Disclaimer: not only is this a long post, it’s a bit of a heavy one.
Five years ago when planning my first Europe trip I remember discussing whether to go to Berlin or Munich. The general thinking was that Munich was more of a shopping district, expensive, more castles, but less history; whereas Berlin was full of history, on the cheaper side, an artistic city, lots of young people, etc. For that trip we chose Berlin, and it’s still one of my favorite cities in Europe. So this time around I came to Munich, where I honestly wasn’t expecting much other than a wealthy city with nice architecture. But this city is FULL of history. Maybe not the kind that stands out like the Berlin Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, but extremely important history nonetheless.
I arrived on Sunday and immediately joined a Third Reich walking tour, honestly not really knowing what I was in for. I knew Hitler died in Berlin, I had pictures in my head of Hitler speaking at the Berlin Olympics, so maybe it’s naive of me but I had no idea the extent of Hitler and the Nazi Party’s deep connection to Munich. And in talking to friends that visited Munich, or even my dorm mates at the hostel, it doesn’t seem like the details of Munich’s history are as common knowledge as other cities impacted by the major world wars. Walking around the city learning about all of the horrible things that can be traced back to Munich as the starting point honestly made my skin crawl. Here are the facts I found the most interesting (no joke, I have narrowed this down… I learned a lot!):
- In the late 19th century, Munich was really proud of its equality. Yes, there was anti-semitism, but generally Jews and other minorities had it pretty good. In fact up until 1938, when you entered the city gates, the synagogue actually stood in front of the church, which the city thought of as a symbol of this equality.
- I was aware that Hitler was an artist, and a reasonably good one at that. I didn’t know that at one point he moved to Vienna and applied for art school at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, but got denied twice. Imagine if he were a bit better and actually got in…
- In the mid 1930s there were 12,000 Jews living in Munich. The number actually continued to increase into the mid 1930’s because Munich was thought of as a safe place for Jews. In 1945 there were 92 Jews left in Munich.
- I don’t think I had heard of Kurt Eisner. He organized the Socialist Revolution that overthrew the Bavarian monarchy and brought the first democracy to Germany in 1918. But he became hated by many Germans mainly for his ideas about Germany’s role in causing WWI, and perhaps because he was Jewish. While he was on his way to resign in 1919 (his party lost in a January 1919 election) he was assassinated by a German nationalist. It wasn’t until 1989 that his assassination was memorialized with a controversial monument. This memorial is on the pavement at the site of his assassination.
- It took two revolutions to overthrow the Bavarian monarchy at the end of WWI which created chaos and fear of the future for a home-front which had suffered a terrible time through WWI. Hitler was a mastermind at playing off this fear in building support for his party. Sounds like someone else I know…
- In the early 1920’s Germany suffered a hyperinflation. By November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. Supposedly Germans were going to beer gardens (priorities, right?) with suitcases full of marks.
- I knew a little about the Lebensborn from a book I read recently as part of my book club, The Baker’s Daughter, but had otherwise not heard a lot about it. The Lebensborn group was formed in 1935 in Munich with the goal of raising the birth rate of “Aryan” children. Everything about this group was horrible. Something new I learned is that they actually kidnapped children from a number of non-German countries and brought them back to be raised by “proper” aryan parents. A member of the Swedish group ABBA is actually a Lebensborn survivor.
- I had never even heard of the Thule Society. This extreme right-wing group was formed in Munich immediately following WWI and was supported by many influential and wealthy members of Munich society, including the president of police. This group would later be reorganized by Hitler and turned into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or in German, Nationalsozialismus, or “Nazi” for short.
- One of the first official Nazi meetings in which Hitler spoke was held on the 3rd floor of the famous Hofbräuhaus beer garden. There were 2,000 in attendance, but 700 left before it was over because they realized they had been fooled by the word “socialist” in the party name. There was a small protest outside the building. This building was destroyed but has been rebuilt to look like the original.
