Following years of litigation, the Austrian government decided to expropriate Hitler’s birth house from its current owner, opening a can of worms.
The house in Braunau, a small Austrian city close to the German border, where Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 was an object of preservation for Germany’s National Socialist regime, which purchased it in 1938. It was returned to the previous owners, the Pommer family, and until the expropriation takes place is still in the hands of a member of this family.
The house – especially around the time of Hitler’s birthday – has become a shrine for neo-Nazi pilgrimage for Europeans and Russians. Attempts to stem the growing phenomenon have provoked public discussion about what to do with the house – demolish it completely, turn it into a memorial site or even a supermarket – and awakened the sensitive issue of Austria’s Nazi past.
With the elections for federal presidency earlier this month, the topic became especially explosive.
THE SO-CALLED Hitler House was built in the 17th century and over time served a range of purposes. It hosted a financial institute, a restaurant and several tenants – among them Hitler’s parents.
Hitler was born there in 1889 but spent only his early childhood in the house.
In 1972, the Austrian government rented the house and for almost 35 years the building was home to a day-care center and sheltered workshop for disabled people.
Six years ago, the owner of the asset refused to pay for renovations necessary for the safety of the residents and the workshop was shut down. The government still rents and maintains the uninhabited house to prevent it from misuse.
The future of the structure has become a topic for debate because it attracts neo-Nazi pilgrims from all over Europe – not quite the tourists that the quiet city of Braunau wishes to host.
Will neo-Nazis stop visiting the site once the house is gone? “Tearing the house down doesn’t erase the memories,” notes Moshe Zimmermann, a professor of German and German-Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“That means that a Nazi or anyone else wishing to commemorate Hitler could still do that even if the house itself is gone.”
Turning the site into a memorial or educational place might make it unattractive for neo-Nazis, but it is questionable whether it is an appropriate location for commemoration since it is not a place where Nazi victims actually suffered.
GERMAN HISTORIAN Wieland Giebel, founder of the controversial “Führer Bunker” exhibition that opened in Berlin in October, compared Hitler’s birth house to his wartime bunker, which was converted into a parking lot. Giebel argued in an article in the Vienna-based newspaper Kronen that the site of the former bunker does not attract neo-Nazis but rather people who genuinely want to learn more about the history. He recommends that the Austrian government handle the house in a similar manner: scatter the myth by providing information in a documentation center.
An panel of experts that was formed to discuss the future of the Hitler House recommended that all vestiges of the old appearance should be altered to prevent unwanted visits. However, their recommendation has apparently been misinterpreted by Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, who interpreted their statement as a proposal for demolition when in actuality the experts stated that such a demolition would equate to Austrian denial of any responsibility for the past.
The Jewish community of Vienna, on the other hand, supports demolishing the house on the grounds that it is not a suitable place for a memorial. And as general secretary Raimund Fastenbauer stated in an interview with German news outlet Zeit Online, there is another crucial reason for the Jewish community favoring demolition: the future ownership of the house is uncertain and the local political scene might be changing.
If the site is gone, it cannot be misused by anyone.
It seems that this alarming statement illustrates a lack of trust in the capability of the Austrian government and the Austrian people to deal with their past in a responsible way.
“Talking about Austria, the mistrust is actually in order,” claims Zimmermann.
“The Austrians tried and are still trying to exonerate themselves from responsibility. So far the fear of a negative historical outcome is justified.”
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Austria continues to deal with its past by repressing it. Survey findings commissioned and issued by Austrian newspaper Der Standard in 2013 revealed that more than a third of the respondents supported the statement that not everything was bad under Hitler’s rule, and 61% wish for a “strong man” at the top of the Austrian governance.
ACCORDING TO some, the country still has not fully accepted the loss of power and influence that ended with World War I and the cessation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. This precondition was also one of the factors that made Austria susceptible to the imperial mindset of Nazi Germany.
After World War II ended, Austrian courts condemned several war criminals.
However, most of them were accused of membership in the – at that time illegal – German Nazi Party between 1933 and 1938 and not for their actions between 1938 and 1945. In the collective Austrian memory, the trials were quickly forgotten and many convicted criminals were given amnesty in the 1950s.
Until the end of the 1980s, Austria benefited from its position in the geopolitical sphere. Caught up in the Cold War, the Allies were more concerned about Austria staying neutral and not leaning towards Germany or Eastern Europe than about Nazi ideology remnants in the Austrian society.
Abroad, until the end of the 1980s, Austria was associated with the Habsburg family, Gemütlichkeit (“coziness” in German) and the Viennese Waltz. The 1965 movie The Sound of Music provided good publicity for the country and distracted the international public from the fact that many Austrians were enthusiastic members of the NSDAP (the National Socialist German Labor Party). The way Austria was presented in the classic film shaped the country’s international image.
Life went on in the Alpine republic and the walls of silence grew as high as the mountains surrounding the country.
Until 1986, when Kurt Waldheim, a former foreign minister and former UN secretary general, ran for the Austrian federal presidency. Although Waldheim was a popular figure in Austria as an internationally known and respected politician, the inconsistency about his past provoked the biggest crisis of identity that Austria experienced after 1945.
The New York Times and other international media revealed documents submitted by the World Jewish Congress that conflicted with Waldheim’s official biography, concerning his membership in National Socialist organizations and his war actions, especially his participation in war crimes in the Balkans. Confronted with these accusations, Waldheim stated that he had only carried out the duties he had as a soldier and that he did not remember many details. After prolonged investigation, his participation in war crimes could not be entirely proven, but nevertheless it was the start of a rising awareness of Austria’s past within the country and abroad.
Waldheim himself is regarded sometimes as the exemplar of the Austrian who did not see, hear or know anything about the Nazi crimes and was not going to break the silence about the past.
This attitude was shared by many former Wehrmacht soldiers – a big electoral group in favor of Waldheim – who also claimed that they merely followed orders, neglecting their personal responsibility.
DESPITE THE controversies surrounding Waldheim’s past, he was elected president in 1986, but most countries did not want diplomatic ties with a suspected war criminal, so Waldheim was not well received in the international community. The United States even put him on a watch list for suspected war criminals, which resulted in a personal lifelong travel ban. Subsequently, many other countries declared Waldheim an undesirable person. During his presidency he was able to forge relationships only with the Vatican and anti-Israel Middle East dictators.
The international isolation influenced Waldheim not to run for re-election, and brought a change in Austria’s relationship with its past.
“The Waldheim affair showed that the Austrians managed to present themselves as victims and not as the opposite up until 1986, and suddenly it was clear to everyone that Austria had played an entirely different role between 1938 and 1945,” Zimmermann states.
Consequently, in public education, schoolbooks and the media more attention was given to the responsibility of the Austrians and the lessons and dangers of the Nazi past. But this historical revision happened very late and is insufficient; the absence of a proper dialogue is still evident today.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Waldheim affair is not an isolated event. In the latest elections for the federal presidency this month, Austrian citizens chose between a member of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, and Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the Freedom Party, which claims to be “of the people” but has a difficult time dissociating itself from right-wing populist ideals.
Van der Bellen won, but many believed that Hofer had a good chance to become one of the successors to the office Waldheim once held, revealing the extent of the movement’s power in the country.
The victory of Van der Bellen’s Green Party marks the first time that an Austrian government may be in a position to carry out a change in the nation’s commemoration policy and turn away from propagating the victim-myth. We now have the chance to see how his party will attempt implementing this approach, and the Hitler House presents a prime test case.