I just spent the weekend in Munich, Germany.
I was scheduled to fly from Geneva to Los Angeles, and my flight transited in Munich. I had visited Munich once before, about five years ago, but on that visit I had spent three days locked in meetings in a hotel conference centre, and I had not had a chance to see much of the city back then. I decided therefore to extend my layover, and take a couple of days to explore the Bavarian capital.
I am glad I did. München, as the locals refer to their city, is a surprisingly relaxed and lovely place. It might be Germany’s third largest city, home to 1.5 million people, but it has the feel of a big, slightly sleepy country town. Roads are wide and orderly, the architecture is beautiful, tall trees shade the streets, and gardens and parks are everywhere, giving a sense of spaciousness and calm. Munich was recently rated as the world’s 4th most liveable city, and I could see why. The whole place reeks with a sense of moneyed, comfortable, Old World prosperity.
It also, quite literally, reeks of beer.
Germans have one of the highest per capita beer consumption rates in the world, and Munich, in turn, is the undisputed beer-drinking capital of Germany. While the average German downs somewhere in the order of 125 litres of beer per year, Munich’s citizens manage twice the national average. And, this is just the average: if you exclude kids, the infirm and the occasional non-beer drinking freak (like me), the math is staggering: each and every adult in Munich consumes around one litre of beer, each and every day of the year.
The ultimate pinnacle of beer-madness, for which Munich is world-famous, is the annual Oktoberfest, an almost three week-long celebration of beer. Massive tents devoted exclusively to the activity of drinking copious amounts of beer are put up all around the city, and around ten million litres of the stuff gets consumed over the course of the festivities. At around US$10 per one-litre stein, that comes in at almost a billion dollars worth of beer chugged down in one concentrated, eighteen day burst. There is even a German word to describe hard-core Oktoberfest attendees: Bierleichen or “beer corpses”, which refers to “people who have drunk themselves into a state of unconsciousness at Oktoberfest”.
Oktoberfest had just finished the week before I arrived in Munich. But the city was still bathed in a post-Oktoberfest glow, and I was keen to get a sense of what Oktoberfest is like. So the hotel concierge recommended that I pay a visit that evening to Munich’s most famous permanent beer hall, the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl.
The Hofbräuhaus was established by the Duke of Bavaria in 1589 as a royal brewery, and shifted to its current location, near Marienplatz in the centre of town, in 1897. What with almost 450 years of continuous operation to point to, it is a place with a few stories to tell. Like in 1632, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden agreed not to sack and burn Munich, on condition that he be given 600,000 barrels of Hofbräuhaus beer. Or like in 1823, when a fire at the nearby Munich National Theatre was put out using barrels of Hofbräuhaus beer (seriously). Apparently the local water had frozen due to the harsh winter, and the brew from the Hofbräuhaus was the only source of liquid that was both close enough and available in large enough quantities to fight the fire.
Mozart, who lived around the corner for a while in the 1780s, was a regular at the Hofbräuhaus, and wrote that the beer there gave him the strength to compose some of his works. Lenin, when he lived in Munich, was a regular at the Hofbräuhaus, too. More infamously, the Festival Room at the Hofbräuhaus was the place at which Adolf Hitler officially formed the Nazi party in 1920, and in which for fifteen years Nazi ideology was preached and promoted.
But walk into the Hofbräuhaus on a Friday evening just after Oktoberfest and all sense of history goes out the window, instantly. Instead you will find yourself dragged into a present-day scene of chaos and mayhem that is like no other. The place is truly enormous, seating up to 5,000 people at a time. Big as it is, it was packed to capacity – so full that I had to wander around for about fifteen minutes just to find a free spot.
Hundreds of waiters and waitresses, dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing, were zipping around serving the thousands of drinkers. The wait-staff are able to carry ten one-litre beer steins at a time, and despite the huge weight, they seemed to have a sense of ESP, effortlessly ducking and weaving their way through the crowds without spilling a drop.
