Simon Winder: "Death by Ooompah" (= concluding chapter of “Germania”)

    That Zeppelin-shed of conviviality, the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, is one of those essential tests of Germanness which rapidly winnows out anyone who really cannot stand this particular model of civilization. For foreigners who dream of sun-dappled trattoria or sitting quietly with a pint of mild in the saloon bar of the Magpie and Stump, the sheer communal grossness of the Hofbräuhaus is a sort of hell on earth. The hundreds of mostly male drinkers are manipulated by the management through a clever use of folk costume, breasts and an oompah band into a form of scarlet-faced hysteria. By late evening there is a clear and constant roar of aggressive conversation, the crash of dropped mugs and trays, screams of laughter as patrons fall backwards off their seats.

    On balance I really cannot cope with Munich. Some places will always be ruined by Nazism and Munich is above all of them. If the Third Reich had survived, Munich would now be a sort of modern Bethlehem, linked to the other two great Bavarian Nazi sacred sites, Nuremberg and Berchtesgaden. Huge coach parties would be visiting the places that Hitler had created with such symbolic care: the 'Brown House', the national headquarters of the Party and last resting place of the 'Blood Banner' carried by the 1923 beer-hall putschists, the Bürgerbräukeller where that putsch began, the 'Honour Temples' built to house the bodies of the dead, the different places around Munich where Hitler had stayed or given speeches. The Hofbräuhaus had an honoured place in this pantheon - in 1920 Hitler laid down the basic tenets of Nazi doctrine there and it remained a favourite destination for Hitler and his entourage (none of this is mentioned in the Hofbräuhaus's strikingly aphasic website).

    Much of specifically Nazi Munich has been destroyed - the 'Brown House' by Allied bombing, the Bürgerbräukeller by a heroic and despairingly unlucky 1939 would-be Hitler assassin, the 'Honour Temples' by contemptuous American military administrators (weeds now attractively grow over the remains). The Hofbräuhaus was also wrecked but, unlike its fellows, was rebuilt and remains a vexed reminder of the culture that created Hitler. From the usual chaos of motives, I spent a long evening there and was, as it turned out, completely rewarded. As the hysteria mounted, conga-lines of foreign businessmen lurched past the frantic oompah band, deranged with laughter, and amid a general sense that the factory-scale toilets were now irreparably backed up and it was time for me to leave, something wonderful happened. A Japanese businessman or tourist tipped the band to allow him to pretend drunkenly to conduct a piece of music. This happened quite frequently — a few minutes previously an Australian with wild eyes and a cinnabar complexion managed to pretend to conduct the band through 'Waltzing Matilda'. But the Japanese man was a genius, as he asked them to play Shostakovich's Waltz 2. This piece was made famous as part of Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's novella Dream Story. Hearing this marvellous, odd dance provoked initially very confused feelings. I had always loved Schnitzler and in my publishing Job I had used the excuse of the Kubrick film to republish some of his work. This had not been a great success, falling victim to the — as it turned out — general contempt felt for the film. But then, at last, I realized what was truly startling. Here, in one of the birthplaces of Nazism, a traditional Bavarian band was playing an American jazz inflected piece by a Soviet composer, made famous by a Jewish-American adaptation of a Jewish-Austrian novella, the film's stars being a tiny Scientologist and a lovely Australian. It would be trivial to say that this music buried the past even for a second, but it was enjoyable to tot up the number of ways in which the famous pre-war frequenters of the Hofbräuhaus would have been struck dumb with rage by such a piece. Suddenly I felt aware of how much Germans had themselves put layer upon layer of work, culture and thought on top of their terrible past and that it was possible to sit in the chaos of the early twenty-first century and feel that actions are being taken every day — even by an oompah band and its drunken Japanese maestro - to build a replenished world in which Munich can be more than just the cradle of Nazism. But the band was now playing 'The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond' and it was time to take the ill-judged decision to have another drink.

Simon Winder, Germania, A Personal History of  Germans Ancient and Modern, London, Picador 2010, pp.  439 - 441