For many Americans, their knowledge of German history is limited to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. This twelve year period was indisputably the darkest chapter in Germany’s long history and also one
of the darkest in world history. As historians and history students, we must explore and seek to understand how Hitler and the Holocaust could happen. But we also must not allow the long history of the German people to be reduced to the tragic events of the 1930s and 1940s. The theme of this years’ Wyatt Exploration Program is “Germany: Land of Peaks and Valleys.” Focusing geographically on the southern state of Bavaria, the series of on-campus events and the culminating trip to Germany will explore some of the many peaks and valleys of German history, stretching from the late Roman Empire up through Bavaria’s post-WWII reinvention as a center of high-tech industry.
The German state was only established in 1871, after Prussia’s brilliant but scheming prime minister Otto von Bismarck manufactured wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. But, as was made clear above, the history of the German people and the German lands begins centuries before this date. Depending on what books you have read or documentaries you have watched, Germanic peoples either savagely destroyed the Roman Empire in 476 CE or relatively peacefully assisted its transformation into the new civilization of medieval Europe. We will catch glimpses of this early history in Regensburg, a city on the Danube that grew directly out of a large Roman fortification, and Salzburg, an Austrian city in the Alps that had been an important Roman settlement and was an early center of Christianity in the German lands.
The medieval (c. 500-1500) and early modern (c. 1500-1800) history of the German lands was dominated by a political institution that almost defies comprehension: the Holy Roman Empire. Founded on Christmas day in the year 800 when Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor and abolished in 1806 as Napoleon’s armies rampaged throughout Europe, the empire managed to exist in the center of Europe for more than a thousand years despite never having a capital, an official currency, official language, or easily definable borders. How was this monstrosity of an empire run and how did it last so long? What was it like to live in the empire? Bavaria is a great place to begin to answer these questions and to understand the history of the Holy Roman Empire more generally. On the Wyatt trip, this history will come to life through exploring key power centers in the empire such as Nuremberg—with its imposing imperial castle built into impressive city walls—as well as Regensburg and Salzburg.
When the German nation-state was established in 1871, it quickly became the most powerful country on the European continent, both economically and militarily. In the early 20th century, elites in the military and government adopted belligerent policies that aimed to make the German state a global superpower. When mixed with a toxic brand of nationalism, these policies led Germany to play a key role in initiating World War I. Germany’s defeat in that war set the stage for the rise of the Nazis. Hitler and the Nazis first emerged on the political scene in Munich, Bavaria’s capital city, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. During the Third Reich, Munich was officially recognized as “capital of the (Nazi) movement.” Munich is thus an ideal city for exploring the rise of the Nazis: we will visit the beer hall where Hitler made his first political speech, will trace the route of Hitler’s ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch, and will visit Dachau, the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis after Hitler came to power in 1933.
But German history did not end in 1945. In the aftermath of the war, Germany was divided into communist East Germany and democratic, capitalist West Germany, to which Bavaria belonged. In city after city we will witness how Germans grappled with their own defeat and suffering in World War II as well as their responsibility for the Holocaust. We will see this in the buildings that were destroyed in the war and then rebuilt as well as in countless memorials to the suffering of Germans and those they tormented and killed. In the postwar years, West Germany experienced a period of dramatic economic growth and general well-being known as the “economic miracle.” In Munich we will also explore this side of Germany’s history by visiting a BMW factory and Olympic Park, the site of the 1972 Olympics.
Germany’s history has many peaks and valleys, and we will explore them throughout the year. But this year’s theme also has a more literal meaning: much of southern Bavaria is dominated by the Alpine mountain range, and the Austrian city of Salzburg is set majestically amidst multiple alpine peaks. The mountains have shaped German and especially Austrian culture, and so Wyatt explorers will also have a chance to head up into the mountains to take in the fresh air, breathtaking views, and traditional alpine hospitality.
Those who take part in this year’s events and especially the Wyatt trip will develop a much deeper appreciation for the complicated history and culture of a fascinating and beautiful country!
Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second largest city, was established about a thousand years ago and quickly became one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. The Golden Bull of 1356 decreed that emperors were required to hold their first imperial diet (parliament) in the city. We will spend a day exploring Nuremberg Castle, a massive sandstone fortress where emperors resided and held court when they were in the city, and the city’s still-standing system of defensive walls and moats. Nuremberg provides an excellent window into medieval and early modern German history, but it was also an important city during the Third Reich. The Nazis held their massive annual party rallies in the city and announced their anti-Semitic laws there. Hitler had monumental buildings constructed to hold the rallies, and we will explore both the remains of these buildings and the associated Nazi Documentation Center.
A college town situated on the Danube, Regensburg is just bigger than Flint in terms of population. But it packs a lot of history in a small package. The entire inner city has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is considered to be Germany’s best preserved medieval city. We will see the remains of a Roman fortification that gave birth to the city, will walk across the medieval stone bridge, which has spanned the Danube river for nearly nine hundred years and accounted for much of the city’s wealth and power, and will explore the medieval center of the city. We will also take a short Danube cruise on the largest historical recreation of a medieval inland sailing ship in Europe. The ship will drop us off at Walhalla, a stunning neoclassical German hall of fame—and monument to German nationalism—perched high up in the hills on the banks of the river.
Salzburg is an Austrian university town just over the border from Germany. Built into and between mountain peaks and along a river valley, it is one of the most visually stunning places I have ever been. It has a very long settlement history reaching back to pre-Roman times, but on our trip we will focus on its medieval and early modern history. Before there was a German state, Salzburg was an independent ecclesiastical city state (ruled by the bishop) within the Holy Roman Empire. We will explore the catacombs of early Christian communities that were dug into the mountainside; the cathedral and the lavish residence of the ruling prince-bishops; as well as Hohensalzburg Castle, one of Europe’s largest still-standing medieval castles. You haven’t been to Austria until you have been in the Alps, so we will also take a cable car nearly up to the peak of Untersberg mountain, located just outside of Salzburg. After hiking (or relaxing) in the mountains, we will enjoy traditional mountain fare at a rustic alpine cabin known as an Almhütte.
The Bavarian capital and third largest city in Germany is the “youngest” city we will visit. Munich was established in 1158 at a place where monks already resided (hence the name of the city: Munich = monks). In Munich we will stroll through the historic city center, take in the architecture, history, and livelihood of Mariaplatz, the central city square, and will tour the massive and opulent residence of the Wittelsbach dynasty, whose rule over Bavaria lasted more than seven centuries and ended only as a result of Germany’s defeat in World War I. The political and economic chaos in Germany—and especially in Bavaria and Munich—that stemmed from defeat in World War I provided the perfect breeding ground for Hitler and his Nazi Party. We will explore this history as well as the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust by spending a day at the Dachau concentration camp, where the Nazis began rounding up and punishing political opponents almost immediately after coming to power. We will also experience some of Munich’s more recent history and culture, including taking a factory tour at BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) and walking through expansive Olympic Park. This park was the site of the 1972 Olympics, which were marked by a Palestinian terrorist organization murdering eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. Finally, because it’s Munich, we will visit some of the best beer gardens and beer halls in the world, including the iconic Hofbräuhaus, where we will dine on traditional Bavarian food while listening to a raucous oompah-pah band.