For those who are constantly glued to the World War II documentaries on the History Channel and have read countless books and articles about Allied tactics and strategic movements on the European fronts, a visit to Europe is the next step in your historical education. Personally seeing and physically standing on the many sites that were significant to that time will provide an unparalleled perspective and insight into the facts you already know about the war, as well as offer new information that is sometimes hard to come by from secondary sources. So for all the history buffs out there, here are 15 sites significant to the Second World War that, ranging from inspirational to overwhelming, are worth visiting in Europe:
15. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Germany
This work camp just outside of Berlin is found about three km from the location of the first ever Nazi concentration camp known as Oranienburg (now destroyed). The camp became the center of Nazi operations and is now a museum detailing the life of the inhabitants, both officers and detainees in a number of exhibits. Visitors can also see the special exhibition dedicated to the Oranienburg camp found in the museum’s permanent exhibit, and walk the ground of the camp for an incomparable lesson in the severity of the Nazi aggression.
14. Arnhem Bridge, Netherlands
This bridge became well known after the strategic operation known as Operation Market Garden, whereby the Arnhem Bridge was the last in a string of strategic points targeted for takeover by the Allied forces. Successful up until that point, the Allies were unable to capture the bridge in the September 1944 Battle of Arnhem, an event that later became the subject of several books and the Hollywood film “A Bridge Too Far.” Surviving the September battle, the bridge was destroyed by Allied troops in October of the same year to help curb the transport of German supplies. In 1949 the bridge was rebuilt in the same style, and in 1977, renamed “The John Frostburg” in honor of the British commander that defended it in the September battle.
13. Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, Krakow, Poland
As many who have read the Thomas Keneally’s novel “Schindler’s List” or seen the Spielberg movie of the same name know, Oskar Schindler was a Nazi Party member who saved hundreds of Jewish lives through political bribery and Jewish employment at his enamel and munitions factories. The administrative building of the enamel factory still stands today, and houses the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, which is mainly devoted to the Party member and the lives of “his Jews.” This museum is must-see for anyone who wants to learn more about the life of a man now largely regarded as a hero.
12. Humboldthain Flak Tower, Germany
Originally constructed as a solution to air-strike vulnerability, German Flak Towers were domineering concrete complexes that sheltered anti-aircraft guns and protected ammunition from falling bombs. The towers operated in pairs, one a gun tower (Gefechsturm or G tower) and the other a command tower (Leitturn or L tower). Their heavily reinforced structure also served as bomb shelters for civilians as well as an extremely effective defensive center, with a radar dish that could detect bombers from over 50 miles away, eight 128-mm cannons with a firing capacity of 48 shells per minute and a number of other smaller cannons scattered around the tower. Many of the towers have since been destroyed or converted, but the one remaining in Berlin is open to visitors.
11. Vel D’Hiv Monument, France
Though the actual building of the Velodrome d’Hiver (indoor cycling track) was destroyed and replaced by government buildings, visitors can still stand on the spot, commemorated by a plaque, where in July of 1942, Jewish families in France were rounded up by the French police and forcibly herded into the Velodrome. It is there that over 13,000 citizens waited in deplorable conditions (without food, water or washroom facilities) for days before being dispersed among various concentration camps. A memorial to the victims was erected in the city in 1993, with the French Government issuing a public apology at a memorial service at the site in 1995.
10. Oradour-Sur-Glane, France
This small village in western France is memorialized as the site of one of the largest Nazi massacres on French soil. On June 10, 1944 SS officers stormed the village and killed the vast majority of residents, some 642 men, women and children, before largely destroying the area. Though officially rebuilt a few km north, the French government ordered the original site to be untouched and to stand testament to the horrors committed there. Visitors can walk through the ruins of the ghost town and pay their respects at the onsite memorial.
9. Umschlagplatz, Warsaw, Poland
During German occupation, the German-named Umschlagplatz (“reloading point”) was the Square in Warsaw used to round up Polish Jews and organize their deportation from the Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp. People waited in hordes for hours until enough detainees were rounded up to fill the train cars, with any signs of resistance resulting in instant death. Today, the site of the former Square is home to a memorial constructed in the image of train cars, erected to pay tribute to the countless lives doomed (and lost) on these very premises.
