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On a Munich Tour, Confronting a Dark Past

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."

* * *

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."

"Hitler had his own cook and special privileges and spent months -- not five years -- in jail and got out for good behavior," Unal said.

A decade later the Nazis erected a memorial to fallen putsch comrades at Feldherrnhalle. Hitler ordered pedestrians to salute guards posted there. In protest, some took Viscardigasse alley, which runs behind the Feldherrnhalle; it became known as the "alley of shirkers" or "dodger's alley." Today, its gold-painted cobblestone path is easily overlooked as people duck into the corner pastry shop. All that remains of the Nazi memorial is darkened stone where a sign had been attached.

We turned west onto Briennerstrasse, where the party offices were concentrated. At Platz der Opfer des National Sozialismus (Square of the Victims of National Socialism), an eternal flame burns in memory of concentration camp prisoners. We gazed upward at the gray monument. Unal didn't say much. As traffic whizzed by, many of those on the tour bowed their heads in silence.

The Wittelsbacher Palais -- the last palace for Bavarian kings Ludwig I and II -- was on the next block. You'd never know it. Only a plaque on the wall of a bank says so. The Gestapo turned the palace into a prison. "If you did something against the Nazi regime, you ended up here," Unal said. In 1944, it was bombed. One stone lion remains.

On Karolinenplatz, facing an obelisk from Napoleon's time, is a white stone building with neatly trimmed hedges where Friedrich Bruckmann, a prominent publisher, resided. The sign now reads Sparkassenverband Bayern. In this house, Unal said, Hitler was introduced to Munich's wealthy citizens and learned how to mingle with high society. "Hitler promised them freedom from tax" and help supplying labor for their businesses, Unal said.

A block west, we were shown buildings used as military and political headquarters where diabolical plans were conceived. But Braunes Haus, the Nazi party headquarters where Hitler once lived, and other buildings have been demolished. Some were badly damaged by Allied bombs and demolished; some were razed to erase Nazi memories.

At the intersection of Brienner and Arcis is a ground-level sign (one side in German, the other in English) detailing what this area looked like around 1941, when it was Nazi Party headquarters; though Berlin was the capital, the power remained focused in Munich. A blueprint accompanied by photos and text lists 53 buildings and their known uses: the Head Office of Party Propaganda, the Party Treasury, etc. An area where commuters speed by and tourists stroll once was a self-sufficient complex with its own power station. A photo shows the burning of books at Koenigsplatz in May 1933.

Koenigsplatz, immortalized in photos of mass rallies, was bombed heavily. The Nazis built two "temples of honor" and enshrined their heroes here; foundations obscured by grass remain. In 1988, two museums -- the Antikensammlungen (Museum of Antiquities) and the Glyptothek -- were rebuilt on the square in their original neoclassical design.

Steps from the Glyptothek is the state university for music and theater, which survived bombing. In 1936, the "Fuehrer building" -- Hitler's Munich headquarters -- sported red carpet, while swastika flags festooned balconies. The Munich Agreement, under which Europe's major powers gave most of Czechoslovakia to Germany, was signed there in 1938. American occupying forces replaced the eagle and swastika over the front door with the seal of the United States. Today, students and professors tread the still-grand staircase.

* * *

After the tour, I retraced my steps, trying to comprehend the tumultuous past. At the music school, a soprano's voice wafted from a window. A bulletin board listed concerts open to the public.

On Koenigsplatz, carpentry students were building a Trojan horse in front of the Antikensammlungen; Glyptothek curator Vincenz Brinkmann told me the horse cost about $38,000 to build. It advertises the "Trojan Myth" exhibit focusing on Greek artifacts in the museums' permanent collections.

A block away, vines creep up the walls of Meiserstrasse 10, once a Nazi administration building. State collections of antiquities and Egyptian artifacts are housed there. Art history students sketched among reproductions of more than 100 statues and busts on the first floor. The goddess Nike -- the Winged Victory of Samothrace -- dominated the room; light flowed from the beveled-glass ceiling. I walked the marble floors and wide staircases, aware that Nazi palms had touched the brass handrail.

That evening, I returned to Haus der Kunst. There was an early-postcard exhibit, an industrial design show, oil portraits of women and modern art -- just the kind Hitler hated.

Several companies offer Third Reich tours in English. Munich Walk Tours' offering costs about $12.80; check http://www.munichwalktours.de, e-mail info@munichwalktours.de or call 011-49-89-207-02736 for days and times. Reservations are not needed. Look for a guide holding a yellow sign at the main entrance to the Neues Rathaus (town hall), directly under the glockenspiel on Marienplatz.

The Munich Tourist Office (http://www.muenchen.de/tam, 011-49-89-233-96500) has information on other companies, plus details on museum admissions, lodging and restaurants within the city.

Sue Kovach Shuman is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

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