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Medieval wall gate. (Toni Anzenberger / Anzenberger Agency)

Munich at 850

The livable, culture-crazy, beer-loving capital of Bavaria is coming to terms with its history

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The Hofbräukeller beer garden in the Munich borough of Haidhausen was filled to capacity. Perhaps a thousand people, most in their 20s and 30s, sat shoulder to shoulder at long tables, quaffing liters of beer, munching on fat pretzels and maintaining a steady roar of bonhomie. It was a poster-perfect moment in a city that has long advertised itself as a citadel of good fellowship fueled by unending quantities of the world's best beer. But it was also a scene that would not have looked precisely like this just a few years ago. Almost to a person, the beer drinkers were wearing their national colors—red, yellow and black—in support of the German soccer team's chances against Turkey in the semifinals of the 2008 Euro Cup in Switzerland.

Under a canopy of chestnut trees, TV screens had been set up to show the match. With the playing of the German national anthem, many in the garden stood and, to Haydn's imperial melody, sang, "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit/ Für das deutsche Vaterland!" ("Unity and justice and freedom/ For the German fatherland!"). Absent was the notorious phrase "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles!" ("Germany, Germany above all!"), which the Nazis exploited into a boast of German superiority and which was dropped from the anthem after the war. "Until two years ago when Germany hosted the World Cup finals," said a young man next to me, "this display of patriotism would have been unthinkable. We would have been too embarrassed."

It has taken more than half a century for Munich, which this year marks its 850th anniversary, to restore national pride to its considerable array of things to be proud of. Germany's third-largest city (after Berlin and Hamburg) and the capital of the state of Bavaria, Munich has long prided itself on easygoing sophistication and love of hearty pleasures—while standing distinctly apart. In Thomas Wolfe's novel The Web and the Rock, the narrator observes, Munich "is a kind of German heaven....a great Germanic dream translated into life....In other parts of Germany, people will lift their eyes and sigh rapturously when you say you are going to Munich: 'Ach! München...ist schön!'" (Schön means handsome, beautiful and nice.)

Novelist Thomas Mann, who lived in Munich before fleeing to America after Hitler came to power, began his short story "Gladius Dei" with what is perhaps the most famous description of the city's charms: "Munich was resplendent. A shining vault of silky blue sky stood above the festive squares, the white colonnades, the classicistic monuments and baroque churches, the leaping fountains, palaces and parks of the capital city, and its broad bright vistas, tree-lined and beautifully proportioned, basked in the shimmering haze of a fine early June day."

As often happens in a Mann story, the mood soon darkens —in this case with the appearance of a fanatical reformer who resolves to destroy the city's luxuries in a great bonfire. Published in 1902, the story uncannily foreshadows developments that were to make the name Munich synonymous with some of the direst events of the 20th century: the birth of Nazism; the British, French and Italian appeasement of Hitler in 1938; the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. As I joined in the cheering for Germany's eventual victory over Turkey, I reminded myself that it was in this very Hofbräukeller in 1919 that Hitler gave his first public political speech.

Munich suffered extensive damage during World War II—Allied air raids struck the city 71 times. After the war, it was meticulously rebuilt to look as much as possible as it did before 1940. In the process, the city fathers demolished or masked many buildings related to the Third Reich. Hitler's Munich, a grim travel guide by businessman turned writer Joachim von Halasz, identifies 35 that still survive, many vital to Hitler's rise and reign but now used for benign purposes. They include Munich's top tourist attraction, the world-famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall; the city's oldest grand hotel, the Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski; and the banqueting salon in the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), where Joseph Goebbels orchestrated Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), during which thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and synagogues throughout Germany were vandalized or destroyed, approximately 100 Jews were killed and some 30,000 others were sent to concentration camps, many going to Dachau, just outside Munich.

In recent years, Munich has consistently been rated among the world's most livable cities, thanks to its seamless blending of the modern with the medieval, the spaciousness of its public gardens and avenues, its standing as Germany's most prosperous city, its world-class cultural attractions, its superb public transportation and its manageable population of 1.3 million. Munich is one of those rare major cities that feel cozy. Germans call it "Millionendorf"—"village of a million people."

Munich also enjoys a reputation as one of Europe's safest cities. Walking from the beer garden back to my hotel near midnight, I crossed the Isar River, with its rushing water and lush, green banks, strolled along Maximilianstrasse, past shops with such names as Cartier, Dior and Vuitton, and finally entered the maze of narrow streets in Altstadt (Old Town). Hearing the sound of my shoes on the pavement, I felt as though I had this beautiful town entirely to myself.

"Munich has always had a sense of itself as a special city," says Thomas Weidner, senior curator of the City Museum on St.-Jakobs-Platz. "We are apt to think of ourselves more as Münchners than as Bavarians." We were standing before the inscrutable figure of Henry the Lion, a member of the Welf dynasty and Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, who, it is generally thought, founded Munich in 1158 by tearing down an old bridge over the Isar and constructing a new one along the region's ancient salt-trade route. Nearby was a settlement of monks (Mönche), which, according to some accounts, gave the city its name. In 1180, Henry lost Bavaria to a rival ducal family—the Wittelsbachs. Their members ruled Bavaria for the next seven and a half centuries. In 1918, after Germany's humiliating defeat in World War I, a popular revolution led by Jewish socialist Kurt Eisner unseated the last Wittelsbach monarch, King Ludwig III, and Bavaria became a republic. Eisner was assassinated shortly after becoming the new republic's first prime minister; the resulting political instability proved to be fertile ground for the rise of Nazism.

Weidner said the museum had just completed a reorganization of its holdings so that an exhibition of the city's 850-year history could be displayed chronologically for the first time. As he guided me through four floors of displays, I began to appreciate how Munich was able to forge its remarkable self-esteem. Foremost was the Wittelsbachs' durability, which stamped the city with the successive rulers' personal tastes and gave it unusual continuity and stability. Also in evidence in the exhibitions was the city's long-standing adherence to the Roman Catholic faith, which has set it apart from its Protestant neighbors in the north and east of Germany. Above all, it was clear that for centuries the city fathers had shown an extraordinary willingness to adapt foreign influences to their own ends.

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