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The Bridge over the Isar

Munich is a young city compared with some of its neighbors. It had its origins in 1156 in an unpleasant struggle between two feudal rulers over the right to impose tolls on the traffic moving along the salt road that stretched between the cities of Salzburg, Hallein, Reichenhall, and Augsburg. Up to that time, Bishop Otto von Freising had controlled a very lucrative toll bridge across the Isar River, directly on the salt route.

The ruler of the Bavarian territory, Guelph Heinrich der Löwe (Duke Henry the Lion), was in need of cash. So, with the customary ferocity that had earned him his nickname, he simply burned down the bishop's bridge and built his own bridge a few miles upstream, co-opting the profitable tolls. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was called upon to settle this dispute between his cousin Heinrich and his uncle, Bishop Otto. However, the bishop's fully justified rage did little to influence the faraway emperor, who was too busy to worry about a minor clash between church and state. This particular squabble, however, was to have far-reaching consequences.

Henry's new bridge was adjacent to a tiny settlement of Benedictine monks, a small community on the banks of the Isar River that was referred to as zu den Münichen -- "at the site of the little monks." The name stuck -- though it was later shortened to München, and the little monk, or Münichen, remains the symbol of the city of Munich.

Henry the Lion had already had successful experiences in founding trading centers. With this knowledge, he granted Munich the right to mint its own coins and to hold markets, basic tools that any city needed for survival. Tolls from his new bridge, which now funneled the lucrative salt trade across the Isar, went directly into Henry's coffers.

Within a few months, Barbarossa validated the crude but effective actions of his duke, legitimizing the establishment of Munich on June 14, 1158, the date that is commemorated as the official debut of the city. Henry, however, had to accept a price: Barbarossa ordered that a third of all tolls generated by the new bridge be paid to the bishop of Freising, whose bridge Henry had destroyed.

Medieval Prosperity

The first of the city's fortifications, a stone wall studded with watchtowers and five gates, was built in 1173 and enclosed 2,500 people. One of the most important survivals from this period (most of the wall was long ago demolished) is the Marienplatz -- then and now the centerpiece of the city and the crossing point of the Salzstrasse (Salt Route), a crossroads that is still marked on the city map. During its early days, the Marienplatz was known as the "Marketplace" or the "Grain Market."

In 1180, Duke Henry quarreled with Emperor Barbarossa and was banished forever from Munich and the rest of Bavaria. Gleefully, Henry's nemesis, the bishop of Freising, attempted to eradicate the upstart young city and reroute the salt trade back through his stronghold of Oberföhring. By this time, however, Munich was simply too well established to succumb to his efforts.

Enter the Wittelsbachs

By 1240, a new force had arisen in Munich, the Wittelsbach family. They were part of a new generation of merchant princes, and through a shrewd imposition of military and economic power, their family patriarch, Otto von Wittelsbach, succeeded in having himself designated as the ruler of Bavaria shortly after the banishment of Henry the Lion. Thus began the longest and most conservative reign of any dynasty in Germany. The Wittelsbachs ruled in Munich and the rest of Bavaria until the forces of socialism swept them away during the final days of World War I. Today, they are still viewed by the Bavarians with a kind of nostalgic affection.

Between 1250 and 1300, the population of Munich increased fivefold, the result of migration from the countryside and a period that was relatively free from plagues. Members of at least three religious orders established monasteries, convents, and hospitals within the city walls.

Social Unrest

As the population grew, the city's encircling fortifications were enlarged to protect new suburbs. Although predominantly Catholic, the city fostered a small population of much-persecuted Jews, as well. The worst pogrom against them occurred in 1285, when 150 of Munich's Jews, accused of the murder of a small Catholic child, were burned alive inside their synagogue, which was, at the time, just behind the present-day location of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall). Two years later, other groups of Jews came to Munich, but ironically, the handicaps the city imposed upon them (exclusion from all trades except moneylending) led to a modest, if precarious, degree of prosperity. Pogroms were repeated throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, and in 1442, the Jews were banished from Munich altogether.

Just before the dawn of the 14th century, the artisans and merchants of Munich staged a revolt against the Wittelsbach family because of debased coins that were being issued by the dukes' mint. A mob destroyed the mint and killed its overseer, and they were fined for it by the dukes, as punishment and for reimbursement for the loss.

Imperial Munich

During the 1300s, Munich was the richest of the several cities ruled by the Wittelsbachs. Grains, meats, fish, and wine were traded within specifically designated neighborhoods (a medieval form of zoning thought to lead to greater efficiency). The collection of tolls from the roads leading in and out of the city continued to help make their controllers (in this case, the Wittelsbachs) very rich.

In 1314 a Wittelsbach, Duke Ludwig IV, later to be known as Ludwig the Bavarian, was elected (by a tribunal of secular and ecclesiastical authorities called the Electors) as the German kaiser, thanks to his status as the least threatening choice among a roster of more powerful contenders. The election suddenly threw Munich into the center of German politics. Ludwig traveled to Rome for his coronation and brought back from his visit one of the treasured religious icons of medieval Munich -- the severed arm of St. Anthony, which still can be seen in the church of St. Anna in Lehel.