- In 1923 Hitler and the Nazi party attempted but failed to overthrow the government, and 16 Nazi soldiers were killed just outside Odeonsplatz. When Hitler eventually came to power, he had a monument (the Feldherrnhalle) put at this location to honor the fallen soldiers, stationed two SS guards there, and required all passers-by to give the Hitler salute. If you didn’t you’d be punished via torture and/or sent to Dachau. But there is an alley right before you reach this monument that many who didn’t agree with the Nazi party would take as a sign of protest, which became known as “Dodgers Alley” and is commemorated with the gold cobblestones you see here.
I also did the city’s free walking tour to get a more general feel for the city.
- Bavaria, of which Munich is the capital, is known to be the most conservative and wealthy state in Germany.
- Bayern is Bavaria in German… ooooooh 🙂
- 4.5 million shells were dropped on the greater Munich area by the Allies, destroying ~90% of the city. Un-exploded shells are still being found today.
- But the city looks old! Yeah, it was recreated to look old. Some “old” buildings, weren’t even completed until the early 2000s.
- No one is allowed to give a speech at Odeonsplatz, where Hitler gave many famous speeches during his reign.
- King Ludwig I married Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and had a massive wedding party. They had so much fun that they decided to do it again the next year, and this eventually turned into Oktoberfest.
- Refrigeration was invented by a German with the goal of keeping beer cold. Carl von Linde won the Nobel prize for his invention.
Then I did a tour of the Dachau Concentration Camp (it was a heavy first 3 days). Five years ago when I went to Berlin I did a tour of Sachsenhausan. I remember how I felt when I first walked into the camp. This wave of nausea, a bit dizzy. It’s overwhelming to be standing in a place where you know such horrible atrocities took place. I got the same feeling when we walked into the Dachau camp.
- Dachau was opened in 1933, well before the beginning of WWII.
- It was initially intended to hold political prisoners, regardless of religion.
- Documents show that Dachau held Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, French, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and Gypsies. Inmates were imprisoned for any number of reasons, political, criminal, religious, sexual orientation, and they were identified by colored symbols sewn onto the inmates uniform.
- Dachau was foremost a labor camp, not a death camp, although a gas chamber was installed in later years. What I didn’t realize was the number of “sub-camps” there were all over Germany, and specifically around Munich. After the war, many Germans claimed they had no idea the extent of what was happening because the camps were outside of the major cities. But these subsidiary camps were everywhere. BMW and Hugo Boss both benefited economically from the use of slave labor during the war, specifically in their providing of military equipment and uniforms for the Nazi Party.
- A goal of the concentration camps was to break its prisoners down emotionally, so that they understood they were of a lesser status than the Nazi guards. Prisoners were never allowed to look up, they were stripped of their names, and there were little things all over the camp to remind them that they had nothing, like shelves along the bunk beds, lockers, and a sign upon entering that said “no smoking” – of course they did not have any cigarettes. Photos would be made available to the public showing these same bunks with shelves full of books, and prisoners with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, but these were just propaganda.
- Dachau was liberated by US troops on April 29, 1945. Sometime in 1944 the camp ran out of coal used to burn the dead bodies, so the US troops were met with piles of hundreds of bodies. US troops forced the residents of Dachau to come into the camp to see the crematoriums and help bury the dead, so that they could not deny that they knew what was happening there.
- There are a number of thoughtful memorials at Dachau but most surprising is the top right below (with the colored triangles which categorized the prisoners). It was designed and paid for by ex-prisoners in the 1960’s and notably leaves out the colors which categorized homosexuals and asocials. It’s shocking that even after what they went through collectively as prisoners, homosexuals and asocials were still cast as outsiders and purposefully left out of this memorial.
