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Where Evil Was Born: Austria Grapples With Hitler's Birthplace

What should be done with the house where Adolf Hitler was born? It's a difficult question facing the Austrian city of Braunau as the 500-year-old building slowly falls apart.

One-year-old Hitler and the house he was born in, in Braunau, Austria
One-year-old Hitler and the house he was born in, in Braunau, Austria
Ulli Kulke

BRAUNAU AM INN The Austrian house is dilapidated, having sat unused for over three years. The ochre-colored paint is dirty and peeling, and a garland of mold drapes itself around the building like a black band of sorrow. The door is barricaded, as are the windows, and the interior is left to the imagination. Probably cold, grim and musty. If the Fuehrer knew.

What to do with the birthplace of Braunau's most notorious son? The house is a burden for the town, infamous around the world as the house where Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889.

Here, at Salzburger Vorstadt No. 15 at the corner of Schmiedegasse, Hitler's architectural shadow looms. The house has been listed historical monument since 1938 and is therefore protected by law. But now debate about the appropriate use of the house is escalating.

In its lifetime, it has been a disabled workshop, a guesthouse, a private residence, a bank, even a local library as the lettering next to the doorway tells us. The decorative monogram "MB" can be seen right above the doorway. These initials stand for Martin Bormann, one of Hitler's confidantes. In 1938, Bormann forced the then-owners, the Pommers, to sell the house to him to develop it into a Nazi cultural center. He bought it at a high price and paid nearly the same sum to renovate it. But in 1954 the house was sold back to the Pommers.

Today it is the property of Gerlinde Pommer, but she proves difficult to reach and is blocking any endeavors by the city council and the federal government in Vienna, which rents the house, to turn it into a place of commemoration: "The House of Responsibility," it may be called but no concrete plans yet exist. "We were turned down by her once again," says Mayor Johannes Waidbacher.

No one-night stands with evil

In a 1972 tenancy agreement, the Pommers barred use of the building as a museum or place of admonishment, stating that "no utilization of the building in a contemporary historical frame" was allowed. But why? Did they fear it may become a Hitler Museum, a place of pilgrimage for Neo-Nazis? No one knows, and Mrs. Pommer remains silent.

She forbade installation of a commemorative plaque on the house itself. But although she was against it, she couldn't stop the erection of the Admonition Stone of Peace on the footpath outside the house. The subtenant, a disabled workshop, was forced to move out because Mrs. Pommer refused to have alterations done to the house to make it suitable for the disabled. But she doesn't have to fear the loss of the main tenant.

The Admonition Stone of Peace: "For peace, freedom and democracy/Fascism, never again/Millions of dead are reminding us" — Photo: Anton-kurt

The federal government in Vienna pays 4,880 euros a month, although the house is empty, because it wants to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Who knows how much some people would be willing to pay to spend a night in the room where Hitler was born — a one-night stand with evil. Substantial bars in front of the second story windows are there to prevent just that. But is it only such pilgrims who have been drawn to Braunau?

Locals say that they are routinely approached by tourists, usually ordinary citizens chilled to the bone by the nearby horror. But who wants to admit wanting to see Hitler's birthplace, possibly having come just because of that?

"It is conspicuous, that the first question is never about the birthplace," says an employee of the tourist office, "but the second one usually is." Many justify their visit. "All of a sudden, everyone is a history teacher and just so happens to be discussing National Socialism with their students at the moment."

A Bratwurst stand out front

Dropping your guard in front of the house, staring at it, trying to figure out which of the windows is the right one — it's embarrassing. "Many pass by a few times rather than lingering in front of it," an employee of a shop across the road says, "pacing up and down." Some assume that the owner of the Bratwurst stand that was located in front of the house until recently saw a business opportunity in this. He did ease many a tourist's feeling of embarrassment when he sold them the "camouflage" Bratwurst, an effective way to hide the Hitler house-snooping. The Bratwurst stand is now gone, but the house remains.

"The past is not to be appropriated for touristic usage," the mayor says. "This has to be condemned." But the question is, can it be prevented? Is there no room for birthplace pilgrims?

"It's a tightrope walk," Mayor Waidbacher admits.

It always has been for Braunau where Hitler is concerned. Hitler helped Braunau in the end by committing suicide. It actually prevented the remains of the Nazi rabble-rousers defending the city to the last degree, and it would have been, as his birthplace, raised to the ground to prevent the Allies from getting their hands on it. In the end, some might have wanted the Nazis to be a bit more successful in their last attempts to blow up the house in April 1945 — they were restrained. Braunau would not have had to shoulder that burden if they had.

Photo: Janos Korom Dr.

Hitler might not have been opposed to its razing. To him, it wasn't worth much. Shortly after his coup in 1933, he forbade any investigation into his past. In 1938, when Austria became part of greater Germany, he had all documents relating to his existence destroyed: Improper relationships between his forebears and his dreadful school performance became official state secrets.

When Germany's armed forces moved into Austria on March 12 that year, Hitler crossed the border in an open top car, driving through Braunau, but he didn't even glance at his birthplace. His visit to Braunau was more of a coincidence really, as the city is on the way to Linz — Hitler's favorite city, where he supposedly spent some of the happiest days of his life. He didn't even remember Braunau all that well because his family only lived there for three years. And, known only to a few, he lived in that particular house for only a few months. Only a few weeks for a crying child, but an eternity for Braunau.

Braunau's city center — Photo: Stadtamt Braunau am Inn

In a short history of the town, Hitler's date of birth isn't even mentioned. But there is, instead, the Admonition Stone in front of Hitler's birthplace. It was erected in 1989 shortly before what would have been Hitler's 100th birthday to keep unwanted guests at bay. It appears that the stone is doing its duty. Before its arrival, some conspicuous gatherings, and even the beginnings of demonstrations, could be observed. Not anymore.

The late 1980s, a turning point for European history in general, was also was a turning point for Austria and Braunau. The collective self-image of victimhood was turned into one of sympathizers and perpetrators in an attempt to deal with history.

The possibility of dispossession

After the Admonition Stone, the local Society for Contemporary History was founded. Its chairman, Florian Kotanko, organizes noteworthy conferences. According to interesting and in-depth surveys conducted for a PhD thesis, Braunau's residents demonstrate an above-average awareness and knowledge of historical events.

Braunau wants to acknowledge its history and its legacy as Hitler"s birthplace. But how can this be done if there is no access to the house?

The Austrian Home Office had hoped to hear from Gerlinde Pommer by the end of January in response to an offer of purchase for the house, but to no avail. As a precautionary measure, a Home Office spokesperson says, the constitutional committee is determining whether there's a way to dispossess Gerlinde Pommer of the house. But experts doubt that public interest in the house and the need for a place of commemoration will provide enough grounds to do so.

It would be piquant in any way. When the Pommers were forced to sell to Martin Bormann in 1938, he threatened them with dispossession to force their hand. Is this to be repeated? Even if the Pommers are only holding out to drive the price up, the parallels between past and present are striking.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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