By Keith Hager
When Americans think of Germany, chances are many of them picture Bavaria. The Alps and Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, tower over picturesque lakes in rolling foothills. The “Romantic Road” meanders through the Danube and Main River valleys linking picturesque towns with fairy tale castles. Hundreds of breweries produce world-famous Bavarian beer. Locals and tourists alike appreciate—and still wear—traditional dirndl dresses and lederhosen shorts, a common sight in the region’s countless beer gardens—just one facet of a rich cultural heritage as singular as Bavaria’s natural beauty.
Bavaria (officially known as the Free State of Bavaria) is one of Germany’s most prosperous states. Munich, Bavaria’s capital and largest city, consistently ranks among the world’s highest in terms of economic growth, employment, and living standards. A perfect blend of high-tech innovation, time-honored tradition, and a laid-back attitude have garnered Munich the nickname “Millionendorf,” the Village of a Million People.
The Munich consular district is the state of Bavaria, Germany’s largest state by land area and second most populous with more than 13 million inhabitants. Thirty-one U.S. direct-hire employees and 63 locally engaged staff perform the full range of diplomatic activities, including political-economic reporting, consular services, export and trade promotion, public diplomacy, law enforcement, and counterterrorism liaison.
The first U.S. consulate in Munich opened in 1832. It became a consulate general in 1902 and functioned continuously until Feb. 3, 1917, when U.S.-German relations were severed due to World War I. The consulate general reopened on November 15, 1921 and operated until July 15, 1941. Following World War II, the consulate general reopened its doors to the public, March 11, 1946.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 1 million American tourists visited Bavaria each year. Demand for U.S. citizen services is traditionally high, especially during Oktoberfest and the Christmas season. Roughly 80,000 U.S. citizens reside in Bavaria, including 15,000 military service members and their families posted/assigned there. U.S. veterans comprise a large portion of American expatriates. It’s no surprise that thousands of veterans have chosen to retire in the region, as U.S. military bases in Bavaria host the largest concentration of U.S. soldiers in Europe.
The Munich Security Conference (MSC) is an annual high point for multilateral relations. Drawing senior leaders from more than 70 countries and international organizations since 1963, it has grown from a transatlantic dialogue to one of the most important international forums on security policy in the world. Resources from the U.S. Mission in Germany’s five consulates, including a staff team of approximately 150, support the high-level U.S. delegations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the 2020 U.S. delegation, which included three cabinet-level officials, 42 members of Congress (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Lindsey Graham, James Inhofe, Roger Wicker, Mitt Romney, and Ron Johnson; and Representative Seth Moulton each led separate congressional delegations), and 24 senior administration officials. U.S. attendees arrived in 30 separate delegations and conducted more than 175 bilateral meetings on the margins. Vice President Mike Pence led the U.S. delegation in 2019, which included 53 prominent members of Congress. In addition to discussing transatlantic security, these delegations advanced Afghanistan negotiations, Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, and Middle East peace—to name a few of the many foreign policy priorities discussed at the conference. An award honoring Senator John McCain, who led congressional delegations to the MSC for decades, is now conferred on the margins of the conference in the late senator’s honor and in recognition of his commitment to transatlantic security.
While Munich brings the world together to advance global security every February, it hosts a larger and more diverse set of visitors each autumn. Since 1810, the now legendary Oktoberfest celebration unfolds from mid-September to the first Sunday in October. Much more than just the world’s largest beer festival, Oktoberfest holds enormous cultural, networking, and economic significance for Munich and the region. Each year more than 6 million visitors attend Oktoberfest, including 2 million international guests. Oktoberfest’s overall economic impact for Munich is estimated to be approximately €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) annually. Oktoberfest 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the spirit remained as many restaurants adopted the theme.
In contrast to its many inspiring cultural landmarks, Bavaria also contains two reminders of Germany’s darker past: Dachau and Flossenbürg concentration camps. Dachau was the first and Flossenbürg the fourth concentration camp established by Nazi Germany. U.S. armed forces liberated both in April 1945. Today, a Bavarian foundation maintains memorials in both locations which draw locals and visitors worldwide—many from the United States. Each year, liberators and Holocaust survivors from far and wide attend solemn remembrance ceremonies that also honor the anniversary of the liberation. This year’s ceremonies—marking the 75th anniversary—were held virtually and included videotaped remarks from the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Cherrie Daniels.
