Germany’s Dark Past

The final leg of our trip takes us to Berlin. By now, I have heard from both professors and a student that we have saved the best for last. As we ride the bus towards the German capital, I begin to wonder what the city will be like. Eighty years ago, it was the heart of the Third Reich, where Adolf Hitler believed he would lead Germany to imperial greatness, once again. Now, it is a city with a massive responsibility to never forget what happened. How would the city portray itself? Would it ask for forgiveness? Or would it completely disassociate itself from those who were in charge?

As our itinerary focuses on the military history of World War II, I was glad to learn that we would have the opportunity to visit the site of a former concentration camp on our first day in Berlin. The Sachsenhausen concentration camp is located forty minutes north of the city. Opened in 1936, it originally imprisoned political opponents of the Nazi regime. Later, Jews, homosexuals, and the so-called racially “inferior” would be added to the camp. Prisoners had their heads shaved, formed for roll call three times a day, and slept in overcrowded conditions. 50,000 were killed at Sachsenhausen and, after it was liberated in 1945, it was used as a special prison camp by the Soviets.

Gate entrance to Sachsenhausen. “Work sets you free.”

Sachsenhausen washroom

On Monday, we took a walking tour of Berlin that brought us to several sites around the city. Traveling on foot allowed us to see exactly where the Berlin Wall stood, as well as remnant sections of the wall. Our first designated stop was the Memorial to German Resistance. The memorial is located at the Bendler Block, where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and other members of the German army planned an assassination of Hitler and a coup d’état. After their coup failed, Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were executed in the courtyard of the building. Today, the German population honors Stauffenberg and his team for their resistance, and the Chancellor of Germany places a wreath at the memorial each year. I cannot quite comprehend the courage it must have taken to attempt an assassination of Hitler and gain control of the Nazi government to salvage what was left of Germany. A small museum accompanies the memorial and shines more light on those who resisted the Nazi regime while living in Germany.

Wreath at German Resistance Memorial Center

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left)

We made a stop at the Soviet War Memorial, where we learned it was quickly erected by the Soviet after the capture of Berlin in 1945. Due to the final treaty detailing the settlement of Germany in the early 1990s, the German government must maintain the memorial and consult Russia before making any changes to it. Afterwards, we visited the location of Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide with his wife on April 30th, 1945. Nowadays, the site is an ordinary parking lot, surrounded by apartments and a tea shop. Its low visibility is intentionally purposed, so as not to memorialize the dictator’s place of death.

The Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten. It commemorates Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin and was built in November 1945

Underneath this parking lot was once Adolf Hitler’s bunker

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located right outside of the Tiergarten, close to downtown Berlin. It consists of 2,711 concrete stela arranged in a grid pattern that get increasingly taller as one walks towards the middle of the memorial. I am not the first person to find this memorial to be quite underwhelming. Earlier this semester, our class even discussed an article that criticized it. Surely, the two thousand slabs of concrete will catch one’s eye, but there is nothing that explains what one is looking at. Three of its four sides are noisy, busy streets and the upkeep of the site was lacking, in my opinion. I have noticed that a lot of memorials in Europe rely on interpretation, instead of a clear message. Supposedly, the design of the taller concrete slabs is to make the observer feel disoriented and claustrophobic. I understand art is subjective and meant to be interpreted, but a site intended to remember 6 million murdered people should not be up for interpretation, in my opinion. Several of my classmates appreciated the subjectivity of the memorial, as the designer probably wanted to stoke conversation. However, I find it hard to understand why one would want to encourage debate at a memorial site. If the memorial is going to contain an artistic interpretation, the site can at least have a more visible symbol of what the square is dedicated to. I just do not believe average visitors are being reminded of the Holocaust as they pass the memorial on the sidewalk. In addition to the debate surrounding this memorial, it was only created in 2003. Some would ask why it took so long for Germany to dedicate a block of their city to the Holocaust.

The view of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, from the northwest

Our day concluded with a visit to the Topography of Terror Museum, which used to be the headquarters of the Nazi SS, the terrorizing paramilitary organization under Heinrich Himmler.