In 1319, one of the Wittelsbachs' most vindictive enemies, the Habsburg family in the person of Frederick the Handsome, attacked Munich and laid siege to its walls. Against expectations, the Wittelsbachs prevailed, eventually capturing the Habsburg leader and holding him prisoner. However, the pope sided with the Habsburgs and excommunicated Ludwig. Despite this serious handicap, Ludwig retained his throne. Consequences of the excommunication were enormous and were widely viewed as an example of a pope overplaying his cards. (Two hundred years later, when various German princes were forced to choose between allegiance to Rome and allegiance to the new Protestant order, the meddling of the popes in the secular affairs of Germany was widely remembered, often with disdain, a fact that played into the hands of the Protestants.) To reward Munich for its loyalty (and also to line his own pockets), Ludwig created a lucrative monopoly for the city in 1322 by ordering that all the salt mined within Hallein or Reichenhall must pass directly through Munich.

Although Bavaria remained Catholic, and continued to be Catholic even after the Protestant Reformation, Munich had positioned itself as a centerpiece of resistance to papal authority. Along these lines, Ludwig offered shelter to William of Occam, a brilliant scholar trained in the monasteries of both England and France and persecuted as a heretic by the pope. Occam spent his last years in Munich, striving for reform of the Catholic Church. His presence helped to define Munich as a hardheaded Catholic city that catered only reluctantly to the whims of the faraway religious potentate.

While hunting bear in the Bavarian forest in 1346, Ludwig the Bavarian was accidentally killed. His enemies joked that he was killed "just at the right time" to escape trouble from those who wanted to overthrow or assassinate him. His unbridled ambition and his successful defiance of the pope in Rome had earned Ludwig enemies, notably some of the most powerful German princes, who were poised to overthrow him. Although he escaped battle with his powerful enemies, Ludwig's death signaled the end of Munich's role as the headquarters of the German-speaking empire.

During Ludwig's tenure, the city had experienced explosive growth, and a new wall was built in 1327, so spacious that it encompassed the city throughout the next 400 years. Despite a strong temptation to alter Munich's central core, the Marienplatz was never changed from its original form -- which it more or less retains today.

Beer, Pigs & Prosperity

Throughout the 1400s, Munich became a boomtown. More than 28,000 four-wheeled carts bearing marketable goods passed through the city gates every year in addition to the vast number of two-wheeled carts and people on foot. In response to this traffic, some of the town's main avenues, narrow though they were, were paved. Between 1392 and 1492, the city's increasingly prosperous merchant class built or altered into their present form many of the city's centerpieces, including the Ratsturm, the Altes Rathaus (Old City Hall), the Frauenkirche, and St. Peter's Church. Munich had graduated from a dependence on the salt trade, and was now reaping most of its profits from trade with Italy, especially Venice. In the same year Columbus stumbled upon his landfall in the New World, the Münchners opened a mountain pass over Mt. Kesselberg to speed up trade routes to the "Queen of the Adriatic."

By 1500, Munich had a population of almost 14,000 persons, 400 of whom were beggars, and 750 of whom were priests, nuns, or monks. It also included about three dozen brewers whose products were quickly becoming associated with the town. Pigs were engaged to eat the garbage strewn in the streets, and about two dozen innkeepers supplied food, drink, and lodgings to the medieval equivalent of the business traveler. The city's core (but not the surrounding fields that kept it fed) was protected from invasion by an ever-expanding ring of fortifications and towers. The most serious dangers were plagues and fires, both of which devastated the city at periodic intervals.

In 1516, the city adopted legislation that later helped confirm its role as beer capital of the world. Known as the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, it was the first law in Europe to regulate the production of any food or beverage by setting minimum standards for quality and cleanliness in production.

Renaissance Expansion

The showy and sometimes pompous building boom associated with the Counter-Reformation marked the debut of the Renaissance in Munich. The lavish building programs as well as the entertainments of the Wittelsbach rulers became legendary, both for their grandeur and extravagance (some feasts lasted for 3 weeks) and for the burdens they imposed on the citizenry who had to pay for them.

Munich blossomed with the appearance of Michaelskirche (St. Michael's Church), begun in 1583. The largest Renaissance-style church north of the Alps, it was conceived as a German-speaking response to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It took 14 frenetic years to build, and its construction costs almost bankrupted the Bavarian treasury. Despite the grumbling of the taxpayers, other buildings of equivalent splendor soon followed, including the Wittelsbach family stronghold, the Residenz.

Munich was also becoming a cultural center. By the late 16th century, the city was regarded as an artistic beacon. Credit must go to the reigning Wittelsbachs, founders of the art collection that eventually became the Alte Pinakothek, and the book collections that eventually became the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library).

Despite the prestige all these endeavors conveyed, virtually every tradesman and merchant in town complained of the burden such acquisitions and improvements placed upon the treasury, evidence of a fundamental conservatism that has demarcated Munich ever since.

