Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Munich 1933-1945

Depictions of Munich 1933-1945


In May 1913 the 24-four-old Adolf Hitler moved from Vienna to Munich, the capital of Bavaria. One of the main reasons he immigrated to Germany was that he wanted to dodge conscription into the Austrian army. As a German nationalist, he detested Austria’s pro-Slavic policies and its “Babylon of races”, which “eroded” the German culture. He much preferred to live in Munich, which he admired for its arts and considered a real German city. But in early 1914 the Austrian consul tracked him down and sent him to Salzburg for physical examination by the army. He was deemed too weak for military service, however, and set free. Back in Munich, he made a humble living painting watercolours of city sceneries, as he had done in Vienna in the years before.

Shortly after the First World War broke out in July 1914, Hitler volunteered for the Bavarian Army. He fought in several major battles and was injured twice. In November 1918, while recovering from a poison gas attack, he learnt that Germany had lost the war. It left him bitter. Like many, Hitler had come to believe that Germany had not been defeated in the field, but betrayed on the home front. This view was first propagated the nationalist general Erich Ludendorff, who cast blame on the proponents of the German Revolution (the replacement of German Empire with the Weimar Republic, which started near the end of the First World War). According to Ludendorff, these treasonous “November criminals” – in particular the Jews and the communists – had benefited from the creation of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles, while other Germans faced greatly impoverished conditions. For a short period there was strong support for the Free Socialist Republic of Germany in Bavaria – for one year, there was even an independent Bavarian Soviet Republic – but in 1920 the political pendulum swung to the other side. Munich became a hotbed for nationalists and conservatives opposed to the “corrupt” government in Berlin. 1920 was also the year the Nazi Party (‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’) was founded in Munich. Hitler had been a member of its predecessor, the DAP, whose founders had noted his oratory skills. In March 1920 he left the army and began working full-time for the Nazi Party. He held rowdy speeches in Munich’s many beer halls and designed the party’s banner of a swastika. He explained: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” By using increasingly populist themes, Hitler attracted more regular audiences, sometimes numbering in the thousands. In 1921 he emerged victorious from an inner-party struggle and became the Nazi Party’s leader. On 2 October 1923 Hitler told the Daily Mail: “If a German Mussolini is given to Germany … people would fall down on their knees and worship him more than Mussolini has ever been worshipped.” It was in particular the March on Rome, by which Mussolini had come to power the year before, that inspired Hitler to initiate an aggressive putsch in Munich. He persuaded general Ludendorff to support him. The starting point of the putsch was a public meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall, in the evening of 8 November. More than three thousand people were present, including many prominent Bavarians. During the introduction, Hitler, Ludendorff, Hermann Göring, and other nationalists marched in together with a group of SA soldiers (Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party) carrying a heavy machine gun. Hitler took the stage and declared a revolution against “the Berlin Jew government and the November criminals of 1918”. He won over the crowd and pressured three well-established politicians into publicly supporting his vision of Germany. The next day, Hitler led an ad hoc march of two thousand SA members to the city centre. They were cheered by groups of bystanders and defied a small police cordon. However, near Odeonsplatz they were confronted with a much larger police force. A firefight broke out in which sixteen SA soldiers and four policemen were killed. Hitler was hastened away by one of his men to a hideout in a nearby town. The same day the police raided the Nazi headquarters. On 11 November Hitler was arrested and convicted for high treason. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but in the end he spent 264 days imprisoned in the city of Landsberg en 1924. While incarcerated, Hitler spent most of his time planning his political future and writing the first part of Mein Kampf, in which he set out both his plans for Germany and his radically anti-Semitic worldview. Hitler made his return to politics in early 1925. The Nazi Party was re-established in February and Hitler began to cement its position as the leading nationalist party in Bavaria, with himself as its undisputed leader. He revived the nationalistic, anti- Semitic party program of 1920, but now focused on democratic means to power. There was deadly fighting between the SA and the communists, however; Jews, too, were frequently assaulted. When millions of Germans became jobless after the Great Depression struck them in late 1929, the Nazi Party blamed by the Versailles Treaty and promised more jobs. This political perspective and intensive campaigning made it the second largest party in 1930 and the largest in 1932. On 30 January 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor. Joseph Goebbels, who became Reich Minister of Propaganda, wrote in his dairy: “Hitler is chancellor of Germany. It is almost like a dream … a fairy tale … The new Reich has been born.” When the Reichstag building was set on fire on 27 February, Hitler declared an emergency, which allowed him to quickly expand his legislative powers and suspend civil liberties. Furthermore, he pardoned Nazis convicted for murder and abolished all other parties. Hitler achieved full dictatorial power after President von Hindenburg died in 1934.

