Our World War I group is more than halfway through its J-term in Europe. As we continue our stay in Paris, we’re all still thinking about our four days at Ypres, the Somme, and Normandy, three of the most important battlefields of the 20th century.
Here I’m happy to share two reflections written by Graphic Design/Studio Art major Anna Solomon during that stage of the trip. She started by thinking about the first stop on our Ypres tour: the British cemetery at Essex Farm, where a Canadian doctor named John McCrae wrote one of the most famous poems of WWI. Then Anna reexamined her impressions of the First World War after seeing sites from the Second.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019 – Going from the bustling metropolis of London with its energy, charm, fun, comfort, weather, and familiarity to Ypres was a meaningful experience. Ypres is quiet, solemn, open, quaint, moving (emotionally), cold… and home to some of the most remarkable experiences of the trip. Seeing where “In Flanders Fields” was written was humbling. I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the gravitas of these places. I feel like I want to cry (I kind of have a few times), but that’s good because it means it’s important. Even though my great-grandfather was the one to fight here and not me, these sites are giving me a connection with a war I never fought and a man not even my grandfather knew.
Essex Farm was also impactful because we saw workers [from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission] maintaining the graves. Seeing them serving and interacting with the site in that way was striking. Watching them tend the grounds they seemed like gardeners of honor and ghosts of the past. The war still means so much to them, as does the conservation of these sites and of the sacrifices of the past. Here history walks the grounds and shakes me to my core.
Saturday, January 12, 2019 – …at the WWI sites I felt distraught and bitter about the war. My great-grandfather’s dog tags and victory medal felt impossibly heavy on my mind and in my pockets. My eyes would tear up thinking of how brutal and awful a war it was. The WWII sites at Normandy, however, felt different, and it quite frankly made me ponder why I felt that way. At the beaches and bunkers I felt excited… maybe because this seemed like a place and a war where Americans were heroes, the good guys; we were victorious. In movies and TV shows I’ve heard about these events, and it’s exhilarating to be in the place where they happened. The feeling of this being a glorious war swiftly faded upon contemplation. What horrors were seen and committed here… how many lives were lost here… what a different world this would have been to live in and through… what a haunting legacy.
On Wednesday we’ll take the train to Munich, where we’ll conclude our trip by studying some of the most important legacies of the First World War: the rise of National Socialism, the start of a second world war, and the radical evil of the Holocaust. Look for a final set of student reflections next Tuesday or Wednesday.
Today our World War I group will head to Oxford to learn about the world wars as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis experienced and interpreted them. Meanwhile, we thought we’d share a few student responses from our first days in London, as they reflect on some of the commemorative sites we’ve visited.
“The memorial that I found most interesting was Trafalgar Square because it hit me the most in terms of generating empathy… if I had been there in 1914, I would have joined the war, too. The monuments to past generals, admirals, and war heroes inspired me, and I am not even English. I would have… wanted to be remembered in history as a part of them.” (Drew Davis, senior Business major)
“After going to multiple memorial sites, I found the one most memorable to be the Women of WWII memorial… The monument itself is stuck right in the middle of the road, which you’d think would grab the attention of the drivers who go past it. But it seems like it’s part of their daily routine. I love how tall it was and how it was solid. It serves as a constant reminder of the women who stepped up in the war effort to preserve the life that was still going on at home. I also like how the clothes represented different roles, which showed the diversity of the women who served.” (Laura Dahlquist, senior Nursing major)
“For me the most interesting memorial was Australia’s… due to my lack of knowledge of Australia’s involvement in the wars. I was really amazed by the simple beauty of the wall, and by how many people had died… Their sacrifices in the wars were interesting due to their location… Their involvement and the number of battles show that the wars was appealing universally. Not just for Europeans, but to others around the world. A chance to prove oneself or to prove a country’s capabilities…” (Logan Olson, senior History/Political Science major)
On Wednesday we’ll start our tour of WWI (Flanders, The Somme) and WWII (Normandy) battlefields. Come back here next week to read some student reflections on that portion of our tour.
This afternoon Prof. Mulberry and I will fly to London with 23 Bethel students for the fourth iteration of our HIS230L World War I travel course.
As usual, we’ll start with eight days in London and Oxford, then cross the English Channel for our battlefield tour — this year including a day at Normandy to start making connections between the two world wars. We’ll finish with four days in Paris and five in Munich before heading home.