The Thirty Years' War

Beneath the city's newly acquired glitter were other, darker tendencies. In the early years of the 17th century, witches were hunted down and burned, flagellants paraded through the town, and foreboding sermons predicted an apocalypse. At least the spirit of those predictions was fulfilled during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). This struggle, between the Protestant princes and the Catholic League, swept across Europe, bringing devastation in its wake.

Munich wasn't directly affected until 1632. At that time, the Protestant king of Sweden, Karl Gustav Adolf, laid siege to "the German Rome." Munich surrendered almost immediately, since the city's rulers and citizens were worried about being hopelessly outnumbered and having their city destroyed. The terms of surrender included payment of a huge ransom; in exchange, the city was spared being sacked and burned. The war, however, wasn't the only problem faced by the Münchners -- at about this time, the Black Plague killed 7,000 people, more than a third of the population. After the disease had run its course, Maximilian I ordered the construction of the Mariensäule (Virgin's Column -- a statue dedicated to the Virgin) on the Marienplatz as a votive offering to God for having spared the city from total destruction.

In 1643, the authority of the town's merchants was greatly undermined by the removal of their right to elect the mayor of Munich. The Wittelsbachs were now able to place in power anyone who would cater to their interests.

Baroque Castles & Baroque Dreams

The legacy of the Thirty Years' War left Munich demoralized and shattered. Although Bavaria was not to play a vital role in European politics during the next century, this period saw a building boom and the development of baroque architecture.

The flamboyant, richly gilded, free-flowing but symmetrical baroque style was used not only by the city's architects to the glory of God, but also in secular construction. Notable are Nymphenburg Palace, Munich's answer to the palace at Versailles; the Green Gallery within the Residenz; ornate theaters; and countless villas, pavilions, and garden structures. Funds for this construction were derived, as in the past, from sometimes crippling taxes imposed on the citizenry and the forced sale of farming land to wealthy aristocrats who wanted to build ever-larger palaces for their own use.

Deep resentment was felt by the townspeople. In 1674, when the seat of the Wittelsbach family, the Residenz, accidentally caught fire, the town sullenly and deliberately postponed a response to calls for help for at least an hour, a vital delay that contributed to more enormous rebuilding costs and an increased mistrust among the various levels of society.

Part of the public resentment against Munich's leaders lay in the aristocracy's often disastrous meddling in international affairs. Among these were Bavaria's murky role in the War of the Spanish Succession, which resulted in the occupation of Bavaria by Austrian soldiers between 1705 and 1715. The first year of this occupation witnessed one of the cruelest massacres in 18th-century history: Led by a local blacksmith, an army of peasants, craftsmen, and burghers, armed only with farm implements and scythes, marched upon Munich to protest against the Austrian regime. A short march from Munich's city walls, near the hamlet of Sendling, the entire army was betrayed (one of its members sold information to the enemy), then obliterated. The Sendlinger Mordweihnacht ("Sendling's Night of Murder") has ever since been the source for sculptures, plays, and popular legend.

In 1715, Max Emanuel was able -- with the help of the French -- to evict the Austrians. Aftereffects of these fruitless conflicts included countless deaths, a profound national disillusionment, and a national debt that historians assess at around 32 million guilders, a burden imposed upon an already impoverished population.

Reform & Reformers

The tides of liberalization slowly spread to Bavaria. Newspapers were founded in 1702 and 1750, and in 1751, some vaguely liberal reforms (involving issues dealing with land use, penal codes, taxation, indentured labor, military service, and more) were made in the Bavarian legislature. An Academy of Sciences, whose discoveries sometimes opposed traditional Catholic teachings, was established in 1759.

To recover from the disasters initiated prior to his reign, Prince Elector Max III Joseph, one of the most enlightened Bavarian rulers, attempted to introduce economic reforms. He inaugurated new industries, including workshops for tapestry making and cloth making. Few of them worked out; the noteworthy exception was the outfit that manufactured Nymphenburg porcelain, founded in 1758, which consistently made a profit, and still does today.

In 1771, he revised the school system, making some aspects of public education a legal requirement. During his regime, the city opened its doors to playwrights, composers, and conductors from all over Europe. Munich was the site of the inaugural performance of one of Mozart's early operas (Idomeneo) in 1781; it wasn't particularly well received, and Mozart's request for an ongoing creative stipend from the Wittelsbach family was rejected.

The Rebirth of Conservativism

When Max III Joseph died in 1777, his branch of the Wittelsbach dynasty died with him. The new Wittelsbach, from an obscure family branch in the Palatinate, was Karl Theodor, one of the least popular of all the Wittelsbachs. Caring little about Bavarian national destiny, he rather amazingly negotiated to cede Munich and all of Bavaria to Austria in exchange for the Habsburg-dominated Netherlands. Relief from this plan came in the form of the French Revolution.

Ironically, although he was despised as a ruler, Karl Theodor, as a builder, did many things well and skillfully, adding the Karlsplatz and the Englischer Garten to the roster of Munich's attractions. Politically, however, he continued to play his hand badly, outlawing most personal liberties and placing repressive measures on freethinkers. His death in 1799 prompted several days of drunken celebration throughout Munich.

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