Adolf Hitler’s journey to power began in Munich. At the same time, he also led an entirely normal life here. But is it right to show interest in the private anecdotes of a tyrant? Official City of Munich guide Grit Ranft regularly offers city tours on Hitlers time in Munich. In this interview she explains what is most important to her.
Ms Ranft, when I take visitors past Osteria Italiana restaurant on Schellingstrasse, I often mention that Adolf Hitler used to eat there. Is that OK?
Of course, why wouldn’t it be?
Because when I point it out, I’m treating Hitler like any other celebrity. It is kind of like me saying: “By the way, Gotthilf Fischer, a famous German choirmaster, often comes to this beer garden.”
That may be the case. Yet I see this more as an opportunity. Munich is the city where Hitler lived for a long time and where his rise to power took place. So, as you would expect, there are lots of places nowadays where Hitler used to frequent, too. Anecdotes like the one about the Italian restaurant can be a good way of making people aware of the city’s unique history. Who knows, maybe visitors will go on to find out more about Munich’s history during the National Socialist era?
But don’t details about Hitler’s private life appeal to an inappropriate lust for sensationalism?
This is why I would not mention anecdotes like this without putting them into context. On my tour, which follows the tracks of National Socialism in Munich, we pass a building on Karolinenplatz square where Hitler was often invited for cake at the home of a wealthy married couple. As a detail, I don’t think it’s really worth mentioning. But in context, it is very interesting.
When Hitler came to Munich from Austria in 1913, he was a stereotypical hillbilly without any manners. He learned his manners during meetings like the ones in this very flat belonging to publisher Hugo Bruckmann. Without this introduction to the higher echelons of society, his career may not have been possible at all. The professional families were the ones who urged him to stop the rising communist powers. In this regard, these cake parties say a lot about how Hitler managed to rise to power in Munich at all.
Do you talk about details like this on your tours?
No, but if I do, I do so with a clear intention. For example, when we start the tour in Alten Hof courtyard in the old town, I often show my guests an old postcard with a picture of what the courtyard used to look like and ask them to guess who they think drew it. Once they have shouted out a few artists’ names, I give them the answer: “Adolf Hitler”. They are often completely awestruck and I can be certain that I’ve got their attention.
"On my first few tours, I noticed that people were laughing when they heard the name 'Drückebergergasse' (Shirkers’ Alley) – it made me very uncomfortable."
You use the surprise factor?
Yes, that’s right. You see, my tours last two to three hours; that’s a long time and I want to make it as interesting as possible. Of course, I always have to weigh it up: Can I really use trivial details about Hitler to get my guests’ attention? In the case of the postcard, I think it’s OK. Once I’ve given them the answer, I explain the context: When Hitler arrived in Munich, he had nothing. To keep his head above water, he sold his hand-drawn postcards in the city’s large beer halls. My tour focuses on the factors that contributed to a loser with nothing being able to set such a triumphant course to power with such catastrophic consequences.
Can we laugh about Hitler?
I’m not so strict about that either. There are a few laughs during my tours through the city centre – though maybe not about Hitler as a person. On the other hand, it would never cross my mind to try to get a laugh on a tour around the former concentration camp in Dachau. And in Munich, too, there are certain situations when I don’t think its OK for guests to smile and laugh.
When do you find it inappropriate?
My route normally goes down Viscardigasse behind the Feldherrnhalle (monument). During the Third Reich, people used to take a detour down here so they didn’t have to do a Nazi salute to a memorial. For this reason, the alley is known colloquially as “Drückebergergasse” (Shirkers’ Alley), even to this day. On my first few tours, I noticed that people were laughing when they heard this name – it made me very uncomfortable.
How did you react?
I have started really highlighting the risk that this decision meant for the individuals involved. If the Gestapo caught you avoiding the Nazi salute by going down this alley, you risked being arrested. As a result, my guests understand that these people weren’t harmless shirkers but exceptionally brave citizens. Overall, I have noticed that my young guests in particular react strongly to stories about individual people.
"I am also eager to highlight how important it is to take an early stand against the rise of tyrants, even in the democracies of today."
How do you mean?
When I take school groups through Munich, I often show them Walter-Klingenbeck-Weg past the Staatsbibliothek (State Library). This road is named after a young man, who responded to a call by the BBC in 1941 to paint victory symbols on buildings to announce the impending arrival of allied forces. Somewhat carelessly, Klingenbeck told his boss about the campaign. She then informed on him, which led to his arrest and execution. When school children hear about the fate of someone their own age, it affects them deeply. Sharing stories like this is a matter close to my heart, too.
I still remember when my grandparents told me about the war, even though they did not really like discussing the National Socialist era with me. There aren’t many witnesses from this period left and young people often lack a direct link nowadays as their grandparents were born after the war. Though when they are standing on Königsplatz square in Munich, for example, and I show them photos of the Nazi parades, they understand just how close this period still is. That’s what I mean when I say it’s an opportunity that some of Third Reich’s venues have been preserved in Munich.
What do you hope that guests take away from your tour?
I hope that they are able to put historical facts in context better and understand how the city of Munich made it possible for Hitler to seize power. At the same time, I am also eager to highlight how important it is to take an early stand against the rise of tyrants, even in the democracies of today.
How do you end your tours?
Always with a ray of hope. After stopping in Königsplatz, we often go to the Lenbachhaus art gallery, which houses the largest collection of work by the “Blaue Reiter” group (Blue Riders) worldwide. During the Nazi period, the pictures were seen as “degenerate art” and they were banned from exhibitions. Nowadays, these wonderful images hang in museums again, attracting visitors from across the world. I think it is a good way to end things.