If you want to follow along with our journeys, we’ll be sharing photos on our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook pages, or you can look for the hashtags #BethelWWI and #BethelAbroad. We might even blog a bit from the road, as students reflect on sites they visit and primary sources they read.
Please pray that we’ll all have safe travels and transformative experiences as we delve into the history of a war that ended a century ago last month.
As many of you may remember from one of our courses, World War I ended 100 years ago this month — at least, on its most famous front. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns finally fell silent in Belgium and northern France.
If you’d like to take part in commemorating the centennial of that armistice, here are a few events coming up in the Twin Cities:
The Pulitzer Prize-winning opera about the Christmas Truce of 1914 comes home to the Minnesota Opera for a run at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. There are performances this weekend and next, plus the 13th and 15th. (I was part of a panel previewing the production last Monday; here’s a blog post inspired by one of the questions I received: “What misconceptions do we have about World War I?”)
The Veterans Memorial Community Center in Inver Grove Heights will host the state’s Veterans Day event on Sunday morning, 9:30-11:30. The keynote speaker will be Nancy O’Brien Wagner, editor of a new collection of WWI letters from her great-aunt, one of the many women who volunteered for service in the war.
Around the country on Sunday, there will be bell-ringing ceremonies to mark the centennial of the Armistice. In addition to local churches, there will be a state Bells of Peace event on the University of Minnesota campus at Northrup Auditorium. The ceremony will start at 10:45am, with 21 bells rung at 11am, and then the reading of the names of all 1,432 Minnesotan soldiers killed in the war. (Presumably including at least a couple of Bethel’s fallen alumni.)
Then at 4pm, Northrup will host the American debut of composer Patrick Hawes’ Great War Symphony (simultaneous with a production at Carnegie Hall in New York). While you’re at the Lest We Forget concert, you can also see David Geister’s mural, World War 1 America, which he painted during the run of that exhibition last year at the Minnesota History Center.
That mural now resides in the library of the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley, which is open Thursday-Saturday and has a special exhibit through next year, In the Fight: Minnesota and the World War.
Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War on its famous Western Front. As part of the international commemoration of that event, the Minnesota Opera will be performing Silent Night, a dramatization of the 1914 Christmas Truce, at the Ordway Center — November 10-18.
As a preview event, the Minnesota Opera, MinnPost, and the University of Minnesota’s School of Music are presenting “Silent Night: A Soldier’s Humanity and the Impact of WWI” — Monday, October 29, 7pm at Westminster Hall in downtown Minneapolis. I’ll be one of the panelists discussing soldiers’ experiences of the war, plus a member of the cast will perform selections from the opera itself. The event is free, but click the link above to register.
To put you in mind of the subject… Enjoy these photos from Monday night’s meeting of our J-term WWI trip participants. Bethel alum Jenna Kubly ’02 joined us to share some of her extensive collection of WWI artifacts, including everything from swords and uniforms to medals and postcards.
Jenna with History/Business major Jeremy Schipper ’20
Business major Dalton Tanner ’21 trying on the uniform of a French artillery officer
Interim 2018 is barely in our rear view mirror, but it’s time to start thinking about January 2019… when Prof. Mulberry and I will take our fourth group of Bethel students to Europe for the travel course HIS230L World War I!
Here’s the course description:
An experiential study of the history of the First World War built around travel in England, Belgium, France, and Germany, including visits to battlefield sites, cemeteries, memorials, and museums. Students will learn what it was like to experience and remember total war and to appreciate this particular conflict’s larger significance for American and European culture.
The itinerary is still taking shape, but will roughly follow this schedule:
Depart MSP: Dec. 31, 2018
Stay in London (with a day trip to Oxford): Jan. 1-8
Battlefield tour of the Western Front and Normandy: Jan. 9-12
Stay in Paris (with a day trip to Versailles): Jan. 13-15
Stay in Munich (with a day trip to Dachau): Jan. 16-20
Return to MSP: Jan. 21, 2019
Yes, this year we’re cutting a day out of our stay in Paris in order to extend the battlefield tour to include some sites from the Second World War. It’s a topic we’ve always touched on — especially during our last leg in Munich — but wanted to expand a bit as we mark the 100th anniversary of the peace conference that ended WWI and started the clock ticking on WWII. (It’s also a chance to preview my actual WWII class — HIS231L — next offered in Spring 2019. On campus, that is.)
Current students: if you’re interested in joining the trip, here’s how you can learn more.
