WWI: Final Update (Munich)

A day later than expected (thanks to a mechanical problem that led to the postponing of our flight from Amsterdam) our HIS230L World War I group returned to the Twin Cities last Friday afternoon, having spent the last leg of its journey in Munich, Germany. A few final highlights:

For many of us, last Sunday started in Munich’s historical cathedral, the Frauenkirche, attending Mass. We then regathered at our hostel and walked up to Munich’s art museum district, the Kunstareal, where leading museums on Renaissance and early modern art (the Alte Pinakothek) and 19th century art (the Neue P.) have now been joined by one dedicated to the movements of the twentieth century (the Pinakothek der Moderne). There we encountered themes like fragmentation, dehumanization, abstraction, and mechanization in the works of numerous artists who had had direct experience of the Great War. German veterans Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner feature prominently, as do Franz Marc, a German artist who died at Verdun in 1916, and Italy’s Giorgio di Chirico, who tried to enlist in 1915 but was rejected. (Learn more from an older post Prof. Gehrz wrote on the relationship between World War I and these artists.)

Given a free day on Monday, everyone took the chance to do some travel to other sites in the region. About a third crossed the border into Austria and toured scenic Salzburg (at least a couple students took the Sound of Music tour) and another third made the somewhat difficult trip to Neuschwanstein, the iconic castle built by Bavaria’s “Mad King Ludwig” that inspired Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. (And yes, there’s a small connection to WWI here: too young to enlist in the army, Walt Disney drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France for a year after the Armistice. But I digress…) Then Profs. Mulberry and Gehrz and three students took the train north to Nuremberg, where they walked up the hill in the medieval Altstadt to the castle where the Holy Roman Emperors often held their councils (Kaiserburg) and then took the train out to the city’s Nazi Documentation Center, built into the remains of the grounds where Nazi Party rallies were held annually (famously captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, Triumph of the Will).

The Kaiserburg in Nuremberg
Nuremberg’s Kaiserburg

That visit foreshadowed the theme of our remaining days in Munich: how the war of 1914-1918 helped inspire Adolf Hitler and other fascists in the interwar era, and how its conflicts and brutality continued (and expanded) into a Second World War and a genocide even worse than the one that afflicted the Armenians starting in 1915.

Joined by a couple of Social Studies Education majors from Bethel’s Band of Brothers trip (who stayed at the same hostel as us the last two days of their trip), we spent late morning and early afternoon on Tuesday walking in the footsteps of the postwar Bavarian politics that birthed National Socialism. From the spot where Kurt Eisner (leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic that took power for several months after the war’s end) was assassinated in February 1919 (an outline is carved into the sidewalk on Kardinal-Faulhaber-Straße), we walked to an early headquarters of the National Socialist German Workers Party (now a computer store) and read from its 1920 program (nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic, but also much more anti-capitalist than the later history of Nazism would suggest) and then on to the Haufbräuhaus, the huge beer hall where war veteran Adolf Hitler gave speeches on that program as he moved into the leadership of the NSDAP. The beer hall where Hitler and his comrades launched their 1923 putsch no longer exists, but we concluded the first half of our tour at the Odeonsplatz, where the attempted coup ended with a firefight — and where thousands of Münchners (and, perhaps, Hitler) had gathered on August 2, 1914 to celebrate Germany’s entry into World War I.

The Sleeping Soldier, at the Bavarian War Memorial in Munich
“The Sleeping Soldier,” the statue resting in the crypt of Bavaria’s War Memorial

After lunch, our tour continued into the nearby Hofgarten, where we saw two memorials: the War Memorial built in the mid-1920s to honor the thousands of Bavarians who died in 1914-1918 (many of their bodies lie in Langemarck, the haunting cemetery we visited in Belgium); and the stark cube that celebrates anti-Nazi resisters like the students of the White Rose. (In the White Rose leaflet we read that day, the students called on Christians to resist the evil of Nazism: “I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”) In 1943 the leaders of that group were arrested and taken to the former royal palace — not far from the Hofgarten — that was used as Gestapo headquarters; it no longer stands, but nearby is a memorial to victims of National Socialism (taken down for renovation during our visit, unfortunately).

A couple blocks further down Briennerstraße we came to Königsplatz, where Nazi parades were held regularly. The two temples built to honor the streetfighters who died in the 1923 putsch no longer exist, nor does the NSDAP headquarters (the Brown House) that is now the site for a documentation center scheduled to open in 1914. But we could still see Hitler’s personal residence, the Führerbau. Now used as a music school, in September 1938 it was the setting for the Munich Conference that saw the British and French try one last, tragic time to appease German territorial ambitions in Central Europe.

The failure of that policy led one year later to the beginning of a Second World War, which killed more civilians than soldiers — including the millions who perished in Nazi concentration camps. So we concluded our study of the aftershocks of WWI by taking the train out to the suburb of Dachau; a short bus trip ended at the site of the concentration camp that makes the name Dachau still infamous.

Catholic memorial at Dachau
From inside the Roman Catholic memorial at Dachau: the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel

Our two hours walking those terrible grounds ended in the Protestant Church of Reconciliation (built on the grounds in 1967 and opened with a sermon by Dachau survivor Martin Niemoeller), where we gathered once more for prayer and worship. Among other texts, one student read the 73rd Psalm, whose lament resolves to words of assurance:

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.

But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

It’s hard to think of a better way to end three weeks spent studying a period of history marred by death and despair. Or to imagine that we could have had a better group of students than the twelve who went along for this inaugural edition of the course.

But mark your calendars, because we’ll look forward to doing it all over again in January 2015!

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