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When You Share A Hometown With Adolf Hitler

Author Tanja Hofbauer (right) visiting Hitler's birth house with her classmates in 1995
Author Tanja Hofbauer (right) visiting Hitler's birth house with her classmates in 1995
Tanja Hofbauer*

BRAUNAU AM INN — With its church spires and colorful facades, my hometown has a certain postcard charm. But growing up in this corner of northern Austria, near the German border, I learned early that my town was well-known for a very different reason: Adolf Hitler was born here.

In school in the 1990s, thanks to visits each year by Holocaust survivors and a school trip to a former concentration camp, we were installed with one phrase like it was a national hymn — "Never Forget." Later, as I traveled well beyond Braunau am Inn, I could see people raise their eyebrows or cough out an awkward "ah" when I told them were I was from.

Yes, I share a hometown with Hitler — and his childhood house is still here. But in case you're wondering: No, my grandparents and great-grandparents never knew him personally.

It does get ugly here once each year, on April 20, when my little town becomes a mecca for all kinds of fascists and neo-Nazis wishing to celebrate Hitler's birthday. We all stay at home, hope there is no real news to report, and wait for the day to pass as quickly as possible.

But over the past few weeks, we've been in the headlines on a regular basis, ever since the Austrian interior ministry announced plans to demolish Hitler's house. Perhaps you'd think I welcome the idea, but I do not.

By tearing down the house, we're trying to get rid of a history that has weighed on our town, our country, our world. History, by definition, can't be changed. We Austrians know something about that. For the longest time, people around the world only associated us with our role in World War II — the way we followed Nazi Germany, flags and hands raised high, into their fatal ideology. We've heard the hushed speculation traced back to Hitler's origins. Was Austria just mimicking Germany or was it even the true source of the evil itself?

When will this collective and omnipresent guilt that Germans and Austrians suffer come to an end? Should I, a 30-year-old, born in the third generation after World War II, feel guilty because I come from Braunau am Inn, the town where one of the world's worst criminals was born 127 years ago? We didn't ask to be tainted with Hitler's legacy, but we've had to face it from an early age.

Concentration camp survivors speaking to us, beginning at the age of 10, were not ordinary school guests. Many of us were left deeply disturbed; some were in tears. Inevitably, we came to this conclusion: that our families, however long back, had been there, and that all of us were responsible.

History is never over

I remember wandering through the dark and cold corridors of Mauthausen, a former concentration camp just 80 miles away, and reading the words Arbeit macht frei ("Work sets you free") above the entrance to what was actually a one-way gate to hell. I remember standing in the gas chambers, wondering how horrible human beings could be. I was 12.

When I was 14, my class readThe Wave, a 1981 novel by Todd Strasser. The story was about a high school teacher whose students don't believe that a dictatorship couldn't be established in modern-day Germany. So the teacher holds an experiment to demonstrate how the public can easily be manipulated, even today. It was a lesson to remind us that it can always happen again.

I never knew my great-grandparents. And my grandparents were too young to understand that the "summer camp" they went to was organized by the student wing of the Nazi Party — "Hitler Youth". My grandparents never seemed to be struck with guilt, nor did my parents, who were born well after the War. My generation is different. We feel responsible for these past crimes as if each one of us had personally pulled the trigger.

There's a memorial stone placed in front of Hitler's birth house. I walk by it every week. It's part of my town, it's part of us. It reads "For Peace, Freedom and Democracy. Never Again Fascism. Millions Of Dead Remind Us." We will never forget. My childhood ensured that. But wouldn't tearing down Hitler's house help people to eventually forget? Instead, shouldn't we try to make peace with our past? Respect and honor the victims of crimes that are part of our history, and, yet, move forward?

The Austria I grew up in was lucky not to have had the kind of problems that other, less fortunate, parts of the planet have faced — whether it's unemployment, illiteracy or poverty. But we're now at a unique moment in history when we're up against an unprecedented migrant crisis as tens of thousands of desperate people make their way toward Europe. That, sadly, has been followed by a disturbing rise in racist and xenophobic language in my country. Again, we must remind ourselves of our past. With almost 90,000 asylum seekers coming to Austria last year alone, our country has an opportunity right now to use some of that compassion history has taught us.

As Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward."

Tanja Hofbauer lived in Paris for seven years before moving back to her native Austria, where she now works as a marketing specialist for an architectural firm, and as a freelance writer and translator.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at info@worldcrunch.com.

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