Introduction to Munich

Ulm may be a place where hard work and industry produced a magnificent cathedral and concepts that mirror our own ideas about democracy. Everything it stands for, Munich casts aside.

In Ulm, the mayor renews the oath guaranteeing that every man is equal. In Munich, they fight to ensure that purity laws for brewing beer are enforced. In Ulm, they celebrate a tailor’s failed attempt to fly. In Munich, they party for two weeks to commemorate the marriage in 1810 of crown prince Ludwig of Bavaria to princess Therese of Saxon-Hildburghausen – though it is doubtful whether anyone enjoying the rides or beer tents remembers those names any longer.

This does not disparage Munich in the least. In Ulm, you feel like you must be doing something. It is a city of overachievers. Remember that Albert Einstein was born in Ulm.

But in Munich? Ah, my friend, slow down! Relax, find a table in a biergarten. The sun is shining, can’t you hear the birds? We can work tomorrow.

Munich may be old; a few of its landmarks were erected around the same time that Ulm underwent its medieval construction boom. The Frauenkirche – the two-towered cathedral in the heart of Munich – dates back to 1494. Beer drinkers have lifted a Maβ at the court brewery or Hofbräuhaus since 1644. And Munich’s walled fortifications pre-date the ones in Ulm by a full century. Only there is precious little left standing, except for a few gates that most people do not even associate with protection. The Sendling and Isar Gates, along with Stachus, are all that remain from the Middle Ages.

The same king whose wedding gave us Oktoberfest also produced a dynasty that defined the Munich we know from current events, and those that took place in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1820s and 1840s, while Ulm was reinforcing fortifications, Munich’s kings and princes recruited artists and scholars. They copied the Venetian style of architecture with broad boulevards and green belts. They imported French arches and palaces. They expanded the English Gardens that had been designed in 1789, giving their city an enormous recreational area that serves no practical purpose whatever.

The Bavarian Academy of Sciences had been founded in 1759, but higher education got a great boost when the University of Landshut was moved to Munich in 1826. King Ludwig I commissioned Leo von Klenze to construct a Hall of Fame and Bavaria statue above the meadows where Oktoberfest came to be observed. The rest of Germany may have been flirting with democracy in 1848, but in Bavaria, they could not envision a world without their king.

Don’t misunderstand. Bavarians are hardly docile. In Munich, the citizens believe they have not only the right, but frankly the duty to protest loudly when things do not suit them. King Ludwig II found out the hard way that he could not impose taxes with impunity, no matter how outrageously spectacular his castles were. It did not matter whether he committed suicide or was murdered in 1886. The power struggle in his kingdom made his death inevitable.

It is hard to characterize Bavarian culture as one way or the other, when its many facets combine to form a jewel that is neither diamond nor ruby. A Bavarian can climb up on a soap box one minute and shout at the top of his voice about his anger at what the government is doing. Then before you know it, he could be socializing with the person you believed to be his bitterest enemy. You may think a Bavarian to be a buffoon when you see him dancing on a table during Oktoberfest, but the next day, he could be explaining an esoteric aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity to a Nobel prize-winning physicist.

Munich combines the illogicality of hardcore Roman Catholicism with the flagrant practice of no religion at all. If you were to ask a person even in modern-day Munich where you might find a Lutheran church, you would likely be met with a blank stare. Don’t even think about looking for Methodists, unless you have a telephone book and a good map. Ulm may have been a haven for religious dissidents. Munich made them unwelcome. Even Catholic clergy who remained loyal to the Church would be excommunicated for deviating from standard Church views on things as innocuous as separation of church and state. Perish the thought that they would dare to address controversial theological issues.

Now try to reconcile that picture with Schwabing, the university and artists’ district in Munich. In Schwabing, anything goes. Bohemian? You bet. Today it may be known more for its nightclubs and avant garde restaurants. But a hundred years ago, Schwabing was home to creative geniuses who had little use for social conventions.

Traditionally, folks in Munich didn’t much care for Berliners. It is the same sort of animosity that we see between Yankees and Southerners. Besides competing (though intermarried) royal houses, both cities wanted to see themselves as the cultural and intellectual capital of the German federation. Berlin may have had a head start, but Munich believed itself to be a contender.

As what we now know as Germany took shape, and as Berlin evolved into the seat of power, Munich developed into a base for an anti-establishment backlash against Prussian imperialism. Ludwig Thoma’s folk theater played on this late 19th century phenomenon. He featured country bumpkins who bested Berliner intellectuals. Ironically, his sardonic productions fared as well in Berlin as they did in Munich.

Ulm’s paradox lies in the juxtaposition of military and idealism. In Munich, you cannot escape the incongruity of a truly mellow lifestyle with the violence that erupts on the streets of that city from time to time. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing what the city became for twelve horrible years, you find yourself overwhelmed by the unfaked hospitality of the people and seeming innocence of place. As a traveler, there is no better place in the world to be stranded than Munich. Someone is sure to help you.

A modern parenting Web site recommends Munich as a city to go if you have small children. They are on target. If you travel with a two-year-old, you will easily make friends in Munich. Perfect strangers will assist you with even the most demanding task. This is not new. It is part of Munich’s make-up, part of this small town that is a city.

© Ruth Hanna Sachs, excerpt from White Rose History Volume I (all rights reserved). Used by permission.

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