There is so much more to Germany than just World War II. I am extremely aware of the stigma that surrounds the country but it doesn’t mean that Germany consists of ONLY World War II sites. But visiting World War II sites while in Germany is an excellent way to learn more about the country’s history.
In the years following World War II, the Germans have done an exemplary job of remembering their past and learning from it. So while many of these sites are still standing for people to visit, they are somber locations and need to be remembered as such, not as tourist locations.
Stumbling blocks are spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. They’re situated outside of many homes and businesses and represent the last-known address of people who were taken away by the Nazis. These stumbling blocks show the names of the lives that were lost in WW II and detail the name of the victim, as well as whether or not they survived Nazi concentration camps and, if known, the day they perished.
There were a few just down the street from my house in Germany. I never noticed them nor thought anything of them until one day my professor explained what they were. Since then, every day on my way to school I would see them and get a solemn reminder of how different this place was 80 years ago.
The story behind the stumbling blocks is actually quite intriguing. There is a single man who makes the blocks by hand and relies on donations and public assistance to memorialize the victims of the Nazi regime. Check out more about his vision here. I haven’t been able to determine if every single stumbling block has been made by him or if it’s just a majority. But regardless, it’s impressive and inspiring.
Perhaps the most sobering aspect about these blocks is that they are located everywhere. You might be going into a modern restaurant and look down and see four stumbling blocks in front of the entrance. Or you could be wandering around a small street in a city and see them in front of a bank. I’ve seen them in many cities in Germany, as well as in Amsterdam, Salzburg, and Prague. The stumbling blocks are constant reminders that the Nazis ruthlessly and systematically destroyed the lives of millions of ordinary people.
Despite being a despicable excuse for a human being, Hitler chose well when he stayed at the beautiful Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, Austria. It was his command post during WWII, even though he did not spend a lot of actual time there.
Berchtesgaden is right on the border between Germany and Austria and has absolutely stunning views from every direction.
When American troops finally reached Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, it was monumental and signified how much closer they were getting to end WWII.
Today, Eagle’s Nest is a restaurant and in order to get inside of the building, you have to be a customer. Which I feel like kind of defeats the purpose of having this as site to remember WWII, but whatever. If you really want to go inside (which I highly recommend doing), order a soda or a drink so that you can get in for cheap!
Interestingly, the busses that take you up to his Eagle’s Nest are required to stop at the Nazi Documentation Center. There, visitors see Nazi artifacts carefully placed in their historical context. Germany is very adamant about not forgetting the atrocities of WWII, and instead displaying them in such a way as to not entice modern-day Nazis to these cities as pilgrimages.
The Reichstag commands Berlin’s skyline and is an iconic landmark in the city. Unfortunately, it’s had a tumultuous past.
The building was built in the late 1800s when the Hohenzollern Monarchy was reigning. The Kaiser decided that it was okay to have a parliamentary building, as long as they answered directly to him, the emperor. All was great for the Reichstag in love and war… until the empire of Germany lost in World War I and the empire ceased to exist. So after the whole deal with the failing Weimar Republic, the Reichstag (or Bundestag they mean the same thing but are both different don’t ask me to explain it) was used by the republic as it tried to rebuild the county in the midst of reparations.
Everything was fine and dandy at the Reichstag until the NSDAP (Nazis) started to try and get power. In 1933, the Reichstag “mysteriously” caught fire and everyone knew it was arson but could never exactly prove the source. Hitler used that as an excuse to blame the communists for setting fire to the Reichstag (I’m willing to bet money it was the Nazis) and Hitler was able to declare a state of emergency which gave him ultimate power. Pretty damn sneaky. Hitler killed several government officials of the Weimar Republic who didn’t agree with his horrendous ideas. This monument is situated just outside of the Reichstag and commemorates those who lost their lives standing up to Hitler.
Fast forward to the end of WWII, when the Soviets liberated Berlin and waved the USSR flag on top of the Reichstag. Soon thereafter, the Cold War began and messed everything up for the poor Reichstag. It was hanging out in no man’s land, just to the west of the Berlin Wall. After Ronald Reagan got Mr. Gorbechav to “tear down this wall”, Germany was reunited once again. And the German parliament decided that they wanted to move back into their old home of the Reichstag. So bids were placed and one lucky architect was able to redesign the Reichstag to its former glory, plus a super cool addition of the glass dome on top.
Today, visitors can go inside of the Reichstag and up to the dome and roof terrace. It’s nearly impossible to see the roof terrace from the ground; the architect did a great job of hiding it. But the glass dome can be seen from all around Berlin. Perhaps its most important feature is the dozens of mirrors that allow Germans and visitors to peer directly into the parliament’s chambers. It’s both a symbolic and literal gesture to ensure that nothing like the NSDAP will ever occur again.
