Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Munich |
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Postcard from Munich

My Lufthansa Boeing 737, aided by what its pilot called zer rather stronk versterley vints, whistled coldly into Munich airport on an afternoon so clear that the Alps were picked out sharply in egg-shell blue under a premature pink sunset transposed from a canvas by Altdorfer. In the winter sunlight the lakes around the city shone like silver paint. Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned himself in one of them, impelled by a potent cocktail of schizophrenia and undiluted Wagner. It was a bit premature to do likewise but I couldn’t help feeling depressed.

Narrowly personal though it might sound to say so, the Nazis have always got on my nerves. It’s almost the least disturbing effect they ever had on anyone, but it was enough to make me go on postponing my first visit to Germany. Mug up on the subject but don’t go there until the whole bad scene is a back number: that was roughly the idea. So now, in early 1983, when to put off the trip any longer would entail a decline into absurdity, not to say senility, I had arrived just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazis’ rise to power. In Munich there was nothing except Hitler on or in all the media. Every bookstall looked like a photo call in Berchtesgaden. Turn on the television and there he was. This might not be his town any longer, but he was still all over it.

History, however, should not be read backwards. Munich, although founded as the Bavarian capital by the doomily entitled Ludwig the Strict, was proverbially a jocular metropolis before Hitler rose to prominence and it has some claim to have become that again since. Determined to see the city in the most favourable light, I had chosen my time carefully. In spring, summer and autumn the locals are famous for wearing identical hats and short trousers, drinking even more beer than usual, slapping one another’s hands, marching through the flower-filled streets and shouting ‘Ahoi!’ So I had been careful to arrive in the depths of winter, when none of that would be going on.

For a first sample, there is more than enough jocularity in just the architecture. The Allied air raids reduced it to a sea of rubble, but much of it has been rebuilt with the special care lavished on the past by those who have been injured by the present. Where modern buildings had to fill the gaps, they were obliged to do so sympathetically. The result is coherent and appealing: a mélange of late Gothic, northern Renaissance, baroque and rococo, with much of the original disarming chaos neatly preserved in the grids of nineteenth-century neo-classical grandiosity imposed by the Wittelsbach dynasty in its later stages. The culture-conscious Wittelsbachs never ceased to make grand improvements, but the population was regarded almost as a member of the family and its welfare was not ignored.

The result was, and is, charm in depth. There are informal gardens, formal gardens, prospects of large public buildings, clusters of smaller ones, churches with knobs on, eye-tricking façades and acres of colour-washed stucco trimmed with white plaster. The whole gleamingly clean shemozzle is linked together at basement level by an antiseptic U-Bahn as good as Moscow’s and a vast, interconnecting system of cellars in which people slap one another’s hands, wear identical hats and drink beer.

Where other cities have a water table beneath them, Munich has a beer table. But in winter the noise is merely deafening and you can always walk on the surface, snacking on the world’s greatest hot-dogs while enjoying the general effect of old Petersburg tangled up with Salzburg, plus the bridges of Paris.

Old Petersburg is a long way away but Salzburg is just over the mountains, from which the clear Isar comes flowing as fast as a man can run. The Bavarians aren’t being presumptuous, just ponderous, when they call themselves North Italians. Even in cold weather there is a lightness to the view. The English Gardens, laid out by an American adventurer who was ennobled as Count Rumford, have no greenery in winter, but the lakeside walks probably benefit from the absence of students, who in summer make obnoxious public love. Standard unisex kit for park-walking in the cold is a fur coat, space boots and a poodle in a tracksuit. The citizens of Munich are even more dog-crazy than the English, but have somehow trained their pets not to poo, thus materially aiding the impression that the whole city is cleaned and polished once an hour, like Disneyland.

The same applies to the Residenz, the official town house of the Wittelsbach family since practically for ever. Atomised by the air raids, it was put back together with tweezers just the way it was, which was pretty confusing in the first place. To symbolise the Wittelsbach family’s enlightened regard for Culture with a capital K, the National Theatre cum opera house looms at the very entrance of the palace, reminding you that the world premières of several different Wagner operas helped to scramble Ludwig II’s brains at short range. Wagner shouldn’t be held responsible for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but he can’t have been good for Ludwig’s grip on reality. Even without the romantic music on the soundtrack, however, the residents of the Residenz would surely have tended to get carried away.