On Tuesday, we left Berlin again, for Wannsee and Potsdam. Wannsee is a suburban borough of Berlin where the Wannsee Conference took place in 1942. Located in a lakeside villa, the Conference was where senior Nazi leaders and other government officials met to discuss the Final Solution. It was eerie to tour the former villa, now a museum and memorial, where the decision was made to officially commit mass murder against the Jews.

To wrap up our trip, we toured the Cecilienhof Palace, which was the venue of the Potsdam Conference, and stopped at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, where African American and Ohio State Buckeye Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, in front of Adolf Hitler.

This street outside of the Olympiastadion was renamed in honor of Owens in 1984. Go Buckeyes









Entering Deutschland

After five days in Normandy, and a quick two days in Paris, our group headed east for Bastogne. As we crossed the Belgian border, the scenery outside of our bus window became more densely filled with the tall, thick trees that make up the Ardennes Forest. Bastogne, Belgium sits close to the Luxembourg border in the southwest region of the country and has a population of fifteen thousand. Liberated by the Allies in September 1944, it was the central focus of Germany’s last major offensive operation of the war in December 1944. Known now as The Battle of the Bulge, it lasted five weeks, until the end of January 1945, and exposed all troops to intense combat in subzero temperatures. After the Nazis’ counterattack failed, their military was in retreat to Berlin until the end of the war in May 1945.

The town of Bastogne had a deep appreciation for the Americans who defended it during the winter siege. Their town square featured the bust of General Anthony McAuliffe, who was the acting commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Division. When asked by the Germans to surrender Bastogne, he simply replied with, “Nuts!” Bastogne also featured several shops and bars playing with the “Nuts!” phrase. The Bastogne War Museum is located just outside of town and commemorates the impact of the Americans successfully defending the town. Inside this museum, I made a few comparisons to what our group had seen previously. First, the translations in the exhibits now included German, most likely because we were getting closer to the German border. How would this museum depict Nazi Germany with many of its patrons being from the nearby Deutschland? Second, the museum did not ignore Belgium’s complete history during the war, in which a portion of the population collaborated with the occupying Nazis. Collaboration seemed to be glossed over in museums in France, with more attention focusing on the French Resistance. Lastly, as one tours the museum and learns about the five-week battle, one is offered four different perspectives from nonfictional characters: Emile Mostade, a thirteen-year-old boy who plays the accordion, Mathilde Devillers, a Bastogne native schoolteacher, Hans Wegmüller, a German lieutenant, and Robert Keane, a corporal in the 101st Airborne. Using the audio guide, one can hear each person’s depiction of the events through four voice actors. Each perspective adds more of the human element to the war. This was the first museum to offer a German soldier’s perspective. After visiting the museum, we visited a sector of the Ardennes Forest that Easy Company (101st/506th) occupied. It was fascinating to see their foxholes still dug into the ground.

Bastogne’s city square

The Battle of the Bulge Memorial, in Bastogne. A bird’s eye view from the top reveals its made in the shape of a star

M4 Sherman Tank inside the Bastogne War Museum. Clearly damaged by enemy fire, a massive hole has been ripped into its side.

Fighting hole dug by Easy Company (101st/506th) in the defense of Bastogne. A foxhole allows a soldier to use the earth as protection from direct fire and artillery, as well as a position to return fire.

The thick, tall trees of the Ardennes Forest

After Bastogne, we crossed into Germany and stopped in Remagen. The town sits along the River Rhine and was the location of the crucial Ludendorff Bridge. As the Germans retreated in March 1945, Hitler ordered the bridge to be demolished to slow Allied movement, but the Americans arrived to find it, surprisingly, still intact. Many myths surround the failure of the destruction, and include sabotage, bribery, and treason. U.S. troops would eventually capture the bridge, almost guaranteeing the Allies would march on to Berlin. Nazi commanders tried relentlessly to destroy the bridge after it was captured by the Americans but failed continuously. Hitler would essentially order the executions of five German officers who failed to destroy the bridge before and after the Allies captured it.

