Features Australia

Letter from Munich

28 July 2018

9:00 AM

28 July 2018

9:00 AM

As a permanent reminder of the fragility of democracy when put under the combined pressure of economic crisis and populist demagogery, Munich’s significance goes far beyond the headlines of Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, beer and more beer, polluting car-makers, the Bavarian State Opera, hijabs, beggars, tattoos and heavy stodge food. Hitler’s aura is pervasive in the city where his political ambitions were honed; it was in Munich that the Austrian corporal turned journeyman painter who crossed the border into Bavaria, began the madness of the Third Reich. Writing Mein Kampf in jail after leading a failed armed uprising, Hitler’s Bavarian fixation even saw his creation of an alternative seat of German government in the valley below his luxury mountain-side residence and the Eagles’ Nest on the mountain-top above it. Except for the Eagles Nest, where a restaurant now occupies the room in which Hitler entertained visitors like Mussolini, the US airforce bombed it all out of existence in 1945 to prevent it becoming a Nazi shrine.

Munich’s message is not simply that appeasement was not the answer in the 1930s, its lesson is much more appropriately contemporary. No matter what the short-term perceived benefit may be from accepting any reduction of basic freedoms (particularly freedom of speech) in pursuit of other ‘worthy’ objectives, it puts democracy at risk. An effective populist blaming specific opponents for whatever the problem (in Germany it was Jews; in the US it is now China, even in Australia the divisive politics of envy is being nurtured) stands to receive popular suport for ‘appropriate’ action against the identified demon. Freedom of speech is invariably the first victim of sauthoritarian governments – including those that deludedly consider themselves benevolent. In Germany’s 1933 democratic election, carried out during a continuing economic crisis, the populist, divisive, ultra-nationalst Nazi party emerged without a majority but as the largest single force with 37 per cent of the vote (more than either of Australia’s major parties can manage) and formed a government, with Hitler ultimately becoming Chancellor, only with the self-interested support of minor parties. Within months this unholy alliance had passed ‘emergency’ legislation that destroyed the democratic process and allowed, in a democratic vote in a democratically elected parliament, political opponents to be dumped, without legal process, into the new regime’s first concentration camp located just outside Munich in Dachau’s disused WWI munitions factory. This was simply aimed at silencing political opposition; leaders would be incarcerated, beaten-up, terrorised and then released to carry the message to their colleagues of what fate awaits opponents of the new regime. it had none of the ultimate objectives of the concentration camp horror of later years. But, with its institutionalised violence, it did become the prototype over time for the develöpment, by the SS, of the debauched system of slave labour, extermination and horrendeous medical experimentation. With the SS main training facility attached, Dachau over its 12 year existence killed more people by working and effectively starving them to death than by the mass killing on an industrial scale of camps like Auschwitz. But it had its crematoria to show the SS how to do it – yet the neighbouring civilians who so often smelt the smoke of death pleaded total ignorance at the war’s end.

Throughout the old Eastern bloc countries, capital cities tend to look like poor imitations of turn-of-the-20th-century Paris. This excludes the glorious St Petersburg, whose grand buildings have more faux Roman columns than Rome has real ones. The less significant the nation, the greater the architectural pomposity as they go for Baroque to add ornamentation (over-fed fat cupids, exotic animals, bare-breasted women bearing shields). Unfortunately, most of these show-off buildings require more upkeep than they receive and in Bucharest the risk of earthquake has dampened the enthusiasm for some of them. But at least they are a heap better than the monumentalism displayed in Cicescu’s dreadful presidential Palace. Taking a river cruise from the Black Sea to Vienna reveals, however, the majesty of church architecture that, remarkably, survived the atheist Communist years.

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