Once inside, the only thing to do is wander around lost for about a week. Succeeding generations of Wittelsbach Dukes, Electors, Princes and Kings remodelled the place for centuries on end, rarely throwing away what had already been done, so that you keep opening doors on another epoch. The Schatzkammer, or treasure room, houses the collection of baubles for which Albrecht V, who should have been called the Accumulator, laid the foundations in the sixteenth century. Trinkets aren’t my favourite thing, but it’s hard to argue with so many crowns. The hit item is a dinky statuette of St George slaying a dragon studded with emeralds, but there are another thousand almost equally lavish pieces to back it up.

The collection, the private property of the Wittelsbachs, was traditionally dipped into at times of heavy out-of-pocket expense. The family usually managed to stay within budget, but there was the occasional necessity to pay for the Thirty Years’ War, subsidise Wagner, etc. Now that the family no longer rules, it can keep a smaller household and dress more quietly. Ludwig II, as well as his demented castles in the environs, built a winter garden on the roof of the Residenz and in full regalia looked like Oliver Hardy wearing a Gobelins tapestry topped off with a dead polar bear.

Of the many suites of rooms in the Residenz, the best were designed by François Cuvilliés the Elder, a court dwarf of the early rococo who happened to contain within his tiny form the heart of a great architect. All on his own, Cuvilliés would be sufficient reason for coming to Munich. Pieced back together after the bombing, the frail silver curlicues and pastel damask panels come springing to life around you as if the power of your eyesight were enough to start them sparkling. The strange feeling that you’ve seen it all before is not quite accurate, since even the Tsarist summer palaces outside Leningrad aren’t as exuberant as this. You haven’t seen it all before, you’ve heard it all later — in the music of Mozart, two of whose operas were premièred in Munich, one of them in the Cuvilliés theatre attached to the Residenz.

It is still attached to the Residenz, although to a different wing, the original auditorium having been pulverised by the bombing. But the panelling, which had been safely stored, is now reassembled inside a new shell. The previous central chandelier has been replaced by a group of smaller ones and the old extravaganza of a ceiling is now a flat panel, but otherwise the brilliant little theatre is as it was, a dimpled champagne bubble in which the spectator sits rapt while the surface glitters with tracery and cherubs blowing silent raspberries. It’s all done with wood, plaster, paint, and gold leaf, but it makes you feel wealthy, as if human fantasy had reached its highest stage, where the worthless becomes the priceless.

Mozart loved Munich and wanted a steady job, but he had struck the Wittelsbachs during one of their rare economy drives. Maximilian III, variously called the Good and the Wellbeloved, although never the Imaginative, liked La Finta Giardiniera, but said there were no vacancies. Max’s successor, Carl Theodor, who perhaps should have been called, the Unusually Obtuse, reacted the same way to Idomeneo. At a mere hundredth of what it later cost to keep Wagner in caviare, Munich could have been the Mozart city and left Vienna nowhere. History was all chances once, like now.

Chance dictated that the Cuvilliés theatre should be bombed to smithereens while two impeccably glum Nazi buildings on the Königsplatz were left untouched. Nowadays they are the School of Music and an admin block for the arts. The local guidebooks don’t draw attention to their erstwhile functions, but by triangulation from other sources it was possible to figure out that those two long horrors in yellow limestone must be the Führerbau and Parteizentrale respectively. Built by Paul Ludwig Troost, Hitler’s pet architect before the advent of Speer, they were once decorated with eagles bearing wreathed swastikas for eggs. The eagles are gone, but the balconies are still well placed for the ghosts of the Party hierarchs to watch phantom parades.

Having worked out which of the Führerbau’s windows must belong to Hitler’s corner office, I tried to look like a music student, walked confidently up the monumental interior staircase, and pushed open the door of room 105, in which the Munich treaty was signed. There was nobody in there except a Canadian girl called Monica practising the piano. Once the room had contained Mussolini along with Goering: a tight fit. Born in 1959 (‘that’s the year when all the stars were right’), Monica was ready to suspend her studies while I fossicked in the distant past. I stood on the balcony and reviewed a big parade of strutting spooks all wearing the same sort of hat. The door to the left must lead to Hitler’s office. I eased it open and found a string quartet playing Schubert.

