“The Capital of the Movement”

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 – Munich

One must know Munich if one would know Germany…

That certainly is true of the post-1918 era of German history thanks to the man who penned those words: Adolf Hitler (here rationalizing his decision to move from Vienna to Munich — actually, he was dodging the Austrian draft). Hitler went on to praise Munich as the center of German art, a theme we explored yesterday at the “old” and “modern” Pinakothek museums. (Hitler would have detested the Moderne; he tried to curtail the careers of several of the artists celebrated there.) But today we look at Munich as the birthplace of National Socialism, a reputation the city has never exactly sought to call attention to.

If German society as a whole has struggled mightily with the problem of remembering Nazism, Munich has been particularly prone to forgetting, as described by the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2009:

As anyone who has visited Berlin will tell you, it’s hard to walk more than a few blocks through the city center without happening across yet another monument to the terrible events of World War II and the Holocaust. The Jewish memorial, the Topography of Terror, the sidewalk stones marking homes where Jewish citizens of Berlin once lived: The list goes on and on.

Head south to Munich, though, and the lack of monuments, memorials and museums focused on the Third Reich is difficult to ignore. Adolf Hitler and his Nazis may have gotten their start in the Bavarian capital, but memory has never been post-war Munich’s strong suit.

While visitors intent on confronting the consequences of Hitler’s rise flock to the nearby Dachau concentration camp (which, tomorrow, will be the last stop on our trip before we head home), it’s only in recent years that Bavarians have faced up to their greatest city’s position as the “Capital of the [Nazi] Movement.” Here’s one resident as quoted in a local newspaper in 2008: “Munich has made excuses for long enough and exported remembrance to Dachau. It is time that the city faces up to its own history.”

Indeed, by the time we actually get this travel course off the ground and arrive in Munich, the city’s new Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism might finally have opened. Now, in the meantime, it’s not like you can’t take a Nazi-themed tour of Munich. (In fact, just weeks after complaining about Munich’s tendency to forget its Nazi past, Der Spiegel published an article noting the popularity of Nazi-related tours in Munich and lamenting that so many non-Germans still associated the country with “Beer and Hitler.”) The Munich City Museum already has an excellent collection devoted to the history of Nazism, and it occupies the same square (St.-Jakobs-Platz) as the city’s Jewish Museum. Many other Nazi-related sites can be found along Brienner Strasse. From east to west…

The Odeonsplatz

This plaza in central Munich is probably the best place to start: both to illustrate Hitler’s connection to WWI, and to look at his early attempts to take power in Germany.

On August 2, 1914 a huge crowd gathered in the square (named after a 19th century theater), in the shadow of the “Field Marshal’s Hall,” for a pro-war rally. (At this point, Germany was at war with France and Russia, but not yet Britain.) Here’s a photo of the gathering:

The Odeonsplatz, 8/2/1914
The Odeonsplatz, 8/2/1914 - FirstWorldWar.com

As you might be able to make out, the young man circled looks a lot like a young Hitler. So the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann discovered when Hitler visited his studio in 1929.

As German media reported last fall, there’s now widespread suspicion that Hoffmann forged the photo, though other photos and film of the event show someone else resembling Hitler elsewhere in the crowd. In any case, Hitler undoubtedly was caught up in the war fervor that swept Munich, like other German cities, in August 1914, and according to his memoir, the very next day he eagerly volunteered for military service.

Hitler on the Western Front
Hitler on the Western Front - US Holocaust Memorial Museum

I’ve already alluded to Hitler’s participation in the 1st Battle of Ypres. After that first taste of action, he went on to be wounded twice, decorated several times, and promoted to corporal. After being exposed to poison gas in October 1918, he was recuperating in a military hospital in Germany when the war—to his horror—ended with his adopted homeland seeking a ceasefire. (His abandoned actual homeland, the Habsburg Empire, had collapsed the previous month, resulting in successor states that Hitler the dictator was later to add to his Reich.)

(By the way, just north of the Odeonsplatz, in the Hofgarten, stands a war memorial honoring Bavaria’s “fallen heroes” of WWI and its “fallen” of WWII.)

Germany itself was in political turmoil as the war ended. The kaiser abdicated, leaving Germany a republic by default. While socialists, liberals, Catholics, and others met in Weimar in early 1919 to draft a constitution, Munich experienced its own revolution: Bolshevik-inspired socialists and anarchists proclaimed a “soviet republic” in early April, which was toppled by right-wing paramilitary forces one month later after intense street fighting.

