THE Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg had no natural defences to prevent the German army overrunning and occupying them in 1940. Amsterdam was liberated only at the very end of the war, on 5 May 1945.
Before the Netherlands was occupied, German Jews fleeing persecution in their homeland thought that they would be safe here. That was the belief of the Frank family, who relocated to Amsterdam from Berlin in 1933, and from July 1942 lived covertly in a secret annex attached to a business premises belonging to Otto Frank.
Behind a hinged bookcase are the secret rooms occupied for almost two years by the Franks and their friends, of whom only Otto survived the war. The premises became the Anne Frank House, the third most popular museum in the city and a must for any overseas visitor.
A short walk from Anne Frank’s House is the Verzetsmuseum (the Resistance Museum), where poignant exhibits include a farewell letter written by a condemned prisoner, and a tiny box of potatoes sent to one city-based family from relatives in the country. Such parcels were godsends during the “Hunger Winter” that the Nazis inflicted on the Netherlands in the autumn and winter of 1944, and which led to widespread famine in the western Netherlands until the country’s liberation.
Ask at either museum for a leaflet detailing the self-guided walking tour of sites connected to the fate of the city’s Jews in the war. The tour of Amsterdam’s old Jewish neighbourhood, in particular its Jewish Cultural Quarter, includes a visit to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theatre commandeered by the Nazis in 1942 and used as a holding and deportation centre; it is now a memorial museum. Other sites of note include the Jewish Historical Museum (including the JHM Children’s Museum inside); the Portuguese Synagogue, and the National Holocaust Museum.
istockThe poignant ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church tower in BerlinBerlin
BERLIN was the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, from his rise to power in 1933 until the siege and defeat of the city by the Soviet Red Army in April-May 1945. Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, committed suicide in an underground bunker in the city, and the Berlin Declaration, declaring Germany’s unconditional surrender and the assumption of supreme authority by the United States, the Soviet Union, the UK, and France, was signed here.
Today, the city is still full of buildings and monuments related to the Third Reich, many of which can be connected by a short walk. Start in Alexanderplatz (the de facto city centre), and head west towards the Brandenburg Gate. After crossing the canal you come to the Bebelplatz — the public square housing the State Opera building, among others. This is where German Student Union members burned books that were deemed to be subversive, in May 1933. The attack on culture by an ideology is symbolised by a work of art: a sunken library of empty shelves.
From the Brandenburg Gate, hugely symbolic in the reunification of Germany, follow the edge of the Tiergarten Park to Stauffenbergstraβe, a street named after the leading plotter who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. On it stands the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which honours Germans involved in resistance activities, and others who did not succumb to propaganda and threats.
Go back to Tiergarten and keep going west. South of Berlin Zoo, which is located in the park, you come to the stub of the tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was completely destroyed in April 1945 and preserved as an anti-war memorial. The modern church was consecrated on 17 December 1961.
On successive days in the city, other significant places to chose between visiting include the Reichstag (Parliament), the Holocaust Memorial, the German-Russian Museum (telling the story of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union), and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, just outside Berlin.
istockA reminder of the D-Day landings on Omaha beach
ON 6 June 1944, an immense Allied invasion force crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of northern Normandy to begin their slow liberation of Western Europe and their advance towards Germany.
Still today there are military remains on the five beaches of the D-Day coast (codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword), and seeing them all will take a week. Cemeteries, memorials, and museums abound. At Bayeux is the largest Second World War military cemetery in France.
For a shorter introduction and a more human picture of the war, turn inland and build your tour around two museums: the Mémorial de Caen, in Caen, and the Mémorial des Civils dans la Guerre, in Falaise.
The Mémorial de Caen is a war museum with a difference. It looks at all wars, but tries to steer a path towards the importance of preserving the peace. It provides an in-depth overview of the origins of the Second World War, through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It is a short bus journey or drive south of Caen to Falaise, where a large segment of the German army was surrounded in July 1944, and the town was consequently pulverised by bombs. The Mémorial des Civils dans la Guerre evokes the sufferings of ordinary civilians, who are often neglected in the accounts of battles. On the ground floor, a film is shown over the ruins of a bombed house.
istockThe entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a short drive from Krakow
POLAND was occupied throughout the Second World War, and its inhabitants were treated with great cruelty. Civilian leaders, priests, and intellectuals were killed, there were mass deportations, and Polish males who remained were subjected to forced labour. In addition, about 90 per cent of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population — an estimated three million people — were murdered by the Nazis.
For a weekend trip that shows the darkest side of the Holocaust, but also holds out a glimpse of hope, fly into Poland’s southern city of Krakow. Kazimierz is Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter; it now has a creative hub of quirky shops, galleries, and bars, but also synagogues, monuments, and the Galicia Jewish Museum.
The next day take a train or bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau (41 miles away, near Oswiecim), infamous the world over as the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp, now a museum to the effects of inhumanity and vital to the act of remembering.
Back in Krakow, a visit to the enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, whose story was told in a book by Thomas Keneally and subsequently by Steven Spielberg, provides the balance. Schindler was a German industrialist with Nazi connections; he nevertheless saved the lives of more than 1000 Jews.
istockThe famous Abbey of Montecassino
IN JULY 1943, Allied troops landed in Sicily. Mussolini was overthrown, and, in September, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, declaring war on Nazi Germany the following month. The German army immediately occupied the country.
Allied forces gradually liberated Italy in a series of gruelling battles known as the Italian campaign (1943-45). You can almost follow the route of the Allied armies through Italy by public transport, but it is quicker and easier by hire car.
Start from Naples, liberated on 1 October 1943, which has an airport. Then use the A1 motorway as your guide north, and branch off to see the Abbey of Montecassino, one of the most important shrines of early European Christianity, around which prolonged battles were fought. The ancient Benedictine abbey was reduced to rubble by Allied heavy bombers on 15 February 1944. It was rebuilt after the war.
Further on, between the motorway and the coast, is the German military war cemetery of Pometzia, which contains the graves of 27,443 soldiers, 3770 of them unnamed.
Continue on the motorway to Rome, the first Axis capital to be taken.
Both sides committed atrocities during the Second World War, but one of the most sickening was the execution by the Nazis of 325 Italian civilians in the Ardeatine caves on the outskirts of Rome on 24 March 1944 — a reprisal for a partisan attack in which 33 German policemen died. The Fosse Ardeatine Mausoleum is now a mausoleum and memorial museum.
Two days after the liberation of Rome, the D-Day landings took place, and the Italian campaign became a sideshow: its main purpose was to tie down German troops that would have otherwise been deployed to Normandy or the eastern (Russian) front.
A book, Travel the Liberation Routes of Europe: Sights and experiences along the paths of the allied advance, by Nick Inman and Joseph Staines, will be published by Rough Guides, in co-operation with Liberation Routes Europe, later this year.
The Liberation Route Europe website makes suggestions of itineraries for visiting locations linked to liberation history (visit www.liberationroute.com and choose Travel the route/ Individual tours/Suggested visits). See also europeremembers.com. Many companies run battlefield tours, including Spirit of Remembrance (www.spiritofremembrance.com). Tourist information offices in cities and regions mentioned generally organise their own themed tours.