On a Munich Tour, Confronting a Dark Past

Statues populate a former Nazi administration building, now a Munich museum.
Statues populate a former Nazi administration building, now a Munich museum. (By Sue Kovach Shuman -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

It would be easy to spend Oktoberfest in Munich without remembering the city's dark past. But it's sobering to be reminded that Adolf Hitler developed oratory skills in beer halls and delivered one of his first speeches in the Hofbrauhaus, where today waiters in Bavarian lederhosen avoid photo-snapping tourists while navigating around the massive wooden tables. On the same street, there's a San Francisco Coffee Co. and a Hard Rock Cafe. The past is not evident.

But in 1919, when a defeated Germany was emerging from World War I, people flocked to beer halls to forget their problems. Inflation was rampant; people wanted security. As they drank, they listened to Hitler, a little-known recruiter for the fledgling German Workers Party. Months after his first words to small groups, Hitler's impassioned style was drawing thousands. Some of the first violent attacks on Jews took place at the Hofbrauhaus.

Built in 1589, the Hofbrauhaus is one of the highlights on a three-mile Third Reich walking tour focusing on Munich's past as the birthplace and headquarters of the Nazi movement. On a recent visit, Can Unal of Munich Walk Tours guided my group of a dozen tourists from Italy, Spain, Australia and the United States.

Americans are especially interested in Third Reich tours and the focus on World War II, says Munich Tourist Office spokeswoman Vicky Weller. "It's not a big issue here for some nationalities anymore," she says, adding that many Germans have parents and grandparents who lived through the war. Germans "deal with [their past]. They don't hide it. Buildings have been left."

Michael R. Marrus, professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto, says sometimes it's the things that aren't there -- for instance, the buildings that were bombed purposely by the Allies to erase Nazi memories -- that make the biggest impact.

"You can't help but be moved by what is there or not," he says. In Germany, he adds, "you have historical layers. . . . You have to use historical imagination."

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My tour began under the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) glockenspiel at Marienplatz, one of Munich's major squares. Inside the entrance an inscription commemorates Munich's liberation by U.S. forces in 1945.

Unal explained that many buildings on the tour route are not old. "Eighty percent of Munich was destroyed by the air attacks" during World War II, he said. "We see a lot of fake buildings. . . . Painted-on facades indicate the buildings were partially or totally destroyed." Today, a casual tourist marvels only at the beautiful murals.

During the 2 1/2 -hour tour, Unal passed around a scrapbook with photos of streets before and after Allied bombs fell and of prominent persons and historic documents. At the Hofbrauhaus, we saw an 1889 baby photo of Hitler as well as his sketch of the building -- the angles are all wrong. At age 18, Unal noted, Hitler applied to art school and was rejected: "He could not draw people."

Although he could not earn a living as an artist, Hitler considered himself a patron of the arts -- but hated modern art. We walked to Prinzregentenstrasse 1, where he built Haus der Kunst, or House of German Art. The building survived the war undamaged -- "It was under camouflage netting," Unal explained. The U.S. military confiscated much of the art and used the kitchen to feed troops.

Northwest at Odeonsplatz, one of Munich's most beautiful squares, is the Feldherrnhalle, the spiritual center of the Nazi movement. At this memorial to German heroes of previous wars, Hitler in 1923 attempted a coup against the Bavarian government -- the "beer hall putsch" during which 16 Nazis were killed. Hitler was shot, arrested and sentenced to five years in jail. Unal showed a 1924 photo of the future dictator in prison, where Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf."

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