Munich celebrated its birthday in June — its 864th. The city has long been known for Oktoberfest and beer halls, including the famed Hofbräuhaus that’s been serving frothy liters of golden brew for more than 400 years.
Munich, which straddles the Isar River 200 miles north of the Alps, is still known for white-capped mountains, blue lakes, beer, the onion domes of the cathedral downtown, oom-pah bands and thigh-slapping folk dances.
“München” (Munich) comes from “Munichen,” meaning “by the monks” in ancient German. That’s because the Benedictines had built a monastery at what’s now Munich’s city center.
Today, the twin-towered Cathedral of Our Lady, 550 years old, has become a symbol of the city, and tourists flock to the central Marienplatz (Mary’s Square) to see the Neo-Gothic Neues Rathaus (new town hall) and its 110-year-old glockenspiel show.
The third largest city in Germany (after Berlin and Hamburg) with a population of 1.5 million is big business. The city employs 70,000 people in education, transportation, housing, culture, health, etc.
The city budget for 2022 was about $8 billion. Most of the money was to fight climate change, provide more affordable housing, reduce the number of private cars on the streets and build more schools.
The Munich we know today was “modernized” 50 years ago with the help of billions appropriated for the 1972 summer Olympics. I finished my first couple of years in Germany just as the games were about to begin, and by then, the city had changed enormously.
The 1972 terrorist assault cast a pall over the games. But discussion of the Olympics’ contribution to the city and the future of the grounds is most often carried on without reference to the attack.
With the games, Munich gained two subways, an urban rail system and new highways such as the Mittlerer Ring (middle ring) that circles the center city.
Fifty years on, the games’ lasting effect shows up in traffic tunnels, pedestrian zones, the huge shopping center beneath the central Stachus square, historic building facades such as the town hall’s, housing developments, flowered streets, parks, fountains, and trees and lawns in place of parking spaces.
Right after the games, the city expanded the subway network, created the huge Westpark and built the Gasteig, still the largest cultural center in Europe.
Today, Munich accepts its nickname, “laptop and lederhosen,” happy in the belief that technology and tradition can not only co-exist but give the city an economic edge.
These days, Munich is an “alpha world city.” It’s a major international center of engineering, science, innovation and research, as shown by its two research universities (the technical college calls itself the “entrepreneurial university”) and more scientific institutions than you can count.
A couple of years ago, Munich’s standard of living was ranked first in Germany and third worldwide by one study, and that same year, it was rated the world’s most livable city by another.
Understand that you can hardly get two residents or visitors to agree on Munich. Usually praised: public transport, safe streets, jobs, architecture, endearing cafes, upscale shopping, lots of beer gardens and green space and easy access to a weekend in the Alps.
Usually panned: Jaw-dropping costs, ostentatious materialism, incredible difficulty in finding a place to live, narrow-mindedness despite the third-largest foreign population in Europe, trouble making friends and, among 20-somethings at least, disappointing night life.
And there’s an underside. The Nazis loved Munich. Throughout the Third Reich, it was the “Hauptstadt der Bewegung” (Capital of the Movement). Adolf Hitler and key subordinates launched political careers here. Wealthy Münchners financed the Party. Hundreds of thousands of residents enthusiastically supported it.
Munich started publicly discussing its role in Nazism later than other big German cities. Today city officials and residents seem to be trying to learn from mid-20th Century history as they struggle to integrate minorities and immigrants into one of the richest centers of Western pluralist democracy.
When Munich people talk about the summer Olympics there, they often mention the modernization and democratization that accompanied the city’s efforts to build its way out of the the devastation of WWII and get beyond the legacy of the Nazis.
In its next chapter, Munich will seek ways to decide peaceably whether to spend its finite resources on art or food and heat, climate change or crime. And it will try to bridge the other cultural divides that come with a population in which one in every four persons comes from elsewhere.