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Opinion

Traveler discovers the importance of history in Europe

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March 23, 2012

The International Traveling Classroom has spent quite a bit of time learning the history of Europe. We’ve talked about the Thirty Year’s War, countless numbers of monarchs and of course, the two world wars.

So much of our history lessons in school are centered on these two conflicts, specifically World War II. That’s a lot of talk without any real experiences to back any of it up or cement any of it in our minds. We know the dates and the details, but we rarely can see why these things are so important.

Visiting a place like Dachau changed all of that, at least for me. For those who don’t know, Dachau is one of the many concentration camps that were started during the Nazi regime in Germany and the rest of Europe. It is not too far outside of Munich, where we were staying and was used as the model for the rest of Hitler and Himmler’s hellish camps.

We got to the camp early in the morning and were joined by a guide who was brimming with all sorts of interesting information about the camp. The second I stepped onto the grounds and saw the wide open space that used to contain so much pain and horror, all of the random tidbits of information I’d learned about the camps over the years hit me all at once.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I was hanging on every word from our tour guide. The importance of this place ensnared me. There’s no getting away from the past.

Even though Dachau was never used as an extermination camp, according to our tour guide, recent evidence has come to light that shows the gas chamber at the camp may have been used to murder select groups of prisoners.

We made our way through the room where prisoners were told to undress and then walk into the chamber itself. I can’t lie. It ruined me. It’s not an experience I ever want to have again, but it’s one that I’m glad I was able to have in the first place.

There’s something about Europeans where they all just own their history. Berlin is full of monuments to those wronged during the reign of the Third Reich. German students are required to make visits to concentration camps.

The people of Prague know that their city has layers and layers of history piled down upon it. While in a bar in Prague, I had the bartender regale me with over 700 years of history that had happened in the old cellar where I was having a drink. They’re just aware of it, and that’s a good thing.

In America, we really don’t have that. Yes, our country is relatively new, but it’s not like there haven’t been atrocities perpetrated by our ancestors or all sorts of things that have just been pushed under the rug so we can feel better about ourselves.

Yeah, these things get mentioned in class, but how effective is that, really? Seeing all of the things I’ve seen in Europe and hearing Europeans talk about their past has made me feel like we’re just not doing enough.

We very rarely discuss our history in anything except for broad strokes, and I feel like that does so much of it a grave disservice.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. I doubt anyone does. If more of an emphasis were put on education in our culture, then maybe it wouldn’t even be an issue anymore. History is often weirder than fiction, and much more vital. I know that when I get back to the states, there will be a few history books sitting by my to-read stack.

We’re in Berchtesgaden, Germany, high in the Alps for the next week. The trip is starting to feel like it’s on the home stretch, but there’s still so much for us to look forward to.

Chris Rohling is a journalism major with a passion for storytelling in almost every medium.