The sound of 5,000 rowdy beer-drinkers is not something that is easy to describe. The voices blend into a single, near deafening noise that seems to get louder and louder with each passing minute. And, just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the traditional band at the centre of the room started playing German drinking tunes, including the one with the famous catchphrase: “eins, tsvei, g’suffa!” (Bavarian for “one, two, drink”).
In one voice, the entire room erupted into song, an ear-splitting roar, whole tables clinking glasses wildly with each eins and tsvei, and then downing massive gulps of beer on each g’suffa! The chorus repeated four times in quick succession, and by the end of the song there were a lot of seriously buzzed people around the room, not to mention quite a few new Bierleichen lying around.
The next morning I began my exploration of Munich with a long walk through the Englischer Garten (the “English Garden”), a forest-sized urban park that stretches for miles along the western side of the Isar River. I walked along wooded paths, through manicured green fields, and around a pretty lake. I had read that the Englischer Garten is unique amongst the world’s public parks in that it has a designated nudist area (fittingly known as The Beautiful Meadow), but sadly, I could not find it.
Instead, by the side of the lake I came across, what else, a beer garden. Whole families were sitting at row after row of weather worn benches and tables, enjoying the late October sunshine, eating pretzels and roast pork knuckles and crepes. Of course, the adults – men and women alike – were all drinking beer from enormous jug-sized beer glasses, even though it was barely 11am.
From the southern corner of the English Garden I crossed into the Hofgarten, Munich’s oldest public park, comprising a gorgeous, green space of pretty flowerbeds and hedges, flanked by imposing palace buildings on each side and with a whimsical pavilion celebrating the Goddess Diana in the middle. From there I continued into Munich’s old city centre, which is a jewel. The authorities have most sensibly converted almost the entire area into a massive pedestrian walking zone – miles of old cobbled streets, stately German buildings, palaces and churches, and not a car in sight.
Everywhere people were sitting at packed outdoor cafes, drinking yet more beer, the occasional coffee, and eating an assortment of the most luscious-looking cakes and strudels I have ever seen. The sun was shining, the air was crisp but not cold, and it seemed as if on every street corner a busker was playing a violin or accordion, so the air was filled with music. It felt like I was walking through Munich’s old town to my very own backing soundtrack. My day was turning out to be really quite wonderful.
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I walked into my version of heaven – a big open plaza housing the Munich food market, or Viktualienmarkt. This sprawling outdoor farmer’s market has operated daily from the same location for more than 200 years, and countless stalls offer up a gourmet feast. The highlight is a mind-blowing assortment of typical Bavarian delights – roasted pig bits, white sausage, local honey and cheeses, apple pastries, fried dough rings (schmaltznudel) sprinkled with icing sugar.
Not to mention the never-ending rivers of beer on tap, utterly wasted on a teetotaler like me. But, judging by the snaking queues lined up in front of each beer stall, I was very much alone in this regard.
Eventually, I turned down a side-street at the southern end of the food market, and almost immediately the hustle and bustle of the market fell away, and I found myself standing in a large and very quiet cobbled square – Saint Jakobs Platz – dominated in the centre by the Ohel Jakob Synagogue. It is an ultra-modern and visually imposing construction – a huge lattice-work metallic cube rising up from the ground, the base of which is surrounded by what looked to be slabs of Jerusalem stone. On one side of the synagogue is the Munich Jewish Museum, and just behind, the Munich Jewish Cultural Centre. An underground tunnel between the Synagogue and the Cultural Centre houses a memorial to the Jews of Munich who were killed in the Holocaust.
Jews began settling in Munich in the 18th century, and on the eve of the Nazi era, the city had a Jewish population of around 10,000. By 1944, only seven Jews remained in Munich – many had emigrated prior to the outbreak of WWII, and during the war about 3,000 Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. A few returned after the war, and the Jewish population of Munich has slowly rebuilt over the years. Today it is estimated that there are again around 10,000 Jews in Munich, making it the second largest Jewish community in Germany, after Berlin.