This picture was taken where the Ludendorff Bridge used to stand. The dark structure on the other side of the Rhine is where it connected before its collapse.

Dining and drinking on the Rhine was a popular activity in Remagen

The Apollinariskirche Catholic church, overlooking the town of Remagen, Germany.

We hit the road the next morning, and to help break up the drive to Berlin, we stopped in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. This town is located near Point Alpha, which was an important U.S. Army observation post during the Cold War. With post-war Germany now split between capitalism and communism, tensions along the West Germany/East Germany border became heightened. As many in East Germany were fleeing to the capitalistic West, the threat of a Soviet invasion also loomed, and Point Alpha was where NATO believed the invasion would begin. Professor Mansoor was stationed at Point Alpha in the late 1980s, and to hear him relive his glory days as a company tank commander was enjoyable.

This tower was used by East Germany’s border police to ensure no citizens were fleeing across the border to the West. If detection by the tower was avoided, one would still have to navigate hungry, aggressive German Sheperds, a minefield, and a fence & wall.

This United States flagpole was placed on the West Germany side of the border, near the observation tower. Note that it is not actually planted in the ground, indicating the United States is not occupying this area, only protecting it.


The Spirit of Normandy

After spending five days in bustling London, it was quite refreshing to experience the coastal area of Normandy, France. The region is filled with beautiful, vast farmland, dotted with cows, sheep, and hedgerows of trees. Even our hotel sat next to a field of grass being tended to by two cows, and a horse veterinarian to our south. It was hard to imagine the brutalities of war encompassing these farms and towns, but in June 1944, the liberation of Europe had to begin, and Normandy was circled on the map.

The town of Bayeux is located a few miles inland from the coast and during World War II, it served as a major intersection for military supply routes. Today, its location provides tourists with a home base within reach of the major Normandy attractions. Bayeux was big enough to have a variety of things to do, with enjoyable café and restaurant options, but small enough to feel hospitable and remain quiet after dark.

The view from our hotel, with Bayeux in the background

Downtown Bayeux

A local watering hole, featuring Tom Brady

It seemed that every town in Normandy had a monument or memorial dedicated to the war, this because this peaceful region of France was the beginning of the end to the Nazi regime. Our visit to Normandy began with a trip to Caen, to visit the Caen Memorial Museum. The memorial featured large boulders, gifted to France from other nations, with peaceful and pro-democratic messages inscribed on them. The museum told the story of the war from the French perspective, in which heavy emphasis was placed on the French Resistance. Afterwards, we visited Abbey d’Ardenne, where twenty Canadian soldiers were executed by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division, which served as another brutal reminder of the twisted immorality of war. I really enjoyed our next stop, at Pegasus Bridge, where the first British boots on the ground kicked off Operation Overlord. Just sixteen minutes into D-Day, British Army Major John Howard and his ninety men landed near the bridge in gliders, and successfully captured the crossing which would provide an exit eastward for the British troops landing at Sword Beach. The first building to be liberated in France was now a small café and souvenir shop, where our class enjoyed a few coffees.

Memorial for Major John Howard, where his glider landed on D-Day

Pegasus Bridge. The flags across the river mark the spots the gliders landed.

The next day brought us to the coastal town of Arromanches. While the few deep-water ports in western Europe were heavily defended by the Germans, Allied naval commanders needed to figure out a new way to provide logistics for Overlord. At Arromanches, they showed their adaptability and innovation by constructing massive floating piers in the channel. A break wall was constructed behind them, allowing ships to dock, unload their equipment and supplies, and depart, while remaining hundreds of yards off the coast. The supplies, along with jeeps, tanks, and other vehicles, could be driven over the floating docks into town. After visiting Arromonches’s theater and museum, we headed back to Bayeux, to walk the first of three cemeteries on our itinerary.

