The name Munchen ‘Home of Monks’ comes from an early monastery founded in the 8th century. Munich in Germanis known as München, the city was born 850 years ago, when Henry the Lion ‘The Duke of Bavaria and Saxony’ was on a development binge that led to the creation of Munich, Lübeck, Brunswick, and several other cities in that time. In 1504, Munich became the capital of Bavaria and by the mid-19th Century, it was a major city with an archbishop, a university, an opera house, palaces, and the other famous constructions that might be expected of a kingdom’s royal seat.
As far as European cities are concerned, Munich is a relative newcomer. It was Benedictine monks which were drawn by fertile farmland along the flood plain of the Isar River and the closeness to Catholic Italy, who settled in what is now the Munich area. This may have been as early as the 8th century but there are no records in history to be sure of that time. The city derives its name from the medieval Munichen meaning ‘monks’. So the official year zero in Munich is 1158 when the Imperial Diet in Augsburg sanctioned the rule of Heinrich der Löwe, and Munich the city was born. However, Munich had to wait another two decades to gain city status, after which it was permitted to take defensive measures. Since 1255 Bavaria had been split into two parts, Munich serving as the capital of Upper Bavaria. In 1506 the two parts were reunited and Munich took on the role of the Bavarian capital, a position it still holds to this day. Munich was not immune to the religious strife that plagued central Europe from the 15th century until the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Bavaria’s rulers were active in the counter-reformation (also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, was the period of Catholic resurgence that was initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation,) inviting the Jesuits to build the Michaelskirche and their huge college next door. During the Thirty Years’ War, the city was occupied by King Gustav II Adolph of Sweden whose forces were victorious through all of central Europe. To make matters worse, the bubonic plague hit the area in the mid of the 1630s, which wiped around a third of the population. The effects of the war and the plague made economic recovery following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 a very long and difficult journey.
Munich has seen troubled times, but the first half of the 20th century was a particularly rough patch. The allied blockade of WWI practically starved the city to death, though Munich suffered little actual physical damage. When Ludwig III fled the city in November 1918, 700 years of Wittelsbach rule came to an end, but political unrest filled the power vacuum and made things worst. One of the oddest periods in Munich’s history came in April 1919 when inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared following the murder of Prime Minister Kurt Eisner. The Republic sought independence from the new Weimar Republic but was pushed out by German troops in May 1919. These events may explain the Bavarians’ hatred of left-wing rule, which continues to this day. The Free State of Bavaria was established in August 1919. In May 1913 an anonymous failed Austrian artist arrived to take up residence in Munich. Returning after Germany’s defeat in WWI, Adolf Hitler entered politics, joining the German Workers’ Party. As a man of strong personality, Hitler soon rose to the top of the party, giving his famously vitriolic beer hall speeches. In 1923 the failed Beer Hall Putsch landed Hitler in Landsberg prison, though he used his sentence to good effect, writing Mein Kampf during his year of incarceration. The Wall Street Crash and economic woes in Germany provided fertile ground for Hitler’s anti-Jewish rally, and millions began to follow him. In 1933 the first concentration camp opened in Dachau. In 1934 Hitler became Germany’s head of state, and in 1938 Chamberlain famously signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler, handing over the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia – the Sudetenland – to Nazi Germany. Hitler had big plans to rebuild Munich but managed only the Haus der Kunst and a few buildings around the Königsplatz. During the time of WWII, Munich suffered over 70 air raids, which transformed countless historical buildings in the city center into landfills. Resistance to the Nazis was minimal, though the Weisse Rose group of students at Munich University is a rare case of bravery in the face of a killing machine. Munich was liberated by the US Army on 30 April 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Munich had to rebuild from ashes after WWII, though the damage to the city wasn’t anything like that inflicted by the Allies on Dresden, Berlin, or Würzburg. The pre-war street plan was preserved, historic buildings were reconstructed and new tenements shot up, many built by foreign workers from southern Europe, Italy, and Turkey in particular. Many of these immigrants stayed on afterward, many opening businesses around the Hauptbahnhof.
The 1972 Olympic Games began as a celebration of a new democratic Germany and a reconstituted Munich but ended in tragedy when 17 people were killed in a terrorist hostage-taking incident. Much of the city’s infrastructure dates from the early 1970s. Two years after the Olympics, the Olympic Stadium hosted the final of the FIFA World Cup, with the host nation, led by legendary local Franz Beckenbauer, defeating the Netherlands in a memorable final. In 2006 the opening game of the World Cup was hosted by the newly-built Allianz Arena. Today, Munich’s claim of being the ‘secret capital’ of Germany is well-founded. The city is recognized for its high living standards and has more millionaires per capita than any other German city except Hamburg – and for haute couture that rivals that of Paris and Milan. Having celebrated its 861st birthday in 2019, this great metropolis is striding affluently forward into the 21st century, the top dog in a country that’s at the top of the pile in Europe.