Even though it’s free to get reservations to the Reichstag and dome, reservations must be made in advance here. I was fortunate enough to find some available just a week before I visited, but my time slots were limited to 21:15 and 21:45. Thankfully, I wanted those times so that I could go at sunset. As a result, I was able to watch Berlin fade from day into night atop the parliament building of one of the most powerful nations on earth. Pretty cool if you ask me. The dome itself is worthwhile to climb, especially since it has a sloping ramp and is therefore wheelchair accessible. The top of it is open to the elements because it’s somehow supposed to circulate air. That’s B.S. because I was there during 101° weather and it felt like a sauna. So be prepared for extreme temperatures in the dome when you visit.
It may have taken me four visits to Berlin to finally get to the top, but going inside of the Reichstag was a great experience and I cannot recommend it enough.
On the other side of the street from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, there is a memorial that is dedicated to the lives lost in the Holocaust. There are thousands of coffin-shaped blocks that haphazardly fill an entire city block. The memorial was designed to disorient people with walkways leading up and around so that visitors always feel alone.
There is also a free museum underneath the memorial. It’s informative and tells stories of families that were wiped out at the hands of Nazi persecution. If you’re short on time, you can go through the museum relatively quickly although I do recommend taking more time if you or others are unfamiliar with WWII.
Photography is encouraged at the memorial but please be respectful and acknowledge what the memorial represents. A quick Google search will show you how so many people pose and smile in such a somber place. Don’t be one of those people.
TOPOGRAPHY OF TERROR
Berlin is home to many World War II sites even though many of them have been torn down since they were so heavily destroyed during the war. The Topography of Terror stands where the Gestapo Headquarters once was – the epitome of terror at the time.
The museum that is there today doesn’t attempt to hide the atrocities of the Nazis. Some of the torture cells in the basement have been preserved and now form an integral part of the museum. A new building has been built to house pictures and information about World War II. It provides a detailed, yet brief timeline of how the Weimar Republic following World War I turned into the horrific Third Reich.
I went five years ago when I was with my parents and it was so crowded that I resolved to return to experience it with fewer people. Even though I literally showed up at the exact moment that it opened, it became crowded quickly. I’m an exceptionally fast reader and felt myself struggling as I read literally as quickly as I could so that I could read every single word. My advice? Try and go early but even if you can’t it will still be crowded and you’ll have to fight to read all of the descriptions so do what works best for you.
One of the last remnants of a Nazi building is right in front of the Topography of Terror. Even though it’s located in East Berlin you can just tell that it is OLD and from the Third Reich. It housed the German Ministry of Aviation during the Third Reich. Since it wasn’t destroyed during the war, the Germans decided to keep it have repurposed it into the Ministry of Finance building. There are little pamphlets outside of the door to give you more information about the history of the building, and it’s pretty neat to see a prime example of Nazi architecture.
SACHSENHAUSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP
Depending on where you travel to in Germany, you could be near one of the concentration camps from World War II. Sachsenhausen is one such concentration camp that has been turned into a museum. It’s just outside of Berlin, all the way at the end of an S-bahn line. Many of its buildings have been torn down since its liberation in 1945 but it is still worth going to if you have the time while you are in Berlin.
To get there, travel on the S-Bahn all the way to the end of the line to Oranienburg Station. From there, you’ll see signs pointing in the direction of the camp. Although it is not necessarily as “flashy” as some of the better-known concentration camps, it is a moving testimony to the over 45,000 people who were killed at the camp. For more information, visit the memorial’s website here.
Even though the Berlin Wall is technically a byproduct of the Cold War, it has its roots in the aftermath of WWII. Once the Third Reich lost WWII, Berlin was split up among the U.S., the U.K., France, and the Soviet Union. The Soviets got a little too big for their britches and proceeded to treat the members of the Soviet Union as less-than-human and built a wall to prevent the East Berliners from escaping to free West Berlin.
But since the Americans, French, and Brits had also won World War II, they were ‘entitled’ to part of Berlin, although they left the rest of Germany to be its own free nation. So the Berlin Wall is definitely a byproduct of World War II. And if you’re in Berlin visiting the other WWII sites, you can’t miss the Berlin Wall.
The East Side Gallery is the largest section of the Berlin Wall that is still standing from the Cold War days. Today it has become an outdoor museum paying homage to the events that the city has seen throughout its history.
Nuremburg is a significant WWII location for a few reasons.
