The Deutsche Eiche represents the centre of Munich's gay culture – and is a versatile place in every respect. A visit.
Just what are the strongholds of the gay scene in Germany? The funky city of Cologne: of course; dark, glistening Berlin: sure thing. But Munich? When it comes to Munich, people think of "Weißwurst" (traditional white sausage), BMW cars and the Bayern Munich football team – along with more conservative life-styles. The fact that Germany's largest "men's sauna" is located right in Munich city centre is a source of astonishment for many. This is no secret: after all, Munich has always been a tolerant and joyful city.
The "Deutsche Eiche" near Gärtnerplatz square is not a bad place. Even here, in contrast to Berlin's "Berghain" club, everyone is allowed in. 10,000 visitors a month make their way to the saunas at the "Deutsche Eiche". Sure, some come for the versatile spa landscape, quite possibly the most beautiful in Munich. But most visitors come to enjoy quick and uncomplicated sex here.
But above all, in the "Eiche" – as it is soon to be called – members of Munich's gays community come here to meet. If you want to know more about it, you have to ask Dietmar Holzapfel. The 61-year-old cuts an imposing figure, his large hands fully encapsulate those of his counterpart as he greets them with a hearty "Grüß Gott".
The area surrounding Gärtnerplatz square – which today is one of the most expensive quarters of the city – was originally a working-class district. With the Gärtnerplatz Theatre however, which was opened in 1865, an entirely new and sophisticated atmosphere was created. From the 1920s onwards, the "Deutsche Eiche" became a sort of outsourced canteen as it stood in the line of sight to the theatre. Actors, artists and revealers alike would meet here. Hitler was also said to have been a guest: from 1921 to 1923 the NSDAP headquarters was located in nearby Corneliusstrasse.
But above all, in the "Eiche" – as it is soon to be called – members of Munich's gays community come here to meet. If you want to know more about it, you have to ask Dietmar Holzapfel. The 61-year-old cuts an imposing figure, his large hands fully encapsulate those of his counterpart as he greets them with a hearty "Grüß Gott". Together with his partner, Sepp Sattler ("dem Sepp"), Holzapfel has been running the restaurant and hotel "Deutsche Eiche" since 1993. In addition to his job – or to put it better: as a part of it – Holzapfel is a kind of private scholar who is dedicated to the history of gay life in Munich.
The wildest times for the Eiche were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Director and Enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder kept a regular court here, surrounded by co-workers, admirers and movie stars.
The Eiche became the primary gay meeting point after 1945. At that time, the entire Gärtnerplatz district was a red light zone. "There was also a brothel in our house, headed by a madam called Napoleon," says Holzapfel. "The district was cheap: those better-off, i.e. the conservatives avoided it, and the police left the district's inhabitants largely alone." Ideal conditions then for a scene that likes to party. "Everyone knew there was a gay community here. But there was no open gay scene on the streets at that time. Munich had not yet come that far."
The wildest times for the Eiche were the postwar years, especially the 1960s with ballet dancer John Cranco, and the late 1970s and early 1980s. Director and Enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder kept a regular court here, surrounded by co-workers, admirers and movie stars. Holzapfel: "But he was also impertinent: he shouted, he went looking for trouble, he was drunk and he stank. He and his gang always barged in here like the Huns. "However, following the unmistakable genius of Fassbinder, heterosexual mainstream interest in the excessive, gay subculture was also growing.
Carnival at the "Eiche", the wildest and funniest in the city, became an institution – and yet gay people at the time were still expected to dance behind closed doors. Just how celebrations unfolded back in the day is revealed when Holzapfel gets a bulging shoe box containing hundreds of yellowed photos. A familiar face for sure: Freddie Mercury, who was often in Munich in the 1980s, blissfully grinning and surrounded by strong men. Another frequent sight: Fassbinder. Folk actor Walter Sedlmayr is missing. He did not dare openly live out his homosexuality.
From the mid-1980s onwards, the fun-filled celebrations were over. AIDS had made its way on to the scene. "All gays saw this as a disaster. People lost half their circle of friends. And the sick were running around as the living dead" says Holzapfel.
