Pannell Scholar Shelby Benny ’19 knows that history is best studied — and experienced — right where it happened. So in March, the sophomore from Dothan, Ala., boarded a plane to Germany to complete a big chunk of her research on “The Origins of WWII: Exploration into a City of Revolution and Rebellion.”
But Benny’s isn’t like any other history project. First, it involves a camera. Second, it attempts to capture the past and present all at once — through her lens, as well as extensive academic research and in-person interviews with experts on the subject.
“My project is a photography-focused exploration of the current status and perceptions of World War Two sites in Munich,” Bennys told us last fall, when the 2016-2017 Anne Gary Pannell Merit Scholarship recipients were announced.
Sponsored by the Honors Program, the scholarship rewards first-year students of exceptional initiative and ability with the opportunity to explore an area of interest more fully during their sophomore year.
A history major, Benny was intrigued by John Ashbrook’s Holocaust course during her first year at Sweet Briar. The current political climate in Europe also played into her interest.
“The recent political movements in Europe are both concerning and relevant to this project, as they involve anti-immigration sentiment and nationalism,” says Benny, who plans to take a course on 20th-century nationalism next spring. “Nationalism is inherently exclusive and has the potential to become particularly dangerous; it is nationalism that lies at the root of the Holocaust. The events of the Holocaust and World War Two dealt a devastating blow to German identity, and Germans are still struggling with how to incorporate that into their history.”
Benny’s trip over spring break took her to Bavaria’s capital, Munich, as well as nearby Dachau Concentration Camp and Nuremberg. While in Germany, Benny met with Stephen Whitehorn, a British military historian and former Royal Air Force paratrooper, who helped her locate sites associated with the rise of the Third Reich.
“These sites are not marked, acknowledged or memorialized in any way,” Benny explains. “Although there is a memorial to the Holocaust victims at Dachau, within the city there is very little evidence of the Nazi regime. … The catalyst for my project was not how the Holocaust is viewed as a whole, but rather how the physical reminders of the Third Reich are interpreted.”
What Benny discovered during her trip was a sense of ambivalence.
“While Dachau Concentration Camp serves as a somber memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Nazi administrative buildings have been left untouched. There is a general consensus that these buildings cannot be demolished, but there is a reluctance to acknowledge their former purposes with plaques or memorials.”
One such location is the Congress Hall at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, less than two hours north of Munich. Before and during the war, Nuremberg served as a major hub for Hitler’s party. Later, it became the site of the famous Nuremberg Trials held by the Allied forces.
“It is difficult to describe what it feels like to stand in front of a massive coliseum that was meant to be a tribute to the success of the Third Reich, but now stands empty in a windswept parking lot,” Benny says. “Several attempts have been made to repurpose the building, but the German public is unsure how to correctly approach the site.”
Benny realized during her research that how one remembers and interprets the events of World War II is defined not just by personal experience or information, but also geographic proximity.
“To Americans, the saga of the Nazi party and the Holocaust is part of history; for Germans, however, it is part of daily life,” she explains. “Understanding that concept was a key component in my project.”
From the start, Benny was fascinated by how Germans carry on with their daily lives around these historic sites. She noticed that tourists, too, are often oblivious to the profound significance of the sites they are visiting. It’s part of the reason Benny decided to bring her camera into the mix.
“[There are tourists] snapping selfies at concentration camps, couples taking engagement photos where Nazi officials once held a political rally, and families vacationing in a hotel where Hitler and Mussolini met to form an alliance,” Benny explained last fall.
Her project, she added, would “illustrate this phenomenon by digitally combining World War Two-era photos of Munich and modern shots taken from the same angle and position.”
Benny’s photographs will be on display at the Pannell Scholars Fair on April 14.