Remembering History in Munich

The change in the German soul.

Eric the guide said: "They've changed. They don't want to fight anymore, anywhere. They refuse to carry guns. The government sent the unit to Afghanistan despite public opinion." Eric, a tall, bearded Iowan transplanted in the 1970s to Munich, was explaining the Germans or, more accurately, the change in the German soul.

He had once superintended golf courses. Now he guides English-speaking tourists on the daily "Third Reich Tour", which sets out every morning at 10:15 from the Marienplatz, the city's central square, facing the old Rathaus, a magnificent Gothic building from the late nineteenth century and first years of the twentieth. (Old Europe's towns have a central square and, usually, an adjacent town hall.)

We were standing around the bronze life-sized statue of a soldier, lying on his back with his hands clasping a rifle between his legs. The monument, in the spacious tree-lined rectangle behind the Bavarian State Minister-President's office, commemorates Bavaria's dead in the world wars. Cut into the adjoining stone wall to the north is a wonderful modern bas-relief, of marching soldiers, sculpted after the Great War. The soldiers may not look happy, you can't actually see faces, but they are marching. To the south, symmetrically, stands a parallel white stone wall, into which is cut a bas-relief depicting a row of crosses, obviously a graveyard. This was inaugurated after World War II. The difference between the two signals the transformation of the German mindset.

Eric knows his adopted city's landscape – the massive destruction that laid flat or cratered most of the town center, the sites of the Nazi monuments and HQs whose erection preceded and shoed in the destruction. And he connects the dots.

He takes us past the site of Munich Gestapo headquarters, now a modern, glass-covered bank. There is a small bronze plaque on the wall, stating that the original structure was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944.

We move on to a more entertaining venue, the enormous Burgerbraukeller, the beerhall of 1923 "Beerhall Putsch" fame. It has an attractive convex ceiling and solid woodwork. But the Nazi symbols and plaques that adorned its walls during 1933-1945 are all gone. In fact, throughout the city there are no concrete symbols of the Nazi regime; and giving the Nazi salute, Eric tells us, is automatically punished with a mandatory fine of one month's pay.

On to the Odeonsplatz, faced by the impressive giant 19th century loggia, the Feldherrnhalle, the Field Marshalls' Hall, honoring the Bavarian army. It was here that, following the speech at the beerhall, the column of marchers led by Hitler – hoping to imitate Mussolini's takeover of power in Italy with the "March on Rome" the year before - encountered a unit of the army and Bavarian police. In the exchange of fire, four policemen and 16 marchers were killed (the 16 became the Nazi Party's "foundational" martyrs); several more were wounded, including Hitler, who fled from the scene, and Goering. A small plaque commemorates the dead policemen, who are named. Hitler was later arrested and spent a year in prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf.

After the Nazis took power, Eric tells us, the Nazis compelled anyone walking by the Feldherrnhalle to give the Nazi salute. Muncheners, by and large never great supporters of Nazism, often made a point of taking a detour through a back alley to avoid giving the salute (therefore nicknamed Dodgers' Alley).

The Nazi Party headquarters and its administrative annex, still stand, by the Koenigplatz. It was here that Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signed the Munich Pact. The HQ now serves as a musical academy, belonging to the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU). Just inside the main entrance is an artwork consisting of adjoining rows of dark cobblestones, some of them covered snugly with brass plaques. On each is engraved the name of a Jew murdered by the Nazis, and on the adjacent wall is a photograph of the house in which the named Jews once lived.

There are, says Eric, some six thousand of these commemorative cobblestone sites dispersed in Germany's cities. Most were embedded outdoors, in functioning pavements. But in Munich, the head of the Jewish community did not like the idea of pedestrians stepping on the plaques – on the Jews – and the mayor deferred to her wishes and the work was placed indoors, beyond the polluting reach of shoes.

It was raining and we didn't quite make it to the main building of LMU, where in 1943, in the large, entrance hall, Sophie and Hans Scholl and their partners in the White Rose resistance group distributed anti-Nazi leaflets Within days, they were tried and guillotined.

Half a block down is the History Faculty building, where I taught last semester. One of my seminar students, a German girl, wrote in her seminar paper, entitled "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine": "While the Nazis expelled and tortured the Jews during the Second World War, the Jews did nearly the same with the Arab [sic]. The brutality between the two situations is visible [sic] … incomprehensible is the fact that the Jews were in this case as cruel as the Nazis."

Apart from my failings as a teacher, this passage perhaps denotes a second ongoing transformation in the German mindset, or at least in some young Germans' mindset, achieving a post-post-war mindset.