Hauptstadt der Bewegung

Although chancellor Hitler was seated in Berlin, there remained a special connection with Munich. In October 1933 he laid the first stone for the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (now: Haus der Kunst) in Munich, the first monumental structure to represent the Third Reich. In his speech he called the Munich “the capital of German art”. When Hitler visited Munich again as part a Nazi celebration in March 1934, he said the city would “remain the capital of art and our movement”. That same month the city council decided that the official city letterhead would be “Hauptstadt der Bewegung” [‘Capital of the Movement’]. At the mayor’s request, Hitler sanctioned the title in August 1935. On 18 July 1937 the Haus der Deutschen Kunst opened with the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung featuring Nazi-sanctioned art. Hitler had appointed his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, as curator. The next day the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit opened in the Institute of Archaeology across the street, showcasing 600 confiscated works of “degenerate art”. The Party’s roots in Munich were made manifest by the redesign of the Königsplatz, a square used for many of the Nazi Party’s mass rallies. Trees were removed and grass covered with granite. Paul Troost designed two Temples of Honour for the square, which were completed in 1935. These neo-classicist buildings housed the sarcophagi of the sixteen SA soldiers killed in the putsch of 1923. But Hitler had bigger plans, for he was convinced that “the definitive value of every great era is expressed in its buildings”. In December 1938 he made the architect Hermann Giesler responsible for the reconfiguration of Munich. The next year Giesler presented a master plan befitting the city’s status; Hitler had been closely involved, even providing his own sketches. Like Albert Speer’s plans for Berlin, Giesler’s gigantomaniac designs demonstrate the role played by architecture within a totalitarian regime. A new east-west axis—a boulevard 120 meter wide and 2500 meters long—would form a new centre containing the state buildings, reflecting a shift of power from the State to the Party. Its eastern end would marked by the Denkmal der Bewegung (‘Monument of the Movement’), a 175-meter-high, metal-clad pillar crowned with an eagle. Halfway along the axis a new central railroad station would arise in the shape of an enormous domed structure made of glass, steel, and aluminum. A huge triumphal arc was planned at the western end of the boulevard. Besides these grandiose representations of the Nazi Party and the State, plans were drawn for a modern ring road, renewed industrial areas, and vast new residential areas, in particular the so-called Nordstadt and Südstadt, which would house tens of thousands of people. Many of these structures would have replaced existing buildings, although Giesler showed more respect for the fabric of the city than Speer did for Berlin’s. Due to the start of the Second World War, most of Giesler’s plans were not realized.

Oppression, Prosecution, and Concentration Camps

Immediately after Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis in Munich became more violent and started raiding the offices of political opponents. In March 1933 Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, opened the Dachau concentration camp, 16 kilometres northwest of Munich. Here, the Nazis detained their political opponents, initially mostly communists, socialists, and union leaders. The Dachau camp served as a model for all other concentration camps. Catholics in Munich were not regularly imprisoned but did suffer bans and harassment. On 20 July 1933 the Vatican and the Nazi government signed the Reich Concordat, a controversial treaty that guaranteed the rights of the Roman Catholic Church in Nazi Germany and, in a secret annexe, exempted Catholic clergy from future conscription. Nevertheless, throughout Germany Catholics were harassed, their schools and newspapers closed, and monasteries and other Church properties appropriated. The Church reacted in August 1935 by reminding Hitler that the Vatican had “exchanged the handshake of trust with you through the concordat — the first foreign sovereign to do so.”

The approximately 12.000 Jews who lived in Munich suffered increasingly violent oppression from 1933 on. In April 1933 the Nazi government passed the Civil Service Law, which barred Jews and political opponents from working for the government (including schools and universities) and from various other occupations. Also in April, the Nazis started a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses. Similar laws were first implemented locally in Munich. The Nuremberg Laws introduced in 1935 stripped German Jews from their citizenship, deprived them of civil rights, and prohibited “Aryans” from having sexual relations or marriages with Jews. By then Jews had started to leave the country; in 1936 there were 9.000 Jews left in Munich. In June 1938 Hitler ordered the demolition of the Alte Hauptsynagoge München, “an eyesore”, on the pretext that it obstructed traffic. The site was to be turned into a parking lot. Work began immediately after the Jewish community was informed of the decision. They received a mere 100,000 Deutschmark in compensation for the plot and the synagogue itself – the first one destroyed by the Nazis. On 7 November 1938 a young German-born Jew shot the German diplomat Ernst von Rath in Paris. Von Rath died on 9 November, the fifteenth anniversary of Hitler’s putsch in 1923. That day Goebbels gave an incendiary, anti-Semitic speech in Munich, hinting that “the Führer has decided that … demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” His audience understood the message. On his way to his hotel, Goebbels was delighted to see the Ohel Jakob synagogue go up in flames; the fire brigade had been ordered only to protect non-Jewish properties. That night civilians and paramilitaries unleashed a series of attacks on Jews throughout the country; in many cases policemen stood by and watched. At least 91 Jews were killed and many Jewish buildings and businesses were destroyed, including hospitals, schools, and more than 1,000 synagogues. Furthermore, Hitler ordered the arrest of 30,000 Jews, of which more than 10,000 were sent to Dachau. The next day Göring, then Reich minister of the Luftwaffe also decreed that the Jewish community would have to pay the state 1 billion Deutschmark in repairs. The network of concentration camps expanded in the first few years of the war. In March 1941 Jewish forced labourers built Judensiedlung Milbertshofen (‘Jewish settlement Milbertshofen’) in the Knorrstraße in Munich. The eighteen barracks of this transit camp held 1100 people. Jews from all over Southern Germany were brought to Milbertshofen before being transported to one of the extermination camps. The first one thousand people were deported by train on 20 November 1941. The camp was dissolved in August 1942. Meanwhile the Dachau concentration camp had been expanded with several subcamps. Its prisoners were no longer only political opponents, but also ‘racial enemies’ (Jews and Romani) as well as ‘moral opponents’ (conscientious objectors, homosexuals, and habitual criminals). When in 1942 the Nazis accelerated the extermination of Jews, Dachau’s function changed from a labour camp to a transit camp. One gas chamber was installed but never used. Regardless, 31,591 of Dachau’s prisoners died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, or during medical experiments.

