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Germany Diary, Part 3

Four weeks in Germany seeing the best!

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Disappointing BMW museum
  • Deutsches aviation museum
  • 1972 Munich Olympics precinct
  • Germany’s highest town
  • Travelling at 300 km/h in a train
  • Nuremberg Nazi party rally grounds
  • Nuremberg Courtroom 600
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Diary Extract 6

Well today was a disappointment.

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This morning we went to the BMW museum, and then this afternoon to the aviation section of the Deutches museum.

The BMW museum was rather like the Porsche museum – to be utterly blunt, a wankfest for those convinced that BMW makes the best cars in the world... and especially for those wanting confirmation that their choice of a new BMW was just sublimely brilliant.

As with the Porsche museum, there were plenty of cars on display, and, since BMW has a much longer history than the Porsche company, BMW had more stuff that they could show. And to be honest, the museum started well, with the engine from the altitude record setting aircraft from 1919 on display, and a rather nice magnesium tubular frame from a one-off 1939 BMW 328 race car shown in a clear historical context.

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But from there it rapidly went downhill – although superficially, it all looked good. For example, a display of engines over the decades showed aspects like changes in the engines’ specific power, power/weight ratios, and so on. But oddly missing from the display were the 1980s ETA engines – yes, they’re the ones that flopped in the marketplace….

And sometimes the displays were true to the company, but the company had so obviously gone backwards that the display could never work. Like the line-up of ‘M’ models – starting with the M1 supercar and progressing to the current M3. Trouble is, when I polled Georgina and Alexander as to which car they’d take home, they all plumped for the first car, the M1! And who wouldn’t? Where is BMW’s current uniquely sporting ‘M’ machine, not one based on a cooking model? Nowhere to be seen…

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And some of the museum was simply rubbish. We were on the verge of exiting the main area when Georgina, studying the museum plan, pointed out we’d missed the section on aerodynamics. Since car aero is a major area of interest to me, and since BMW has an aerodynamics heritage stretching back to the pre WWII autobahns, I became very excited – perhaps this would be the museum’s saving grace?

But you won’t believe how bad it was…

The aerodynamics section of the BMW museum is a single, small room. In it is displayed one car and three or four small reproductions (not even the real things!) of wind tunnel models.

And that is it.

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No F1 or touring car content, no description of the then cutting-edge aero of the 3.0CSL, nothing on current low-drag development of cars.

It was just laughable.

And it got no better. On the day we went, the museum had a special exhibition on Rolls Royce. (BMW gained the rights to use the Rolls Royce name about a decade ago.) So there were plenty of Rolls models on display, starting with cars from the early years of the last century, then progressing to the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and so on - all models with absolutely zilch, zero and nothing to do with BMW. And what glorious cars they were – sweeping fenders, elegance and wonderful engineering personified….

And then we got to the current ‘BMW’ Rolls Royce – one of the ugliest prestige vehicles ever made.

Georgina had me in hysterics, chanting as we progressed through the display: “We’ve got the money to buy the brand, but we’ve no taste or understanding….”

The trouble with the BMW museum – and also the Porsche museum – is that the two companies decided not to pour the money into a museum, but into propaganda pieces.

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Cars are not released or developed or used in a vacuum, they work within a historical – social, technical, sporting and political – space.

The curators at the Mercedes museum understand this completely, and so have developed a wonderfully exhilarating and exciting museum.

The BMW museum is half-baked: they get it right in just tiny sections (the section on historically lightweight technologies, and on the social history of the tiny Isetta) but they get it wrong in so many other areas.

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From the BMW museum, we walked across the pedestrian bridge to the precinct where the 1972 Olympics was held.

Called the Olympiagelände, it is similar in some respects to Sydney’s Olympics site – except the architecture of the buildings in much more exciting, and the site includes several hills. These hills are, incredibly, the piled-up debris of WWII demolished Munich. The view from the top of the highest hill of relatively flat Munich is great, and with the size of the city not dissimilar to Adelaide, you can see plenty of the city.

The Olympiagelände on this Sunday also showed one of the fascinating characteristics of German life: these people just love getting out and about. I don’t know how many people were in the Olympics precinct the day we were there – but it must have been thousands. People walking, jogging, pushing prams, riding bikes – laughing, happy, excited, delighting in the company of others. Here in Germany, you see lots and lots and lots of people - young lovers, families, old people, singles – all looking like they absolutely enjoy life.

Having now viewed plenty of German cities, suburbs and country towns, a few other things strike me.

Firstly, the country appears vasty more egalitarian than the UK – while we have seen some beggars, we haven’t seen the pronounced and disturbing dichotomy between rich and poor we saw in the UK.

