View from the Propylea onto Königsplatz adorned with swastikas. A funeral procession led by flag-bearers is making its way down the center of the square flanked on either side by hundreds of people in uniforms.

Nazi Party parade on Königsplatz, November 9, 1936 | © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München

Munich’s Königsplatz

The nineteenth-century neoclassical ensemble on Munich’s Königsplatz was radically reconfigured by the Nazis. From 1933 on it became a central location for the Nazi Party cult and a showcase of power.

“Athens on the Isar”: the 19th-century design of Königsplatz

A black-and-white photo looking across the Maxvorstadt district toward the Old City. Königsplatz, with the Propylea, the Glyptothek, and the Antikensammlungen can be clearly seen.

Aerial photo of Königsplatz, 1925 | © Stadtarchiv München

The design of Königsplatz dates back to the era of the Bavarian Crown Prince and later King Ludwig I who conceived it as a place to celebrate the culture of classical Antiquity and to glorify his own rule with the splendor of that epoch. During his reign as Prince-Regent, Munich became known as “Athens on the Isar.” Between 1816 and 1862, two museums of classical sculpture and art— the Glyptothek and the Antikensammlungen—and a gate styled like an ancient Greek temple (Propylea) were built on the north, south, and west side of the square.

The building housing the collection of classical art (Antikensammlungen) was designed by the architect Georg Friedrich Ziebland to match the style of the Glyptothek built by Leo von Klenze. The Propylea, likewise designed by Leo von Klenze, rounded off the ensemble and was completed in 1862. The rectangular space in front of the buildings was divided into symmetrical grassy areas. Brienner Straße, which runs through the middle of it, was Munich’s first grand boulevard and ran from the royal residence in the center of the city to Nymphenburg Palace.

New architecture and uses in the Nazi era

Königsplatz had always served as a venue for public events and political gatherings. As Munich grew rapidly in the early twentieth century, several proposals were made to redesign the square. But it was the Nazis who radically changed its character and significance.

In 1930 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) purchased Palais Barlow in Brienner Straße with the support of various figures from Munich’s high society. This building, which later became known as the “Brown House,” served as the Party’s headquarters. Its location, directly adjacent to the monumental Königsplatz, visibly highlighted the rise of a party that only a few years previously had been insignificant and even banned for a time.

Shortly after his appointment as Reich Chancellor in 1933, Adolf Hitler commissioned his favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, to redesign the square and to erect new Party buildings on its eastern side. This was Hitler’s first monumental building project and with it he demonstrated the new regime’s power and ambitions from its Munich base. But even before construction had properly begun, Königsplatz became the scene of public burnings of books defamed as “un-German” by Nazi and other right-wing extremist students. This was part of a nationwide book-burning campaign conducted in the German Reich in 1933.

Power symbol and cult site

Gradually, the Nazi Party took possession of other properties along Arcisstraße adjacent to the “Brown House.” Among the previous owners of these properties was the Jewish couple Alfred and Hedwig Pringsheim, Thomas Mann’s parents-in-law. In 1933, the Nazis forced them to sell their house, and their art collection was forcibly auctioned off. Only with great difficulty did the couple manage to emigrate to Switzerland.

In the course of 1933, old buildings were demolished and the trees on the east side of the square felled. By 1935, the “Führerbau” had been erected on the north side of Brienner Straße and the “NSDAP Administration Building” on the south side to form a symmetrical ensemble. The grand, neoclassical Party buildings were flanked by two “Temples of Honor,” where the sarcophagi of the men shot during the Hitler putsch in 1923 were interred.  Uniformed guards and burning bowls of fire underlined the cult staged around these men, who were stylized by the Nazis as “martyrs of the movement.”

Königsplatz itself was turned into a parading ground in 1935. The grassy areas were replaced by granite slabs and the square was closed to traffic. Two 33 m high flagpoles bearing eagles and Party symbols visible from afar marked Königsplatz as the center of the new Party quarter. The location that had originally been dedicated to the arts now served as a backdrop for parades, propaganda rallies, and the pseudo-religious Nazi cult of the dead, celebrated every year on November 9, the anniversary of the Hitler putsch.

The period after 1945

The US Army invaded Munich in May 1945, putting an end to Nazi rule. After the occupation, the US military government used the Party buildings for its own purposes. It had the two “Temples of Honor” blown up and removed the Nazi emblems from the buildings on the square. The former “NSDAP Administrative Building” served as a Central Art Collecting Point for works of art looted by the Nazis. As part of the re-education campaign, America House was established in the former “Führerbau” in 1948. It included a library and offered an educational and cultural program.

The two plinths of the former “Temples of Honor” were later planted. The eastern side of Königsplatz was also replanted. The square itself was reopened to traffic and for years used as a car park, but also for events such as the swearing in of recruits to the West German armed forces. In 1987/88, the city administration had the granite slabs removed and grass sown. Thus, the traces of the Nazi era were eliminated and the square restored almost to its original state. Grass literally grew over the Nazi past.

Königsplatz as a place of remembrance

Only in the 1990s did the square’s troubled past once again become the focus of public attention. In 1995 the Central Institute for Art History put on the exhibition Bürokratie und Kult (Bureacracy and Cult) in the atrium of the former “Administrative Building.” The exhibition was an intensive confrontation with the history of the former Party quarter around Königsplatz. At the time, an initially temporary information board was put up at the intersection of Brienner Straße and Arcisstraße to inform the public about the square’s use during the Nazi era.  

The opening of the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism next to the former “Führerbau” in 2015 provided a permanent location for addressing this period of history. With its program of exhibitions and events as well as art installations and other projects in public space, the Munich Documentation Center has enabled a continuous confrontation with the Nazi past.

In front of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen a memorial has been set in the ground commemorating the book burnings of May 1933. Since 1995, the artist Wolfram Kastner has staged an annual art action every May 10 in memory of the burned books and their authors.  

The book burnings of 1933

The book burnings in Germany and Munich

Between March and October 1933, Nazis all over Germany burned books and writings that they considered “un-German.” Munich’s Königsplatz was just one of the places where such burnings took place.

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The Blacklist / Die Schwarze Liste

The Blacklist / Die Schwarze Liste by the artist Arnold Dreyblatt commemorates the 1933 book burnings on Munich’s Königsplatz.

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