It was good to know that the corner office is nowadays filled with a more dulcet noise than the Führer giving dictation, but one’s mood was all wrong for lunch in the Hofbräuhaus. Hitler’s preferred hangout, the Bürgerbräuhaus, was discreetly obliterated in 1979, thus completing the demolition job which George Elser had begun with his sadly unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life forty years before. But the Hofbräuhaus played host to the top Nazis often enough to give your Blutwurst an extra tang. The safest sausage in Munich is the albino Weisswurst: I should have ordered that, but after midday you are supposed to steer clear of it, since if, when cut, it doesn’t sound like silk being torn, then it isn’t fresh. But a Weisswurst ten years old couldn’t be worse than a Blutwurst, which looks like a cross-section through a dead dachshund.

I don’t drink alcohol nowadays, but sank half a mug of beer for purposes of research. Sinking all of it would have made me as drunk as the guys at the next table, who were all wearing the same sort of hat, slapping hands and shouting ‘Ahoi!’ Later in the year, during the Strong Beer Festival, a special brew called Kulminator is served, which apparently has to be drunk lying down. But if this was the Weak Beer Festival it was going well enough.

With spirits half lifted I journeyed to Nymphenburg, which lifted them all the way. Nymphenburg, the summer palace of the Wittelsbachs, lies within the limits of the modern city, which makes it the world’s loveliest suburb. Starting off as a baroque edifice, it was a rococo paradise by the time it was finished. The landscape flows through the main building like a lake, lakes glitter in the landscape like mirrored floors, and there are pavilions full of mirrors like frozen waterfalls. Even in the winter, with the garden statues boxed against the cracking air and all the trees transparent, the place breathes prettiness.

On holiday from their heavy robes, here the Wittelsbachs could indulge themselves in the belief that only appearances counted. The extremely heterosexual Ludwig I was merely the last of several Wittelsbachs to adorn Nymphenburg with a Gallery of Beauties, but he gave the project his whole heart. All the best-looking ladies of the day had their pictures hung on the wall for royal contemplation. Carolina Countess von Holstein aus Bayern, we may now note, had a waist the size of a wedding ring and shoulders like a Green Bay Packers linebacker, but her breakfast television pout still rings bells. Ludwig included a shoemaker’s daughter and a ravishing Jewess among the noble pin-ups, thus indicating his belief in the democracy of beauty — a propensity which he overdid by falling for the hottest star in the cluster, Lola Montez. Less interested in the democracy of beauty than he was, she tried to dig a title out of him, whereupon the outraged populace forced him to abdicate.

But in Nymphenburg any monarch could lose touch with reality. If Ludwig the Strict had lived to see it he would have become Ludwig the Languid. Of the pavilions in the park, the most bewitching is once again by Cuvilliés, who built it for the Electress Amalia — hence its name, the Amalienburg. No bigger than the average cricket pavilion, it purports to be a hunting lodge, but is in fact just another example of Cuvilliés turning a confined space into an expanding universe of silver filigree and sparkling glass, a bubble chamber which one enters like an intrusive cosmic particle and departs from in all directions, the overdosed ego lost in the multiplication of its own image. A hot-shot for Narcissus.

I left Nymphenburg walking on air, which was bad training for where I was going next. The Amalienburg epitomises 1,000 years of Munich’s history. The concentration camp at Dachau does the same for the Thousand Year Reich, which luckily didn’t last the advertised distance, although it contrived to express itself memorably during the short time available. Dachau is a whole district, so the answer to the question why they didn’t change the name is that it would be like changing the name of Clapham. But Clapham never had a concentration camp in it.

When the German word for concentration camp is shortened to its initials KZ, it appropriately comes out like a slap in the face: kahtsett. The snow was falling as I stood in my warm coat for a few minutes where the victims had to stand for hours and were beaten if they fell. There is not much left of the KZ except what might be called the reception building, which now contains an exhibition consisting mainly of the relevant Nazi official documents. These are not translated from the German, so the touring schoolchildren from Britain are likely to miss the full impact, which is perhaps fortunate. There is a letter from a mother in Ravensbrück to her son in Dachau. Prisoners weren’t allowed to mention they were being ill-treated, on penalty of being treated even worse, so she couldn’t ask him outright how he was. ‘You must always remember’, she wrote, ‘that your life and health are indispensable for our future and so important.’

