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Dan McCaslin: On the Trail in Friendly But Tense Munich

My partner and I have been visiting southern Germany and Munich since the 1970s, when it was called West Germany. Derisively termed a boisterous “Carnival town” (Karnevalstadt) by novelist Thomas Mann, fair Munich straddles the gushing Isar River and is known for its many significant artistic and literary scions, public fountains and, of course, delicious bier. (4.1.1.)

In late July, an intense heat wave struck northern Europe and hammered London, Berlin, Paris and our Munich, where we sojourn with our German-American extended family. These are the hottest conditions I can recall happening here (with one exception), and most Germans do not have air-conditioning.

Furthermore, like the rest of central Europe, the densely packed, high-rise apartment buildings were designed to retain heat since the area experiences severe winters and Germany has been alert to its energy supplies. (Germany has no oil of its own and tries desperately to get off of its coal dependence, and recently shut down all but one of its nuclear reactors. Germany puts the United States to shame with a very productive solar energy grid.)

Thus, sitting in shaded sidewalk cafes near the 900-acre Englischer Garten (English Garden) or during our long subway commutes, we have involuntarily eavesdropped on many unguarded conversations among typical German citizens. We’ve checked some of these comments with local German friends and with close family members who have lived here for almost 20 years. My German is adequate, although I’ve never studied it formally, but my partner has impressive fluency based on years of academic study, and she’s actually read all of Goethe’s “Faust” in German, a marvelous poem I struggle with in translation.

The ongoing ferocious combat in Ukraine certainly crops up often in these conversations, along with lively literary debates, endless arguments about masks (sigh), and football teams (i.e. soccer).

Germany’s tangled and fraught history with Russia has been a huge issue for more than 100 years. Stuck between the overwhelming British Empire and increasing French power, German leaders, however wrongfully, have often felt hemmed-in between Russia and the Anglo-French alliance.

Readers might not recall that imperial Germany defeated Czarist Russia in 1917, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk helped propel Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power. After Germany lost World War I (1918), the western Allies led by France chose to humiliate and penalize Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that replaced Brest-Litovsk. The guilt clause and heavy penalties helped propel the NSDAP (fascist Nazis) and Adolf Hitler into power in the early 1930s.

Hitler always wanted “living space” (Lebensraum) to the east, and he consciously modeled his colonial dreams for parts of Russia, Poland and Ukraine on the “Jim Crow” racist domination in the American South after 1876. In 1939, he gobbled up half of Poland in a temporary alliance with fellow dictator Joseph Stalin’s USSR. Yet, Hitler’s lust for seizing more of these fertile eastern lands led to his disastrous miscalculation to stab his erstwhile ally Stalin in the back — before finishing off Britain.

The Wehrmacht’s professional generals were unable to dissuade him from this moronic decision. (France had already surrendered.) It was certainly a stupid choice since even Germany’s fierce armed forces and savage Blitzkrieg were unable to defeat the famous Russian “Generals Winter and Mud.” After losing more than 25 million people, and with great help from the United States and Britain, the USSR won the European theater of World War II (1939-45; the United States entered only because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941). Russians never forget that the USSR battled the Blitzkrieg almost three years before the United States was forced into the conflict.

Having lunch at outdoor restaurants in the trendy Schwabing district, hiking the green trails in the crowded English Garden, and while enduring lengthy subway commutes, my partner and I managed to glean six varying German attitudes about the savage war now thundering in European Ukraine, only 950 miles to the east.

1. I heard Germans musing fatalistically about incoming Russian cruise missiles striking Munich itself (and Berlin and Frankfurt). We in the United States cannot get our heads around the brutal reality of a heavy conventional war currently raging in Europe. Russian hatred of Germany and jealousy of the USA is deep and growing.

2. Significant approval of NATO’s strong support for beleaguered Ukraine and for Zelensky. Public polls here also reveal this, although Germany (and France) have, in fact, been far bigger on promises than actual deliveries of needed major armaments (much smaller than Poland’s or America’s contributions).

3. So-called average Germans mutter about their country being just another “proxy land” like Ukraine, a potential sacrifice serving the selfish imperial interests of the reckless USA. In the 1970s, I taught GIs at American Army bases in then-West Germany: Ramstein is an enormous air base and center of NATO air force command today; Grafenwoehr is another vast U.S. Army base loaded with NATO tanks and trained soldiers; and Miesbach stored tactical nuclear weapons we could utilize in combat with Russians. In this view, realigning with Russia isn’t crazy at all, and the German SPD party has historically been friendly to Russia (think Willy Brandt, Gerhard Schroeder and even the CDU party’s Angela Merkel). Germany has attacked Russia twice since 1914. Vladimir Putin itches for payback in this outlook.

4. German cynics predict Donald Trump’s return as U.S. president in 2024, and they regard him simply as a feckless stooge for Putin. They find it incomprehensible there is any support for Trump. Trump’s slavish adoration of Putin disgusts these Germans, and they desperately fear his return to power.

5. Germany’s natural gas shortage is dependent upon Russia’s Nordstream I pipeline, and Putin is already literally squeezing Germany’s economic testicles by restricting the flow and playing games with German public opinion this way.

6. There is a growing attitude that since the United States is always physically safe from Russian attacks, and most Americans haven’t a clue about just how precariously Germany sits. Again, Munich is less than 1,000 miles from Ukraine where brutal combat continues. U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urge Germany to do more — but does this really serve German interests in the long haul, these Germans ask? America is viewed as an unreliable partner and selfish ally. Consider then-President George W. Bush’s lunatic decision to invade Iraq (and subsequent defeat and withdrawal); look at America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan and abandonment of Afghan women; note how the CIA spied on former Chancellor Merkel’s phone; U.S. foreign policy is again under the influence of neo-cons like Antony Blinken; and how the USA will always play imperial Realpolitik games.

An extremely hot European summer has prevented as much trail hiking as I had hoped for during a long month in friendly but tense Munich. I really got an earful listening to thoughtful German commuters and friends.

My partner and I attended our son’s musical performances, participated in a traditional Bavarian baptismal ceremony with our German family, and walked around the grounds of historic Munich University. Despite the heat and the carnival atmosphere, we have felt an undercurrent of deep anxiety and, yes, fear here in Munich.

Putin’s an autocratic beast, yet Trump obviously idolized him as well as Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte. President Biden has just fist-bumped with the murderous Saudi crown prince, and the USA will do whatever is necessary to stay on top. Germany fears it may be just another pawn for us to sacrifice if necessary.


» Thomas Mann, “Doktor Faustus” (1947), refers to Munich as a tawdry “carnival town” and indeed, Hitler himself termed it the Home of the [fascist] Movement.” Munich luminaries have included Ibsen, the Mann brothers, Kandinksy, Brecht, Rilke, von Heisenberg, Wim Wenders and many others.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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