In 1933, a newly elected Hitler enacted the Nuremburg Laws. Ironically, I’m literally writing this as my train leaves the Nuremburg Hauptbahnhof… Anyways, these laws restricted the Jews from having any kind of freedom. They stripped away the Jews’ right to marry outside of their race, go to movies, pools, and more. Despite the laws, another reason for Nuremburg’s notoriety is because it was the home to many Nazi rallies. When you picture one of Hitler’s rallies in your head, you probably think of one in Nuremburg. Hitler created these grounds just outside of the city and built monuments to honor himself and the Third Reich. Today, very few Nazi details remain. Even though there is not as much to see as there once was, this is part of Germany’s effort to prevent Neo-Nazis from having a location where they can worship Hitler. Nevertheless, some of the larger architectural still stands and there’s even an informative and somber museum. Before going, watch some old videos of his rallies so that you can have a better understanding of what you are seeing.
The third reason for Nuremburg’s notoriety is that it was home to the Nuremburg trials following the end of World War II. The four winners, U.S., Britain, France, and the USSR all convened and tried to determine a way to punish the war criminals. It ultimately culminated in a delicate balance of the four legal systems combined with lawyers, interpreters, and clerks running around crazy to produce evidence for convictions. From a legal perspective the coordination used is absolutely mindboggling and is so intriguing to learn about. Today, the courtroom that was used for the trials is now a museum and if there’s one thing you visit in Nuremburg, it’s the courtroom. The museum is informative and well worth the entrance fee.
Technically there’s an awesome old town with old walls in Nuremburg that also warrants a visit. But you’re here to learn about World War II, so the city can wait until after you’ve visited the other sites.
Some of the remnants of WWII history are found scattered throughout Europe and might be mistaken for something else if you don’t know the whole story. Heidelberg is one of those places and if I hadn’t heard my professor telling me about it, I wouldn’t know that it existed.
The Thingstätte is high up in the hills above Heidelberg and its main prominence back in the 1930s was to be a stage for Propaganda Minister Göbbels. There were a few rallies held in the theater, but nothing like the rallies held in Nuremburg. It is today a popular hiking location and is still in pretty decent shape. Alternatively, there is a bus route that takes you up to the top but it only runs on Saturdays like twice? My parents have elected to take taxis to avoid the hike, but I enjoy the hike.
Depending on the time of year you go, the city of Heidelberg is trying to rejuvenate the area and rebrand it as being a place for open-air cinema. So far the idea hasn’t taken off as well as they would’ve liked but can you blame them for trying?
Dachau is probably the most famous concentration camp that’s located within Germany. Auschwitz is the most notorious of them all, but it’s located in Poland. Dachau itself is a short train ride outside of Munich in the south of Germany and was one of the first camps to be established by the Nazis.
Although Dachau wasn’t a death camp in the same sense as Treblinka, Chelmno, or Auschwitz, it treated its prisoners horribly. American troops liberated Dachau in 1945 and famously documented the destruction. The barracks that housed prisoners were torn down and now there is an expansive field with memorials at each of the barracks. Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Germans – it was a gruesome model in the early 1930s that carried on throughout the rest of the war. The camp has a museum that is very informative, although there’s lots of reading. Dahau is easily visited as a day or half-day trip from Munich and is popular among visitors to Bavaria. Here is the memorial’s website for more information.
LOCATIONS THAT AREN’T IN GERMANY
Before I discuss the parts of the Third Reich that aren’t currently located in Germany, I’ll explain briefly how Hitler got the idea for the “Third” Reich.
So back in the day, like hundreds of years ago, there was this massive thing called the Holy Roman Empire. Even though it spread all the way from Germany to Rome, Germanic or Frank emperors reigned over it from the militaristic side, whereas the Pope was in control of the spiritual side. Ever since Charlemagne aka Charles the Great aka Karl the Große first made Christianity prominent and got that whole ball rolling, it was considered a tentative “first reich”.
Remember when I mentioned that the emperor let parliament exist, as long as it reported back to him? Well that was essentially the “second reich”, and the one that Hitler admired the most. The Prussians decided that the state of Prussia was going to rule over the entire empire and make Berlin its capital in 1871. That was the first time that a single flag flew over a united Germany. Ironically it would be the last time for over 100 years.
So when Hitler decided to take over Germany, he wanted to “Make Germany Great Again”. I’m not even exaggerating, that’s exactly how my professor described it. But since the last reich had been so successful and the Germans were currently suffering under the Weimar Republic, he was going to start the Third Reich. Because third time’s a charm, right??
