Part 1: Munich.
The flight to Germany began with airport security. Jenny, the most suspicious member of our delegation, was fortunate enough to be cleared after a sufficient scanning and joined the rest of us (Patrick McGrath, Luke Dominish and Omar Abawi) at the departure gate. Looking back it’s hard to believe the 5 of us, leaving for Munich early, barely knew each other as we stepped onto the plane. It’s safe to say after 22 hours of wailing babies, ‘Frozen’ sing-alongs and Arabian pop songs, our friendships had been well and truly consolidated… even if Luke was asking, “are we there yet” only 4 hours into the flight.
After arriving in Germany to a brisk 6 degrees and stellar public transport system, our entourage set off in search of bakeries; pretzels were a priority! We joined a walking tour and explored the historical sites and breathtaking architecture of the city. The majesty of the buildings exhibiting a gothic and renaissance décor, combined with the striking number of people in Bavarian dress, made it feel like we had traveled back through the ages. To our bewilderment, our tour guide informed us that most of the city was no more than 80 years old. WWII air raids had destroyed most of Munich, a memory still very much alive in the heartbeat of this great city. Over the years the German government had slowly rebuilt central Munich to mirror the buildings that once stood.
We compared our foot size to the Devil’s footprint in the Frauenkirche, ‘Church of our Lady’, where according to legend Satan stamped his foot in anger at being double-crossed by the builder, Halsbach. When the clock struck 11am we watched the puppets dance around the Rathus-Glockenspiel tower. Our guide had warned us that it was anticlimactic but the tourist’s “oohs and aahs” made it a worthwhile viewing. Taking shelter from the rain we ducked into the Beer Garden where Adolf Hitler began his ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in 1923. There’s history on every corner.
A walking tour is a really valuable way to see a huge diversity of historical and cultural sites in a short period of time. Both Jenny (with a broken toe) and I (in an ankle brace) were thanking all things German that Munich is so flat. We would also like to thank Luke and Pat for routinely checking on our progress as we hobbled down the cobble stone streets and not leaving us behind.
Before our group succumbed to jetlag, we popped by Munich’s Spring Festival where Jenny met the ‘Pretzel of her Dreams’. I told her not to take it at face value.
The following day the cripples climbed the 360 steps of St Peter’s Church tower and were rewarded with sweeping views of the city. I have been asked by Luke to inform one and all that he too went up a tower, the one captured in the picture below, the only difference was he got an elevator to the 11th floor… Jenny was in charge of bakeries, Luke scheduling, Pat activities and Claire navigation. Now the others might have something to say about my sense of direction, or lack thereof, but none could deny that some of our greatest finds were stumbled upon whilst lost in Munich. We wandered through the Jewish Museum and the City of Munich Museum where the personal recounts and vibrant visual displays painted a powerful story of German history and everyday life. It took us from medieval times, to the Nazi rise to power and the aftermath of war.
The Chills of Dachau and the Importance of Remembrance
5th of May. Jenny, Luke and I travelled to Dachau, the first German concentration camp. Established in 1933 in an old munitions factory, Dachau was designed as a ‘work camp’ and its forced labour, imprisonment and inhumane treatment horrifically became a model for other camps during the WWII.
It was eerie as we walked through the quaint town of Dachau and along a cobble stone path lined with towering green pines. Behind this veil of natural beauty, the stone watchtowers and barbed wire fences reminded us of the terrible atrocities and human suffering that occurred here just over half a century ago.
We stood in the bunkrooms where a prisoner’s rank and living conditions were determined in accordance with their perceived ‘crime’. My fingers trailed across the fanatical lists categorizing prisoners, political dissidents, Jews, immigrants, gays and nationals, on their ‘level of humanity’ dictated by Nazi supercilious ideology. By the mid-war years, Jews were considered sub-human and thus forced to endure unsanitary, overcrowded, diseased and fetid quarters with over 200 people forced into a bunkroom designed for a maximum of 80 people. Each day the prisoners were subject to inhumane working conditions and extreme levels of torture, both physical and mental. It’s an entrenched fear of ‘difference’ that feeds racism, discrimination and persecution; fusing into a toxic ideology of endemic proportions and spreading like a plague, subjecting our own kind to a cruelty beyond all rational thought.
The propaganda displays were equally shocking, with an inspector from the Red Cross declaring the Camp ‘top quality’ and a facility ‘that treated its prisoners well’. Visual depictions of the horrific medical experiments inflicted on prisoners by madmen such as Dr. Sigmund Rascher and the personal recounts by survivors serve as both a warning and reminder of the human capacity for extraordinary cruelty. Whilst Dachau was classified as a “work camp” it still contained gas chambers and 2 crematoriums… one wasn’t considered enough at the height of the war years. As we walked to the gas chambers, Building 44, hidden behind a wall of trees, the German tour guide told us quietly that prisoners had known nothing about this building; only that those who went there never returned.
As we exited the Death Camp, through the ironclad gates and past the words Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free), we couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief. The prisoners who had entered the camp through those gates more than half a century ago had no way of knowing what lay ahead or whether they would ever leave. Dachau was the only camp that remained in operation for the entire duration of the war; finally liberated by American soldiers in 1945.
Once upon a time, two princesses and two princes set off to find a castle nestled among the Bavarian mountains. What they found was Neuschwanstein. Before conquering the hillside, the royals (that’s us), found a bridge that provided a picturesque view of the castle and the rocky stream far, far below… After watching or perhaps crashing a local wedding proposal, the royals continued past signs that possibly said something in German about DANGER (we couldn’t be sure) and up the opposite mountain. Not afraid of dirt or adventure, the 4 made it to the top where they were greeted by… an even better view!
The Castle – #sofrozen
The royals disguised themselves as tourists and joined an English language tour of Neuschwanstein. Illustrious detailing and gold furnishings decorated every inch of the interior. At first, the four weren’t sure the palace was suitable, there wasn’t even a throne! King Ludwig II was declared clinically insane and unfit for Kingship after only 172 days at the castle. He mysteriously drowned in a lake… with his psychologist before the castle could be completed. Insanity or genius, everyone was impressed by the personal man cave that separated the King’s bedchamber and dressing room. Complete with stalagmites and stalactites, it was quite literally ‘a cave’. The royals stopped in their tracks. Never could they have imagined such a peculiar feature in a palace. Excitedly they declared the castle their own. To celebrate, someone asked one of the princes, Luke, to sing ‘Would you like to build a Snowman’ in the Grand Hall. He declined.
Munich and the surrounding countryside were memorable in so many ways. The four of us really made the most of our time there. We would like to thank Macquarie University for enabling us to travel a little earlier. The experiences we had, the amount we’ve learned so quickly and, perhaps most poignant of all, the lasting friendships formed, have added so much to this great opportunity. Our sheer excitement, comradeship and the rigor of learning experienced through interaction with history and a different culture, only enhanced the G20 Conference experience that followed.
By Claire McMullen
 For more information on Dachau see the historical site: http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/memorial.html
*All photos courtesy of Claire McMullen