thousand personnel, one of the most widely talked about throughout history is Alan Turing. While the museum focused on World War II and the importance of the codebreakers, it also delved into the importance of the technologies that came from these operations and their implications for the modern world. From history classes, we learn that Alan Turing was a key figure in breaking the Enigma Code. On the other hand, the museum dives deeper into his life, giving audiences a story of a boy who grew up extremely intelligent, his contributions to breaking the Enigma cipher, his work to establish the basis for modern computer science, and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the end of his life. As an engineering student, seeing the root of many principles I learned in my classes from Turing was fascinating.

As the head of Hut 8, Turing worked with decrypting the German naval Enigma and designed the notorious Bombe machine. Turing’s Bombe machine aided in hastening the process of decoding the Enigma. Following this famous feat in the war, Turing designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and moved to the University of Manchester as a Deputy Director of the Computing Company. In Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Turing outlined the basics of artificial intelligence through the “imitation game,” however, it is now much more commonly known as the “Turing Test.” Turing is now considered one of the fathers of computer science, and because of this, I believe that Turing’s work with artificial intelligence will overshadow his codebreaking work.

I was impressed that the museum covered Turing’s achievements and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his treatment after the war. The museum revealed that Turing was a homosexual, a criminal offense in 1941. He proposed to a fellow cryptanalyst Joan Clarke but broke it off, wanting to give her a chance at a successful marriage. In 1952, Turing started dating a young Arnold Murray, and his house was then broken into. Having to explain to the police the situation, his sexuality was revealed, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” Pleading guilty in March 1952, he was given the choice of probation with hormonal treatment, or imprisonment-he chose the probation. In 1954, Turing was found dead of cyanide poisoning.

A statue memorializing Alan Turing.

One notable story I have never heard was presented as a film in one of the Huts. Pinching, or stealing, was crucial to gaining information to crack the Enigma cipher, especially operations against German U-boats. Two British soldiers dove after a sinking German U-boat to steal critical naval Enigma keys and pass them to a fellow soldier at the surface. These keys aided Bletchley Park in breaking the new German naval Enigma. However, the two soldiers sunk with the U-boat and were posthumously awarded the George Medal.

The memorial to the Polish who aided in cracking the Enigma Code.

As with all the sites I have visited in London, credit is given where credit is due. While Bletchley Park did much of the codebreaking and intelligence work, the site credited the Polish via a plaque shaped like a large open book. Inscribed on the left page of the book states, “This plaque commemorates the work of…mathematicians of the Polish Intelligence Service in first breaking the Enigma Code.” Following this, the plaque states that their contribution led to the Allied victory in the war. Through this memorial, the British humbly admit that the Enigma Code could have taken longer to break without their assistance, possibly altering the Allies’ success in the war.  Credit is also given to the German SG-41, a cipher machine made in 1944 that defeated the code breakers. The war, however, ended before this could cause any problems.


The SG-41, an encryption machine that defeated those at Bletchley Park. Thankfully, the war ended shortly after its production.

Overall, I found Bletchley Park to be incredibly fascinating and informative. When looking at war, we tend to focus on the people on the frontlines, but Bletchley Park focuses on those impacting the war behind the scenes through intelligence. I was in awe of the work done by the over nine thousand men and women, and I feel that without their work, the Allies’ course of victory would have been delayed.