Yesterday Prof. Gehrz joined Art professors Michelle Westmark Wingard and Ken Steinbach for a conversation about memorials and monuments moderated by Bethel digital librarian Kent Gerber. Entitled “The Significance of Public Memory,” it covered everything from debates over Confederate memorials and the memory of the U.S.-Dakota War to examples of European memorials from our World War I trip (coming again in January 2019).
For some historical and theological reflections on Memorial Day, Christianity Today this year turned to our own Chris Gehrz, who teaches courses on World War I and World War II and has written extensively about commemoration.
On one hand, Prof. Gehrz emphasized that “every day is a memorial day for Christians, heirs of Moses’ exhortation to the assembly of Israel: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deut. 32:7)” and suggested that Christians might embrace today’s call to remembrance as one more “way of loving our (temporal) neighbors and proclaiming that the grave has won no lasting victory.”
But he also wrestled with the fact that Memorial Day is “a festival of our nation’s civil religion… approached heedlessly, it will tempt us to pledge to the nation-state the ‘total allegiance‘ that we owe to nothing and no one but God.”
To read the full essay and learn how Prof. Gehrz found something potentially redemptive in American civil religion, click here.
Today we’re happy to share a photo essay by History major and department TA Connor Larson ’17, who spent Interim in Europe with Profs. Gehrz and Mulberry and nineteen other Bethel students.
The J-term trip through Europe studying World War I and its effects on society and culture was a resounding success. Here is a glimpse at some of what we did.
England: Jan. 3-11
Upon arriving in London and passing through customs we quickly unloaded our luggage at the lovely Wombats Hostel and began our journey.
Although jet-lagged and disoriented the walking tour went well, fast-walking tour guide and all.
Trafalgar Square was one of our first stops.
Despite the jet lag everyone was having a great time.
The Lion of the Midwest.
One of the amazing things about London is the vast amount of memorials and monuments for the numerous wars and events the country has been involved in throughout its history. Luckily for us that means there was no shortage of WWI-era memorials to examine.
Merchant Navy Memorial
Among the many ships and crews honored here the Lusitania is one of note for the American interest
Field Marshal Haig
Machine Gun Corp Memorial
Close up of the Machine Gun Corp Memorial
Artillery Corp Memorial
The opposite side of the Artillery Corp Memorial
For many of the memorials visited in London the students gave lessons on the importance of the memorial and influence of those honored both in the war and in the years after.
One of the highlights for many on the trip was a visit to the Imperial War Museum, and it was an experience many would never forget.
Our trip, while grounded in the First World War, spent an equal amount of time on the impact of war on society by looking at the arts (primarily fine art and poetry). Art and war are deeply connected, and through our museum visits we were able to see how the war affected society in a way that books and artifacts rarely have an ability to portray. I am omitting photos of this portion of the trip because I believe the impact of what we read and saw would be reduced in such a degree where it would be a disservice to attempt recreating it here.
On our free day many of us went and stormed Dover Castle. Here is our journey.
On the train to Dover, Brandon Sebey ’17, History and Social Studies Ed major, does reconnaissance to create a plan of attack.
On the bridge into the castle, we are surprised at the ease of entry.
The future queen overlooks her new domain. She is not impressed.
When I picture British landscapes this is what always came to mind; was not disappointed.
We have made it to the castle roof, victory!
Talking about the successful storming of Dover Castle.
The new leadership takes the throne of Dover Castle.
All joking aside, it was an amazing experience and a great opportunity to learn about both medieval and modern history, as the castle and town played an important role in both World Wars.
To wrap up our time in England here are some more photos that are neither educational nor related to World War I.
Belgium & Northern France: Jan. 11-13
The few days spent exploring the front lines of the war were the climax of the trip for most, if not all, of us. Despite our enthusiasm none of us were ready for the emotional toll this portion of the trip would have on us. Reading about casualties and statistics pales in comparison to seeing the hundreds of grave sites scattered around Belgium and Northern France, let alone the front lines throughout the rest of Europe. Here, for example, are some photos from the former military hospital near Poperinge, Belgium.
Langemark was the first German cemetery we visited. Where American deceased were sent back to the states and British troops given individual graves in the field where they fell, German soldiers were given a much different burial. German soldiers were soldiers for their fatherland first, individuals second. Individual graves were time consuming and costly to the war effort, meaning that mass graves were common behind the German front lines. This is not reducing the individual to nothing but rather putting the state in front of oneself, an important distinction to make.