Secondly, the country has a standard of living that to Australian eyes is fine. Again, that’s unlike the UK where with the exception of quite specific areas, to Aussie eyes, the thought of living there immediately inspired the rejoinder: you’re joking!

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Thirdly, the children are very well behaved – sure, you see two-year-olds throwing wobbies (yells of nein! nein! nein! as they are put into prams) but it is very rare to see clear acts of anti-social behaviour from children.

Fourthly, I feel much safer in public spaces than I do in Australia – perhaps that’s just ignorance, but anyway, that’s the case.

Finally, when the health professionals tell us that Australia in in the midst of an obesity epidemic, they are right - people in Germany are slimmer and fitter than their contemporaries in Australia… to a startling degree. Perhaps it’s the cycling (bikes are everywhere); the walking associated with public transport (Munich has at least six different public transport systems – all work brilliantly); or the healthy food (we’re yet to hit McDonalds or Burger King - why would you when the takeaway salad rolls are fresh, great tasting, nutritious and cheap?). The outcome is a public population of healthy, active and happy people…. who happen to smoke a lot. Can’t have everything!

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This afternoon we went to the aviation branch of the Deutsches museum. Given the unbelievable quality of the main Deutsches museum, and the very high quality of the transport branch of the Deutsches museum, we had high hopes. However, this museum is rather small and many of the exhibits are of no particular historic or technological significance. In fact, the main Deutsches museum has a vastly better display of aeronautical and aerospace exhibits than the branch dedicated to just those topics.

Because we were home early from this museum, we had time to do an hour walk around the old areas of Munich's city centre. It’s a beautiful city with enough historic buildings that survived WWII (or were rebuilt) to give it an ‘old’ feel. The goods in the shops are superb – in fact, that’s what throngs of people seemed to be doing this Sunday evening with all the shops shut – just looking in the windows!

Tomorrow we have a day off – we’re ahead of schedule. Georgina, all of a sudden, has decided she wants to take the train to the snow-capped mountains we keep seeing in the distance. In the main Munich station she walked up to the information booth of the DB (German trains) company and stated her (rather vague) requirements. Without blinking, the man nominated a town, printed out the train timetable and sent her happily on her way. So tomorrow we’re off to the highest town in Germany – just under 3000 metres above sea level….

Diary Extract 7

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So yesterday we went to the highest town in Germany – Garmisch-Partenkirchen, not far from the Austrian border. Nearby is Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze, with its peak 2961 metres above sea level. We took the train from Munich, a trip of about 90 minutes. From Garmisch you can take a different, rack-powered, train further up into the mountains, but we chose not to because of the very high cost (around AUD$150).

The train from Munich was packed – lots of people doing what we were doing - going out for the day. We walked around the town – it was thronging with visitors - and looked in lots of expensive shops. The town is the archetypical Bavarian alps town, surrounded by picturesque, steep-sided mountains.

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For me the most interesting part of the day was looking at the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics – Hitler’s Winter Olympics. For this event, a ski stadium was built in Partenkirchen… and it’s still there and still used. In fact, the day after our visit, a world ski jumping event was being held at the location and there were TV outside broadcast vans being set up everywhere.

The stadium reeks of Third Reich architecture, with its large concrete sculptures and heavy-handed – but very grand – design. The stadium can apparently hold 100,000 spectators and is little changed since the 1936 Olympics. Fascinating!

We’re now in Nuremberg.

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This morning we took the ICE (Inter City Express) train from Munich to Nuremberg – and had a very exciting surprise. We have been on an ICE previously, but today’s trip was partly on track built especially for the ICE. So? Well, when it’s running on its purpose-designed track, the train travels at 300 km/h…

We have got used to trains travelling at – I’d guess – up to 150 or so km/h, and that’s just what this ICE did until it reached Ingolstadt. But after that, it just seemed to go faster and faster! The curves were very gentle, the gradients even more so (with lots of short tunnels) – and the cars on the parallel autobahn, well, they seemed to be going backwards… It was very smooth, very refined, and very effective.

In fact ‘effective’ is a good descriptor of the DB rail system. The trains are clean, modern, punctual and, while not cheap, neither are they stupidly expensive. Our rail pass, which gives us first class travel on all intercity trains for ten individual days (to be taken within a month), cost around AUD$1500 for two adults and a nine year old. I love cars and driving: but I am glad we have chosen to take trains everywhere. The downsides so apparent in Australia of taking the same path simply don’t exist here – you get up, get to the central train station by say 8 am, and by 9.30 am you are in the next city… irrespective of snow or fog, feeling relaxed and comfortable.

