Since my last post on Thursday, May 12th in which I wrote about my experience in France, our group has visited three other countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Being that these three countries each represented and played distinct roles in the two world wars, I have found it difficult to select a single topic or theme to write on at the exclusion of others. Therefore, I would like to share a takeaway or lingering perception from each of these three countries.
After leaving France, the first country our group travelled to was Belgium. In our exchange of the countryside for the city, I was able to experience something very special. In Ypres, I was fortunate enough to be one of the three students from the tour to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate during the Last Post Ceremony. The Menin Gate was erected in 1927 to commemorate the commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient during the First World War with no known graves, and the ceremony has occurred every night since July 2, 1928 (save for the period in which Belgium was under German Occupation during the Second World War.) Although a nightly event, the ceremony was attended by approximately 1,500 people, including a variety of military personnel from Belgium, Germany, Canada and other nations. I was extremely honoured to commemorate those soldiers lost throughout the Ypres salient, and humbled to share the experience with so many locals who demonstrate their willingness to brave the cold night after night in order to pay their respects to those who fought for their freedom. I was positively surprised to see the crowds of people from the very young to the very elderly, all go quiet at 8 p.m. for the duration of the ceremony. It was quite the sight.
After our time in Belgium we moved onto the Netherlands. As a student of the Holocaust and the Nazi Regime, I was most interested to witness firsthand how the Dutch people have memorialized the Holocaust and learn what aspects of the Dutch experience have been included in the popular narrative. After visiting the Netherlands Freedom Museum, it is quite obvious to see that the Dutch have capitalized on the Anne Frank story without sharing the whole story of Dutch collaboration in the Final Solution. This is something that we will be exploring further during our studies of the liberation of the Netherlands, and especially the Westerbork transit camp.
Finally, we were able to visit Germany, quite unexpectedly, for a few hours today. What struck me most about my time in Germany was the state of the commonwealth cemeteries we visited, where soldiers of the Allied forces are buried. The scene at the Reichswald Forest Cemetery is perfectly kept and the landscape is beautiful. Like many of the commonwealth cemeteries our group has visited over the course of the tour there seemed to be a calming atmosphere within the cemetery that invoked a positive emotional response. The greenery was perfectly manicured and the cemetery appeared to attract sunlight even on the rainiest of days. When analyzing the landscape, however, I could not help but compare the state of this cemetery to that of Langemark, the German war cemetery in Belgium that we visited earlier this week. After leaving, I remember discussing with my colleagues how dark and depressing the atmosphere of Langemark was. The gravestones laid flat towards the ground and often 6 or 7 names were crowded on a single stone. The cemetery itself did not seem to be as well kept, nor did it appear to intend to invoke feelings of commemoration, remembrance or thanks. It was as if a dark shadow was fixed over the cemetery. Such a comparison inevitably lead me to draw observations about how the narrative of two world wars is represented. Although Langemark commemorates German soldiers from the First World War while those that we visited in Germany contain the bodies of Allied soldiers from the Second World War, the difference between Allied commemoration of German soldiers and German commemoration of Allied soldiers is quite obvious. One then wonders how much room, if any, there is to respect the sacrifice of individual soldiers, even if they came out on the losing side.