Friday, July 02, 2004


Back in the summer of '67, shortly after the Israelis had humiliated the Arabs in the Six-Day-War, I was hitchhiking through Germany with two friends when we ran out of money -- and luck -- in Munich. The two pals decided to take the only job that was going, selling encyclopedias for a company run by a shady-looking American. Well, I knew that job was never going to work out, and having failed to talk the others out of it, took off on my own for Berchtesgaden and Garmisch to see if there were any jobs going in the hotels. There weren't and by the time I got back to Munich (after several adventures along the way) both Tony and John had packed up and gone. I spent three days walking the streets and starving until I had the idea of going to the University to see if there were any summer jobs for students. There was a problem because I was a foreigner, of course, and all the usual German bother about rules and regulations but in the end I managed to land a job with a construction company along with another foreigner who was actually studying at the university, a Jordanian, Yachia Queirini. I remember his name to this day because he took me home with him and fed me, the first square meal I'd had since conning my way into a hotel kitchen in Garmisch nearly a week before. You don't forget things like that.

The company was run (as you've probably guessed) by the SS major, the ex-Nazi. We called him "Boss" on ordinary days and "Heydrich" when he was in one of his more rabid moods. To be fair, he was a decent enough character in his own way and only foamed at the mouth when we really screwed things up. We were set to work with a fearful bunch of thugs rebuilding a police barracks in Fuerstenfeldbrueck, about 20 kms. out of Munich. One of these fellows used regularly pick the locks of the manager's office and he and I would sleep there on the cots. The rest of the villainous crew were told to follow our good example as we were always the first to be on the site and ready for work in the morning. They sneered knowingly but kept their mouths shut. God knows what little scams they were up to themselves. One of the things I'll always remember is the amount of beer we'd get through in a day. These guys knocked it back by the case. After washing down lunch there was an afternoon break about 3 pm and from then until six we rarely knew what we were doing. From time to time they'd gang up on the Jordanian and make nasty remarks about the Arabs not being able to fight their way out of a paper bag, and how the Israelis had really kicked their black asses for them. Har! Har! It was unpleasant but fairly typical for German yobboes. I thought it was a bit strong coming from this crowd (a few miles down the road was a place called Dachau) and I'd stick up for Yachia when the comments started flying. There was an awful lot of pro-Israeli sentiment in Europe that summer and it was only through this friendship with Yachia that I learned more about the Palestinians. His father had lost everything in 1948 and Yachia had been brought up in the camps.

It was through this job as well that I met Eva's family for the first time. Yachia and I were shipped out to another small town near Munich where we were to help a local contractor called Drexler. We were working in a small warehouse on the grounds of a private family residence. To save money on fares and since I had no place to sleep in Munich anyway I took to sleeping on a cot in the warehouse. One evening the family invited me over for dinner (they claimed later they'd seen me through the window talking to a mouse and decided I needed some human contact) so that's how the acquaintance began. There was Ludwig in his late fifties or early sixties, tall, with a booming voice and a great shock of white hair; his wife Dora, small and quiet but the real boss of the family; and Heidi, their younger daughter, then about 11 or 12 years old. (Ernst and elder daughter Eva were already married and living in Switzerland; it was only later that I came to know them.) Dinner became a regular event for the remaining two weeks or so of the job. Then I was off to Vienna and Istanbul, to a bewildering new world of car smugglers, passport dealers, and the spiriting of young foreigners out of Turkish prisons. Later, after a spell in late 60s London ("If you remember the sixties you weren't really there") I went to America, and attended universities in Texas and Hawaii. Later again I was to travel for months on end through Mexico and Guatemala, through Afghanistan and India and Nepal, and so arrive, for the first time, in the Far East. Fifteen disconcertingly short years ago I settled into a new life in Japan. These are other stories for another time. And yet, throughout all the vicissitudes of this peripatetic quarter of a century, from the time of those first evenings we spent together in the house at the edge of the woods, the family and I have always been in touch. This year marked my seventh or eighth visit. Heidil has long been married to her boyfriend Werner and has two kids of her own now, Gregor and Ursula. They live in the same old shed that I used to work in (which has been thoroughly fixed up and renovated -- I should hope so!); dear Ludwig, sadly, died after a long illness in January 1989; Dora, very down in the dumps when I passed through in the summer of that year, is now almost (but not quite) as feisty as before.