8. Warsaw Ghetto, Poland
In the beautiful Polish city of Warsaw, there still stands a testament to the largest and deadliest Nazi-created Ghetto in Europe. By the deadline of October 15, 1940, the city’s large Jewish population was forcibly required to move into an 18 km area which enclosed 73 of the city’s 1800 streets, and was divided into the “small” and “large” ghettos linked by a wooden bridge. At highest capacity, the Ghetto housed about 380,000 people, translating to about eight residents per room. Today, the site is commemorated by “The Footbridge of Memory” which denotes the location of the original bridge between the two Ghettos, several monument and memorials. The area also still contains chunks of the original separating wall as well as decrepit residential buildings which have stood untouched for the past seven decades.
7. The Wolf’s Lair, Poland
This major complex hidden among a dense Masurian forest was Hitler’s first headquarters on the Eastern Front, and became his most frequently inhabited hideout (he spent about half the war here). Originally built for the impending invasion of the Soviet Union, the property became a sort of small town consisting of shelters, barracks, two airfields as well as a power and rail station. Despite being heavily reinforced and highly secure, this was also the site of the infamous July 1944 assassination attempt of Hitler by Claus Von Stauffenberg. The premises were vacated and destroyed by German officials in January of 1945 and remained untouched by the Polish Government until the fall of Communism. Today, the site is in ruins but has become a popular tourist attraction with a handful of hotels and restaurants now available in the remote area.
6. Bletchley Park, England
Featured in the film “The Imitation Game,” Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire was Britain’s central site for code breaking during the Second World War. As the location of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), it became the largest and most successful institution in penetrating secret Axis communications, most famously of the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. Analysis now suggests that the efforts conducted on these premises shortened the war by about 2 years, and the school is now an educational and historic attraction commemorating the accomplishments of the institution.
5. Fuhrerbunker, Berlin
Now largely destroyed, this bunker was located under the former Reich Chancellery building in the heart of the city, and is the site where Hitler spent the last few weeks of the war, married Eva Braun and committed suicide in April of 1945. Located 11.5 feet below ground level, the bunker was a system of 30 small rooms protected by 13 foot thick concrete walls with an exit point in the Reich Chancellery gardens. Today, the site looks inconspicuous enough as a quiet residential neighborhood, and is largely unmarked save the small plaque and information board that denotes the location and provides a schematic diagram of the bunker.
4. Cabinet War Rooms, England
Partially restored and opened as a museum to the public in 1985, the Cabinet War Rooms were originally a secret complex under the basement of the Treasury. The bomb blitz of December 1940 forced the complex to be reinforced as a bomb bunker, becoming the main strategic headquarters for the War Cabinet (consisting of Prime Minister Churchill and several Conservative and Labor Party ministers). Today visitors can descend below the streets of Westminster and check out the various rooms of the complex as they would have existed during the war, and of especial significance, the Map Room, which remains exactly as it was when the premises were closed and vacated in August of 1945.
3. Auschwitz- Birkenau, Poland
Originally built in 1940 as a detention center for political prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the Nazi’s most gruesome legacy—the largest death camp and the primary site for the “Final Solution.” Located on the site of a former military base just outside of Krakow, Poland, the complex was regarded as the ideal location to carry out Nazi atrocities because of its proximity to the rail lines used to transport prisoners. Liberated on January 27, 1945 by the Soviet Army, estimates suggest that upwards of 1.1 million deaths were carried out on the property. Today, Auschwitz is a harrowing museum complex not for the faint of heart. While undeniably an important site to see, visitors are urged to check out the museum website (http://visit.auschwitz.org/ ) to familiarize themselves with the rules, entry pass guidelines and capacity restrictions before their visit.
2. Musee de la Reddition, France
This red brick schoolhouse just northwest of the Reims train station is the historic site where, in the early morning of May 7, 1945 high officers from the German army met with officers of the Allied forces and signed the declaration of unconditional surrender, ending the second world war in Europe. Now known as the Lycee Roosevelt, the property was being used as the headquarters of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the room where the signature took place, the map room, remains perfectly preserved behind a glass panel and comprises the museum now called the Musee de la Reddition.
1. Normandy, France
It is on this stretch of beaches on the Normandy coast where the infamous D-Day Landings of June 6, 1944 took place, changing the course of the war to favor the Allies. The five beaches—Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah—were where the forces of the French, British, Canadian and American armies successfully landed and commenced an operation that changed the tide of WWII in Europe. Today, visitors can pay their respects to the sacrifices made by these troops at the various memorials found on the beaches, at the military cemeteries of each army and learn more about the operation and strategy at the various museums and information centers.
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