Echoes of ‘Peace in our time’
An Irishman’s Diary: Munich Agreement building now a university
‘This is the Führerbau, from which Neville Chamberlain emerged on September 30th 1938, to return to England waving a scrap of white paper, bearing the signature of Hitler and declaring “Peace in our time”.’ Above, left to right: Lord Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano gathered on September 29th, 1938 to sign the Munich treaty. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
No 12 Arcisstrasse, Munich, is a sombre, unremarkable, and somewhat shabby building. Yet it was the centre of the world’s attention 75 years ago, when humanity held its collective breath, wondering whether there would be war or peace, whether the Western Allies would be hurled into a conflagration with Nazi Germany, over “a people in a far off country about whom we know little”.
This is the Führerbau, from which Neville Chamberlain emerged on September 30th 1938, to return to England waving a scrap of white paper, bearing the signature of Hitler and declaring “Peace in our time”. The Munich Agreement created the concept of “Munich” as an immoral and cowardly political act, betraying the weak for pragmatic expediency and surrendering civilised values to the demands of a dictator. Appeasement as a policy became an embarrassment to the national self-respect of the UK and France, as Hitler triumphed and destroyed Czechoslovakia. The echoes of “Munich” have continued to this day in Western policy on Iraq and Syria.
It astonished me some years ago to discover that The Führerbau still stood, remarkably intact and undamaged, despite the war-time bombing of Munich. I was surprised that such a building with horrendous associations was still allowed stand and function.
Konigsplatz is a fine open space, half a kilometre from Munich’s main shopping streets. Surrounded by museums and galleries, it was on its eastern side that Hitler sited his statements of Nazi grandeur. Two “Temples of Honour” were built where the fallen from his 1923 Munich putsch were interred, and flanking them The Führerbau, and its twin administration block were built. Though Berlin was the seat of government, in Munich, the Nazi party was founded and so its headquarters and the Führer’s personal office were placed, alongside the “blood martyrs”. Here real power resided in Germany.
The clues to its past are still to be seen. Over the main door, metal studs show from where the Nazi Eagle was cut down. In the ceiling of the portico, a swastika motif decorates the cornicing. Heavy doors lead inside to the great hall where an oversized marble staircase rises to Room 105, Hitler’s personal office, and the location of the Munich Conference.
The building now houses the Munich University of Music and Theatre, with more than 1,000 students. Its chancellor, Alex Krause has written the history of the building and has become a friend, facilitating my former school, CBS Kilkenny, on its annual transition-year trip to Bavaria. He knew little of the historical associations when he took up his appointment, telling me he discovered to his discomfort, that a previous occupant of his office was Martin Borman. Even the present generation of music students appears to know little or nothing of past times, but the CBS students are inevitably fascinated to visit Hitler’s office and experience a history lesson in the room where one of the major events in world history took place.
It was into Room 105 in the afternoon of September 29th, 1938 that Chamberlain walked, to find a sitting Hitler, silhouetted against a bright window, awaiting him. They were joined by Mussolini of Italy and Daladier of France, examining maps and deciding the fate of Czechoslovakia, whose leaders were not invited. The infamous Munich Agreement was arrived at past midnight and then the four leaders posed for photographs beside the fireplace, under a painting of Bismarck.
So how did the Fürherbau survive to this day? Alex believes that remarkable trompe d’oeil camouflage contributed, as the Konigsplatz was painted with a 3D streetscape to confound aerial bombardment. The Americans reached Munich at the war’s end, and as the building was undamaged, occupied it for administration purposes. In 1957 it was given to the Music University, perhaps with the idea that youth, education and music would somehow cleanse its spirits. The structure is preserved as is its macabre basement complex, still housing wartime artefacts.
The former office is now used as a recital room. The university is troubled by the dilemma of wishing to use the building as an active learning space and being unwilling to allow the fascination with the past overwhelm its working environment.
After the Kilkenny boys’ annual history lesson, they played a short music recital in this unique location and help exorcise odious demons of the past.