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Behind Munich’s stylish facades

Times Staff Writer

MUNICH is an easy city to like: clean, bright and livable. It has world-class art museums, stylish shops, wide boulevards, parks and squares. Conviviality overflows in its fabled beer gardens, and its people have an open, animated air.

Joachim von Halasz, a London-based financial analyst who often travels to Munich, knows well the attractions of this southern German city, including its towered and turreted Gothic revival Neues Rathaus, which the U.S. 7th Army used as headquarters near the end of World War II. But he is troubled by an inscription there that says, “To the soldiers who liberated Munich from the national socialist tyranny on April 30, 1945.”

To Von Halasz, it’s fair to say that France and Belgium (not to mention concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau) were liberated by the Allies. Armies liberate places that are being held captive, against their will.

But that was not precisely the case with Munich, the birthplace and stronghold of the Nazi party. For Von Halasz, the word choice seems misleading, a verbal whitewashing of the city’s firm historic connection to Adolf Hitler. And it reflects what he thinks is a bigger problem of how the city faces its past.

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Von Halasz set out to correct that by writing “Hunting Nazis in Munich,” a guidebook on lost sites connected with Hitler and his National Socialist party. (He has also launched a companion website, www.huntingnazis.com.)

During the Hitler era, the Nazis erected monuments celebrating their history, including two neoclassical temples on Briennerstrasse, built to commemorate party martyrs killed during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch when Hitler and his cronies tried to take over the government of Bavaria (an attempt that failed). City authorities pulled down the temples in 1947. The few monuments and plaques that remain recall the courage of resisters, including Hans and Sophie Scholl, members of an anti-Nazi student group called the White Rose.

Allied bombs destroyed much of Munich during the war, so other sites that tell the story of Hitler’s rise are gone.

Von Halasz doesn’t claim that the city has forgotten the Third Reich altogether. A display in the Stadtmuseum on Sankt-Jakobs-Platz documents the movement’s history, and the city has long debated how to deal with its Nazi past. Von Halasz thinks that as Germany moves into the future, it is all too easy to forget the past. For him, marking the places where the Nazi party was born is an important way to honor its victims and remember its horrors.

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German-born Von Halasz, 35, is a man with a mission, as I discovered when I met him last month at Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski, on elegant Maximilianstrasse here. The choice of the hotel was no accident; it was a meeting place for the Thule Society, an aristocratic club founded around 1918, devoted to extreme nationalism and considered a precursor of the Nazi party. Its emblem was a swastika.

The World Cup was going on when I met Von Halasz. So I asked him why he couldn’t just sit back and watch the soccer matches that brought Germany so much pleasure and pride. He responded by telling me about how, as a boy, he had found a picture of his paternal grandfather in a German World War II uniform from which the regimental insignia had been badly airbrushed.

“I started asking questions,” he recalled, “but my father didn’t want to talk about it. ‘Your grandfather did his duty,’ was all he would say.”

By obtaining records from the Berlin Documentation Center, Von Halasz learned that his grandfather, who died in 1944, was a member of the SS, the elite German military organization.

Von Halasz said he grew up, like many children of his generation, in an atmosphere of thinly veiled secrecy and trauma. He briefly studied the Nazi era in school, did his military service and then went to England in 1997 to study. He married and began a career as a financial analyst. During frequent business trips to Munich, English colleagues asked him to show them places related to the Nazi era.

“They knew much more about it than I did,” he said. “I thought, ‘My God, I don’t know my own history.’ ”

So he began walking the streets of Munich looking for addresses and consulting archives for names and dates. There were no prizes in this treasure hunt, only a feeling of justification when he identified the house on Schleissheimerstrasse where Hitler stayed when he arrived in 1913, the site of the beer hall where the SS was founded, now the Hotel Torbrau, and the room where the Nazi party proclaimed its 25-point program.

The room is upstairs in the Hofbrauhaus, a landmark beer hall several blocks south of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where waitresses in dirndls push through happy crowds and oompah bands play.

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Von Halasz thinks Munich’s beer hall culture helped the Nazi party take shape. At the Hofbrauhaus on Feb. 24, 1920, Hitler gave a 2 1/2 -hour speech to 2,000 supporters.

We stopped at the Neues Rathaus on Marienplatz to see the inscription about Munich’s World War II liberation and passed the Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael, where Father Rupert Mayer bravely preached against the Nazis. Nearby we found a plaque in the pavement at the Feldherrnhalle, commemorating four policemen killed while facing down an unruly crowd during the climax of the Beer Hall Putsch, which also claimed the lives of 16 Nazis.

Over coffee, we discussed the possibility that marking Third Reich sites might create neo-Nazi shrines, which city officials sometimes cite as a danger. But Von Halasz said that when a documentation center was opened at Hitler’s alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden, about 100 miles southeast of Munich, the neo-Nazis disappeared. And recently, despite fears about giving neo-Fascists a symbolic gathering place, a plaque was erected on the site of the underground bunker in central Berlin where Hitler killed himself, all the more potent because is it is abut 600 feet from Germany’s memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Most moving was our visit to the university building where the Scholls dropped White Rose leaflets, were seen and arrested. The brother and sister are well remembered here, with busts, plaques and a small display about the White Rose.

One more time before parting, I asked Von Halasz whether it might be healthier for the German people simply to let the past go. But the young author was firm.

“You have to see the sites comprehensively,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose. To be a full human being you have to remember both the bad and the good.”

Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” at latimes.com/susanspano.


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