Southern Methodist University’s (SMU’s) Center for Presidential History’s Jeffrey A. Engel and Essential History Expeditions’ Brian DeToy are pleased to partner for an on-site exploration of Prague, Nuremberg, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, walking the cities and fields where soldiers fought for Europe’s liberation and spies schemed for generations to create a new world order. This intergenerational tour offers three credits for students, and for alumni and friends the opportunity to see the places history took place — and to relive a bit of college life.
This fully guided and immersive tour will explore the people and places of central Europe, from the September 1938 German occupation of Czechoslovakia, to the liberation battles in 1944-45; through the battle of Berlin in April-May 1945 that completed Europe’s liberation from Nazi rule; and then on through the decades-long Cold War in the capitals and cities of two nations caught between the Great Powers. We will walk the fields and city streets, learn from local experts and guest lecturers, and be assigned a renowned (or reviled) figure from history to investigate and role-play. Plus, we’ll have plenty of time to explore these iconic sites on your own and to reconnect with SMU friends and students in some of Europe’s most scenic sites. This trip will also provide opportunities to connect with current SMU students through meaningful discussions and mentorship.
While Americans, naturally, focus on the “western” campaigns of North Africa, Italy and, especially, northwest Europe from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge and on into western Germany – scholars know that the main theater of the war was the Eastern front. The Soviets and Nazi Germany engaged in a titanic land struggle that dwarfed the western invasions. This expedition will examine several key elements of that Ost (“east”) front – including its last battle for Berlin, as well as aspects of the war such as Final Solution death and concentration camps, and the Resistance of Czechs, Germans and others. Finally, in each of the major locations, we will examine what came next – the Cold War struggle for over 40 years that engaged the efforts of the USA and the USSR and their allies. We will examine the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, 1961 and 1989 Berlin Wall episodes, the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1989 Velvet Revolution, among others.
We will begin in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It was Hitler’s annexation of Czech Sudetenland that led to the infamous 1938 Munich agreement. In Prague we will examine the Habsburg city’s history along with its 1945 liberation and, most important, its abortive Cold War thawing in the 1968 Prague Spring and then the successful 1989 Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel.
Heading west, our next stop is northern Bavaria and the spiritual home of Nazi Germany – Nuremberg. Here we will examine the great Nazi Rally stadium and the courthouse where the famed post-war trials brought Nazis leaders to international justice. The Old Town also has many Habsburg imperial sites that we will explore.
From Nuremberg we drive over and through the hilly, picturesque Thuringerwald into the old East Germany. We will stop in Jena, a great university town and examine the pivotal October 1806 battle in which the French under Napoleon destroyed the old Prussian Empire in the twin battles of Jena-Auerstadt. Then, it’s on to Dresden, the classical city destroyed in one of the worst fire-bombing air raids of WWII, immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. We will also discuss the titanic 1813 Napoleonic battle here that resulted in the naming of the first true Allied Supreme Commander (forerunning Foch in 1918, and Eisenhower in 1944-45). Here is also where Colonel Vladimir Putin spent his days at the end of the Cold War, right up to the collapse of Berlin’s Wall.
Heading west, we will visit Leipzig, home to Bach and the epicenter of Cold war German resistance to the DDR and Soviets. In the 1980s, it was the citizens of Leipzig who were at the forefront of the protest movements. We will visit sites from those days as well as discuss the 1813 Battle of Nations, the largest in European history until World War One.
Before entering Berlin, we will stop at the Elbe River and visit the bridge at Torgau, where American and Russian forces met in April 1945, sealing off the Germans in Berlin. In Wittenberg we will have lunch in the old Market Square and visit the Castle Church where on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the side door and began a revolution that we call the Reformation. Then, in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam we will discuss the final allied conference of the war as well as sites of King Frederick the Great.
Arriving in our final stop – Berlin – we will spend several days in examining the climactic battle of the European war as well as decades of Cold War spy-vs-spy craft. Berlin was not only the Nazi capital and headquarters, but it also includes nearby sites associated with the war – from the Final Solution at the Wansee Conference, to the world-renowned Holocaust Memorial. The battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945 was on a scale of vicious fighting and retribution and destruction that can scarcely be imagined. Moving on to the Cold War, we will examine the critical Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, as well as the building and subsequent destruction of the Wall in 1961 and 1989. Checkpoint Charlie, Tempelhof Airport, spies, and much more await.
The Reunification of Germany in 1990 has created an economic and diplomatic powerhouse in the center of Europe. For centuries this nation has occupied a critical space on the Continent and on the world stage. At no time was this more true than in the years of World War Two and the subsequent Cold War. This central European expedition will take us to new regions and provide expansive opportunities to discover how our new world came to be.