In Munich and Dessau, Art and Design Call. But History Is Even More Compelling.

Sebastian Modak

Munich’s efforts to rebuild itself in the model of its past haven’t always been completely accurate. On some buildings, intricately carved columns and stone facades have been replaced by clever trompe-l’oeil paint jobs, because a financially destroyed postwar Germany couldn’t afford the grand construction projects that had once been routine for the Wittelsbach royal family that ruled over Bavaria.

Elsewhere, the darkest parts of Munich’s history — as the nexus for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party — have been scrubbed away. The Hofbrauhaus is now the most famous beer hall in a city of beer halls, where, downstairs, the long, wooden tables are always packed, mostly with tourists seeing how many liters of Helles beer they can stomach and still stand up straight. Upstairs, in a hall that is now mostly quiet, Hitler and the National Socialists held their first major meeting in 1920.

Just a short walk away, on a stone wall in the picturesque Odeonplatz, a few out-of-place dark bricks are the only traces of what once was a monument to the Nazi party operatives who were killed in the National Socialists’ attempted coup in 1923. A trail of nearby golden cobblestones marks the way through Viscardigasse, known as Dodgers’ Alley, because it was the preferred path taken by those who wanted to avoid walking past the monument where they were required to give a Nazi salute.

At the same time, Munich’s contemporary charm — under summer sun and clear blue skies, it was one of the most all-around pleasant cities I’ve visited this year — seems determined to distract you from that history.

At the English Garden, a 910-acre park, one of the biggest urban greenspaces in the world, life is very good. Crowds sunbathe in their birthday suits while children throw Frisbees and run free. At the Eisbach, a man-made river that cuts through the park, a standing wave sees a regular rotation of wetsuit-wearing surfers taking turns in the three-foot break until they tumble into the rushing water. Spectators sip cold beers and hold their phones up trying to get the perfect surfer Instagram Boomerang.

And then, of course, there’s Munich’s calling card: beer by the liter, served in giant, glass Masskrugs that the superhero waitstaffs improbably carry by the dozen-strong handfuls. Of the Big Six breweries — the only ones allowed to brew specific batches for Oktoberfest — only two haven’t sold out to major conglomerates: Augustiner-Bräu dates back to the 1300s, making it Munich’s oldest independent brewery, and Hofbräuhaus is owned by the Bavarian State Government. But all six have their own beer gardens, where tables are shaded by chestnut trees and you can eat every possible variation of sausage (or bring your own picnic) while keeping the beer flowing.

For my first few days, it seemed like there was an unspoken agreement in the city that parts of the past were best not discussed. But then I visited the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, which opened in 2015 at the site of the infamous Brown House, which once served as Nazi party headquarters. The museum, which left me short of breath and teary, takes an unflinching look at Munich’s role in the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. According to many people I spoke to, the museum was long overdue.

Still, I found Munich somewhat impenetrable and it wasn’t because of any language barriers (English is widely spoken). It was like there was a shiny veneer over most of the city. I had trouble connecting with locals: Of the dozen strangers I had real conversations with over my time there, only one of them was from Munich. When I found a dive bar, like the very lively Sehnsucht, it felt like a marketer’s version of divey rather than the real thing.

I know that soul is there somewhere — every big city has one. But my search for it revealed the limitations of an in-and-out visit. I didn’t have enough time to discover it.

When you walk into the first exhibition room at the brand-new Bauhaus Museum Dessau — a giant glass “black box,” as its architects call it — you immediately hear recordings of excerpts from newspaper articles from the early 1930s debating whether the Bauhaus school should be shut down for being degenerate and communist as the rising nationalist right claimed.

The school had been chased out of town by conservative politicians before: in Weimar in 1925, just six years after it was founded by the architect Walter Gropius. In 1932, the National Socialists won the ongoing debate in Dessau, and the school was moved a second time, to Berlin. It would be shut down for good less than a year later.

Bauhaus was an avant-garde art and design school that aimed to combine every form of art — architecture, painting, weaving, industrial design — into a Gesamtkunstwerk, a term translating roughly to “total work of art.” Though the focus shifted under successive directors, it was always built on the idea of form meeting function and beauty without the frills. The idea was to create things — light fixtures, chairs, entire buildings — that everyone and anyone could use and love.

Much of the focus during the centennial celebrations in Dessau, where Bauhaus arguably had its heyday while housed in the famous building that’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site, was on the movement’s legacy. Apple products, Ikea furniture and public housing projects — anything that could generally be described as “modern” — have all, at some point or another, been traced by someone back to Bauhaus.

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