Munich’s efficient public transport network stretches far into the surrounding countryside, making day-trips relatively straightforward. By far the most sombre, but also the best-known destination in the city’s hinterland is the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, north of the city. Also to the north, but altogether more light-hearted, is Oberschleissheim, with its palaces and aviation museum. To the south of the city, the lakes of the Fünf-Seen-Land are an obvious lure in summer, given added lustre by the monastery of Kloster Andechs and by a remarkable art collection at Bernried on Starnberger See.
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In contrast to the Nazis’ extermination camps in Poland, the former concentration camp at Dachau, now the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau, was no secret. Established on the site of a redundant munitions works in March 1933 and a model for all subsequent camps, it was highly publicized, the better to keep the Third Reich’s malcontents in line. In its twelve-year existence more than 200,000 people were imprisoned here, of whom 43,000 died. It was finally liberated by US troops on April 29, 1945.
You enter the camp through an iron gate into which is set the Nazis’ bitter joke against its victims – the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “work makes you free”; here, as in so many other camps, hard work was no guarantee even of survival. Much of the camp compound now consists of the empty foundations of the old barrack blocks, but two have been reconstructed to give an idea of what conditions were like, and how they deteriorated during the course of the war as the camp became more overcrowded. The SS guards used any infringement of the barracks’ rigid cleanliness regime as an excuse to administer harsh discipline; nevertheless, when the camp was finally liberated typhus was rife.
A place of remembrance as well as a museum, the site is peppered with memorials: there are Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic memorials at the fringes of the camp, and an expressive international memorial in front of the maintenance building.
The maintenance building
An exhibition in the former camp maintenance building describes the full horror of Dachau, including a graphic colour film shot at liberation and grisly details of the medical experiments conducted on prisoners, including hypothermia and altitude experiments conducted on fit young male prisoners in order to determine how long downed Luftwaffe pilots might survive in extreme circumstances, as well as others in which inmates were deliberately infected with malaria or tuberculosis.
The camp prison (Bunker)
Behind the maintenance building, the camp prison (known as the Bunker) contained cells for important prisoners who were kept separate from the rest of the inmates; these included Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, and Richard Stevens, one of the two British secret agents kidnapped and smuggled across the border from the Netherlands the following day in the notorious Venlo incident.
The gas chamber
Though it wasn’t an extermination camp Dachau did have a gas chamber, screened by trees and located outside the camp perimeter. A crematorium was built in the summer of 1940 because of the rapidly rising numbers of prisoner deaths; in 1942–43 a larger one was built, and this incorporated a gas chamber. Though it was never used for systematic extermination, former prisoners testify that it was used to murder small groups of prisoners. As in other camps, the fiction of it being a shower room was maintained. A plaque in the crematorium commemorates four women agents of the British SOE murdered here on September 12, 1944.
To the south of Munich, the region known as the Fünf-Seen-Land provides a tantalizing glimpse of alpine beauty as well as wide open waters for recreation right on the city’s doorstep. Of the two large lakes, Starnberger See is known as the Princes’ Lake and has the opulent real-estate to prove it; it was on the shores of this lake that “Mad” King Ludwig II and his doctor met their mysterious deaths one night in June 1886. The other large lake, Ammersee, is known as the Farmers’ Lake, which reflects its somewhat simpler style.
The region’s natural centre is STARNBERG on Starnberger See. The town, which is on S-Bahn line #6 from Munich, is one of the wealthiest communities in Germany, and the lakeshore is lined with expensive villas. The town itself has a rather suburban feel, albeit with a stunning setting at the north end of the lake, and a backdrop of distant Alps.
Housed in a beautiful lakeside building designed by Günther Behnisch, the Sammlung Buchheim or Museum der Phantasie in Bernried looks from the outside more like a luxurious spa than a museum. It houses the varied collections of the artist and writer Lothar-Günther Buchheim, best known as the author of the book on which the hit film Das Boot was based. The museum is built along a central axis, which allows the various departments to branch off independently – a clever solution to the problem of displaying a collection whose constituent parts never really make a coherent whole: roomfuls of applied art and unlabelled ethnographic objects feature, along with a good deal of Buchheim’s own work, but the core of the collection is a stunning selection of classic twentieth-century German art. Lovis Corinth is represented by his Dancing Dervish of 1904, Max Liebermann by some of his lovely drawings, while a few very early works by Max Beckmann contrast with his more familiar, later style. There’s a caustic Otto Dix portrait, Leonie, as well as works by the Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Alexei von Jawlensky.
Where art presides at the southern end of the Starnberger See, beer and religion reign supreme on Ammersee, where the Benedictine monastery of Kloster Andechs crowns a hill top on the north side of the village of Erling. The monastery has for centuries attracted pilgrims to see the relics supposedly brought to Andechs by Rasso, an ancestor of the counts of Andechs, in the tenth century. These days it’s just as famous for its Benedictine beers, which can be sampled in the monastery’s Bräustüberl restaurant. The abbey church, which is not at all as big as its mighty onion-domed tower might lead you to think, makes up for its modest size with the exuberance of its Rococo decoration by the ever-industrious Johann Baptist Zimmermann. Buried beneath the Rococo swirls are traces of the fifteenth-century Gothic church, which was struck by lightning and largely destroyed in the seventeenth century; the Heilige Kapelle still retains its Gothic appearance.