Bavarian cities were heavily destroyed during WWII, and thousands of people were displaced. Bavaria was part of the American occupation zone, and the United States played a key role in the region’s reconstruction. Bavarians fondly remember American food relief programs, German youth activities (such as soapbox races in Munich, which continue to this day), efforts of the “Monuments Men” to save Bavarian cultural heritage, and American ‘reading rooms.’
One particular reading room opened in Munich in 1945. What started as a critical source of American and German exile literature became known as the “Amerikahaus,” and operated under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service from 1957 to 1997. In early 2016, the Bavarian government invested $32 million to remodel the historic “Amerikahaus” building, transforming the landmark into a multifunctional institution offering four state-of-the-art meeting spaces and a large stage and theater. Minister President of Bavaria Dr. Markus Söder and Chargé d’Affaires Robin Quinville ceremoniously re-opened the freshly-renovated institution in June. The first art exhibit—courtesy of Mission Germany—displays photographs by Christopher Makos, an artist associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory.
The post-WWII history of close U.S.-German ties is particularly evident in Bavaria, which has hosted millions of American service members over the years. U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria spans four locations—Grafenwoehr, Vilseck, Hohenfels, and Garmisch—all within easy driving distance from Munich. Hohenfels and Grafenwoehr are considered two of the most advanced U.S. military training areas outside of the United States. In November 2019, Secretary Pompeo, who had once patrolled West Germany’s eastern border as a young Army officer, visited Grafenwoehr—home to the 7th Army Training Command, the U.S. Army’s largest overseas training command.
Today, Bavaria is an economic and technological powerhouse. The United States is the top destination for Bavarian exports and the region’s largest overall trading partner. With a 2019 gross domestic product of more than €633 billion ($748 billion), Bavaria’s economy alone is larger than most of the 27 European Union member states. Many Bavarian firms have major investments and employ tens of thousands of employees in America. For example, BMW exports more automobiles (in value) from its Spartanburg, S.C.-based production plant than any other manufacturer. American companies are also well-represented in Bavaria. U.S. tech firms, including Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Apple, and Texas Instruments, have a substantial presence in the region. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry is likewise strongly present, with Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck Sharp & Dohme all based near Munich.
Bavaria ranks among Europe’s top regions for research and development, with approximately 100,000 university employees, various scientific enterprises, and research centers like the Max-Planck and Fraunhofer & Helmholtz institutes headquartered in the region. The “German NASA,” the German Aerospace Center, has large parts of its research and development operations near Munich. Separately, the Munich insurance industry (Allianz and Munich Re are global market leaders) is a prime source for long-term social, health, technology, and environmental studies.
Bavaria’s political leadership is now aiming for the stars. In October 2018, Minister-President Söder launched Bavaria’s own space program with the “Bavaria One” initiative to strengthen Bavaria’s already sizable aerospace research. Part of the €700 billion ($827 billion) initiative was the creation of a new aerospace department at the Technical University Munich, one of Europe’s leading universities. With 30 new professorships, a Hyperloop transport system testing track, and digital startup incubators across the state, Bavaria is primed to become a leading research hub for digitalization, robotics, artificial intelligence, Hyperloop, and space travel.
The U.S. Consulate in Munich has been working to build and reinforce linkages between the robust U.S. business community in Bavaria, local technology companies, and innovation leaders based in the United States. Companies like IBM, Google, Texas Instruments, Infineon, and BMW are just a few examples of companies that form the “innovation bridge” between the United States and Bavaria that the consulate is fostering.
A broad and balanced economic and industrial base, a well-educated workforce, and a wide range of cultural and leisure activities are just a few examples of Munich’s allure to businesses ranging from global players to startup companies, U.S. citizens, and tourists from around the world. Most recently, FC Bayern München won the Union of European Football Associations Champions League—just one more feather in the alpine hat of Munich, one of Europe’s most dynamic cities.
Keith Hager is a consular officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Munich.