Weiße Rose

However dangerous, some Germans resisted the Nazi regime even after it had established totalitarian control. One of the most well-known examples is Weiße Rose, an intellectual resistance group whose core consisted of around twenty students from the University of Munich. In 1942 and early 1943 they distributed tens of thousands of leaflets urging their countrymen to oppose the Nazi regime. The leaflets reached Berlin, Hamburg, and other major cities. The sixth leaflet began: “Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you! … The day of reckoning has come – the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.” On 18 February 1943, the same day that Goebbels called for total war in the Berliner Sportpalast, Hans and Sophie Scholl, both members of Weiße Rose, were arrested for spreading leaflets in the University of Munich. This led to the trial and decapitation of five students and one professor; several others were sentenced to prison. The final words of Christoph Probst, a student who was executed, were: “In wenigen Minuten sehen wir uns in der Ewigkeit wieder.” (‘In a few minutes, we meet again in eternity.’) Right before he was executed, Hans Scholl another student, exclaimed: “Es lebe die Freiheit!” (‘Long live freedom!’)

Bombardments and Capture

Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after German troops invaded Poland. The Luftwaffe bombed two cities to break resistance: Warsaw in September 1939 and Rotterdam in May 1940. After those bombardments, Hitler did not allow the Luftwaffe to target civilian structures, unless he gave a specific order to do so. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister until May 1940, restricted bombing campaigns altogether. His successor Winston Churchill had no such hesitations, however. In his first speech as prime minister, Churchill famously declared: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us ... That is our policy.” In the beginning of the war, the command of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) prohibited the bombing of civilian areas; the first attack on Munich, on 4 July 1940, was aimed at an airplane factory. Still, both the RAF and the Luftwaffe often hit civilian areas by accident. After German bombers strayed and killed civilians in London on 24 August 1940, both sides intensified their strategic bombing in a series of retaliations. Around 1942 massive bombing raids on urban areas came to be seen as the most effective way of crippling the enemy’s war effort. In the words of Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander of the RAF: “There are a lot of people who say that bombing can never win a war. Well, my answer to that is that it has never been tried yet, and we shall see. Germany … will make a most interesting initial experiment. Japan will provide the confirmation.” Enemy workers were still not targets per se, but destroying their homes—in what was called a strategy of ‘dehousing’ in a paper by professor Frederick Lindemann, the British government’s chief scientific adviser—had the double effect of paralyzing them with fear and forcing them away from the centres of production. Thus, following the prevalent logic of total war, military, industrial, and residential areas were carpet-bombed almost indiscriminately. Allied bombers attacked Munich 73 times between 1942 and 1945, not only because of its importance as a military target, but also because of its prestige as the Hauptstadt der Bewegung. Most attacks were aimed at the city centre, with Russian prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates forced to remove the rubble in the streets, to identify bomb craters, and to discharge the unexploded bombs. Also, The Nazi headquarters near Königsplatz, the so-called Brown House, was damaged in October 1943 and destroyed near the end of the war. It is estimated that Munich was the target of 450 blockbuster bombs, 61,000 explosive bombs, and 3,458,000 incendiary bombs. At the end nearly half of the city had been destroyed, with only ten percent of the city centre remaining. Around 6.500 people were killed by the attacks and 300,000 lost their homes.

Liberation of Dachau

On 26 April, as the Americans were approaching Munich, over 10,000 prisoners were forced to leave the Dachau concentration camp on foot, in trains, or in trucks. One large group of about 7,000 prisoners was driven southwards on a foot-march that laster several days, and in which over 1,000 of the prisoners died. The evacuation of the camp cost several thousands of prisoners their lives. An American military unit closed in on Munich on 29 April, liberating 3,000 prisoners from one of Dachau’s sub-camps. The camp itself had been set on fire, as was a stack of around four hundred bodies. A group of American soldiers went to Landsberg, where Hitler had written Mein Kampf as a prisoner, and rounded up all the male civilians. The soldiers marched them to the camp, where they were forced to stand witness, in place of all Germans, of what had happened there. The next day, 30 April 1945, American forces captured the city of Munich while 500 kilometres further on, in his Berlin bunker, Hitler committed suicide.