With all of the cheery things to see and do in this sumptuous city just north of the Alps — drink beer, admire palaces and old churches, visit museums, soak up Bavarian hospitality, and drink more beer — why would anyone want to visit sites associated with Adolf Hitler?
Because unlike the man himself, the fascination with Hitler never dies.
Standing on Marienplatz, Munich’s bustling main square, Eric Loerke is addressing nine English speakers who signed up for the “Third Reich Tour.”
“Our subject is Hitler’s rise to power in Munich,” the tour meister tells his eager charges.
Loerke is with Munich Walk Tours, which offers a selection of tours in the Bavarian capital. The Third Reich Tour and a visit to the former concentration camp in nearby Dachau are two of the most popular. The tours are conducted in English, tailor-made for Americans, Britons and other English-speakers who want to learn about Hitler’s years in Munich.
Loerke leads the group through alleys, across courtyards, and down grand boulevards as they explore the years Hitler spent in Munich as he built up the Nazi party, attracted money from wealthy patrons, and formulated totalitarian plans that were carried out after he rose to power in 1933.
They walk to a former palace that Hitler once painted on a postcard when he was a struggling artist. They walk to the Hofbreauhaus, where Hitler launched his political career with speeches condemning Jews and proclaiming the ethnic superiority of Germans.
They walk to the Feldherrnhalle, a monumental building where Hitler’s attempted putsch in 1923 was stopped by armed troops. The site became a Nazi shrine after Hitler came to power 10 years later. During the Third Reich, anyone who passed this spot was required to give the Hitler salute.
For anyone in the group who might be tempted to raise an arm in jest, Loerke advises against it.
“Don’t do it. You will be arrested,” says Loerke, explaining the gesture violates German law.
Hitler called Munich the “Capital of the (Nazi) Movement. ” The city was the party’s birthplace.
A failed artist in his native Austria, Hitler drifted to Munich in 1913. When World War I broke out in August 1914, Hitler joined a Bavarian regiment of the German army. He resurfaced in Munich after the war and joined the anti-Semitic German Workers’ Party, which later became the National Socialist German Workers Party, aka the Nazis. Hitler became a party leader and found his true calling here: rabble-rousing and public speaking. His histrionic speeches drew throngs to the Nazi party.
Hitler spent less than a year in prison for the failed 1923 putsch, and when he got out he resumed his plotting to power. He got what he wanted in January 1933 when he was made chancellor in a political deal, and after that he took dictatorial control. Even after he came to power, Munich remained key to the Nazis’ bureaucracy.
Some of the old Nazi buildings still stand, although they have been repurposed. One of them is the Fuehrerbau, a former Nazi administrative building that is now a music and drama academy. The Fuehrerbau is in the same area as the Koenigsplatz, a sprawling square where Hitler used to stage mass Nazi rallies. Today it is crossed by tourists.
The past is always present here. And Munich has not left educating people about it to tour guides.
New technology is being put to use to keep alive the memory of Hitler’s victims and of Munich’s dark past — offering virtual tours of history that you can take just by jumping onto a computer.
The city of Munich’s official website has a link to a 51-page brochure that goes into depth on the subject, with a history trail map showing sites associated with the Nazis, all available in English.
The online material — which includes audio clips — goes all the way back to a series of tumultuous political events that preceded Nazism, starting with a socialist revolution that toppled the Bavarian monarchy in 1918. A Soviet-style government briefly followed in Bavaria in 1919, until bloody Munich street fighting overthrew it. Right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism was a reaction to all the upheaval. One section talks about the salons of Munich’s high society that gave money to Hitler: “It was only with the financial support and social protection of these circles that the rise of the NSDAP (Nazi party) in the Weimar Republic became possible.”
Another online innovation is something called Memory Loops. This website has a Munich map that is overlaid with 300 blue circles, or loops. When you click onto a loop, you can hear the words of Munich residents who lived here before and after the Nazi takeover of Germany. Each audio clip is associated with a certain site in Munich. The testimony is voiced not by the original witnesses but by contemporary Germans — including children. Somber music plays in the background. Of the 300 audio tracks, 175 are also spoken in English.
Memory Loops makes the whole city a memorial to Hitler’s victims, in a virtual way.
A Jewish man whose father ran a drapery store told of the terror and destruction carried out by Nazis during the 1938 Germany-wide pogrom known as Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night: “My father’s brother committed suicide. He couldn’t take it anymore.” A survivor of Dachau told of medical experiments in which he and other inmates were denied food and forced to drink only seawater.
The tracks contain material from Third Reich archives, such as statements made by individuals denouncing others for homosexuality, for having intimate relations with Jews, and other Nazi offenses.
Acts of defiance are also documented on Memory Loops, such as testimony from a Jehovah’s Witness who refused to reveal the names of other members of her church despite cruel interrogations.
Memory Loops was created by German artist-musician Michaela Melian, a member of the band F.S.K. Her concept was the winning entry in a 2008 arts competition in Munich titled “Victims of National Socialism — New Forms of Remembrance and Commemoration.”
“The challenge for the artists was to design a contemporary memorial for all groups of victims of National Socialism, without losing sight of the perpetrators,” Melian said in an email from Germany.
You can experience Memory Loops from afar on your computer, or visit the physical sites and listen to tracks on a mobile device.
“The city had defined no specific location for such a memorial,” Melian said of the artists’ competition that she won. “I decided to make the whole city the bearer of this memorial.”
Terrence Petty covered Germany as a Bonn-based correspondent for The Associated Press from 1987-97. He is currently news editor for The AP in Portland, Ore.
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