Visiting a war museum is not a pleasant or comfortable experience and I have left the ones I have visited in tears. Many of the images and artefacts are deeply disturbing, exposing me to atrocities that I cannot possibly imagine. I personally feel that it is important to understand the tragedies of the countries that you visit because it is only when you have seen how much a country has suffered that you can appreciate the spirit of the people who live there. What always amazes me about every war museum that I have visited is the sense of human courage and the spirit of endurance that lingers long after the images have begun to fade. Here is a selection of my most memorable.
Wall Memorial & Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Perhaps not technically a war museum, Checkpoint Charlie focuses on how unresolved issues of the Second World War led to the division of East and West Berlin. Unlike the other museums on my list this is history that I remember, well the coming down of the wall at least. As a child I remember the grainy images on TV depicting hoardes of people atop the wall clutching any weapon they could find and hacking into the construction that had oppressed them for so long. I didn’t understand what it meant then but those images were powerful when I looked around the museum and finally understood. Of course the museum suffers from the bias that you might expect from any war museum “Yes, we admit that the Nazis killed a few million people but what about Stalin? Look what he did!!” but it does not shy away from the atrocities committed and there are some harrowing stories.
The Wall Memorial, in comparison, was a far more poignant reminder. I was surprised to find parts of the wall both with and without graffiti, still standing in many parts of town, and to see the way that a line where the wall once stood still cuts a path through the city dividing buildings as it goes.
A-Bomb Museum, Hiroshima
Most people know the story–Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, America retaliated with the world’s first atomic bomb unleashing utter devastation upon thriving military port, Hiroshima. Of course the details are gruesome and shocking. What most affected me was that the people closest to the blast did not suffer horrific injuries, they were vaporised. All that remains are shadows imprinted on stone like an oversized photograph. How can you even begin to imagine that?
The children’s memorial is also a moving reminder of how the bomb continued to affect those not even hurt in the blast. 11 year old Sadako Sasaki, aged 2 when the bomb was dropped, believed that she would not die of leukemia if she folded 1000 paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of hope. When she realised that she would not get better she changed her wish that people would live in peace and there would be no more Hiroshimas. When she died her friends continued to fold the cranes. Now, thousands of coloured folded paper cranes decorate the city in the hope that the world will one day see true peace.
Coventry Cathedral, United Kingdom
Not technically a museum but a stark reminder of a world at war and a city that quite literally emerged from the ashes. The reason I have chosen to include this is because of a statue that is situated inside the grounds of the old, shell of a Cathedral. The Reconciliation, depicting a couple embracing over barbed wire, was designed by Josefina de Vasconcello to symbolise the reunion of nations at war. There are replica statues placed at Hiroshima’s A-bomb museum, Berlin’s Wall memorial and Stormont Castle in Belfast.
Bridge over the River Kwai/Hellfire Pass, Thailand
It was not until I visited Hellfire Pass in Kanchanaburi that I fully absorbed the truth of the World War. Yes, I had studied it at school but in England it was taught rather Eurocentrically – we looked at Germany and Britain. I didn’t realise that whilst Germany was rampaging through Europe, Japan was doing the same across South East Asia, perhaps with even more brutality. Thousands of prisoners of war were forced to build a ‘speed railway’ to transport goods from Burma to Singapore. Many died in the process. It is said that for every sleeper laid, a life was spent. 120,000 sleepers were laid. It is hardly a surprise that it is named the ‘Death Railway’.
Tseul Sleng (S21) and the Killing Fields of Cheung Euk, Cambodia
This is the museum that I found the most difficult, maybe because this is history that was so new to me. Hearing about the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign of terror in Cambodia really illustrated how warfare does not have to be one country against another but can be a country against its own people. The facts are shocking: babies bludgeoned to death, child soldiers, intellectuals and professionals rounded up and shot to ensure that there could be no education, and no healthcare. Entire cities emptied and thousands forced to live an agricultural life, where many died of starvation.
This museum is tough and leaves a bitter taste for a long time afterwards. But it was not the black and white images of countless victims, the torture implements, or even the gruesome signs instructing victims not to cry out when undergoing electrocution that I found the most difficult to deal with. It was the way that the dust underneath your feet unearths bones and rags of clothing as you walk around the killing fields of Cheung Euk. A constant reminder of the scale of the genocide committed there.
Although War Memorials are a sobering part of any trip they offer a chance for peace and solitary reflection as well as offering a valuable insight into the lives of people who have suffered and overcome atrocities that I am lucky never to have faced.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic, please drop me a line in the comments section below.