Hello from the other side

Other side of what? My 21st year? The Atlantic Ocean? The Franco-German border? Who knows. It’s been a while.

My third week was sort of a whirlwind, not unlike the rest of my time here. Five out of my six classes were canceled and I’m honestly starting to wonder whether or not the French actually do school. The class schedules and locations move around so often, it’s a wonder anyone can keep track of anything in this country. I still feel like I’m learning, but the entire process is a much more casual affair.

On Thursday we took another long bus ride to Munich. The bus is my home now. But it’s okay, they are comfy and usually have wifi. If I’m really lucky I can get two seats to myself and sprawl out a bit. I’ve been able to justify stuffing my travel pillow into my backpack each time I’ve taken an overnight bus, so I practically have my own bed.

We arrived in Munich at around 9am, and I could already tell that the day was bound to be glorious. Blue skies! Strasbourg is lovely, but I have been a bit deprived of blue skies and sunshine. We found a Coffee Fellows (I think it’s the German equivalent of a Starbucks? Regardless, it was the best coffee I’ve had in the last month) and refueled for the long day ahead. After dropping our bags off at our hotel, we met in Marienplatz, the main plaza of Munich, for a free walking tour of the city. I am so thankful that we found this tour, because so much of Munich’s history is conveniently hidden away to the uneducated observer.

The two central ideas that were imparted upon us throughout this tour were that

  1. Munich is the birthplace of the National Socialist movement and Hitler’s rise to power, a fact that the city conveniently sweeps under the rug, and that
  2. Munich runs on beer, a fact that is most definitely NOT concealed in any capacity

The first and most impressive building that we came across was the New Town Hall of Munich. Though it may be beautiful, this entire building is sort of a lie. It was built between 1867 and 1908, and is obviously not nearly as ancient as it looks. The entire building is crowned by the Münchner Kindl (Munich child), the symbol of Munich. The child symbol is an adaptation to the symbol of a monk, which is on the coat of arms. The name of the city, Munich or München, is derived from the Old/Middle High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks”. It derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who ran a monastery at the place that was later to become the Old Town of Munich.

Throughout the tour, we visited historically significant sites including the location where, in 1923, Hitler and his supporters, who were then concentrated in Munich, staged the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic and seize power. There was a skirmish in the street, but eventually, the police of Munich prevailed and the revolt failed. Hitler was arrested and charged with high treason, but the judge was sympathetic to the Nazi cause and he was given the minimum sentence of 5 years of which he only served a little over eight months. This was just enough time for him to write Mein Kampf, in which Hitler announced his hatred of what he considered to be the two evils of the world: Communism and Judaism. Hitler also explained his main thesis of “the Jewish peril”, which describes a Jewish conspiracy to gain world leadership. Although the Nazi Party was temporarily crippled by its leader’s imprisonment, Hitler came back reinvigorated and Munich once again became a Nazi stronghold when the National Socialists took power in Germany in 1933. The National Socialist Workers Party created their first concentration camp at Dachau, 10 miles north-west of the city. Because of its importance to the rise of National Socialism, Munich was referred to as the Hauptstadt der Bewegung, or the “Capital of the Movement.”

In addition to all of the rather somber history that was imparted upon us, our tour guide also told us stories about beer. As the home of Oktoberfest, we were sort of expecting this from Munich.

On average, Bavarians drink 270 liters of beer per person per year. That’s not enough to put Germany at the very top of the list of top beer consumers of the world, but it’s enough to put the country at number three. However, if Bavaria were to be its own country, they would beat out any other competitor by a long shot. Beer is so engrained into Munich’s culture; they call it “liquid bread” because it is such a crucial staple to their diet. The legal drinking age in Germany is 16 (but only with parental consent and only for wine and beer, it’s 18 to purchase and consume any other alcohol). Once, when the Swedish army invaded Bavaria, they held Munich for a ransom of 300,000 pieces of gold. Citizens only managed to pull together 180,000 pieces, so the rest of it was paid in beer, or “liquid gold.”

Munich has been the home of Oktoberfest since October of 1810. Crown Prince and the future King Ludwig I  was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate. The fields were named Theresienwiese in honor of the Crown Princess, as the field was a gift from the Crown Prince to his future wife (romantic?). To end the celebrations from the royal wedding on October 17, horse races were held in honor of the newlyweds. The decision to repeat the horse races in the subsequent year gave rise to the tradition of Oktoberfest.

At the end of our tour, we visited the most famous beer hall in Munich, the Hofbräuhaus. HB Haus is the former site of their brewery, now turned into a beer hall, and they serve beer by the liter to locals and tourists alike. HB Haus was founded in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm V. The beer from this brewery quickly became quite popular thanks to the first brewer, Heimeran Pongratz, and the famous “Bavarian Beer Purity Law” of 1516 that stated that only natural ingredients could be used in the brewing process. The “liquid gold” that saved Munich from the Swedish army? That beer was brewed at Hofbräuhaus. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden agreed to leave the city in peace if the citizens surrendered some hostages and 600,000 barrels of Hofbräuhaus beer. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived around the block from the beer hall in the late eighteenth century. In a poem he wrote, Mozart claimed to have written one of his operas after several visits to the Hofbräuhaus fortified him for the task. In the period just before World War One, Vladimir Lenin lived in Munich and reportedly visited the Hofbräuhaus on a regular basis. In 1919, the Munich Communist government set up headquarters in the beer hall, and in February 1920 Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists held their first meeting in the Festsaal, the Festival Room, on the third floor.

We also visited the Old Town Hall, situated just a hundred feet or so from the New Town Hall. In the Old Town Hall, Hitler and his accomplices launched their initial attack on Europe’s Jews. The assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew living in Paris, was the pretext for the plan, which gave the Nazi Party the opportunity they needed. This assassination justified and kickstarted their plan of spreading their anti-Semitic rhetoric throughout Europe. The Grand Hall of the building was the venue of Joseph Goebbels’ speech on November 9, 1938 which is known as the prelude for the Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass. In the speech, Goebbels encouraged Germany’s citizens to riot violently and destroy the homes, shops, and synagogues of their Jewish neighbors. 91 people were murdered. Kristallnacht was followed by additional economic and political persecution of Jews, and is viewed by historians as part of Nazi Germany’s broader racial policy, and the beginning of the Final Solution and The Holocaust.

Although our tour left me a little down, for obvious reasons, I had a wonderful, if frustrating, time in Munich. I loved the buildings, the markets, the people, and (let’s be honest) the beer. Munich is one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities I’ve ever visited! However, many citizens of Munich and tourists alike have noticed the absence of memorials to the victims of the terrors that were the Holocaust and World War II. In fact, Munich bans the placement of “stumbling blocks,” small brass cobblestones engraved with the names of the victims of Nazi oppression including the Holocaust, along its streets. The birthplace of National Socialism is the only city in the world to ban the installation of these “stumbling blocks,” refusing to be a part of the world’s largest memorial. From Berlin, to Salzburg, to Kehl, I am constantly encountering these tiny brass square, but they are illegal in Munich. This in itself left a bad taste in my mouth in regards to the city. I truly believe that today’s Germans are more morally responsible than most other countries because of the darkness of their history. However, I did not see this in Munich, in fact, I saw the opposite. I saw a city that intentionally did as much as possible to keep their history in the dark; dishonoring the victims of the political movement that was put into motion on its very streets.

After our time in Munich, we headed to Salzburg for the rest of the weekend. However, I’ll save the post about that trip for another day.

a quick read on Munich and its stumbling blocks.

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

-Elie Wiesel