As we went from one grave site to another many of us had trouble fighting off the inevitable desensitizing nature of witnessing the aftermath of so many lives. As difficult as it was to witness the amount of lives lost we would rather feel that weight than have those emotions watered down in the face of incomprehensible numbers.
The French military cemetery near Ablain-St-Nazaire includes a basilica known at Notre Dame de Lorette
Across from the cemetery is a newer memorial: the Ring of Remembrance, which includes the names of 576,606 fallen soldiers (listed alphabetically, rather than by nationality, rank, or unit)
We visited various memorials during our time in Belgium and Northern France as well, including one honoring the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in the war, specifically at Vimy Ridge.
Along with the beautiful memorial pictured above, the Canadian government, when given the choice to do with this land what they wished, opted to preserve the landscape, keeping it in the same condition as it was immediately after the war. The only changes were in trees that had been transplanted and grass that has been grown there.
We were given the opportunity to walk through recreated trenches at Vimy Ridge, giving a feeling for the distance one would have had between the enemy and themselves.
The topography of Vimy Ridge gives a stunning picture of what war-torn Europe would have looked like in 1918
Our guide, Carl Ooghe, giving the class a very animated lecture on the importance of mortars during the war.
Straight Outta’ Belgium
The cement structure in the foreground is the “enemy” trench, a distance much shorter than one may think.
Another image showing the distance between trenches
Brandon keeps a keen lookout from his fortified bunker.
While we visited numerous other memorials and cemeteries in our time we had to move on, visiting somewhere completely different, both physically and mentally.
Paris, France: Jan. 13-18
To say that Paris was a shock after travelling the French and Belgium countryside for the past few days would be an understatement. On top of the new city and transportation system to learn, we struggled with a language barrier, general travel fatigue, and the mental drain of visiting and seeing all that we had in the past few days.
Much like our time in London, Paris occupied our time with walking tours of famous monuments and visiting various museums located throughout the city. Our museum and transit passes (included in the trip) filled our stay with fine art and exploration.
The Louvre was an incredible journey of art, history, and architecture.
Business and Poli Sci double-major Noah Fedje ’17 giving a presentation on the Palace of Versaille
Do you hear the people sing?
While the English may have created the first Tank, the French gave us the turreted top-gun.
Yet again, not all of our time was devoted to the history of Europe. Much of our time was also spent enjoying the city.
There is one last thing that we did which has a special place in the hearts of everyone who was on this trip: The Handball Tournament.
Both Dr. Gehrz and Prof. Mulberry mentioned this optional outing while we were touring Belgium and Northern France. After everyone decided to go, they feared that an overstatement was made in how great it would be. If their visions of grandeur were anything, it would be understated. Handball is easily one of the most fun sports to watch, and although the stadium was mostly empty we certainly made enough noise for everyone who was absent.
We had no ties to either team playing, confusing those around us as we cheered for everything that happened. Many came out without a voice and the events that went down in that stadium will never be forgotten.
Munich, Germany: Jan. 18-23
If one thing prepared us for coming home during our last week in Europe it was the weather. Munich was by far the coldest location we visited, although not as cold as the Twin Cities while we were away. Our standard walking tour, while cold and windy, gave our tired feet a brief respite; snow is much softer to walk on than cement.
Despite the weather Munich was a beautiful way to end our time in Europe. The food was delicious and cheap, people were nice (generally speaking), and our free day was a blast. Many of us decided to take a train to Salzburg, Austria and witness hills alive with the sound of music (spoiler alert; the hills were, unfortunately, not alive regardless of the state of music in said hills). We explored yet another castle and came closer to grasping the true meaning of the term “winter wonderland.”
The train to Salzburg was a whimsical affair.
The top of the castle, overlooking Salzburg
As the trip progressed my photography effort declined due to a combination of fatigue, overload, and a desire to be more fully enveloped in the experiences of the trip. As great as documenting a journey such as this can be you end up focusing more on getting the right shot rather than enjoying the right moments. There is a balance that I have yet to discover, but for now I am glad I can look back at everything we had been through and all that we had learned.
The flight home seemed to take twice as long as the journey taken a few weeks prior. As with all ends to great adventures the homecoming was bittersweet. I think we all were glad to be home, thankful for the experience, and sad to have it be over. I hope that as many people as possible get the chance to travel and expand their thoughts and horizons, and this trip was a great opportunity to do just that. We were able to learn more about ourselves, new cultures, and a pivotal moment in history that affected nearly every nation in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.