Standing in this square gave me the shivers.
It was a wet, gloomy day, and I was in Munich, part of a walking tour group that had so far made its way through a winding path from the Marienplatz to Odeonsplatz. I am normally a frugal DIY traveler — out of habit and necessity — and almost never join these tour groups. However, the guy who’d shared our breakfast table at the hostel had recommended this tour: it was on a tips-only basis, he himself had given the guide 5 euros, and I thought, well, I guess I can afford that.
The tour was top-rate; the guide, Jon Wilkes, was brilliant. As he took us through important landmarks within a walkable radius of the Marienplatz, he gave us facts, figures, and amusing anecdotes on everything from Pope Benedict to Adolf Hitler.
That last topic, I could imagine, had to be handled with some care. Munich had played a not insignificant role in the rise and reign of Hitler. The Nazis even referred to Munich as Hauptstadt der Bewegung, or Capital of the Movement. The Beer Hall Putsch had happened here. Hitler’s early coup attempt had failed, technically, but his subsequent trial was the soapbox from which he brought his ideas to national attention.
It was also in Munich, at a dinner commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch, that Hitler received news of the death of the German diplomat who had been shot 2 days earlier by a Polish Jew. What happened next was a horrible game-changer: the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, so named because the streets of Munich and many other cities all throughout Germany had glittered that night with shards from the smashed windows of Jewish homes and establishments. There had been blood and fire as well, and grief unimaginable.
As I stood there at the Odeonsplatz, I could imagine Hitler standing at the Feldherrnhalle: marshalling his troops, his voice ringing throughout the square, captivating, convincing. I could imagine thousands of soldiers saluting him stiffly, their eyes alight with fervor or glazed with fear, ready or resigned to do whatever was asked of them. I shivered because that moment, more than anything else, crystallized for me not just the horrors of war or genocide, but the reality that it can sometimes take so little to turn men into animals. Even today.