The synagogue / museum / community centre was a joint effort of the Munich Jewish Community and the Bavarian State Government, and is relatively new: the complex was only inaugurated on 9 November, 2006, the 68th anniversary of Kristalnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, a night in 1938 when the windows of Jewish stores were smashed and synagogues were burned throughout Germany and Austria).
It was Saturday afternoon, and so the synagogue and Jewish Museum were closed. But there was obviously something going on in the Jewish Cultural Centre, as the door was open and teenage boys in kippot (Jewish skullcaps) and teenage girls in long skirts wandered in and out, gathering in groups in the square out front. An elderly gentleman, also wearing a kippah, was sitting on a nearby bench, watching three young children chase each other through the square. In the background, the odd tourist stopped to take photos of the looming hulk of the synagogue.
The setting might have been Munich, but I could just have easily been standing outside of any other synagogue, anywhere in the world, on any Saturday afternoon. Miami or Melbourne, Montreal, Manchester or Munich: it would be the same groups of kids huddled together gossiping and laughing; the same toddlers running around under the supervision of their beaming grandparents; even the same black-suited security guards guarding the entry door to the community centre, talking discreetly into walkie-talkies and keeping a watchful eye out for any threats to those inside. The whole scene felt so familiar, and so I stood there for what seemed like a very long time, enjoying a sensation of feeling connected, and grounded.
Eventually, I walked on from Saint Jakobs Platz, and at the very next square, less than two hundred metres up the road, I came across a demonstration of sorts. A table had been set up in the centre of the square, behind which sat a row of perhaps five middle-aged men and women, and around them were gathered several other people, talking and reading various pamphlets, and signing what looked to be a petition.
A well presented man in a sombre suit and with a neatly groomed beard was standing in the square, in front of the table. He was holding a megaphone in his hand, and was talking into it very loudly. He paced up and down as he spoke, progressively getting more and more worked up. He was speaking in German, so I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I was certainly able to tell that he was very passionate about his subject, whatever it was.
I noticed that all around the square stood an assortment of police officers and soldiers, kitted out in full riot gear. It was a sunny day in central Munich, I was standing in a beautiful, cobblestoned square in the historic old town, and yet I was surrounded by German riot police, turned out in camouflage clothes and jackboots. It felt like someone had hit a wrong note in the middle of my otherwise beautiful Munich piano concerto.
A young girl holding a stack of yellow pamphlets in her hand approached me. She handed me one and began talking in rapid-fire German. I said I didn’t understand, and she immediately switched to flawless English. Her name was Teresa, and I asked her what was going on.
Teresa told me that for several years there had been considerable public debate on a proposal to build an Islamic Cultural Centre near the Stachus, one of the Munich most famous squares. Similar debates had raged in many other German cities where mosques and Islamic Centres had been proposed, in response to the rapid growth of Germany’s Muslim population, which now stands at more than 4 million, or over 5% of the total population.
The group in the centre of the square was not keen on the idea of a new mosque in Munich, and Teresa said that they were collecting signatures for a petition, in an effort to block the mosque’s construction.
I asked why she was opposed to the mosque, and a look of near-horror crossed Teresa’s face. “No, no, no”, she protested, “I am not against the mosque; I am here against these people who are against the mosque”. As if to explain, she lifted her beaten-up satchel to show me that it had a rainbow sticker on it. “I am from the Greens”, she said.
According to Teresa, the protesters in the centre of the square were waging what was little more than a modern-day crusade, a racist desire to see Islam kept away from the heart of Munich. Teresa said that the protesters were dressing up their xenophobia as concern about the effect of überfremdung (literally, over-foreignisation) on the character of the city. Apparently, the petition that people were signing included as one of the arguments for why the mosque should not be built the rather bizarre statement that: “Bavarian life is marked by the drinking of beer and the eating of pork. In Muslim faith, both are unclean and forbidden“.
Teresa told me that every weekend for the past few months the anti-mosque brigade would set up camp in this particular square, making speeches and gathering signatures. And in response, every weekend Teresa and a group of her friends and colleagues from the left-wing of German politics would gather in the square, to counter-protest.
