And so my trip back to Europe begins again. This time, I will travel to five countries I have never been to: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Afterwards, I will head back to London – the first foreign destination I ever went to, but a place I only spent two days in prior and will only spend two day in this time. Last night, I took a flight from Orlando to Munich (with a short layover in Dusseldorf, Germany). Arriving in Munich this morning, it was my first time staying in the beautiful country of Germany. I met up with my good friend Marshall Polston, also of Orlando. He had been in Italy the previous week and will be traveling with me for the next 10 days before I depart for London.
75 years ago, Americans didn’t have the pleasure of traveling to Europe for a fun adventure such as this. At that time, in the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of Americans my age and younger – some half my age – went to Europe to fight the Nazis and the Communists and to help liberate our allies. We defended England, we fought for France, for Holland, for Belgium, and for so many other places, until we defeated the Nazi forces of Germany. There was then a “race to Berlin” to be sure the communist Soviets didn’t secure too much territory – territory that would ultimately be ruled by an Iron First for more than another generation. The countries we will be visiting over the next 10 days – Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – were all occupied by either the Nazis and the Soviets (and all but Austria were occupied by both). The older generation here has endured quite a lot and the younger people – like we younger Americans – are living on the fortunes of their sacrifice.
Prior to this trip to Europe, I have had the fortune to watch films and read books that covered this time period. Most striking to me was the recent film Dunkirk, which actually features a WWII battle before the Americans were involved. My takeaway was just how devastating a blow the Germans had given to the French and the English in Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe and exterminate people and ideas he did not like.
In preparation for my first trip to a Holocaust concentration camp, Dachau, I read a book called The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1933-1945, which details the more than 2,600 clergy who were taken from all over Germany and many of the other conquered territory (such as Poland, France, Austria, the Czech Republic, and others). About 95% of these clergy were Catholic, a faith I share. The book was a really moving account of how the Nazis wanted to eradicate, in addition to the Jews, Christianity, and all forms of religion. After all, Hitler saw the power of the faith of the Jewish and Christian people, most notably the enduring legacy of the Catholic Church, and slowly but surely sought to disempower it. Of the 2,600 clergy who were sent to Dachau, more than 1,000 died there.
To visit Dachau today was a moving experience. It was creepy standing in gas chambers, in prison barracks, and in the crematory. More than 200,000 people were sent to Dachau during the years 1933-1945 and about one-fifth of them died there. The stories you read about really come to life and make it all the more shocking and demonstrates that humanity has a lot to learn.
I had never watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers before one of my own brothers, Tony, recommended I do so. He told me he believed it might highlight some of the areas I would be visiting in Germany – such as Dachau and the Eagle’s Nest (a beautiful lookout point in southern Germany that was gifted to Hitler for his 50th birthday). We will be visiting the Eagle’s Nest on Sunday and I’m sure it will be quite the contrast to the concentration camp of Dachau, where tens of thousands suffered and died at the hands of the SS, which held some if its top level meetings at the Eagle’s Nest. I am six (of 10) episodes into Band of Brothers (and thanks to technology the final four episodes are downloaded on the iPad I have with me through Amazon Prime). The sheer scope of the battle those American and allied forces faced to take out the enemy is simply unbelievable. Both Dunkirk and Band of Brothers demonstrate to me the sacrifices that were made and the pure horror of war that has lit up this continent generation after generation.
On a lighter note, when we returned from Dachau today (it was a 30 minute train ride away), back into Munich, we were able to tour Mirenplatz (the plaza and heart of all social activities. We also enjoyed a wonderful German dinner and a liter of beer at the Augistiner Brau – the oldest breweary in Munich. We popped into a few of the older, very beautiful (quite amazing, actually) churches in the Munich city center and then called it a somewhat early night.
Tomorrow, we tour th historic Neuschwanstein Castle, which is about a two hour train ride outside of Munich. We will be going with an official tour so should be interesting. More updates to come!