Whenever I go to a city that offers a free city tour, I always fit it into my schedule because I love hearing the stories and history that make a city what it is today. I was especially interested in Munich because the city played such an important role in WWII. It was the birth place and headquarters of the Nazi movement. It was the city where Hitler rose to power, where the first concentration camp was established, and where the world famous Oktoberfest is held every year. (And yes, I went to it!!)
I visited Munich during Oktoberfest – a time where tourists and locals are clad in traditional lederhosen and dirndls drinking beer, eating pretzels, and celebrating. The city’s dark past is not glaringly obvious. Tourists merrily fill the beer halls – the same beer halls where Hitler gained popularity by offering the people hope with his impressive speeches. The same beer halls that defeated Germans used to fill in 1919 following WWI to forget about the continuously rising inflation. The same beer halls that now share the street with a Hard Rock Cafe and a Starbucks.
80% of Munich was destroyed by air attacks during the war so many of the buildings you see today are not actually that old, but simply rebuilt in the same style they were originally. Starting at Marienplatz, I took the tour with a large group of people from all over the world. This is what I learned:
Marien Platz (Mary’s Square)
Marienplatz is the central square in Munich. It’s the home of the old city hall, the new city hall, and the Marian column which was erected by the King at the time to honor Mother Mary for answering his ‘prayer’ to save Munich from the Swedes when really, he ran away like a coward when his people really needed him (or so the story goes). During WWII, the swastika could be seen hanging on the tower of the town hall.
The Glockenspiel is located on the New City Hall and just like the astronomical clock in Prague, it is very overrated. Yet people (such as me) still continue to stand there with cameras aimed upwards and patiently wait for it to do its thing. It tells the story of a royal wedding, jousting tournament and a ritualistic dance – all important events in Munich’s history. At the end of the show, a golden bird emerges and gives three feeble chirps to signal that it is over. How very exciting, indeed.
The Opera House
Located in Max-Joseph-Platz, the Opera House has been burnt down multiple times and rebuilt. When they rebuilt it the second time, they added sprinklers to safeguard against another fire. However, the next time it caught on fire was January…which meant the water in the sprinklers was frozen. So how did they put out the flames? They used beer, of course! It is a running joke now that ‘beer saved the Opera house’!
Odeonsplatz is another large square in which the most prominent structure is the Feldherrnhalle. It is bordered by the Theatinerkirche and Hofgarten. Odeonsplatz is where the gun battle that ended the march on the Feldherrnhalle during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch took place. The Beer Hall Putsch was Hitler’s attempt to overthrow the Weimar government and establish a right wing nationalistic one in its place. It did not go according to his plan though as he was shot at, arrested, and sentenced to five years in jail. During this time in jail, he wrote Mein Kampf. The guide was quick to point out that though he was technically in jail, he had his own cook and special privileges. He ended up getting out early due to good behavior.
The Feldherrnhalle features two lion statues. The one that faces the church has a closed mouth to symbolize that you shouldn’t speak out against the church but the one that faces parliament has an open mouth. 10 years after the Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis erected a memorial to honor their fallen comrades. At Hitler’s command, all those who passed were supposed to salute the guard. At this point in the tour, one woman demonstrated what the salute looked like (in case there were people who didn’t know?) and the tour guide looked at her very sternly and said in a deathly quiet voice, “Don’t ever do that here again.” Everyone looked around uncomfortably then as though the past was a little too close for comfort. What I thought was interesting was that she told us many people refused to salute Hitler despite the risk of being beaten, jailed, or killed. In protest, some took Viscardigasse alley as an alternative route and it became known as “dodger’s alley.” Today, there is a gold-painted cobblestone path to remember the brave people who stood up to Hitler but it is easily overlooked by tourists. This is apparently a big topic of debate in Germany as many of the memorials in Munich are hidden from tourists but taught to locals whereas the memorials in Berlin are so obvious that there is a fear that the locals become desensitized to them. Hmm…
Platz der Opfer des National Sozialismus
Square of the Victims of National Socialism is where an eternal flame burns in memory of those who died in concentration camps. Everyone looked at it in respect and bowed their heads in silence. There’s not really much to say about it but you definitely feel things.
Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady)
Although most of the church was destroyed in WWII, a part that remains is the ‘Devil’s Footstep’ at the entrance. According to the legend, the devil made a deal with the builder to finance construction of the church on the condition that it contain no windows. However, the builder tricked the devil by placing the windows in a spot that were not visible from where the devil stood. When he found out that he had been tricked, he became so angry and stomped his foot furiously which the left the mark that remains today. Before he was Pope, Pope Benedict also gave mass here.
Origins of Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is arguably one of the biggest festivals in the world with an estimated 6 million people celebrating it in Munich every year. So how did it all start? With a marriage! Crown Prince Ludwig, who later became King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12,, 1810. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities which were held on a field named Theresienwiese in honor of the Princess. The locals have since abbreviated the name simply to the “Wies’n” and this is where Oktoberfest is still held to this day.
Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass)
On November 9th 1938, Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels initiated an attack against the Jews of Germany which became known as Kristallnacht.
The Hofbräuhaus and Beer
This is the world’s most famous beer hall. It was first established in 1589 by duke Wilhelm V and is so highly esteemed, that Pope Benedict himself used to order beer for the Vatican from here when he was Pope. In fact, the beer is so beloved that King Gustavius from Sweden agreed not to invade Munich in exchange of 600,000 barrels of beer during the Thirty Years War. The beer hall was visited by many famous people such as Lenin, Mozart and of course, Hitler. It was often used by the Nazi party to host meetings and functions.