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Post-war Europe

Sarah Hofmann / jbApril 23, 2015

An exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin asks: How did Europe deal with post-war life? The unfathomable ramifications of World War II are made real through personal accounts.

German Historical Museum Exhibition 1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Image: DW/Sarah Hofmann

On May 8th 1945, the 19-year-old Ernst Kohlmann flew over his parent's former home in a US military plane. He didn't know that his parents had already been deported from Cologne and murdered in Riga in 1941.

Ernst was one of the 10,000 Jewish children and teenagers who fled from Germany to the United Kingdom, saved by a British rescue mission called "Kindertransport." Ernst wasn't a British citizen at the time, but was trained by the Royal Air Force.

On the last day of World War II, he was allowed to join two American officers on their flight over his hometown. To convince the pilots to fly over his parent's house, Ernst calculated their position in his own private logbook.

German Historical Museum Exhibition 1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning. Copyright: Deutsches Historisches Museum
Iconic image of 1945: The poet Jewgeni Dolmatowski with Hitler bust in BerlinImage: Sammlung Ernst Volland und Heinz Krimmer/DHM

Ernst's logbook is now part of an exhibition put on by the German Historical Museum in Berlin, 70 years after the end of World War II. His story is one of the 36 personal accounts that illustrate the end of the war in Europe.

The exhibition "1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning." focuses on 12 European countries, among them Germany and its neighbors France, Belgium and Poland, as well as the United Kingdom and Russia. Italy and Greece, which was temporarily occupied by the Nazis, aren't part of the exhibition.

45 million dead - and many displaced

"We have a particular perspective on 1945 in Germany and we must preserve it," said foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the exhibition on Thursday (23.04.2015). "Our liberation is our responsibility. This responsability has been summarized in a two-word formula which has shaped each generation of Germans since 1945: 'Never again'."

After Germany's attack on Poland in September 1939, the war raged on for five and a half years. The results were devastating: 45 million people were killed in Europe alone, and there were 60 million victims worldwide. More than 13 million of them were victims of Nazi crimes. In no other war did so many people die.

German Historical Museum Exhibition 1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning. Copyright: Deutsches Historisches Museum
Millions of Europeans didn't know where to go - freed forced laborers among themImage: Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum

At least 20 million half-orphans and orphans, seven million freed camp laborers and around 400,000 concentration camp inmates were homeless, spread out all over Europe.

Post-war challenges

The exhibition at the German Historical Museum demonstrates well how each country had to face unique challenges after the end of the war.

Germany lost the war - and its sovereignty as a nation-state. The country was split into four by the Allied forces. Soon after, diverging interests among the Allies and the Cold War led to the foundation of two separate German states.

German Historical Museum Exhibition 1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning. Copyright: Deutsches Historisches Museum
Warsaw in January 1945Image: Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum

Vast areas of Poland were also devastated. Three million Poles were displaced.

The Soviet Union gained power and Stalinism tightened its grip around the Eastern block.

Although the United Kingdom belonged to the winning forces, the post-war years were grim and marked by poverty and suffering. As a reaction, the Labour government slowly transformed the country into a modern welfare state.

France also needed to reform its republican government.

Who should be punished?

Despite the different outcomes, all countries shared one major question: Who should be punished? The average state employee whose administrative actions contributed to Jewish property being looted? The farmer who collaborated in a mass shooting of partisan fighters? The illustrator who drew anti-Semitic cartoons? Or just the SS commander who oversaw the mass killings of Jews in the concentration camps? Many of these cases were brought before court in different countries in Europe.

"Particularly in Germany, the general population was very reluctant to face what had happened," says the curator of the museum, Babette Quinkert.

This was handled differently in Norway, for example, which had been occupied by Germany as well. It had the most thorough investigations and sentences for war criminals and collaborators of all European countries.

Poland also started important Auschwitz trials early on, in 1947 - they started in the middle of the 1950s in Germany - and most of the defendents were sentenced to death.

"Not many people know that almost nine out of ten victims of Nazi crimes came from Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic and Poland", says Quinkert.

Remembering lost classmates

Larisa Popovičenko returned to Leningrad, her hometown, when she was 14 years old, only to realize that all her friends were either dead or had left. Out of 32 classmates, only eight of them had survived the siege of Leningrad.

The photo of her school class can be seen at the exhibition. "To this day, it pains me to see this," says the 84-year-old Larisa Popovičenko as she stends among the visitors of the exhibition on opening day. "But the memory of my classmates and this terrible time is kept alive. I grateful for this."

German Historical Museum Exhibition 1945 - Defeat. Liberation. New Beginning. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Larisa Popovičenko's class in LeningradImage: DW/S. Hofmann

"We thank you deeply for coming to Berlin, to the country where this national and racial madness which caused this immense suffering all started," Steinmeier told the eyewitness during his opening speech.

She is not resentful towards the Germans. "They were suffering and starving, too," she says, remembering how she and other inhabitants of Leningrad would bring bread to the German prisoners of war, after the war ended.