The main house was built by Ludwig during the war to keep Dora and baby Eva safe from the bombs that were falling on Munich. He was later sent off to the Russian Front and was one of the lucky ones who made it back to the American Zone in the collapse of 1945. He hid in the woods near the house and Dora had to smuggle food out to him at night. In the end he was caught and tormented by a sadistic Yank sergeant who had him walk up and away from a jeep-mounted machine gun. He forced Ludwig to do this four or five times before an officer came along and put a stop to it. Had the sergeant really meant to shoot him or not? Ludwig speculated on that for the rest of his life. He spent two long years in the bag and came home, a survivor. Germany was in ruins but his wife and child were safe and his house in the woods was still standing. He had been luckier than most. Ludwig was never a Nazi but even in his later days he was not quite sure what to make of Hitler. He blamed him for the war, of course, but gave him credit for putting Germany back on its feet after the disasters and humiliations of the 1920s. He said ordinary people didn't know what was happening to the Jews. In Ludwig's case I believe that because of the type of man he was; this doesn't mean I believe it for all the others.


The next morning we took the train in to have a look around Munich. Munich is easily one of the most attractive cities in Germany, a good-natured easygoing place full of beer and Baroque. In the heart of the city is the Karlsplatz and passing under one of the original city gates you come to a pedestrian precinct lined with shops. To the left is one of the most magnificent Renaissance churches in the country, the late 16th century Michaelskirche. (Ludwig II is buried in the crypt and I'll have more to say about him.) Further along on the same side is the Frauenkirche whose twin onion-shaped domes have become a symbol of the city. Just beyond this is the Marienplatz which takes its name from a 300-year-old gilded statue of the Virgin. The Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) dominates the square with its chiming clock whose life-size figures perform every day at 11 and 5. Here we ran into some young street musicians from Moravia -- that's in Czechoslovakia, if you were wondering; it's between Bohemia on the left and Slovakia on the right.

A left down Weinstrasse brings us to the Feldherrnhalle, with a peek off to the side at an open-air restaurant in a courtyard. Munich seems to be full of such places. The Feldherrnhalle (Field Commanders' Hall) has a lot of associations with Hitler since he staged ceremonies here every year on the anniversary of his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The march from the beer hall (which was across the River Isar) passed through the Marienplatz and I believe it was in this very street between the Feldherrnhalle and the Residenz, the old Bavarian royal palace, that the marchers were fired upon by the police. Hitler escaped injury by throwing himself to the ground but several of his followers were killed. (General Ludendorff strode up to the police line and marched through to the other side: he was a Prussian of the old school -- brave, to be sure, but thick as a brick.) When he came to power in 1933 Hitler had his dead comrades enshrined in the Feldherrnhalle and held a ceremonial roll call for them every year. The ceremony has been discontinued.

Munich, and all Bavaria for that matter, is uneasy about the Nazi past. It's good that it should be, but it's not as though the Bavarians were more rabidly Nazi than the rest of the country. They weren't totally taken in by Hitler although they certainly did give that impression with all their roaring and beer-swilling. (It doesn't seem to help that the Bavarians have always been like that.) It can hardly be denied that the Bavarians had a fair number of associations with Hitler and the Nazis, perhaps more from his side than theirs: although he had been born across the border in Austria, he fought in a Bavarian regiment during the First War and not only talked like a Bavarian but dressed like one when out of uniform; the Party had been founded in Munich (not by Hitler, incidentally) and the Beer Hall Putsch took place in Munich; Hitler's two known girlfriends were both Bavarian, and he had his private residence in southern Bavaria. It all seems to add up.

But for most Bavarians of the beer-drinking classes (which covers most of the population over the age of six) sentimental loyalties ignore the Nazis altogether and fasten firmly on the old Bavarian royal line, the Wittelsbachs, and particularly on King Ludwig II. The family deserves a bit of introduction. The Wittelsbachs ruled Bavaria from 1180 to 1918. Dukes and electors of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, they were promoted to royalty in that year by Napoleon. During the 19th century the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria were the leaders of the south German, Catholic opposition to the establishment of Prussian dominance in Germany.

The Bavarians to this day haven't got much time for the Prussians. They used to call them "Saupreuss", or Prussian pigs, and really hate their guts -- but that was back in Bismarck's day. Nowadays they sound a lot more like good old boys from the American south discussing Yankees. The Prussians, for their part, look down on the Bavarians and call them clodhoppers and rednecks. This is all very typically European: there is an awful lot of historical DISLIKE going on in the place. It's not quite so bad now in Western Europe where education, travel and a better standard of living have managed to dispel many of the old national prejudices, but in the formerly communist countries of the East, and in the old Soviet Union itself, these prejudices are alive and well and leading to armed conflict. When the rancour breaks out into the open, as it has done recently and most spectacularly among the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, this is not something unusual or even shocking by the standards of Old Europe: it could almost be seen as predictable. Americans, upset by what they see on the TV news, want to go in and "do something" about the situation. Europeans, equally horrified, concentrate on humanitarian aid and taking in refugees. They show a tremendous reluctance to get involved militarily in the Balkans. It comes down to shared historical memory. Sarajevo has a sinister resonance in the minds of all modern Europeans because of the role it played in igniting the spark that blew all Europe apart in 1914. Many see World War Two as the second phase of the same conflagration. Nobody in his right mind wants to go through that again.

