The very name conjures vastly different images and emotions depending on your age and where you live.
For the Greatest Generation, Munich immediately evokes memories of a spineless Western “appeasement” that sold out Czechoslovakia and fed Hitler’s insatiable appetite for power leading to World War II. Baby Boomers recall Munich as a terrorism turning point when cold-blooded Black September members murdered 11 Israeli athletes in the city’s 1972 Summer Olympic Games.
This past week, Munich may likely be remembered as the place where American allies finally gave up on President Trump, America’s leadership of the alliance of Western democracies and any U.S. security guarantees as credible.
Appeasement, murder, betrayal. Munich has had its pivotal historic moments, and this looks like one of them.
Munich is where German Chancellor Angela Merkel just stood up at an important annual security conference and said that she was, effectively, done with counting on the Americans. The Munich Security Conference is also where Vice President Mike Pence stood up to scold allies for sticking with a multilateral Iranian agreement and hollowly cheerlead for the White House. For his tone-deaf remarks, he was rewarded with stone-cold silence and a primarily European audience’s outright disrespect for Trump. This regrettable reality — a disregarded America — threatens to become the new normal.
The Bavarian capital is laden with historic events that have tarnished a shining cultural and economic global powerhouse. Munich and its residents do not deserve all the negative associations and do not bear all the responsibility for bad things that happened to this good town, a place that is on the cutting edge of German venture-capital funding and home to an impressively growing technology hub. But traumatic events tend to define cities, and their histories are hard to shake.
It’s not alone as a city weighed down by a checkered past, but with a population hoping for a better future. Take Sarajevo. World War I was ignited when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Southern Slav separatist in 1914. In the 1990s, Sarajevo became Ground Zero for the most brutal and inhuman tragedies of the Bosnian war, a capital city that experienced the longest siege in modern warfare, where sharpshooting snipers wantonly picked off civilians on a thoroughfare that will forever be remembered as “Sniper Alley.”
Other cities have experienced historic tragedy, been victimized, suffered destruction. But their names are not always shorthand for a movement, moment or monumental mistake. In our collective imagination, Prague, for example, does not elicit dread. Its storybook castle and whimsical war-surviving cobblestone streets make it a sweet, showcase city. Despite its recent communist-era terrors or the forgotten 15th century Hussite wars, Prague means spring, music and love. Munich is beer halls, bombed buildings and a byword for buckling to the Nazis. History matters.
Munich has done its darndest to ameliorate some of its darkest historical moments. Dachau is just outside town, and local school children are actively taught about Nazi concentration camps and crimes against humanity. In fact, Germany — or, at least, the Western part of Germany that was not under the Soviet thumb until 1989 — has done an effective job at raising the consciousness of its citizens, paying retribution and asking for forgiveness for the sins of its fathers. After having lived and worked in Germany, I can report that the country has become a rabidly pacifist nation.
This pervasive modern pacifism informs modern-day Germany and its politicians. It is this deep collective desire to maintain a global and regional peace that is also driving Merkel’s reaction to the United States and Trump.
Offending German sensibilities, Trump and previous U.S. presidents have wanted Germany and most Europeans to man-up, spend more and actively build their defense forces and military might. Trump, however, has gone far beyond previous cajoling and criticism of Europe’s partial free-riding. He openly expresses his disdain and even called the European Union one of America’s greatest “foes.”
Trump portrays the NATO alliance as a protection racket. He questions not only the rationale behind the mutual defense treaty, but suggests that he does not necessarily believe in its basic Article 5 tenet — that an attack against one is an attack upon all. That’s the same Article 5 invoked when NATO responded to the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland and sent European and other troops to war in Afghanistan.
Back in Munich last week, the security conference was a post-Mattis, post-McCain, post-McMaster event that reflected both the Trump tone and a European reaction to the dissonance. Lame duck Angela Merkel no longer felt constrained from calling a nativist-enthralled America a cooked goose.
Following Merkel’s rejection of Trumpism, Munich might partially shed the stigma of appeasement and instead represent continental renewal by standing up for Western unity, values, defense and peace. It’s a tall order at a time when America threatens to abandon its allies, London careers towards Brexit and Eastern European countries find common cause with Russia.
Which Munich will eventually take precedence in our memory?
Markos Kounalakis was a 1988 Bosch fellow and journalism intern at Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is currently a Hoover Institution visiting fellow.