Walking Munich’s Nazi Past

On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.

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Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.

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Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:

Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.

He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.

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Her last words before heading to her death:

Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship? 

Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.

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Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.

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In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)

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Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.

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Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”

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One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:

There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.

Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.

The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.

This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour  if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.

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Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

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We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.