From age 13-16 I attended the Maccabi Games in the US (a junior Jewish Olympics) and then again in Israel (twice) and Sydney when I was older. At the opening ceremonies of every games a video is played to remember and teach Jewish athletes about the tragic murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. When I chose to go check out Olympiapark, I’ll be honest, I went because a German girl I met in Fulpmes told me it’s a beautiful park with a nice view of the city. It wasn’t until I was on my way there studying the map that I saw a marker for the memorial to the Israeli Olympic team and realized this should be the primary reason to visit this park.
There are three monuments at the park related to the now named “1972 Munich Massacre”. The most prominent is a memorial right in the middle of the park with monuments describing each Israeli athlete, and then a large screen with a running video, about 20 minutes long, detailing the events of September 5th and 6th. I of course know the general story, but the video goes into a lot more detail than I had previously seen, including police minutes, news casts, and video. It is especially powerful as you watch video of the terrorists standing on the balcony, with the same balcony visible just behind the memorial. A couple of new things I learned:
- Prior to the start of the games, Munich promoted the games with the official motto Die Heiteren Spiele, which translates to “the Cheerful Games”. They wanted so badly to reverse the way the world remembered the last time Germany hosted the Olympics, in 1936 Nazi-ruled Berlin.
- For much of September 5th, the games went on as usual, and the Olympic Committee was publicly criticized for not suspending the games sooner. Without social media, many spectators were less than a mile away watching other events in the park, with no idea of what was happening back at the village. Some of the news coverage shown at the memorial shows newscasters giving a quick update of the hostage situation before sending you back to watch some horse-related event.
There is also a plaque on the building where the Israeli team was housed:
Translates to: “In this building lived, during the 20th Summer Olympic Games, the Israeli team from August 8 to September 5, 1972. On the morning of September 5th, they died a violent death.”
OK, that’s it for the heavy stuff.
Munich has a beautiful park in the city called the English Garden which has a river where people surf year round:
There is a massive surplus of pretzels. You can get them with salt, butter, cheese, rosemary, chives, any combo of deli meat, small, medium, large, whatever you want.
I really liked the Parliament building. This also serves as a dorm room to 50 of Munich’s best and brightest students.
I climbed the 299 steps at St. Peter’s Church to get this view:
I did a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle to do some German Alpine hiking. Walt Disney used this castle as inspiration for Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland. Also this castle is really young. Started in 1869 and “completed” in 1886. King Ludwig II, who it was being built for, died in that year, and it was never really finished.
And finally on Saturday I went to an FC Bayern Munich (football (soccer)) match. Bayern won 5-0 including a goal as the extra time expired. When a goal is scored the announcer yells the first name of the player who scored the goal and the crowd yells the last name, this is repeated three times. My favorite was when Polish forward Robert Lewandowski scored, you can imagine why.
I also ate heaps (this word “heaps” is now part of my vocabulary, thanks Aussies) of good food here and really loved Paulaner beer:
I also had a meal at the famous Hofbräuhaus (beer was good, food wasn’t):
All in all, I really enjoyed my week in Munich. But quickly back to the heavier stuff. Germany recently had an election. The AfD, Alternative for Germany party, is now the third largest political party in Germany, and the first far-right party to hold seats in Germany’s Parliament since WWII. It’s a far-right nationalist movement whose main running points are anti-immigration and pro-German culture.
This obviously isn’t just a German problem, all over the world these anti-immigration groups are growing. But in Germany in particular it seems rather ironic, for lack of a better word. You walk around Munich and see so many monuments and memorials, all promoting phrases like “Never Again” and “Never Forget”. These memorials are meant to remind us of what happens when we reject those who are different. And despite record crowds and tourists visiting places like Dachau, and doing tours like the Third Reich, and seeing and learning about things that make me feel sick, as a society it seems we are moving back in that direction. The same fear of the unknown and the different that allowed Hitler to gain power in Munich, is allowing these far-right movements to gain momentum again. So in an attempt to promote a different kind of behavior, I’m going to take a line from one of my favorite celebrities, Ellen Degeneres: Let’s be kind to one another!
Next up: Switzerland, and the forecast is looking good!