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Mar 2007 Journal

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Two faces of a German city: Munich

Before German reunification, Munich and Hamburg were the two largest cities in West Germany. They remain prominent centres of German public life, not least in the area of relations between Germans and Jews. Munich has been in the news recently with the inauguration of its new Jewish community centre and synagogue on the Jakobsplatz on 9 November 2006, the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom. But the city has also been embroiled in an unpleasant controversy concerning the laying of Stolpersteine in memory of its former Jewish citizens deported by the Nazis, which ended with the city council removing those Stolpersteine that had been laid and banning the laying of any more.

This latter episode might for some evoke memories of Munich's 'brown' past, when its title as 'Hauptstadt der Bewegung' (capital city of the movement) celebrated it as the city where National Socialism was born and where Hitler first won mass support. Lion Feuchtwanger memorably conveyed the poisonous atmosphere of those years in his novel Erfolg. Munich was the site of Hitler's failed putsch of 9 November 1923, whose 'martyrs' were later enshrined in Nazi mythology (for a masterly recreation of the abjectly unheroic reality of the Beer Hall Putsch, see Richard Hughes's novel The Fox in the Attic). After 1933, the annual commemoration of the putsch in Munich became an important date in the Nazi calendar, and the city was singled out for the distinction of hosting iconic Nazi events like the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937.

But Munich was hardly a true stronghold of Nazism. The Bavarian government of the 1920s, representing a traditionally right-wing, Catholic political constituency, extended a measure of protection to the Nazis, with the aim of enlisting them in its struggle against the more left-wing national governments in Berlin. For that reason, the head of the Bavarian government, von Kahr, formed a tactical alliance with Hitler in November 1923, only to abandon him in mid-putsch. This confirmed Hitler in his contempt for the traditional Bavarian right: on 30 June 1934, the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler, by then chancellor, took the opportunity to settle scores with von Kahr, whose body was found dismembered in a swamp near Dachau. Bavaria was the last German state to fall under Nazi control in 1933, as the Bavarian government, dominated by the Bayerische Volkspartei, the party of Bavarian Catholicism, continued to enjoy substantial support right up to its forcible dissolution.

Significantly, the real hotbeds of Nazism, like Julius Streicher's bailiwick in Franconia, were often in areas outside the core of old Bavaria. Catholic Bavaria was in some ways closer to Austria, where, after the Anschluss, Chancellor Schuschnigg and his Christian Social ministers, good Catholic right-wingers and stalwart advocates of Austrian autonomy, were imprisoned alongside the Nazis' other enemies. Rather as the post-war Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) took over the Christian Social mantle, Bavarian Catholicism resumed its political sway after Hitler; the CSU, the Bavarian wing of the conservative CDU, held power in Munich almost uninterruptedly. But the stoutly traditional CSU, even under strongman Franz Josef Strauß, never remotely resembled the Nazi Party, though an unrepentantly authoritarian and reactionary strain has rumbled on beneath the surface of Bavarian politics.

Munich has moved further from its 'brown' reputation than it is sometimes given credit for. Its modernisation and liberalisation were promoted by an influx of new industry, as firms like Siemens relocated their headquarters there from divided Berlin or, like BMW, built new high-technology factories there. Bavaria has indeed become the industrial success story among the German Länder. The city's infrastructure was thoroughly renovated for the 1972 Olympics, even if these are now remembered more for the murder of Israeli competitors by Arab terrorists. Munich has become a relaxed and relatively liberal Central European city, prosperous and cultivated and with little sign of the antisemitism and extremism that disfigured it in the interwar years. Readers may be surprised to learn that as long ago as the 1950s it was the first German city to use the pages of AJR Information to issue an invitation to its former Jewish citizens to visit their native city as its guests.

My judgment (with due respect to Peter Jordan's letter in our December 2006 issue) is that Munich city council's ban on Stolpersteine has nothing to do with antisemitism, and everything to do with the objections to the Stolpersteine vocally expressed by the representatives of the local Jewish community, concerned at the prospect of Jewish names being trodden on by German feet. What could the city council do, faced with that attitude on the part of Frau Knobloch and her colleagues, other than bow to Jewish susceptibilities, given the extreme sensitivity of such issues in post-Holocaust Germany?

Munich's new synagogue exemplifies the institutional integration of the Jewish community into the city's life. It is, however, a matter for regret that the community did not see fit to invite the AJR to the inauguration of the community centre, even though our Association represents a very significant contingent of former Jewish citizens of Munich and their descendants.
Anthony Grenville

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