By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
The news today is full of conflicts about some of the more difficult aspects of a country’s bad history. I thought you might be interested how some European countries handle the history of wars, the inhumane treatments of others and liberation of occupied territory. This is not designed to be a social commentary but some of the sensible solutions Europeans have found might be ideas that could apply to the United States today.
Berlin– Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This memorial is close to the Brandenburg gate. It is also known as the Holocaust Memorial—and it is dedicated to the 6 million Jewish persons who were killed in the Holocaust. It is big—the site is 4.7 acres of land. There are 2,711 rectangular slabs. It is a labyrinth, and when I first went in I didn’t think much of it, but as I got deeper and deeper inside the concrete blocks, it became confusing. Then there were glimpses of others, and it really gives you a sense of little escape—the only hope is up to the sky.
The design of the memorial may have had just the effect on me as the architect, Peter Eiseman desired. He stated in the project text, that the blocks were designed to “produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason”. Others point out that the blocks evoke a feeling of unmarked graves.
There is plenty of controversy about this monument. Critics decry the kids disrespectfully playing on blocks, feel it is too abstract, it is only for Jews (other memorials have now been created), criticize the visitor center, and some do not like the ant-graffiti covering on the blocks. It is notable that some Nazi bunkers uncovered during construction were reburied—the ugly past that could rally hate groups are removed. Yet, though all this, it is moving and made me feel very uneasy. Please consider visiting it yourself and let the abstract nature of the memorial allow you to make your own judgement on this site.
In 1898, while still in the Army, I visited the American Cemetery near Luxembourg. It is the final resting place where 5,076 service members lie, many of whom lost their lives in the Battle of the Bulge and in the advance to the Rhine River. The cemetery was established on December 29, 1944 by the 609th Quartermaster Company of the U.S. Third Army. The cemetery was needed to bury the dead during the Ardennes Offensive (better known as the Battle of the Bulge), one of the critical battles of World War II. The city of Luxembourg served as headquarters for Lt. General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army. General Patton is buried here, although he died later during the occupation of Germany in a car accident. My dad was part of the 3rd Army, the Battalion Executive Officer of an Engineer Battalion, and survived the conflict. I’m sure this made this even more special a place to visit for me—it well could have been my dad buried here. What struck me while visiting this site was the dignity of the exact rows and crosses, and how many died at such a young age. I must admit, there were tears streaming down my face—the sacrifice of these men gave me the freedom to choose to follow my father’s footsteps. To say the least, it is a moving place.
The D Day beaches area are the best World War II sites in Europe and a great tribute to the soldiers who fought for freedom, but the American Cemetery here makes you realize how many had to die to achieve victory. 9.387 are buried here. It is right above Omaha Beach—over 3,000 Americans killed right in front of the cemetery. For the 70th anniversary of D Day, we led a group that attended a special memorial service in the cemetery. It was quite well done. Again, dignified—the French and American flags precisely placed at each gravesite showed me the French will never forget these men and their courage. On one memorial wall, there was a quote from Sgt. John B. Elierly, which really resonated with me. He said “You can manufacture weapons and purchase ammunition, but you can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.” So true—the valor and heroes here, I hope, will be remembered for all time.
Reminders of the Balkans in 1995
In Vukovar, Croatia, there is a memorial in a cemetery that speaks to some of the atrocities of that war. In 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence, several hundred prisoners were massacred and buried in mass graves. It was the worst mass killing since World War II. After the war was over in 1995, 938 were exhumed and reburied in the Vukovar Memorial Cemetery. The memorial, with its eternal flame commemorates the victims of the Battle of Vukovar.
With all the statues and paintings left over from communist rule of Eastern Europe, many European countries have developed sensible ways to recognize the past but not glorify it. In Slovenia, in Tito’s private Villa in Lake Bled, the huge paintings of the masses so common to communist rule still are displayed in the concert hall—it gives one a sense of the message of the goals of the communist regime in the former Yugoslavia. These murals depict the the Yugoslav struggle during World War II. It now is a hotel.
In Bucharest, Romania, you can tour the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world (the US Pentagon is the largest). It is 12 stories high (actually there are 20 stories but 8 are underground) and has 3, 100 rooms. Built on the orders of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu, it was supposed to show the wealth and power of Romania. This despised leader ran the country for his benefit and many in Romania wanted the huge building torn down after he was overthrown and executed in 1989. It has survived, now houses the legislative branch of the Romania government and can be toured. It is 70% empty today and is a legacy of excess and greed of the communist era in Romania.
Many countries, such as Hungry, have moved all the statues of the communist era into parks. This seems a good solution—it still recognizes the past but it is at a more appropriate location. There are also a museum of terror, in Budapest, to remind folks of the ways communists tried to control the masses.
My Final Thoughts
As you can see, there is much more than these brief thoughts to figure out how to deal with the past history that oppressed the populace through war or took freedoms or the lives of dissidents. Also, there must be a way to recognize those who died in the effort to oppress evil men or political systems. For me, the most important part is that Europeans have made the best of bad situations and respectfully deal with their history. These sights are not for all. Yet, for me, it is a reminder that we must learn from the past and try to replicate the good and never let the bad happen again. Whatever you interest in Europe is, we are here to help you get the best possible Europe trip based on what is important to you! Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to help you: Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!
HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
- AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
- Viking River Cruise Specialist
- Scenic River Cruise Specialist
- Emerald Waterways Specialist
- Avalon Waterways Specialist
- Brit Agent