A Student Memoir of Our January 2017 WWI Trip

As their final paper in HIS230L World War I, students write a memoir of their J-term travels in Europe – responding to readings and sites and drawing on the letters home and other reflections they recorded in a course journal. Here’s one such memoir, by Justin Brecheisen ’19, a double-major in History and Business and one of our departmental teaching assistants.

HIS230L group at MSP airport

It was with a contrasting combination of apprehension and anticipation that I strode into the airport on the afternoon of our flight across the Atlantic. The anticipation was a result of months of planning, working, and researching to make the trip a reality. I had dropped the majority of my summer savings on the trip payments and spent time planning out every item and all the information I would need to make the most out of those spent savings. I had counted down the days to what I was sure would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip all semester and all of Christmas break, and it was finally here. The apprehension hit me as it usually did: right before an event that I expected to bring change to my life. I had felt the same feeling in a variety of circumstances; my first cross country race, my first day of work, moving in to Bethel. It’s only in the days after arriving home from the trip, as I look back on that moment in the airport, that I realize that mixture of apprehension and anticipation was unique and more profound than any I had felt before. Like all the other times I had felt it, it represented an ushering in of change. But unlike the other times, the change took root in deeper areas of my life, and in a way that completely took me by surprise.

I realized that true change was the result of a complete breaking of routine, a total evacuation of my comfort zone. Traveling across Europe and becoming intimately familiar with the conflict that shook the modern world a century ago ripped me from my routine in such a way that I know I came back changed. Beginning the trip in London got my feet wet, but I really began to plunge into deep historical empathy and personal change as we toured the Western Front. Viewing the sites where Nazism took root in Munich, and especially visiting Dachau had an unexpected spiritual impact that I will never forget. In the end, this trip was the once-in-a-lifetime experience I expected it to be but changed me in a way that I anything but expected.

Justin Brecheisen on the throne at Dover Castle
A lighter moment during our Saturday off in England: Justin in the throne room of Dover Castle (photo: Chris Gehrz)

My immediate impression of London was that it was remarkably similar to New York City. The tube system, the language, and the immense size were all familiar; sometimes cars driving on the left side of the road were the only tip-off that I wasn’t in the United States. Because of the lack of a language barrier, navigation and making purchases was as simple as it was at home, leaving me securely in my comfort zone. Within everyday activities, there was little testing of my values, little stretching of my boundaries. Touring historical sites like the Tower of London intrigued me, and reminded me why I am passionate about studying history. I was enamored with the plethora of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek artifacts housed in the British Museum. I was fascinated with the long timeline laid out in the Museum of London. In particular, seeing the Roman wall standing amidst the bustle of the modern city boggled my mind; I couldn’t imagine everything that wall had stood witness to over millennia. While these sites were highlights of my time in London, and caused me to think more critically about how areas change over time, they mainly served to add to the novelty of travel, and did little to change me as a person.

It was only as I toured the various Great War memorials scattered around London that I began to feel an empathetic reaction to the relics of the past that surrounded me. Seeing numerous displays of all those who gave their lives had a way of undoing the romantic perception of the past I had acquired through other historical sites. I was especially struck by the Australian memorial. Somehow, seeing the sheer number of places the Australian soldiers came from made the war seem realer and the sacrifice seem greater. While it seems that listing the soldiers’ names would be the most personal way to commemorate them, seeing all the hometowns listed was more intimate, calling to mind all the places husbands, fathers, and sons would never return, and the immense hardship those on the home front endured. The memorials in London gave me a taste of the human side of the war, and began to complicate my understanding of conflict.

Australian War Memorial in London
The Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, London (Chris Gehrz)

As I prepared to leave London and write my first letter home I realized I had fallen into a routine. A routine of running, taking the Tube, visiting tourist destinations, to the point where I felt comfortable in this new city. It had become a place of constant excitement, and I realized that my feelings were at least somewhat similar to soldiers leaving England for the war a hundred years earlier. They were swept up in patriotic fervor just as I was swept up in the novelty of a new place, they rushed to the recruiting stations just as I rushed to historical sites, they boarded ships bound for the continent thrilled for adventure just as I boarded a train bound for the continent thrilled to explore. It wasn’t until I finally crossed the Channel and got on the move again that I began to sense a renewed testing of my values and perceptions. Though undoubtedly to a lesser extent than the soldiers, I was in for a more radical change than I thought possible.

The first afternoon we spent on the Western Front was the first time I was able to visualize the devastation of the war. Visiting the dressing station where John McCrae penned “In Flanders Fields” and reading the poem where it was written brought the conflict to life in a way I had never experienced. Suddenly, I saw the war in a completely different way than the book I was reading at the time presented it. It was no longer a series of battles but a horrid mess of devastation. The death and destruction now had names attached instead of numbers. From then on, I viewed the war through a different lens; every one of the numerous headstones and each of the names listed on a memorial represented a life that experienced terrible conditions, trench warfare, and ultimately, premature death. It was sobering, to say the least. Like the memorials in London, viewing the actual sites of battles erased any traces of glorious perceptions of war I might have had left.