"This difficult situation was aggravated in Munich by the fact that the CSU politician Peter Gauweiler was head of the district administration department from 1982 onwards, during which time an increasing number of police checks were carried out on the scene," says Holzapfel. "Gauweiler even wanted to apply federal law to the immunodeficiency disease, which would have led to forced testing and the immobilisation of people with AIDS."
In 1993, the "Eiche" was nearing its end, "which was mainly because many of its guests had simply died," says Holzapfel. The economic situation was no longer profitable, a brewery owner was looking to sell. "So Sepp and I took the opportunity to get involved. We took on massive debts, but we were convinced: The Eiche must be saved! Who, if not us? "It turned out to be the smartest move that Holzapfel – who used to work as a teacher – had ever made.
Just how the gay scene shapes up today in Munich can be seen at the "Deutsche Eiche". More than anything else, the house is known for its sauna. From 1995 onwards, the owners have continuously expanded the "men's bathhouse". There are three floors: the upper one for wellness, the middle for the bar, the lower one (and by far the largest) for sex. Holzapfel leads us through the catacombs with unashamed pride, where there is an adult cinema, mazes and chambers for sex games that the ingenuous hetero would probably call "hard".
"Eiche" is also known far beyond the confines of Munich. Holzapfel reports that in American gay magazines "weekends at the Deutsche Eiche in Munich" are often raffled to readers. He points to a wall covered with unhewn granite next to the "luxury twin cabin" and says: "Americans always freak out when they see that. They believe that they are already in the Alps."
Just how celebrations unfolded back in the day is revealed when Holzapfel gets a bulging shoe box containing hundreds of yellowed photos. A familiar face for sure: Freddie Mercury, who was often in Munich in the 1980s, blissfully grinning and surrounded by strong men.
Just a few metres next to (or above) the sex cellar is the restaurant at the "Eiche", which is known for its home-style cuisine and is often visited by well-to-do, older heterosexual couples – and by CSU city councils. This is typical for the gays in Munich: darkroom below, beef fillet and Schnitzel on top. You no longer have to hide your inclinations, you have arrived smack bang in the middle of society.
This also applies to Holzapfel himself. In 2014 he causes a stir with his partner when they bought one of the city's most expensive apartments. "There was a lot of encouragement from the community. People said: We are delighted that one of us has made it!" Importantly, Holzapfel – a former elementary school teacher – does not fit the mould of an "undesirable" neighbour. When the "Eiche" won first place on the TV show "Mein himmlisches Hotel" ("My Heavenly Hotel") the owners distributed the prize money to all employees, "because they do all the work," he went on to explain.
And yet another kind of bridge is being cultivated in Munich: the reconciliation of homosexuality and traditionalism, even Catholicism. During the Christopher Street Day 2006, Dietmar Holzapfel taunted the Catholic Church on the parade car with an effigy of Pope Benedict – known for his lack of tolerance in sexual matters – who happened to appear in an erotically ambiguous pose.
Holzapfel leads us through the catacombs with unashamed pride, where there is an adult cinema, mazes and chambers for sex games that the ingenuous hetero would probably call "hard".
It was a scandal, the police confiscated evidence, and shortly thereafter, Holzapfel found himself sat down with Rainer Maria Schießler, the pastor of the nearby St. Maximilian Church. There was a sense of mutual understanding, they drank beer, and together with Holzapfel they toured the sauna (it was cleaning hour at the time), and then everything was OK again.
The next Corpus Christi procession will be held by the pastor in Munich's gay quarter. In front of the "Nil", one of the oldest gay pubs in Munich, a stationary altar has been set up.
As the incense rises to the Heavens and the pastor blesses the place, the innkeeper who still carries the scars of the Gauweiler years – his eyes moist with emotion – stands there as the windows on the first floor are opened and red rose petals rain down on the worshippers.
Every year during Corpus Christi procession, the pastor now stops at the "Eiche" and talks appreciatively about the neighbourhood's positive cooperation. Some windows of the hotel rooms are then open and amazed faces can hardly believe what they are seeing.