Written by Jack Larimer (2019)
Major: Political Science and Economics
The Normandy Scholars Program was reinstated at the University of Tennessee in the spring of 2018 after nearly a decade of absence. While sharing the old program’s name, the new program’s focus on memory studies and how societies commemorate past conflicts differentiates it from its predecessor. Dr. Daniel Magilow, an associate professor of German, led the program and created the curriculum for the course. In the spring 2018 iteration of the course, four main topics were covered: societal generations, the theory of memory, memorials, and countermemorials, and the national narratives of France, Germany, and the UK about World War II. These topics inspired me to apply to the program.
As a political science and economics student, people’s behaviors and how they are informed by history fascinate me. Furthermore, as a member of the Haslam Scholars Program (HSP), I have been pushed to be critical of narratives that have been handed to me as truths. For example, in the Power course I took my freshman year, we discussed how power manifests itself in society – who is given a voice and, more importantly, who is not. World War II and its aftermath present a myriad of case studies documenting these power differentials. Moreover, HSP’s Knowledge course complimented my studies in the Normandy program as well. Our discussions in Knowledge about the possibility of Universal Truth and its consequences informed many of my in-class debates with the Normandy Scholars. These debates, along with our lectures and readings, culminated in our summer trip to London, UK, Caen and Paris, France, and Cologne, Germany.
Our time traveling as part of the program was a wonderful capstone to the course. It breathed life into all of the things we learned, while teaching us even more. A great example of this came in Cologne. While touring the city, we stopped at a former Gestapo headquarters. The building had miraculously survived the heavy bombing by the Allied powers and allowed for tremendous insight to the horrors committed by the Germans. These horrors were introduced to us as well. We spent time in the cold, cramped, and dark cells underneath the building. We saw the writings etched into the walls by those who were awaiting death. The most chilling part of it all came when we stepped into the calm and quiet courtyard where the executions took place. It was during our time spent in silence that I realized no amount of discussion on oppression, genocide, or power dynamics can prepare one for the horror of its aftermath.
Such sobering experiences were complimented with further influential time spent studying primary sources in each country. When entering museums, we were challenged with critiquing their presentation, what they chose to present, and how they framed each piece. For example, in a French museum, those sent to concentration camps were referred to as “deportees.” We had learned that this sort of language was meant to distance France from its culpability in the death of so many of its marginalized citizens.
This challenge given by the Normandy Program to challenge the history I read as well as myself pushed me to supplement my studies after the trip concluded. Instead of returning to the U.S. from Germany, I took a flight to Krakow, Poland. While there, I traveled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. There I saw unbridled terror that humans can cause. Just as with my experience in Cologne, none of my studies prepared me for the unprecedented scale of the Nazi death camp. In my time spent wandering the endless shacks that the victims of the Holocaust were sequestered to, I reflected on my responsibility as a scholar. I was reminded that all of the privileges and knowledge given to me through the Haslam and Normandy Scholars Programs would mean nothing if I did not commit to action upon graduation. Millions died in Europe because of the inaction of so many like me: educated, privileged, well-meaning people.
These examples are just a few of the many great and meaningful experiences afforded to me by the Normandy Scholars Program. My time spent in the class and in Europe furthered my development as a scholar to an extent only matched by the HSP.