Hitler had meanwhile returned to Munich, where he was employed by the German military to infiltrate extremist groups. In September he was assigned to spy on a meeting of the minor regional group known as the German Workers Party (DAP). (Four days after attending that meeting, he recorded what is his earliest written comment anticipating the Holocaust: the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether.”) By 1921 Hitler was the leader of the renamed National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi = the first two syllables of the German for “national socialist”) and plotted the overthrow of the progressive Weimar Republic.

On November 8-9, 1923 Hitler and his supporters attempted to seize power in Munich. Called the “Beer Hall Putsch” because it started with the Nazis’ confronting Bavaria’s leader at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, it was followed the next day by an attempted march back to the Odeonsplatz and the Bavarian War Ministry. Police scattered the Nazis, who later set up memorials to their sixteen “martyrs” (there’s now a memorial to the four policemen who died) and required all who passed by the plaza to offer the National Socialist salute. (Many locals supposedly took a detour through “Dodgers’ Alley” to avoid this requirement).

One final note: the Bürgerbräukeller (which no longer exists, but was located a couple of miles to the southeast of the Odeonsplatz, across the Isar River) was also the setting for a famous attempt to assassinate Hitler. Knowing that Hitler would speak there for the 16th anniversary of the putsch, an anti-Nazi carpenter named Georg Elser planted a bomb in the beer hall. However, needing to rush back to Berlin to oversee the war effort (Germany having invaded Poland two months earlier), Hitler cut short his speech. The bomb exploded thirteen minutes after Hitler left, killing eight and wounding sixty-three more.

Platz der Opfer des Nationalsozialismus

As we continue west down the Brienner Strasse, we’ll come to a small square that once housed the former Wittelsbacher Palais (one of the palaces of Bavaria’s ruling family). After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, it was confiscated and became the headquarters of the Gestapo.

That building has long since been replaced, but the square was renamed in honor of “Victims of National Socialism” like Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and other members of the anti-Nazi student resistance group known as the White Rose. In February 1943 they were arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (north of the Odeonsplatz on Ludwigsstraße), taken to Gestapo headquarters, and then executed for treason. You can read their leaflets (the last of which was reprinted by the Allies and distributed all over Germany) here. There is a black granite memorial to them in the aforementioned Hofgarten.


Königsplatz in 1941
An aerial view of the Nazified Königsplatz, 1941 - ThirdReichRuins.com

After passing the 95-foot high black obelisk in Karolinenplatz that honors the thousands of Bavarians who fought on behalf of Napoleon during his failed 1812 invasion of Russia, we arrive at the grand “King’s Square,” where Nazi rallies, parades, and memorial services were regularly held. In the Nazi era, the square served as a kind of spiritual center of Munich-as-“Capital of the Movement.” Two “temples” built in honor of the “martyrs” of the 1923 attempted coup are gone, but a Nazi administration building has been turned into museum offices, and the Führerbau (Hitler’s personal residence in Munich) now houses a music school. In September 1938 it was the site of the Munich Conference, where Hitler met with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, the French premier Édouard Daladier, and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to resolve the fate of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. (In)famously, Chamberlain and Daladier decided to continue their appeasement of Hitler, offering up the Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s pledge (broken a few months later) not to take the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The Brown House in 1935
The Brown House in 1935 - Bundesarchiv

The Brown House

Just west of Königsplatz, on the south side of Brienner Str., we’ll come to no. 45, where Nazi headquarters moved in 1930. The so-called “Brown House” was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during WWII, but it has been designated as the site of the Documentation Center mentioned above.

There are many other sites in Munich we might visit, and several experienced guides offer walking tours. Tomorrow’s final stop on our tour of Nazi-era Munich would require a considerable walk, but fortunately Munich’s public transportation quickly conveys us outside the city to the former concentration camp of Dachau (whose victims included the attempted assassin Georg Elser), where we’ll consider how total war went hand in hand with genocide and how Christians responded to the Holocaust.

<<Day 20          Day 22>>

4 thoughts on ““The Capital of the Movement”

  1. Chris, I’m going through these so I can get caught up. Just finished the post on what you hope students to reflect during the trip out. The concept of sojourning as opposed to (modern) travel is excellent.

  2. Thanks, Ruben! It’s been fun thinking aloud like this – I’ll be sorry to come to the end of the “course” on Thursday. But I’m getting excited for the real thing.

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