The most popular of all the Wittelsbachs is undoubtedly Ludwig II. His picture is to be seen everywhere in Munich, on towels and posters and T-shirts, on beer coasters and key rings, and even on stained-glass windows. But his grandfather also deserves a brief innings here since he was a bit of a boyo in his own right. The grandfather, Ludwig I, had made a lifelong habit of collecting beautiful women. He was getting on in years in the late 1840s when he fell for the notorious courtesan Lola Montez and installed her in his palace. Her extravagance and flamboyant behavior soon had all Munich in an uproar. She exposed the Jesuit prime minister as a villain, boxed the ears of the Chief of Police and threw champagne at Ludwig's ministers during a state banquet. The besotted Ludwig made her a Countess, built her a palace and hung on her every word. The Church and the conservatives were appalled. There were pro-Lola and anti-Lola factions at the University and brawls began over her in the beer halls and streets. Soon the whole town was involved and people would travel in from the deepest countryside to catch a glimpse of "the emissary of Satan" and "the Apocalyptic whore" who had turned the king's head. Lola carried the whole thing off in high style and it was only when it was made painfully clear to Ludwig that he was in danger of being deposed (he was, anyway) that he reluctantly sent her on her way. She travelled on to further adventures in London and America and Australia, a selfish, captivating, headstrong, beautiful, altogether remarkable woman.

She was born Irish, God help us.

Ludwig II came to the throne in 1864 at the age of 19. He was an intensely "artistic" young fellow, not quite off his rocker but not quite on it either. He was completely and deliriously irresponsible, more like a rock star than a king, a sort of 19th century Michael Jackson with a real kingdom of his own and money to burn. His two ruling passions were castles and the music of Wagner. He built castles all over Bavaria. The most famous of these is probably the breathtakingly romantic Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle on a mountaintop that is known to the world from its Disneyland imitation; but there are others, a whole collection of others, with interiors of such opulence and extravagance (such as the Herrenchiemsee with its Hall of Mirrors) that they can still overwhelm the casual visitor. These castles exist to this day all over Bavaria: as soon as Ludwig had finished with one he seems to have thrown himself into the plans for the next. At one of these castles to the south of Munich there is an artificial lake with a giant grotto large enough to conceal an orchestra. Gondolas in the shape of swans could be mechanically revolved around the surface of the lake whose waters in the evenings were illuminated by torchlight. As Ludwig and his guests glided along, swan-enfolded, the orchestra would strike up Wagner. . . .

Well, it couldn't go on. He was warned. He was warned again. In the end he was declared mentally unstable and placed under restraint. There was some shady work involved in the way this was done and the details have not been made clear to this day. He was said to have committed suicide in 1886 by drowning in the Starnbergersee south of Munich. He was said to have committed suicide . . . .

The "Alte" and "Neue" Pinakothek are two world-class art museums facing one another across a Munich park. Amidst a wealth of medieval art in the Alte Pinakothek you'll come up on one painting that will stop you in your tracks. This is a portrait by Albrecht Duerer of the 16th century businessman Oswalt Kroll. The face stares out at you with a tightness of expression and a look of suppressed hysteria in the gleam of the eye that is disconcertingly modern, disconcertingly German. It's like coming face to face with a proto-Nazi.

For some reason I was not allowed to film in this museum while across the park in the Neue Pinakothek (past the obligatory Henry Moore sculpture) not one of the officials tried to stop me. How peculiar. I couldn't help thinking how the Germans and Japanese were so alike, so obedient to rules and yet so inconsistent in their application, so proud of their efficiency and so timid in the face of authority. Joyce once remarked that the Irish were the most civilized race in Europe because they were the least bureaucratic. Joyce enjoyed the grand sweeping statement (Freud mit Freude hat sich gefreudet) but I would say the last part of that remark, even today, is quite true. As far as advances in technology and social sophistication are concerned there may be a lot more to argue about with regard to levels of civilization; at the same time, it might certainly be one useful measure of any modern society to see how henpecked the ordinary citizens are by their petty officials: having lived most of my life in other countries -- Britain, Germany, the USA, and now Japan -- it's hard not to feel nostalgia for the blithe indifference of the Irish towards official rules and regulations and jumped-up idiots in uniform.

I wandered with S. and Siobhán through the wide echoing galleries of the Neue Pinakothek. There we found an excellent representative collection of 19th and 20th century paintings that included Degas, Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh and Gustav Klimt. Siobhán didn't think much of it and fell asleep on one of the couches.

