Our Memorial Tour starts in Frankfurt. It’s the fifth largest city in Germany and has Europe’s busiest airport. You hear a lot about German efficiency. That isn’t our experience.
Two large flights arrive at the same time, and we are in the under-staffed and uncontrolled customs line for about an hour. Soon after our bus enters the autobahn on way to Nuremberg, traffic stops—and remains stopped for five hours. As we watch from the bus, some people get out of cars, sit in lawn chairs, and read books. School children see friends in neighboring cars and start playing. The busload of Americans can’t help thinking what would happen on one of our expressways in a situation like this. Heads would roll! Later we find out that two large trucks collided in a narrow construction area.
Once beyond the stop, we pass many exits on this new roadway that looks American with most of our fast food chains represented. Our guide tells us that McDonald’s, known as “The American Embassy,” is very popular.
The Nazi Parade Grounds
The next morning our tour starts at the Nazi Parade Grounds. You’ve probably seen photos of this site your whole life, in history books and in historical film footage, with Hitler speaking enthusiastically to thousands of Germans, their arms raised in unison in a “Heil Hitler” salute. (photo right) Aside from the main structure where Hitler stood, a guide must describe what the rest once looked like. He directs us to large photos covered in plastic. Now it’s deserted, crumbling in areas and overgrown with weeds, except for a few tourists and joggers. We speak in quiet tones. Standing in this spot, I see ghosts. There were so many. They must be here. (photo below)
While here, we learn that there’s talk about beginning to acknowledge those who fought for Germany during World War 2. It’s been frowned upon so long, this history. Maybe bring the Parade Grounds back to its former glory, they say, or better preserve it as a tourist
As we leave to visit the site of the Nuremberg trials, it feels like preservation is a better idea.
Palace of Justice
From fall of 1945 until fall of 1946, the International Military Tribunal convened in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice to try individuals responsible for war crimes. The site was chosen because of the large space in the building, including many offices and the eighty courtrooms. The building was spared during the war, and a prison was part of the complex.
The twenty-four Nazi leaders were tried on four points: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; panning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. The Tribunal opened in Berlin, but moved to Nuremberg on November 20, 1945. The trials lasted 218 days, with testimony from 360 witnesses, and more than 1,000 personnel assisting in the trials. The verdicts were announced on September 30 and October 1: twelve sentenced to death by hanging, seven sentences of life imprisonment, and three acquittals.
The courtroom has been remodeled, even more since we were last here several years ago. (photo right) The museum upstairs is spacious and describes the history well. What happened here may be one of the best examples of the quote attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As we leave the site, Dave asks one of our new travel mates, “Was your father in the war?” “Yes,” he replied, “but on the other side.” Hans, an American veteran post-World War 2, was orphaned at birth. His father was in the German navy and died when the German ship Bismarck sunk. His mother later brought her young son to America. We realize that the trip has a special meaning for Hans and his family, just as it does for Dave.
I can't leave Nuremberg without commenting on what a vibrant city it is today. These photos show the multiculturalism (yes, that's a shushi stand outside Nuremberg cathedral). We also got a taste of what we'd experience on our next day. Many German towns and villages were celebrating the beginning of Octoberfest in Munich that weekend with their own local festivals, and Nuremberg was no exception.
Details on Nuremberg war history can be found at https://museums.nuernberg.de/nuremberg-municipal-museums/.
Send your World War 2 stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next time: Dachau and Munich
“My travels taught me that there was no area of Europe free from the memories and monument of the First World War.” Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
I echo Gilbert’s comment. We saw these memorials in our travels, too. You can find small monuments to military leaders and battles in cities and small villages throughout Europe that were ravaged in two wars. An example below is the one hidden in Germany's Black Forest area, a tribute to Erwin Rommel. It's close to his home, and unlike the more formal monument near his grave, this is at the site of his forced suicide by the Nazi regime.
I found Gilbert’s book when doing research for my next novel. He also wrote a book on World War 2, and he has a way of connecting events and individuals that helps us understand how history can take societies in directions both planned and unplanned. Most of the politicians and commanders involved in World War 2 participated in some way in the Great War. That’s why Gilbert’s books are considered good ones to start with if you’re interested in reading or studying either of these wars.
Only an Intermission
The root causes of World War 2 began with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. The process of developing that document ruined American President Woodrow Wilson, and it changed much of Europe and the Middle East—but particularly Germany. As the world economy worsened after the Great War and reached its nadir in the 1929 depression, Germans became increasingly angry, and it was easy for someone with a promise of national renewal and revenge to develop a following. Scapegoats—such as Jews, Poles, and Socialists—provided common enemies on whom to vent frustration and anger.
Many see World War 2 as caused by one man’s insanity: Adolph Hitler. What we saw at Dachau makes one wonder about man’s inhumanity toward man—and how one person could have such an effect. I haven’t read much about the German psyche during this period, and it’s hard for me to understand. But our tour guides along the way explained much about the French during the occupation and why more didn’t join in the resistance. Some feared for their lives if they didn’t accept Nazi rule. Others felt that the Germans were sure to win the war and wanted to position themselves for that eventuality. Add these perspectives to the Germans’ feelings of being punished into a deep depression after the Great War, and one can see why few of them resisted.
Ironies of War
Gilbert reminds us that more soldiers were killed in the Great War than any other war in history—8.6 million—a fact that many Americans forget given our brief time in that war in comparison to our losses in World War 2. During that war, Americans lost 48,000, not counting the 62,000 who died of influenza.
The American cemeteries in Europe for the two wars are pristine, like the American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, pictured. Ironically, many of the Great War’s cemeteries were being formally dedicated in the summer of 1937 while Hitler was moving into the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. On Easter 1939, survivors of a British Gun Corp met in Albert, a small French town, to dedicate a plaque commemorating their service and lost comrades in the Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months in 1918. Less than six months later, the Germans would come again. This time they would stay for over four years.
I hope you read Martin Gilbert’s works. If you are interested in the Great War, I recommend M. K. Tod’s website, A Writer of History. Her historical novels are well researched, and you can read blogs concerning the wars, some of which involve her family’s letters.
Next time: Nuremberg