Diary Extract 8

Today was a major reason that this year we’ve travelled to Germany.

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This morning we went to the Nuremberg Nazi party rally grounds. The best-known part of this area is the Zeppelin Field. This is the huge rectangular space (no less than 293 x 311 metres) that during night rallies, was surrounded by skywards-pointing anti-aircraft lights, brought in just for the special occasions and creating Albert Speer’s ‘Cathedral of Light’. You will all have seen it in clips from the Nazi propaganda films directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

The incredible fact is that this construction is still there!

You can literally stand at almost the spot where Hitler stood, the focus of attention of something like 100,000 (invisible) people. I stood there – and it made my skin crawl.

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The Nazi period fascinates me – a society so advanced in technology, pharmaceuticals, chemistry and engineering… one that welcomed Hitler, deliberately forsaking democracy as an approach that hadn’t worked for them, and then followed a megalomaniac as he undertook some of the greatest crimes ever committed by humanity. When the Nuremberg rally grounds were holding their premier events, Hitler was revered by the vast majority of Germans as near to a God…

The main grandstand is no longer complete: the hundreds of metres of tall columns that backed it fell into disrepair and were demolished in the 1960s, and the towers at each end were reduced in size in the 1980s. However, the field itself is intact (several soccer fields are now contained within it) and so are the 34 small towers that surrounded the field.

Curiously, the grandstand and the towers are being allowed to fall into disrepair: the signs placed by the Nuremberg authorities acknowledge the importance of the structures but rather plaintively suggest that it would cost a lot of money to restore them. Given that these buildings and this space epitomise a 20th century, amoral dictator seducing his people in part through grandly uplifting theatrics and architecture, I would have thought it vital to modern world history that this space be restored to its original state.

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In the same area we also saw the Congress Hall – an enormous, crescent-shaped hall designed to seat 40,000 people. The building was never completed – it is missing the roof and about a third of the wall height. This roof was going to have a span of 170 metres and a height of about 70 metres. Most of the building’s façade is present – walking around it took us a good 20 minutes. There is a museum located within a part of this building – we hope to visit it tomorrow.

Incidentally, both the Congress Hall and Zeppelin Field constructions were made from cheap materials (bricks and concrete, respectively) that were covered with flashy natural rock cladding – perhaps a suitable parable for the politics behind them…

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Before we left the area, we went to Burger King. Say what? Well, the fascinating thing about this particular Burger King is that it is located inside the building that once housed the electrical substation supplying power for the Zeppelin Field searchlights! Instead of transformers and fuses, you’ll now find burgers; but high up on each end of the building you can still clearly see where the Nazi eagles were chiselled off at the end of WWII….

Being New Year’s Day, a lot of attractions we want to visit in Nuremberg were closed. However, with time to spare, we went to look at Courtroom 600, the court in which the top Nazis were tried. I expected it also to be closed – and would have been happy with just a look at the outside of this most significant of jurisprudence buildings. But in fact it proved to be open and accepting of visitors.

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The courtroom – still in use – has some significant changes over how it looked in 1945/46, however there’s still a huge atmosphere present. Very good audio guides are provided (including in English) and the gravitas of the place is emphasised by its absolute quietness as visitors listen individually to these guides. I’ve a good library on the Nuremberg trials so I didn’t listen to a lot of the audio guide, but Georgina and Alexander found it excellent. Alexander was especially interested in the display that showed the fate of the tried Nazis – death by hanging, death by hanging, life imprisonment, 20 years imprisonment – and so on. As Georgina explained to him, this is what happened to the people who made Dachau possible… interesting lessons in morality for a nine year old.

Last night was New Year’s Eve in Nuremberg. We had a quiet night, playing (travel-sized) Monopoly and then going to bed. But the rest of Nuremberg sure didn’t have a quiet night: from about 10 pm until 2 am, the city centre went mad with fireworks. Oh no, not organised fireworks, but instead people letting off their own fireworks in the streets. My glance out of the hotel window at midnight showed people firing rockets into buildings, into each other, groups lighting pyrotechnics on the ground and then scattering – you name it. There was rubbish absolutely everywhere – then this morning, at 7 am, the mechanised street sweepers were out, cleaning it all up.

Tomorrow, in addition to visiting the museum in the Congress Hall, we hope to go to the German rail company museum.




BMW factory museum


Self-indulgent and lacking social and technical context. Some good cars. Spend a few hours. 6.5/10

Deutsches museum – aviation branch


Disappointingly shallow. 4/10

Nazi party rally grounds


Amazing atmosphere – spend two hours and expect to walk a lot. 8/10

Courtroom 600


Where the Nazi leaders were tried. 1 hour. 8/10

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