Before this trip, when someone mentioned Munich, I thought of Oktoberfest, Biergärten and Lederhosen. But I suppose that Americans and Europeans of my parents’ (and their parents’) generation associate the city with something much more sinister than Lager and pretzels: Munich is the birthplace of the Nazi Party and the political career of Adolph Hitler.
Being a history buff, you can imagine my reaction when Dale suggested going on a half-day “Third Reich” walking tour with Big Hat Tours here in Munich.
We met our guide, Curt Milburn, and a couple and their son from Arizona, at the Marienplatz on Thursday morning where we started with a review of WWII before setting off for the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, the most famous Beer Hall in Munich.
Originally part of the Royal Brewery, the Hofbräuhaus was opened to the public by Bavarian King Ludwig I in 1828; this building was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII, but was rebuilt in 1958.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a regular customer; so was Vladimir Lenin. But the most infamous person to frequent the Hofbräuhaus was Adolph Hitler.
Adolph Hitler was born in 1889, just outside of Bavaria on the Austrian side of the Inn River. His father, Alois, had been born out of wedlock and given his mother’s surname, Schicklgruber. But, as a young man, Alois had been able to legally change his name to that of his birth-father, Hitler. Imagine how this one little thing changed history: it’s hard to imagine the Nazi movement gaining traction with a slogan of “Heil Schicklgruber!” [Credit to Curt for this anecdote.]
But, I certainly don’t mean to make light of Adoph Hitler and the Nazi Party, so let me get on with the story.
As a young man, Adolph moved to Vienna, where he tried to get into the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts, but both of his applications were rejected. He drifted around for a couple years as a street artist painting postcards and advertisements, ultimately ending up in Munich in 1913.
As WWI approached, Hitler was found to be physically unsuitable for military service in Austria, but he was accepted as a volunteer into the German Army for whom he served heroically in the Great War, being gassed and wounded and earning the Iron Cross in 1918 as a corporal, a rare feat.
After Germany’s surrender in WWI, Hitler continued in the German Army as a spy, assigned to keep an eye on the political machinations of the German Worker’s Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; DAP). However, in September 1919, at the first meeting of DAP he attended, Hitler got into a political argument with one of the members, was recognized by the others as a potentially skilled orator, and ended up leaving the Army and joining DAP (as its 55th member). He quickly climbed the short ladder to leadership of the organization, largely due to a speech he gave here at the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus in February 1920 espousing the Party’s 25-point guiding principles which included, among other things: a stronger German nation (a Third Reich); abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles (by which Germany had surrendered in WWI); and, expulsion of the Jews:
Shortly after Hitler’s speech at the Hofbräuhaus, the DAP added “National Socialist” to its name to become the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (National-sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; NSDAP), that is, the Nazi Party. By July 1921, Hitler had become the undisputed leader of the Nazi Party with almost unlimited power within the organization.
In the turmoil that followed WWI in Germany, it was not too difficult for Hitler and the Nazi Party to attract many disaffected war veterans to their cause, which they formed into a paramilitary organization known as the Sturmabteilung, that is, the Storm Troopers, also known as the Brown Shirts because of the uniforms they adopted. The ranks of the Storm Troopers ultimately rose to 2,000,000 men in 1933, ten times the size of the German Army which had been limited to 100,000 men by the Treaty of Versailles.
By 1923, Hitler was advocating the overthrow of the democratically elected German Weimar Republic. But the Nazis were not the only ones plotting against the government. Both the left and the right were dissatifsfied with the status quo and leaders of the Bavarian State (essentially, the Bavarian State Governor and the heads of the State Police and the military in Bavaria) were actively plotting to overthrow the Weimar Republic in order to install an authoritarian government of their own in its place, setting a meeting with their associates at the Bürgerbräu Beer Hall for the night of November 8, 1923, to finalize plans.
