A Sociological Autobiography: 36 – The Beer Halls of Munich

By | October 9, 2014

In 1995 I accepted an invitation to go to Munich to give a keynote address to the German Society for Neuropharmacology and Clinical Neuropsychology. I seem to recall that the invitation emanated from Michael Bruch, a clinical psychologist who had provided longstanding support on a popular Middlesex/UCL training course in behaviour therapy run jointly for many years by Vic Meyer, a charismatic psychologist, and Ted Chesser, a psychiatrist who was to suffer and die prematurely from multiple sclerosis, and later by Michael himself. The brief was to talk – in English – about the psychosocial sequelae of epilepsy and the rituals and routines of day-to-day adult coping, including felt and enacted stigma.

I include mention of this trip here for a special reason or two. Of my presentation I remember little: certainly not what I said or how and to what effect I shuffled my acetate sheets. What I do recall, first, is a marble bust of Max Weber perched above the lecturn and the intimidating way his eyes followed me as I paced around (I have rarely stayed still whilst lecturing); his austere presence was not a comforting one.

Of the city of Munich, wide, clean and well-lit streets bordered by ranks of grandiose imperial buildings have stuck in my mind. Tucked into a corner here and there I found cafes and bars affording me the kind of companionable solitude I have always sought: places where I can read or write while strangers mill around, noisily maybe, but intent on their own and not my business.

But I sought out and discovered another infamous institution in Munich: the beer hall! Beer halls have a long history in what is now southern Germany. The granddaddy was the Hofbrauhaus, founded in 1589. Mozart, who lived just round the corner, popped in for inspiration in the eighteenth century, and, after its expansion in the early twentieth century (beer halls from this time would typically accommodate hundreds, even thousands), Lenin took advantage of its brews and opportunities for political debate and planning. Hitler did not drink, but he too honed his strategy there. Hitler’s infamous putsch, however, occurred down the road.

It was the evening of 8 November in 1923. Occupying another beer hall, the Burgerbraukeller, were some 2-3000 businessmen attuned to the political testimonies of state commissioner, Gustav Kahr, and assorted Bavarian high-flyers including WW1 General Ludendorf. Hitler, leader of a fledgling but rapidly growing Nazi Party (by then, 35,000 members) stormed in with 600 Stormtroopers (SA) and a machine gun and announced a revolution. What exactly happened in the beer hall historians still dispute. What seems clear is that there was a deal of confusion! Hitler’s claim that Kahr and, in particular, Ludendorf, backed him appears at best optimistic and partial. The testimony to Hitler’s rhetorical prowess of a local professor of modern history, however, carries little ambiguity:

I cannot remember in my entire life such a change in the attitude of a crowd in a few minutes, almost a few seconds … Hitler had turned them inside out, as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences. It had almost something of the hocus-pocus, or magic about it.’

Leading his SA and newfound converts into the centre of the city of Munich, Hitler was confronted by armed police. Sixteen Nazis and four police were killed. Hitler was arrested and, along with Ludendorf, charged with treason. Sentenced to five years, he served only nine months before resuming his clandestine activities.

I wanted to sample a beer hall not only because of the institution’s historical role but because my father, Ron, had availed himself of their delights a decade after Hitler’s failed putsch. As a child I had often heard his set of three 75s of German drinking songs. The only – long forgotten – German I ever spoke (Ron was fluent) was ‘one, two, three, down the hatch’! So I searched for and found my beer hall. It was huge. Settling amongst the serried ranks of wooden trestle tables and served by hostesses in traditional garb, I drank to the melodies and lyrics of local folk singers. I drank in excess of two litres of Munich’s beer. I was so befuddled that I had no idea of the whereabouts of my hotel. In fact I was apparently walking out of the city when, by chance, I encountered a German conference attendee who recognised and redirected me. My memory of successfully climbing one of Munich’s extremely tall street lights was and is less secure than the insistence of third parties that this did indeed happen. Have I ever been – will I ever be – quite so inebriated?

When many years later Annette and I visited Vienna it reminded me of Munich. The overall impression was of faded and still fading grandeur. There was an architectural blandness and austerity to Munich that not only Vienna but parts of Victorian London bring to mind. A house can be a house without becoming a home, and so too – as it were – can a city; or, in the case of London at least, certain Establishment-colonized segments of it. To appreciate, even enjoy, time in a segment of a city is not necessarily to feel at home in it; but then one has only sampled the one segment.


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