Apparently, those in favour of the mosque and those against it did not always see eye to eye. “Today is very quiet, normally there is a big group from the Greens and then we are shouting and the other side are shouting and it gets very hot”, Teresa said. She also mentioned quite matter-of-factly that occasionally violence had erupted, which at least explained the heavy presence of the gun-toting riot squad.
As I stood talking to Teresa I was able to watch the two sides press their respective causes, and even from just a few minutes of observation, the contrasts could not have been more stark. Those against the mosque were predominantly clean-cut Munich burghers, middle-aged and above, with neat clothes and trimmed hair. They were overwhelmingly white, middle-class, Aryan-looking folk. By contrast, those out in support of the mosque were a motley crew of youngsters, white and brown, a polyglot of European and middle-eastern looking kids. They had unkempt hair, some had tattoos and body piercings; they all wore the ragged, slightly dirty clothes that are the uniform of student activists all over the world.
I learned that Teresa was born and bred in Munich, and that she was only seventeen. Although her family were Christian, she said that she was not religious in any way. I asked her why then, if she was Christian by background and not religious by practice, did she care so much about whether or not an Islamic Cultural Centre was built in central Munich. Teresa smiled, and said that she and her friends were part of “the new Germany”, which she described as being a democratic and multicultural society. She paused in thought for a moment, and then added that she believed her generation had a special obligation to fight against racism in Germany, “given our history”.
So here I was, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Munich, chatting with a young German girl who was slugging it out against a group of her countrymen over whether or not a mosque should be built up the road. And we were more or less standing in the shadow of a synagogue that served a Jewish community which had been almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust. Let’s just say that the irony of the moment did not escape me.
As if she could read my mind, Teresa said: “You know, just around the corner from here is a synagogue, and nobody has a problem with that, so why is a mosque a problem? These people are hypocrites”.
We chatted for a few minutes more, and then I thanked her for talking to me, and slowly began walking away. Teresa’s idealism was infectious and almost child-like in its purity, but also a bit naive. So I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in 2003, at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new Munich synagogue, four hundred soldiers had been required to stand guard following repeated bomb scares and threats of violence. Or that before construction of the synagogue had started, back when Teresa was not even a teenager, people had made speeches and collected signatures in an attempt to block the synagogue being built, too.
I couldn’t help thinking that the real reason why no-one has an issue with a synagogue in central Munich anymore is not because people are hypocritical in their attitudes, but rather because those attitudes have not changed much in sixty years. In a time well before either of Teresa or I were born, her great-grandparents may have done far worse than simply sign a petition against the presence of a synagogue in Munich, and now, half a century on, it seemed like it was just more of the same old shit, only now directed at a different “enemy”.
And, I also couldn’t help feeling twinges of anxiety at the thought that if the mosque ever does get built, those inside it probably won’t exhibit quite the same level of openness and tolerance as Teresa and her friends have. The current Islamic Centre in Munich, built in 1958, has long been a hot-house for radical Islam in Germany, a base from which fiery clerics are free to make hate-filled speeches and incite their congregants to acts of radicalism and violence. I wondered if Teresa would still be willing to give up her weekends if she thought this might happen at the new centre.
Would Teresa still fight so hard to protect the rights of people whose beliefs are entirely foreign to her, if she knew that those people might ultimately turn on her and her democratic, pluralist ideals? Would she care so much if she thought that those people might eventually seek to destroy the ideals that brought them to Germany in the first place, and do so via the very platform she had helped provide them?
I turned to wave good-bye to Teresa, but she had moved on to the next person, and was already engrossed in animated conversation, so she didn’t see me. I continued my stroll, and once back in the beauty of central Munich and well away from the demonstration, I allowed myself to believe for a brief moment that the world today is indeed a different place; that history repeating itself is not inevitable; and that it is not just a matter of time before Europe erupts into another frenzy of religiously fuelled hatred. I certainly hope so.