It may surprise you to learn that Hitler isn’t German. He’s actually Austrian. An Austrian who was rejected from art school because he couldn’t draw faces well enough. If only they had let him in…
So in 1938, Hitler made his first move and slid into his home country of Austria and announced that it was now part of greater Germany. Sadly, many Austrians were excited to see Hitler take over their country and didn’t oppose the Anschluss. Hitler had been doing such great things in Germany (building housing, the Autobahn) that Austrians were excited to see what Hitler would do there. But if you’ve seen the Sound of Music you know that not every Austrian was excited about the Anschluss, especially Captain Von Trapp.
There are no longer many reminders of Hitler’s rule in Austria. However, the balcony from where he announced the Austrian Anschluss still stands in Vienna. It is fairly nondescript and has nothing fancy in order to prevent neo-Nazis from turning it into a pilgrimage site. Nevertheless, you can find it pretty easily and imagine how just one little speech here changed the course of history forever…
Speaking of things that changed the course of history, Normandy is next on the list. On June 6, 1944, Allied troops stormed the beaches and cliffs of Normandy, France, in what became the biggest land, air, and see attack in history. Thousands and thousands of men were killed in what was known as Operation Overlord.
Even the casualties on both sides were immense; the attack on Normandy gave the Allied powers a foothold on European soil and forced the Germans to fight hard on a two-front war. From that point on, Allied soldiers kept plowing through mainland Europe until VE day almost one year later.
The rolling hills and cliffs of Normandy no longer look the same as they did 75 years ago. They seem so peaceful and tranquil and if it weren’t for the rows and rows of white crosses, you might never know that some of the bloodiest battles of WWII were fought here.
Personally, I think Normandy is best visited if you are a fan of WWII history. Since it’s a bit harder to get there and is mostly an expanse of a memorial, some visitors might get bored easily. But regardless, it’s an important site in world history and if you have the opportunity – GO!
If there’s one concentration camp that I recommend visiting, it’s Auschwitz. It’s also a bit difficult to get to [think overnight train, getting dropped off at a dirt platform in the middle of Poland, and hoping that another train arrived to take us to Oswiecim] while thinking about the heartbreaking irony of arriving at Auschwitz by train. Due to the train schedule, my parents and I arrived in Oswiecim early in the morning, before anything opened. It was so early that we couldn’t even withdraw Polish Zlotys to pay our cab driver to take us to Auschwitz.
The bonus to us being there was so early was that we were the first ones into the memorial. Apparently all tour groups take its members to Auschwitz I first, so the Martin Family went to Auschwitz-Birkenau first.
That was a great decision. There was no one else there with us and we had the sprawling, haunting camp to ourselves for a few hours. It’s now a demolished shell of what it once was, with grass blowing in the breeze amidst the rusted barbed wire. Nature has reclaimed much of it and it’s almost hard to believe that over 1million people were ruthlessly murdered there.
In fact, nature has reclaimed so much of Auschwitz I that it almost looks beautiful. The brick buildings look stately and leafy trees line the walkways where the Nazis brutally killed people just for their religion.
I can’t lie… Auschwitz is emotional to visit. You’ll be surrounded by people weeping and you may even be among them. But it’s so crucial that you visit if it’s possible. Even if you have little ones with you, don’t be deterred by the thought of bringing them to a concentration camp. They’re never too young to know about history.
As someone who is a fiend for Holocaust books and devours them, being able to visit this memorial helps bring those books to life. I wrote a much more detailed post of how to visit Auschwitz that you can find here when you’re planning your visit.
ANNE FRANK HOUSE
The Anne Frank House is one of the most memorialized locations from World War II. Anne Frank’s Diary has had such a profound influence on history that today, her house is one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions.
Tickets to get inside are extremely difficult to come by. They only open up two months in advance and 80% of them are available online. The other 20% open up (also online) at 9:00 a.m. the day-of. In high season those tickets go extremely quickly. If you can get tickets, try to be there either early in the morning or late at night to have the least crowds. Back in the olden days, the lines used to wrap around the building just to purchase a ticket. Nowadays the line is online but there are still always crowds around the house.
Once you’re inside the house it’s dark, crowded, and there are no pictures allowed. Many people complain and say that it’s underwhelming but you have to remember… they literally lived in an attic. If you have read Anne Frank’s diary you will have a greater appreciation for the museum because you can literally envision the story. Even if you haven’t read the book (which you should) it is still an incredibly poignant museum and memorial. Some people forego visiting the inside of it which I can understand but nevertheless, at least walk past it so that you can see the place where one of Amsterdam’s most important residents lived.