The first German democracy disappeared under the National Socialists, and the speed of that change still stuns those who remember. In less than a year after Hitler took the chancellorship, a legislative government (inept as it was) was traded for a dictatorship.
Compared to Berlin or Nuremberg, Munich – Hauptstadt der Bewegung (capital of the movement) – was relatively slow to address its complicity in Nazism. The Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism is a key part of the city’s effort to redress that.
The Documentation Center opened in 2015, after what seems like decades of debate over what form and content the center should involve. The center stands on site of the Braunes Haus (you’re right to think of “brown shirts”), national HQ of the National Socialist party.
Today, it’s not a typical memorial or museum. But blank white walls and a nearly silent, library-like atmosphere testify to the seriousness of the content.
In the basement learning center, the somber tones of a lone cello could be heard.
The Center’s focus is Munich’s role in Nazism, but the building also confronts antisemitism and racism and the many different forms they take.
The center is where Munich finally tells itself and the world how it became the “capital of the (Nazi) movement” and how that has affected the city to this day. The Center’s texts and pictures are a witness to the often enthusiastic participation of Munich-area residents.
The Center is not hesitant to say that the Nazis killed more than 11 million Jews, Roma and Sinti, disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political opponents and homosexuals. It’s a reminder that antisemitic hate crimes are trending up in Germany (and the U.S.) today.
A six- or seven-minute walk down the street from the Documentation Center is the Platz der Opfer des Nationalsozialismus (Place of the Victims of National Socialism).
The monument, with a flame that burns day and night behind a bronze grid, was built near the site of a former Gestapo headquarters. Any person considered an undesirable social type was a candidate to be tortured or killed there.
The National Socialist (Nazi) party had headquarters in Munich, and Hitler had an office there, where he entertained. The building still stands, just steps away from Munich’s new Documentation Center.
Today the building is the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München (Munich College for Music and Theater). During the war, the Allies used the building to store art taken back from Nazi leaders.
I exchanged email over a couple of weeks with the the head of communications for the college. She said I was welcome to enter the atrium but the school was not staffed to accommodate an individual’s visit.
So I never got to see where the 1938 “peace in our time” agreement was signed, a room she called the “Kaminzimmer” (fireplace room).
Above is how Hitler’s former office looks as it’s used by the music college. Documents on the web say the fireplace and overhead light fixture in the room are the same that were there in 1938.
At about 1:30 a.m. September 30, 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement. The agreement ceded a large part of the Czech state to Germany, and charges of “appeasement” have echoed around the globe since.
Not sure who’s sitting between Hitler and Chamberlain. Doesn’t look to me like Daladier. But behind them is the fireplace that gave the room its name at the music college.
The Bürgerbräukeller, shown surrounded by American troops May 3, 1945, doesn’t exist any more. It survived Allied bombing during WWII, and after the war, it became a club for U.S. service members.
The Bürgerbräukeller is important to history. It was a large beer hall, which in 1923 became the site of the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to take over the Bavarian government.
Field marshal’s memorial
The putsch failed, ending almost exactly 100 years ago in a shootout at the Feldherrnhalle (above) that left 16 Nazis and four state police officers dead. The four-column, open-air gallery with rounded-arches and a pair of Medici lions had been designed to honor Bavarian army commanders.
Hitler went to jail, but not for long, and after he became chancellor, he made the square part of the spiritual center of Nazism.
Hitler required people passing the Feldherrnhalle to give the Nazi salute. So people who didn’t want to salute the Nazi dead detoured down the Viscardigasse behind it, and the street became “dodgers’ alley” to this day. A golden path of bricks marks the route.
After WWII, the Nazi aspects of the square were removed, and a plaque honoring four policemen who died during the shootout was added in the middle 1990s.
Since I was first there, the Bürgerbräukeller has been demolished and the Gasteig complex, largest cultural center in Europe, built on its site.
Many of today’s Münchners feel personally attached to the Gasteig. As youngsters, they went there to borrow a book from the library, listen to a Philharmonic concert, take an Adult Ed course or meet a date.
About 15 years after the failed putsch, a carpenter named Georg Elser tried to assassinate Hitler at the Bürgerbräukeller with a bomb. Hitler escaped unhurt.
Elser went to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was shot a month before the Allies liberated its prisoners. Elser is remembered today in a showcase within sight of the Gasteig and with an in-ground plaque a few steps down the street.
One of my favorite pieces of art in Munich portrays Elser more than 60 feet high in sight of the main train station. The monumental work was produced by two graffiti artists, a daily newspaper, the District Youth Association and others.
The Municipal Savings Bank provided the wall. An equipment company donated use of the telescopic lift that carried the painters up.
The Königsplatz (King’s Square) is a former grassy area that the Nazis covered with paving stones and used for annual parades and memorial services. The neo-classical square boasts three important buildings — the Propyläen (city gate in Greek Revival style), Glyptothek (only museum in the world dedicated solely to ancient sculpture) and Staatliche Antikensammlungen (State Museum of Classical Art).
Two large office buildings were added to the open East end of the square. Between these two buildings were memorials to the fallen Nazis of Hitler’s abortive state putsch in 1923.
The international auto show (IAA) set up right in front of the square’s key buildings, making it impossible to see what the imposing square had looked like.
A few steps from the Königsplatz is the Egyptian Museum, where I stopped to see the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), brass plaques the size of a cobblestone. Beginning “Here lived,” they contain the name of a Nazi victim, birthday, date of deportation and, if known, place of death.
They’re most often placed in front of the home from which the Nazis took the victims, but they’ve been outlawed on city property in Munich.
Placing these inside the museum seems like something of a response. Three recall Jews who lived on the site. Two escaped to the U.S. One was murdered in Kaunas, a concentration camp in Lithuania.
The stones, in 20 countries, are designed to bring the horror of the Holocaust down to human proportions. The counter-argument, voiced by a leader of the Munich Jewish community, is that the four-inch plaques set in the ground mean the memory of the victims could be trampled.
In response, the city has since erected dozens of eye-level markers to memorialize victims. This one is outside the music college, the former Hitler headquarters in Munich.
I stopped at the Bürgersaalkirche (Citizen’s Hall Church) to pay my respects at the tomb of Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit priest who stood up to the Nazis. He spoke publicly and preached in church that a good Catholic could not be a Nazi.
He was jailed repeatedly and ended up in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was liberated by U.S. troops. He returned to St. Michael church in Munich but died of a heart attack while celebrating mass in late 1945.
This is the famed Löwenbräukeller beer hall. The outdoor beer garden is just to the left of the entrance.
If Löwenbräu is your favorite label, a pilgrimage there is simply necessary, especially to sample the darker liquid gold sold during Oktoberfest in the fall.
Here’s the garden of the Löwenbräukeller as it looks today. It was just steps from my hotel when I was a student there, and I ate regularly under its blooming chestnut trees.
But the restaurant sits in the middle of what was Nazi country in Munich, just down the street from former party headquarters. The party’s supporters met there regularly.
Next: White Rose