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.
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.
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 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.
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.