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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Secret History of Munich

In a city where the Nazi party took root,the past and present exist in an alchemical combination

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: December 22, 2013 4:26:27 am

The snow has conspired with the city to turn the ordinary beautiful and the beautiful sublime. Rows of bicycles beclouded with snow look like installations in a modern art gallery. Great stone lions wear a mane of white. Statues are clothed in snow,lost in granite contemplation.

I am in Munich,the storied capital of Bavaria. Winter has come,borne on the wings of winds sweeping down from the Black Forest. 

But the “Toytown” exterior,the disciplined populace,the wide boulevards of the city of today conceals a history of violence,of both chaos and beauty.

***

Earlier,I had taken the train into the city. A friend,settled in Germany,is my host. It is a late winter afternoon. The first stop is at the Stachus,the central town square. The cold has already gotten to my initial enthusiasm. Desis do not operate well in sub-zero climes.

My friend suggests that I get some gluhwein inside me. Gluhwein is mulled wine,spiced with cinnamon and ginger,and very popular during the winter. Searching for a gluhwein stall is as good a mission as any.

From the Stachus we walk through the portals of the Karlstor,one of the last remaining gates of what was once an extensive ring of fortifications. The Gothic gate is a forlorn island amidst the glittering malls and shop fronts that it now guards.

Soon the mass of the Frauenkirche looms up. Writer Jerome K Jerome says,“The inhabitants of Munich boast that their Cathedral is the ugliest in Europe; and,judging from appearances,I am inclined to think that the claim must be admitted.” I am impressed,however,by its sheer size,its twin towers conveying a massive,brutal majesty.

As we walk through the historic heart of the city,I suddenly realise that I am in the middle of a vast trompe l’oeil. What I’d taken for historic buildings are actually plastic screens with the façade painted upon them,complete with people looking out of the windows. “They are repairing the bomb damage,” explains my friend. What bomb damage? I wonder. As I learn later,most of the city was completely levelled by Allied bombing raids during the Second World War. Almost everything that I see,despite the veneer of immense age,has actually been reconstructed,a jigsaw puzzle being slowly solved over decades.

Meticulous as ever,the Germans are replacing the city brick by brick,stone by stone,a city-sized Ship of Theseus. I think of India where there is an equally meticulous determination to utterly dismantle the past.

My meditations come to an end with the smell of hot wine and roasted chestnuts. We have reached the Viktualienmarkt,where there are many stalls with winter delicacies.

***

The next day dawns,bright with cold. The sky is a bowl of cerulean blue. The city demands exploration. Previous visits have already seen me visit the BMW works,the beer gardens and the numerous castles that crowd the city. Now I want to dive deeper into its history.

Once,the Reichsadler flew high above the city. Munich was where the Nazi party was formed. You could say the city was

Hitler’s karmabhoomi.

I browse online and find MW  (Munich Walk) tours which promises “real live Bavarians” as well as English speakers. I sign up for the “Hitler’s Munich” tour. We make our way to the rendezvous point in Marienplatz. Above is the incredibly detailed façade of the New Town Hall. Already anticipatory crowds are gathering,zoom lenses to catch the clockwork capers of the Glokenspiel.

The guide is Helene,a cheerful middle-aged Englishwoman who has been living here for some 30 years. I notice that our tour has just two people — my friend and I,while the other guides have their hands full. Hordes of Korean tourists are heading to Dachau. Concentration camps are apparently all the rage.

Our first stop is at the Hofbrauhaus,the immense beer hall. Our guide points to a large window on the side. The beer halls of Munich in the period immediately after the First World War were places of intense political activity. The disastrous defeat of the Kaiser’s army followed by the economic collapse had upended German society. Hitler was one of the many demagogues making the rounds at that time.

He was fond of making his speeches near the window. The other patrons of the beer hall,“rowdy fellows” as we might put it,improved the shining hour by hurling their beer mugs at him. After a point,Hitler was forced to get a couple of toughs to protect his person from airborne mugs. These roughnecks would form what would later become the dreaded SS.

From there,we walk to the expanse of the Odeonsplatz. This is Ground Zero of the Nazi movement. Today it is a quiet morning,with the shoppers yet to come in force. In 1923,Hitler and the still nascent Nazi party had marched on to the Felderrnhalle in the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. It was a time when almost every year in Germany saw a putsch of one kind or another.

It was a winter morning like today. The city was seething with thousands of angry men — men who had fought for their country through four long years,men who were now dispossessed of everything because of the hyperinflation. And they had found someone who could lead them.

The putsch was a ragtag effort,with the Nazis still learning the ropes as it were. The marchers ran into government troops guarding the square. A fierce exchange of fire followed. In the bloody aftermath,16 Nazis were killed and four policemen. Hitler escaped narrowly. A marcher next to him was shot and pulled him down in his dying fall.

The march would become an essential part of Nazi mythography. Politically,it would catapult Hitler to the centre stage of German politics. Hitler briefly spent some time in jail,where he used the downtime to compose Mein Kampf,but his star was clearly on the ascendant. The march was the first step from Herr Hitler to the Fuhrer.

If the Axis had won the Second World War,this spot would be a place of pilgrimage from across the world. This square would be their essential keystone of the 1,000 Year Reich. As we examine the square,I recognise the stone lions flanking the hall from old photographs. It is a hyper-real experience walking through the sites,which I’d read so much about in the history textbooks.

Next,we stroll down Schellingstrasse,near the Ludwig University. Hitler lived here for nearly a decade and the early Nazi party office was also located here. A skeletal stratum of history is all around us. At one corner is the Schelling Salon,a favourite of Hitler,until as legend has it,the owner put an end to the reich-sized tab of the Fuhrer. The walk comes to an end on Konigsplatz,on whose wide expanses trod the jackboots of the storm troopers.

Hitler’s office,the Fuhrerbau is still standing,and is now a music school. The guide helpfully points to a small balcony where Hitler would emerge to greet the masses in the square below.

Nearby is the foundation of the Ehrentempel,all that remains of an enormous monument to the Nazis who died in the Putsch. It is now late twilight. Standing amidst the faded ruins of the foundations,the ghosts of history are marching. In the winter twilight,I can imagine serried ranks of storm troopers,an iron army to take over the world.

The walk has come to an end but the guide points to various cafes and bistros,which were patronised by Hitler. My friend has zero interest in the secret evil history of cafes,so we abandon the quest.  

We take a break at Brown’s Tea Bar on Turkenstrasse. The interiors,with stuffed armchairs and oak panelling,are Victoriana on overdrive. There is nothing faux about the leather-bound volumes of Strand magazine from the turn of the century though. Over a leisurely cup of coffee,I am engrossed in the doings of Sherlock Holmes,as the readers of that era knew him,anxiously awaiting the next installment of the serial.

***

On the way back,my friend casually points to the pockmarks on the walls of the houses on her street. Bullet holes. She can’t tell though. It could be from the Beer Hall putsch. Or the putsch before that,in 1919 when the Communists tried taking over. Or,perhaps,in the dying days of World War II as the Americans invaded.

It is that kind of place. The past and present coexist in an alchemical combination. It is that kind of city. n

Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance journalist in Hyderabad<\i>

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