Thursday, 23 August 2012

Following the Shadows of the Third Reich

While Munich today is certainly a very beautiful and vibrant major city, it was far from being that way following the devastation of World War II. With around 70% of the city destroyed, it required many years of rebuilding in order to preserve the major historical buildings. Thankfully this has been done slowly and sensitively, but there are still plenty of reminders of what are referred to as the ‘dark years’ of the Nazi era. While studying Modern European History for my year 12 exams, I subjected myself to the complete BBC series of ‘The World at War’ several times over, until those grainy black and white images of the 1930 and 40’s became almost emblazoned on my brain. Yet for a 17 year old, this remained a very distant time and events that had happened were in a very distant place. So now thirty something years later, it would be interesting for me to visit the actual places that had been so significant in the rise of the infamous ‘Third Reich’.

At this stage I must mention that all this war history is not particularly Jules’ cup of tea. In fact anything war related is strictly banned from television viewing in our household if she is anywhere within earshot. So I was on my own when I joined one of the regular walking tours that focuses upon Hitler and the birth of the Nazi regime in Munich. So along with a small group of aficionados from a wide variety of English speaking countries (including one chap who was so impressed with the tour that this was his third time around), we set out for a few hours to re-live those ‘dark days’ of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our tour guide was Levi, a young American guy who came armed with a folio full of photos and a passion for the pre-war history of this city. As we walked to the various sites, he would relate many detailed stories of the emerging regime with its anti-semetic doctrines and strange but charismatic leader. We visited several locations where Hitler made many of his early speeches (such as the Old Marienplatz Town Hall and Hofbräuhaus), relived the events of the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ and walked around the public squares where large Nazi rallies were later held (Odeonsplatz and Königsplatz). The tour culminated at the Nazi Headquarters building, which remarkably still exists today as a music academy, minus the eagle swastika that used to hang prominently at its entrance. The marble interior remains much as it was when SS officers with knee high boots marched up and down the grand central staircase leading to Hilters office on the first floor.

For many years I taught an art history unit on ‘Art and Politics’ where a significant aspect of the course examined the role of art within the Nazi propaganda machine. One building that had a significant role was ‘The House of German Art’, which was the first architectural commission completed after Hitler obtained political power and became notorious for showcasing works that were in-keeping with Nazi ideology. This is yet another building that somehow remained unscathed following allied bombing and appears much as it was when Hitler opened it in the grand entrance in 1937 with a scathing speech that denounced ‘modernism’. Today it is still used as an art gallery, but its administration now works actively to promote the type of art that had been initially banned then eventually mocked in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, which was held in a ramshackled gallery just around the corner. It is seventy-five years since these events and clearly enough time had passed for an exhibition to be held entitled ‘History in Conflict’. The display looked back at the buildings chequered past that saw it initially celebrated as a high temple of Germanic culture until by the end of the war it was reduced to being used by American forces as an officers mess where basketball was played in its galleries.

In visiting the historical sites of the Third Reich, it was inevitable and certainly necessary to take a trip to Dacchau concentration camp, about half an hour outside of Munich. For this trip Jules had agreed to join me, which I particularly appreciated as I knew it was going to be a very somber place. Yet we both felt that it had to be experienced and in some way it would allow us to pay homage to the thousands of poor souls who had ended their days there. Clearly many others felt the same way as we joined numerous nationalities that respectfully walked through the iron gates emblazoned with the hollow words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work brings freedom). As we walked around, we were encouraged to see so many German citizens seeking to learn more about events that have become so emblazoned upon the conscience of the whole country. This was certainly a place for much reflection and contemplation about the depths of human brutality.

Today it is at times difficult for a visitor to Munich to imagine the tumultuous events that happened here less than a century ago. It is such a vibrant and prosperous city, but events occurred here within living memory that not only shaped Munich but much of the western world. For me, the visit placed much of my historical knowledge in some sort of context. I began to recognise the places I had seen in old photographs and somehow those grainy black and white ‘World at War’ films I had watched as a kid back in Australia seemed just a little more real.

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