The Bayeux War Cemetery, aka the British War Cemetery, holds the remains of over 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers and 466 German soldiers. The cemetery is meant to honor those who died under the Commonwealth flag while in Normandy, as well as the Germans who died at the nearby Bayeux hospital. The German graves, however, were far less personal and only included dates of birth and death.

Arromanches, where the Allies offloaded tons of equipment and supplies until nearby ports could be secured

British cemetery in Bayeux

The following day, we had the opportunity to visit the church where Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore treated wounded American and German soldiers during the first few days of Operation Overlord. Having studied at The Ohio State University, Robert Moore’s memorial gave our class a sense of connection to the 101st Airborne medic. Afterwards, we walked on Utah Beach, had lunch in Sainte-Mère-Église, and learned about the impacts of the paratroopers at the Airborne Museum.

A bloodstained pew inside the church used by Moore and Wright

Milestone 00 at Utah Beach. The first of many markers used to commemorate the route George Patton’s unit followed. The markers stretch to Belgium.

To end the day, we visited La Cambe German Cemetery. This cemetery is controversial, due to it being the resting place of hundreds of German soldiers who carried out the Nazi agenda. However, there was no security presence at the cemetery, which shows me it cannot be that controversial. As we walked the burial ground, we observed flowers, wreaths, and other tokens placed next to headstones. Among these headstones was an infamous German tank commander responsible for destroying seventeen Allied tanks. The grass in front of his headstone was heavily disturbed, showing a high amount of foot traffic to see his resting place. Realizing this German “panzer ace” was so frequently visited in the cemetery, as well as flowers at his grave, was quite suspicious. Regardless, war is hell, the Allies achieved ultimate victory, and I believe most humans deserve proper burial and a resting place. However, maybe this cemetery would be better located in Germany.

Headstone of German tank commander Michael Wittmann. Someone has placed flowers and the grass is disturbed from many visitations.

Most of us were excited for Friday, where we would make a trip to Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. After taking a group photo, many of us tried our best to comprehend the situation on the beach that morning. It was low tide, similar to when the first wave landed, and the distance from the water to the seawall seemed like a mile. Prior to the beach landings, the bombing runs and naval gunfire meant to soften the target proved ineffective. Now, elevated German machine gun bunkers, aware that the invasion had begun, could wait for the Americans to land on the beach. I felt dangerously exposed while standing on Omaha. As I looked left and right, I noticed the complete lack of cover and concealment. That’s when I realized that it was simply a numbers game. The Germans machine gunners couldn’t target everyone. If the Americans could push enough troops on the beach, some were destined to make it to the seawall. The cost, however, would be 2,400 casualties in a few hours. Understanding and accepting your death, as long as it contributes to the success of the mission, shows no greater act of courage.

Following Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery. Altogether, the site was incredible. The landscaping, architecture, and museum all set a triumphal tone. To honor the twelve Ohio State Buckeyes buried at the site, we read their biographies aloud and placed university flags at their headstones, an activity that completed the connection for us all.

The view at Omaha Beach, today. On D-Day, these hills were lined with German machine gun bunkers that cut down countless American GIs.

The Normandy American Cemetery is the resting ground for 9,387 Americans killed in the Battle of Normandy.

This leg of our trip was personally fulfilling, as well. My grandfather, a Captain in the 101st Airborne Division, was one of the hundreds of soldiers who jumped into France on that early June morning. He would later gather sixty random paratroopers and lead a counterattack on a German defensive position. The opportunity to observe the environment that he entered on D-Day, and walk the streets of his fellow soldiers, was simply incredible. As I type this blog, I still feel my experience in Normandy cannot be described in words. From standing on Omaha beach, to seeing the 9,387 buried at the Normandy American Cemetery, the commemorations were heavy. Our five days in Normandy will most likely be the highlight of my trip.