Tyne Cot cemetery at sunset
Tyne Cot, the largest British military cemetery in Flanders (Sam Mulberry)

I sat in the hostel that first night on the Front in a completely transformed mood compared to the day before. I felt like a young soldier thrilled for the adventure of war spending his first miserable night in a trench. Up until that point, I had felt very detached from the war, as I was separated from the soldiers by a wide gulf of time, space, culture, language and many other barriers. Walking in their footsteps forged a connection that would have been unachievable by merely reading books and names on memorials. Like the soldiers, I realized that the waging of war was anything but glorious. It was misery. As I reflected on that harsh reality that night, I struggled to reconcile the true colors of war with the perceptions I had brought with me from the US. I had always thought of war as an unfortunate but sometimes necessary aspect of life in the modern world. But seeing the utter destruction of not only a thriving modern society but so many young lives had me questioning all my preconceptions.

Touring the Somme the next day reinforced my observations. Visiting the Newfoundland memorial and the former battlefield spread out in front of it was especially impactful. Land pockmarked with shell holes and the remains of trenches displayed the war in its full-fledged futility. It took around four and a half minutes to walk the distance that was gained by the British offensive in four and a half months. How could a supposedly modern society support such meaningless death? How could anyone twist this tragedy into glory? How can we be making progress when we’re slaughtering each other by the millions?

Though I was hit hard by everything I saw along the Western Front, nothing struck a personal chord like the Ring of Remembrance at Notre Dame-de-Lorette. At every memorial, I had scoured the names, always unsurprised that no Brecheisen was printed. But as I gazed at this massive memorial where no distinction was made for rank or nationality, I picked out two who shared my last name. It was a profoundly shocking and sobering experience. I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing of anyone with the name outside of my immediate family, but here were two, a testament to the breadth and scale of the conflict. The Western Front had radically shifted my perceptions of war and erased my detachment from it. I knew I wouldn’t return home the same, yet there was more change still to come.

My time in Paris proved to be a much needed mental vacation after the challenges of the Front. Like a soldier on leave in the big city, I briefly forgot the difficult realizations I had come to and lost myself in the mindset of tourism. It was short lived, however, as my first day in Munich brought new challenges. Our walking tour of the city brought to life the realities of postwar Germany and the sowing of the seeds of a second global conflict. It was chilling to walk in the footsteps of Hitler in the early days of the Nazi Party, to wrestle with the facts of its rise to power. Seeing the memorial to the White Rose, and reading an excerpt of their fourth leaflet, calling for resistance against the Nazi regime, challenged me in a deeply spiritual way. The leaflet reads: “But whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war.”

N.S. Documentation Centre in Munich
Munich’s new Nazi Documentation Centre, built on the site of the city’s former Nazi headquarters (Chris Gehrz)

I had always viewed Hitler and the Nazis as ‘evil,’ and attached that term to others throughout history, but considering the role of spiritual warfare in the past was unfamiliar and shocking. I experienced a complete shift in much of my thinking about evil in the world, and carried that perspective with me as we journeyed to Dachau a few days later.

Stepping through the iron gate that read “Work Will Set You Free” and wandering through the former concentration camp within was indescribably challenging. Throughout the trip, even at sites on the Western Front where I had felt a sacred, vaguely spiritual connection, I had taken a myriad of pictures to remember my visit. Not at Dachau. I just felt as if I couldn’t, and I knew the mental images would last just as long. Something about walking in the footsteps of the 31,000 murdered there had a way of murdering the tourist inside of me. All I could do was wander through the various museum displays and vow to never forget the memory of those who suffered there.

Though my time on the Western Front had caused me to question humanity and modern civilization, my time at Dachau took it to an entirely different level. To see the horrid atrocities humans were capable of, and then to realize Dachau was the tip of the iceberg, the model Nazi concentration camp, was thoroughly chilling. Despair washed over me as I considered the profound evil that surrounded me. Where could God possibly be in all of this? As I sat in the asymmetrical Protestant chapel on Dachau’s grounds, I remembered Jürgen Moltmann’s interpretation of such terrible evil and suffering. Moltmann posited that as we suffer, God suffers alongside us. Picturing Jesus being worked to the bone, tortured, mocked, alongside the rest of the prisoners was an image I will never forget. In that most unlikely of places, I felt God’s presence. I hadn’t felt it in the elaborate, stained-glass chapels of Westminster Abbey, or Notre Dame, or Sainte-Chapelle, or even the countless cemeteries of the Western Front; I had felt it in a simple chapel in a former concentration camp.

Jewish grave in a German WWI military cemetery
Jewish grave at a German WWI cemetery in northern France (Sam Mulberry)

I have always enjoyed traveling because it allows me to step outside of routine, to venture to a faraway place and gain a fresh perspective on day to day life. Returning from the bustle of London and Paris, the devastation of the Western Front, the realities of evil in Munich, and the suffering of Dachau changed me in a radically different way than travel had ever changed me before. J.R.R. Tolkien surely understood the depth of personal change one encounters after experiencing the devastation of the Western Front. Years later, he said, through Frodo Baggins: “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.” When I returned home, walking Bethel’s campus again, I realized the truth of Frodo’s words. Experiencing the destruction of the First World War and the inhumanity of the Second not only transformed me, but also the world around me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to traverse through such life-changing places, and though I have returned home, I know there is no real going back.

– Justin Brecheisen

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