On Monday 17 October an expert committee consisting of public officials, historians and Jewish leaders recommended somewhat ambiguously that a “thorough architectural rearrangement” was required of the house, situated in the town of Braunau am Inn, in which the most notorious dictator of the 20th century was born.
The Austrian press seized on the announcement, quickly spreading the rumour that the property was to be demolished – fuelled by an off-the-cuff remark from the interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, stating that “the Hitler house will be torn down.” This misrepresentation of the facts was refuted the next day, with the truth divulged in more detail. What was actually proposed was a repurposing of the building, and not necessarily its destruction.
This was painted as a climb-down from the more sensational act of complete demolition – action likely to give a crude sense of justice to some (after all, what testament stands to the generations erased in genocide?) but leave most feeling uncomfortable and dissatisfied. Demolition was only one possibility of many options explored, which included turning the building into governmental administrative offices, or creating a museum celebrating Austria’s liberation from the Nazi regime.
As a German-speaking nation, Hitler saw Austria as part of his Groβdeutschland; in 1938 troops marched in and declared the Anschluss, unifying the countries. With this in mind Austria can be considered among the first victims of Nazi occupation, or, alternatively, as co-conspirator and ally of fascist Germany.
It is the latter for which the country has come under criticism for inadequately dealing with its past. Negative comparisons have been drawn in favour of Germany’s handling of its history, portrayed as a more rigorous reconciliation.
While destruction could prevent the house from idolisation as a Neo-Nazi “shrine”, the danger remains that any demolition site would simply take its place. When in Berlin at the end of the summer, one of the stops on a walking tour of the city was the place where Hitler’s bunker formerly stood. Had the tour guide not stopped the group, I would easily have walked straight past – the site is now an innocuous carpark. In victory zeal, the Soviet troops made a botch-job of the demolition and partially filled the rest in with concrete (they obviously had no concern for historical preservation). Tantalisingly, much of the structure remains intact beneath the tarmac. Fed up of tourist inquiries, residents of the surrounding flats paid for the erection of a small information board which stands discretely in one corner; the German government, meanwhile, has provided no commemorative funding.
Museums too, one of the “repurposing” options, carry ethical concerns because of their de facto tourist attraction status. On paper they may serve a legitimate role in remembrance, but in practice they attract visitors and in this particular town’s case unwanted yet perhaps not entirely unwarranted attention. A spokesperson for the Austrian Interior said that the building will have “no commemorative value”, ruling out any overt acknowledgement of the property’s past.
But why, one may ask, is this issue so acute in Braunau? The Nazis committed atrocities all over Europe; in every other town in Germany lies the origin of some deplorable crime enacted in the Third Reich period. It is a question of perception.
While Nuremberg was the epicentre of Nazi political rallies, lends its name to the anti-Semitic laws of 1935, and was the site of post-war trials for crimes against humanity, it is more famous nowadays for its castle, culture museum, and wonderful Christmas market. By contrast the third sentence of Braunau am Inn’s Wikipedia page reads “is known for being the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.”
In objecting to both the demolition and the explicit commemoration of Hitler’s birthplace, the committee hope to normalise the building’s place in the street and neutralise the notorious atmosphere surrounding it. Regardless of what they do, however, the foreign press is sure to pay attention.
Image: Jo Oh