Schwabing is the area of Munich that is globally associated with the Bavarian capital. Altschwabing in particular embodies Munich’s golden years and awakens feelgood pride in every local even today.
If you say the word Schwabing too quickly, it sounds like Schwing or perhaps even Swing. And Munich-Swing would actually also be a good name for this, the best-known district of the city. Since its incorporation in 1890, the people here have thought more progressively and lived more freely – the men’s shirts were always unbuttoned further and the women dressed more outrageously than in the rest of Munich. The lightness – Schwabing’s swing – drew people here from all over the world.
It was here that Frank Wedekind – whose erotic dramas “Lulu” and “Spring Awakening” shocked the prudish middle class when they were first released – wrote verses mocking Kaiser Wilhelm II, which were published in a satirical magazine and ultimately led to his imprisonment for six months. In 1959, a square on Feilitzschstrasse was named after that former enfant terrible with a fountain sculpture created by Schwabing artist Ferdinand Filler erected in his memory. It portrays a young, scantily-clad woman running her right hand through her long hair.
That’s probably Lulu. Today, you can sit at her feet and enjoy an ice cream from Yole Gelato or a souvlaki from Souxé Mezé as you daydream about Schwabing’s bohemian heyday at the turn of the century.
You might spare a thought for Fanny zu Reventlow, a friend of Wedekind’s who lost herself to her longings. She was the elder daughter of a north-German noble family, and her motto for life was: “I always want everything”. Though she was a talented writer and painter, she enjoyed little success in this area and instead became infamous for her many love affairs in artistic circles. She vacillated constantly between euphoria and despair, just as every great passion requires of its victims.
Reventlow was the wild epicentre of a group of avant-garde creatives who radically transformed literature and art from their homes in Schwabing. Rainer Maria Rilke, Oskar Panizza, Wassily Kandinsky and Marianne von Werefkin were all members of this group.
Russian painter Marianne von Werefkin held salons in her spacious apartment on Giselastrasse together with her friend and fellow painter Alexej von Jawlensky. At these salons Kandinsky, Franc Marc, Gabriele Münter, Alfred Kubin and many others spoke with Werefkin about how to capture the present in a new way using paint and canvas.
The men's shirts were unbuttoned further and the women were dressed more outrageously than the rest of Munich.
The outcomes of these discussions can be viewed in the Lenbachhaus (art gallery) today, not far from the former art school of Anton Ažbe on Georgenstrasse, which was also attended by Kandinsky and Jawlensky.
The spirit of rebellion, daydreaming and debating in pubs and bars like the Alter Simpl on Türkenstrasse, and Café Stefanie on Amalienstrasse (which was destroyed during the war), persisted as part of the character of Schwabing, and the authorities and bourgeoisie were provoked from here time and time again.
In the early 1960s, students and young people spent several days facing off against the police in the streets near the university. The reason: the police had brutally expelled five street musicians after some complaints from residents.
The “Schwabinger Krawalle”, or Schwabing riots, were an overture to the infighting that would follow between a new generation that wanted to love, think and live more freely, and its elders, who had stricter ideas around morals, modesty, sex, culture and street music. In Munich, Schwabing was the place where these two worlds collided most obviously.
On Leopoldstrasse the Big Apple Club opened, where Munich’s eternal it-girl Uschi Obermaier – you could call her the Reventlow of the 1960s – seduced Jimi Hendrix, and not far away was Tiffany, a club said to be a favourite haunt of the Rolling Stones. Clubs and bars in which teens and tweens canoodled and smoked pot sprang up all over Schwabing.
At the start of the 1970s, Rainer Langhans and Uschi Obermaier lived on Giselastrasse in the Highfish Commune, where partners were swapped, psychoactive substances sampled and a mode of living established which was as far removed from the small middle-class family idyll as a peck on the cheek is from an orgy.
No film captures the Schwabing feeling of the era better than May Spils’ “Zur Sache Schätzchen” (“go for it, baby”), featuring Werner Enke and Uschi Glas in the leading roles, heavy petting and antagonising the police. In the 1970s, Enke’s close friend Klaus Lemke, the “King of Schwabing”, cultivated a wild, raw image for Munich in films such as “Idol” and “Amore” (although the latter is actually set in Haidhausen).
Enjoy yourself and destroy the encrusted remnants of the past as you do so.
Lemke’s “enjoy and destroy” slogan could just as easily be applied to modern-day Schwabing. Enjoy yourself and destroy the encrusted remnants of the past as you do so. Then the 1980s brought an influx of yuppies, who irritated locals with their snobbish elegance, ostentatious wealth and cocaine against a disco soundtrack. But all that was a long time ago.
Today, many see Schwabing as a lukewarm, neo-Biedermeier wasteland of the established and the inheriting. No revolutions here any more – just flat whites and checked shirts. Then again, Schwabing’s swansong has been going on for some time: in 1930, Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Schwabing, so loud and unruly back then, has gone quiet – there is not a single sound from it.” Klaus Lemke too, complained endlessly about the saturated bleakness of the district.
But go for a stroll down a random street in Schwabing one summer’s evening and you’ll find that Munich-Swing still exudes a feeling of freedom. Perhaps on Occamstrasse near Wedekindplatz square. There is still plenty to see and do; you can go for a beer in the Gasthaus Vereinsheim or treat yourself to an authentic Munich vodka in the Distiller’s Bar. These days, distant laughter still drifts out of the Lustspielhaus, a gentle breeze blows from the Englischer Garten, a passerby hums Willy Michl’s hit “In Schwabing auf dem Boulevard” (In Schwabing on the Boulevard), which only really has that one line but immediately opens up a world of flirting, walking and fantasising. And then, everything still seems possible.