On the way back to the station I dropped into the cavernous Matthaeser beer hall for a nostalgic pint (litre, actually: these people don't mess around). This is one of my regular stops whenever I find myself in Munich. In the afternoon it's a quiet relaxing sort of a place with sunny gardens and courtyards; at night it's a thundering bellowing madhouse with an oompah-oompah band you can barely hear from the fringes of the roaring swilling crowd. It's like a scene out of the Middle Ages. It IS a scene out of the Middle Ages, since it's been part of the life of this city at least since then. Like many another Munich beer hall the Matthaeser was the site of political meetings in the days of defeat after World War One, in this case Kurt Eisner and the "Reds". They took over Munich during part of 1919 until the Freikorps came in and booted them out again. There was even an indecisive battle near Dachau that became part of local drinking legend. Poor old Eisner, a likeable doddering old chap who used to hang out with the students and artists in the cafés of Schwabing (Munich's answer to New York's Greenwich Village), talking politics by the hour but never DREAMING of actually coming to power, was shot in the end by a right wing fanatic. Even the other side thought that was going a bit far.

(For images and more information about Munich, look here and here and here.)

From Regensburg to Bolzano!

Back in D. it was dinner in the garden with Werner sweating over his specialty -- a Bavarian Barbecue. Werner's an easy-going good-ol'-boy and I like him a lot; he's full of energy, good will and generosity and the only thing you have to be careful about is keeping him off the subject of Bavaria and its borders. "Von Regensburg nach Bozen!" he'll shout, giving the meat an almighty thump for emphasis. Bozen, otherwise known as Bolzano, is a pretty good stretch south of the Italian border. South of the Italian border from Austria, which also seems to get in the way a bit.

The next day, a Saturday, we set off on a drive that brought us within walking distance of the Austrians and that impudent border of theirs. We stopped off in a small village along the way to have a look inside one of the squat little onion-dome churches that you see all over the Bavarian countryside. When we stepped across the theshold the interior was so chockablock with ornaments in gold and white, so completely and wildly extravagant and just bursting out all over the place, that it made you want to laugh with sheer delight. What a great place, what a great place to come to every Sunday! They even had skeletons laid out in glass cases and adorned with jewels and gold. S. thought this was a very weird and morbid touch and perhaps it was, but she'd have to be a Catholic to understand why the locals, why the rest of us, take it all for granted.

In the porch was a carved list of names of all the men from the village who had lost their lives for the Fatherland in 1870-71 (reasonably short) 1914-18 (very very long) and 1939-45 (medium long). War cuts so much deeper than any other human activity, it cuts through everything, cuts to the bone.

We drove further south to the Starnbergersee where poor King Ludwig met his end. Now it's a jolly sort of a place full of vacationing families with holiday homes tacked on to the surrounding hillsides. Siobhán got carsick just as we arrived and threw up like a waterfall all over S. Poor thing, but once she could stretch her legs she was fine in no time. S., on the other hand, had to wander about distractedly looking for a place to mop herself down while one of the dogs (we had two in the car with us) got into a row with an evil-tempered swan. Ludwig's ghost kept himself to himself (a sensible decision under the circumstances) and Werner, who was developing a taste for Irish music on the car stereo, brought us back to the topic of borders again. Von Regensburg nach Bozen? Von Dublin nach Belfast? Up the rebels! Thump!

Down near the border with Austria is a resthouse once used by the Kaiser to entertain his foreign guests. Most of the royalty of Europe were closely related in those days and the Russian Czarina who came to stay here was in fact his elder sister. Now the CSU, Bavaria's most powerful political party, has taken the place over for much the same purpose. Nearby was a small restaurant which took up half of a building with the other half used as a church, complete with its little onion dome -- a very Bavarian combination of the needs of this life with those of the next. Sound thinking.

Our next stop was the Wittelsbach mansion. Descendants of the royal family are still very much alive and well and this is where they live today, with a beer garden next door so they won't get lonely. There's also an American air force base just down the road and I wouldn't be surprised if the family looked upon it as being there for their own private protection, the new palace guard, so to speak.

All this wandering about makes you thirsty and what could be more natural than to stop off at one of the next beer gardens in one of the villages along the way? Even the smallest village seems to have a generous amount of space set aside and shaded by towering chestnut trees so that locals and visitors alike can take their summer ease and enjoy the local brew. What a fine custom! And every village has its towering maypole in the striped blue and white colours of Bavaria; here there was one with woodcarvings attached to the base showing the traditional professions (farmer, woodsman, butcher, baker) still to be found in the village. The people talk funny, of course. Even if you think you speak German you still have to learn the language all over again in Bavaria: they have a dialect here you could cut with a knife. But it's not hard to get to like the place. Not hard at all.

The following morning saw us away on our travels again, pushing deep into the heart of Mitteleuropa: ---