Remembering World War II in Europe

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Tank treads embedded in concrete at a World War II memorial in Warsaw, Poland.

Here in Europe, the memory of World War II is living, breathing, complicated beast. It was less than 100 years ago, and people remember it through stories, monuments, and plaques scattered throughout the cities of the continent. And it’s not remembered in the episodic way we in the U.S. remember the war, which for most of us distills down to we got attacked at Pearl Harbor, we beat Hitler and the Nazis (the Russians would like to have a word with you)*, and we nuked Japan. No, here in Europe it’s remembered by which of your relatives died, how much of your city was leveled, what survived, and how you remember who and what didn’t.

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World War II displays in Moscow’s Museum of Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. World War II).

While it’s hard for me to estimate the exact number of World War II monuments, we’ve seen one in almost every place we’ve visited since we hit Russia. That includes Siberia, where there’s a Soviet monument in Ulan-Ude to the Buryats who fought in the war; to Latvia, where you can find plaques commemorating where the bombs fell and where Jewish refugees were sheltered scattered throughout the city streets; to Hungary, where towering monuments occupy city parks and the bank of the Danube River. There are places where we didn’t see World War II monuments, but in these cases we could have missed them or they could have been removed – the Soviets would have raised them in former Eastern Bloc states, and they might have fallen with the Communist governments.

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A plaque memorializing those killed by the Nazis (I think) in Prague, Czech Republic.

The language of the monuments and plaques also varies by location; it either memorializes the loss of lives of buildings in the war generally, or it memorializes specifically the war against the Nazis. In Estonia where an estimated 1 in 4 peopled died, pamphlets tell how Estonians first fought the Soviet Union, then the Nazis to retain their independence. In Latvia and Warsaw, many of the placards say “here refugees were sheltered,” or “here bombs fell.” And then there are the scattered memorials in Bialowieza, which read (in Russian and Polish), “Here the Nazis committed terrible atrocities.”

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A plaque in the sidewalk in Riga, Latvia, commemorating a hiding place for Jews.
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Memorial to a massacre in the forest, near Bialowieza National Park.

But behind the monuments and the public face of remembrance, there’s a more complicated cultural and personal remembrance that doesn’t conform to the public memorialization. In Austria, this manifests as darkly self-critical humor scattered through the sightseeing pamphlets at hostels: “This location memorializes the terrible acts we committed. Oops, we meant the Nazis, we Austrians were just victims who were invaded.” With the fall of communism in Poland, there are whispers now that some of the murders in the forests of Bialowieza were committed by Soviet soldiers and blamed on the Nazis as a cover-up.

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Two visitors stop in front of the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

But this conflict of public and private remembrance is most evident in Budapest, where that recently-built “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” has sparked protests that the Hungarian government is ‘washing over history’ for political expedience*. An independent, home-made monument has sprouted up in front of the official memorial with personal memorabilia from victims killed by the Arrow Cross: photos, letters, ID cards, and books. It’s a reminder visitors that like the Austrians, many in Hungary welcomed the Nazis, and many murders and atrocities were committed by Hungarian hands.

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Memorabilia and decorations on the homemade protest monument in Budapest, Hungary. The monument asserts that Hungary’s “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” whitewashes history by failing to acknolwedge that many native Hungarians committed atrocities as part of the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party.
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Two tourists look at both the homemade monument and the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

Only a mile away from Budapest’s new monument, another World War II memorial sits on the bank of the Danube. Dozens of pairs of shoes, cast in bronze, are rooted into the concrete to memorialize those who were shot at the riverbank in 1944 and 1945. With the war drawing to a close and resources scarce, victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot and their bodies tumbled into the river below. There are rumpled boots and loafers. There are fine, high-heeled pumps. There are children’s shoes.

Plaques embedded in the ground at each end state: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45.”

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A child-sized pair of bronze shoes stand amid flowers at the memorial to the victims shot on its banks in World War II.

Side notes:

* Russia took the most World War II casualties of any country by number of deaths, and they were actually the ones to take Berlin on the ground at war’s end.

**The Hungarian government of the last decade has been controlled most by Fidesz, a nationalist right-leaning party that disagrees with Germany’s policy of allowing increased immigration. The memorial cleverly furthers both of its goals by (1) de-associating guilt from itself by failing to mention the atrocities linked to the also nationalist, right-wing party of the Arrow Cross and (2) associating the crimes committed with Germany, not specifically the Nazis, which stirs up subconscious anti-German sentiment.

The other Hiroshima shrine

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The Torii gates of Kinkou-Inari Shrine.

Far from the Hiroshima Peace Park, on the other side of the hill from the Peace Pavilion, there sits another shrine that does not memorialize the victims of the atomic bomb but cannot escape the shadow of the war. Kinkou-Inari Shrine was built to honor Inari, god of prosperity, and the shrine sports rows of red Torii (gates) lining the path, much like in Kyoto’s famous Fushimi-Inari.

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Shrines line the uphill path after Kinkou-Inari’s entrance.
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A praying mantis camouflages itself on a moss-lined tree stump.

But beyond the gates, the similarity between the two shrines disappears. As you climb past the main shrine and continue up the hill, you’ll find not a well-worn path of stairs to immaculately-maintained shrines but a jumble of uneven steps, obscured in part by dirt and fallen leaves. Shrines lay beside the path in various states of upkeep; some are clearly swept and cared-for, while others are mere remnants, scattered pieces of wood with flecks of faded vermillion paint. A sign at one shrine near the hill’s top gently implores guests with “please do not cause trouble in the shrine.” Its altar is devoid of all but a single glass plate, and pieces of broken vases and ceramic plates are embedded in the dirt nearby. It seems that here the shrine to prosperity is in want for itself.

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A well-maintained, small shrine beside the path.
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The remnants of another shrinehouse, fallen into disrepair. Visitors have left coins and attempted to repair it with rocks.
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A shrine near the hill’s top, recently vandalized. The sign to the right asks that people “please do not make trouble in the shrine.”

A plausible source of the area’s unpopularity lies at the top of the hill, where hidden between the overgrown trees and heavy leaf litter is a collection of circular structures sunken into the ground. “These are the remnants of an anti-aircraft battery from World War II” reads a nearby sign, but it looks like few souls come by to read it. The masonworks is now nothing but a remnant from when Japan had a military, a reminder that Hiroshima is part of a country that once used its military might to control much of East Asia.

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The remnants of an anti-aircraft battery above Kinkou-Inari Shrine, mostly forgotten and covered in leaf litter.
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A view of the forest standing within the remnants of the anti-aircraft battery. Someone might have once stashed their belongings in this hole while on shift watching for enemy aircraft flying above Hiroshima.

Maybe few come here because it doesn’t fit with Hiroshima’s narrative of being the victim of a terrible event, or maybe it’s a painful reminder to people that they lost the war. But if narrative historical accounts are to be believed, the people stationed up here on the fateful day the bomb was dropped would have seen the Enola Gay before their grisly hand was dealt. They became victims too, just like everyone else in Hiroshima, just like millions and millions of people in cities across Japan, across Asia, around the world. That’s war, isn’t it?

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Alone and undisturbed, a plant grows from the masonworks in the remnants of the anti-aircraft battery.