Hitler, who had not been invited to the meeting at the Bürgerbräu Keller, saw an opportunity to take charge. Emboldened by the fact that he was the leader of a now 50,000-member Nazi Party, Hitler had his Storm Troopers surround the Bürgerbräu Keller as he burst in, firing shots into the ceiling. He forced the Bavarian State leaders into a back room where, at gunpoint, they acquiesced to his leadership of their program, at which point they and Hitler announced to their assembled followers their solidarity with Hitler and his plan to march on Berlin to take over the government there.
Mission accomplished (he thought), Hitler left, but upon being released, the Bavarian State officials did an immediate about-face, denounced Hitler, and ordered the police and military to suppress the Nazi plans.
When Hitler heard what had happened, he ordered his membership to march the next day anyway. So, on November 9, around 2,000 Nazis proceeded through town, headed toward the Odeonplatz near the Royal Palace. The route took them up this street near Marienplatz:
At the Feldherrnhalle (the Monument of the Generals), the Nazis clashed with the Bavarian police and both sides opened fire. Hitler was wounded and his body guard killed, together with 13 other Nazis and four policemen. The shoot-out took place right here:
Hitler escaped, but was soon found and arrested and he and the other leaders of what came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch were tried for High Treason in March 1924. Hitler represented himself and used the trial as a showcase to make a political speech before a tribunal friendly to his cause. He was found guilty and given the minimum sentence: 5 years in a minimum-security prison, of which he only had to serve 8 months, during which time he wrote the first volume of his autobiography and manifesto, Mein Kampf.
Years later, in 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor and ultimately given near dictatorial power in Germany as Führer, a memorial to the 14 Nazis that had been killed in the Beer Hall Putsch was erected on the side of the Feldherrnhalle. This monument had around-the-clock guards and all citizens passing by were required to give the right arm “Hitler Salute.” [The monument was pulled down by the Allies in 1945.]
Those who refused to salute soon discovered another way past the Feldherrnhalle through this back-alley, the steps of which have since been bronzed, as you can see. [The Hitler Salute is now illegal in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovokia.]
Here’s the front of the Feldherrnhalle where Hitler, as Führer, roused the troops.
We continued our walk toward the Königsplatz and on the way we passed the side of the Führerbau (now the Academy of Music) which survived the bombing of Munich relatively unscathed. This is the building that the Nazis started building in 1933 as Hitler’s headquarters after they had successfully taken over the German government. Hitler’s office was on the floor above the ground floor. The building was completed in 1937 and was the site of the signing of the Munich Agreement by which Britain and France acquiesced to the transfer of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Germany.
To make a long story short, after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler was required to renounce direct, violent confrontation as a means to achieve his political ends: the domination of Germany.
The terrible inflation experienced in Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic, together with the onset of the Great Depression, allowed the Nazis to convince many Germans that their authoritarian proposals were the best program for revitalization of the nation.
In German parliamentary elections, Nazi representation increased from 2.6% in 1928, to 18.3% in 1930, and in 1932 the Nazis became the largest parliamentary party with 37.3% which enabled them to form a government and demand of then-President of Germany, General von Hindenburg, that he appoint Hitler, the Nazi Party’s leader, as Chancellor, which he did in January 1933, now considered the beginning of the German Third Reich.
In February, the German Parliament building burned to the ground, the act of a sole arsonist, and Hitler seized upon the fire to assert that this was the beginning of a communist revolt. He convinced von Hindenburg to grant him emergency powers to deal with the (false) emergency and from this point on, Hitler was effectively dictator of Germany. The “emergency” never went away and the Nazis began a methodical elimination of all political adversaries, constructing the concentration camp at Dachau to hold them all.
Hitler and the Nazis subsequently took up post in Berlin, the German capital, and ultimately, as you undoubtedly know, Germany lost the war that followed, the Nazis came to a violent end, and Hitler committed suicide there in his bunker in 1945.
We concluded our tour near this building, the Bavarian State Tax Office, which on this day was flying the flags of the European Union, the German Republic and the State of Bavaria…
… but there is still the shadow, to the right of the Bavarian State flag, of the Eagle of the Third Reich, talons trimmed and swastika removed.