British Pride & Legacy

On the day our group arrived in London, my first World War II related thought came to me at Russell Square, the train station that would soon become very familiar to us all. The train speaker reminded us to “mind the gap” as we exited the small, cramped train, and I immediately noticed how deep underground the station felt. There was no sign of sunlight, the tunnels were dark, cold, and seemed to stretch forever. This subway system, called The London Underground, aka the Tube, sheltered many London citizens during the relentless German bombing campaign in September 1940. It was surreal to imagine people sleeping on this exact station platform and the tracks down below 83 years ago, while Hitler’s Luftwaffe pounded London from above.

A Tube station in London. Many used these underground stations to shelter from the brutal German bombings.

Our group moved to the station’s stairs, where we climbed a few flights, only to be greeted by a pack of Londoners waiting for a lift (elevator) that would bring them up to street level. We were, in fact, far below ground. As we emerged from the station, I took in my first look at London architecture. The street had a mix of new, modern buildings that sat right next to old, traditional, beautiful architecture. This gave me the impression that as much as London progresses into the future, it values its history incredibly.

London embraces its history through conserving its old architecture, like this building.

We continued to learn how Britain honors its past through our visits to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum the following day. These two sites are also located underground, beneath the Treasury in Westminster. The war rooms were occupied by Britain’s key government leaders and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. These basement offices protected the command center from German bombing and had the proper communication equipment to allow Churchill to broadcast to the British public and speak with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 2005, a part of the war rooms was transformed into the Churchill Museum, which chronicles his life and legacy in Britain. From visiting these sites, it became clear to me that Churchill led the British people bravely through the war, and he used his excellent speaking skills to rally the U.K. in desperate times. While World War II was considered a “people’s war” for the British, due to the sacrifices made across society, these two sites are concentrated on the British government’s wartime efforts.

This command room was where Winston Churchill met with his Cabinet. He sat in the middle wooden chair, often filling the unvented room with his cigar smoke.

The next day brought us to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth and Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park. We could have spent all day at the museum, as it had many interesting exhibits. Admission into the Imperial War Museum is free, which is nice because it makes it easier for British citizens to visit and learn about their history. The museum’s World War II exhibit highlighted the war effort on the home front, how citizens of Commonwealth nations answered the call, and the impact of the United States entering the war. While the attack at Pearl Harbor was a devastating blow to the U.S., Churchill and Britain were relieved that their Western ally would now be fighting alongside them.

Britain was not shy to show its relief when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor and entered the war. Churchill said, “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

The Bomber Command Memorial commemorates the 55,000 members of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command who perished during the war. It was unveiled in 2012 and its roof contains aluminum from a Canadian bomber that crashed over Belgium in May 1944. Different from the other memorials and museums we visited, the Bomber Command Memorial displays a somber reflection of the cost of war. To someone unfamiliar with the strategic bombing casualties, the memorial might come across as patriotically British, but the quotes engraved honor victims of all nations who were killed due to strategic bombing in World War II. As Allied and Axis bombing campaigns killed many, the memorial displays lessons from the war that must not be forgotten.

The Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command Memorial. Strategic bombing during the war killed many civilians and airmen, both Axis and Allied.

While many in London flocked to Buckingham Palace for the coronation, our group headed 45 miles north, to Bletchley Park. This small community served as the center of intelligence operations for the Allies and was secretly tucked away in England’s rural countryside to protect its operations from German bombs. Mathematicians, scientists, engineers, – and others were recruited to work at Bletchley, mainly focusing on deciphering Germany’s Enigma Code. The codebreaking work was tiring, and members of Bletchley Park were not allowed to discuss their work with outsiders. It quickly became a close community where romantic relationships developed. Many of the codebreakers are honored today, like Alan Turing, who was shamed for being homosexual after the war. The Allied intelligence efforts shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Throughout our sites, I observed many British citizens also visiting to learn about Britain’s World War II legacy. Overall, I think the British people take tremendous pride in being British, and World War II is a major reason why. The war showed their ability to sacrifice, adapt, and endure. As Europe was being taken by Hitler, the British refused to stand down and prepared to defend their homeland. Another takeaway from London is the tight alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States. Each location was not shy to mention America’s efforts alongside Britain’s to help achieve victory. Visiting London made me feel a closer connection to the people of Britain.