Und so wichtig. But that was in 1944, when the victims at least faced the relatively benign prospect of quick extermination. Before the war, the inmates of KZ Dachau were routinely tortured to death over a period of years. This was the university of the SS. All the big names who later administered the empire of misery got their basic training at KZ Dachau. Thy started off by murdering real enemies and moved on to murdering imaginary ones. Grown men screamed in long agony so that their tormentors could later congratulate themselves on dispensing a quick death to women and children. In the Aeneid there is a place called the broken-hearted fields. Standing in that snow-covered space I could think of no better phrase. Nor was there any point in self-reproach for being unable to shed tears. If we could really imagine what it was like we would die of grief.

Changing Dachau’s name would have been pointless even had it been possible. The name of the whole country needed changing — which, when you think about it, was pretty well what happened. The Federal Republic of Germany is trepidatious at the thought of what a world recession might bring, apart from the two million unemployed it has brought already. Everybody is busy telling everybody else about Hitler, as if in fear that his significance had failed to register. But there are ample signs that it has sunk in.

Hitler’s sole lasting positive achievement was to cure the old Right of its opposition to democracy. On its own, the Left has since been unable to convince anyone except itself that there is any better system. On top of a crippling reparations bill and a world-wide economic disaster, it was the ruthless pressure from either hand that throttled the Weimar Republic. As more of the story is painfully recounted, it becomes less and less easy to point the finger. But the important lesson has already been learned: once power has been seized, it is too late to protest, even for the heroic — and most people are not that.

Most people are not imaginative either, and can’t be blamed for it. How much atonement is enough? The bombing must be allowed as at least part-payment: those of our young people who are concerned about the moral problem posed by the Allied air offensive should at least consider the moral problem that would have been posed if the German civilian population had not suffered at all. If the people of Munich were to live with the full knowledge of what was brought about in their city — if they couldn’t walk past the Four Seasons hotel without imagining Hitler and Streicher meeting there in the early Twenties to share wild dreams of mass murder, or if they couldn’t cross the Ludwigstrasse in front of the Feldherrenhalle without remembering that the SS ceremonial guard used to beat up anyone who didn’t give a Hitler salute as he walked past — then the day’s work would simply never be done.

As things are, Munich has a lot to be proud of. What could be rebuilt has been rebuilt. The great synagogue was not put back — Hitler tore it down deliberately long before the RAF could flatten it in passing — but that was mainly because there was nobody left to worship in it. There is a monument instead, saying: ‘Remember this, your enemy mocked you.’ What haunts Munich, as it haunts all Germany, is the presence of an absence. There is continual talk of Kultur. Every film director is a new genius. If Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic fight over a new clarinettist it is headline news in the pop papers. But the Jews took the possibility of a first-rate contemporary culture with them. Hitler, preaching health and strength, made Germany blow its brains out to lose weight.

Yet Munich’s past is rich enough to suggest, perhaps misleadingly, that the human spirit can survive anything, even a lobotomy. In the very ugly Haus der Kunst — another Troost masterpiece which unfortunately survived the bombing unscathed — Paul Klee’s paintings now hang in honour where they were once hung to be mocked. If the Kandinskys in Paris put you off him, the ones in Munich will put you on: his life-long mistress kept his best pictures safe through the dark years and then gave them to the city. In the Alte Pinakothek the Altdorfer ‘Battle of Alexander’ is a pink and blue glory showing no ill effects from having spent fifteen years in Napoleon’s steamy bathroom at St Cloud.

But there is a Rembrandt a few rooms away that tells you all there is to know. One of a sequence illustrating the life of Christ, it shows the cross being lifted up. The man in charge of the execution gazes straight out of the picture with all the arrogance of institutionalised cruelty. He has one hand on his hip and looks rather like Hitler. It is Rembrandt himself, facing the evil in his own soul. The main difference between him and Hitler was that he could see within. And paint better, of course.

— February 13, 1983