What Will Happen to the Hitler-Haus?

The Austrian government and the small town of Braunau am Inn grapple with the future of the house where Hitler was born.
By | Sep 22, 2020
2020 September/October, World

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By the curb in front of the three-story yellow house at Salzburger Vorstadt 15, in the picturesque town of Braunau am Inn in northern Austria, stands a memorial stone taken from the quarries of the Mauthausen concentration camp. The German inscription on the stone reads: For Peace, Freedom, and Democracy. Never Again Fascism. Millions of Dead Warn Us. As I pause to read these words on a clear July morning, a man approaches and asks if I can take a photograph of him in front of the house. Later that day, I see another man, this one in cycling attire, standing with his thumbs up against the background of the house, his wife capturing the moment from the other side of the street.

This unprepossessing building was the birthplace in 1889 of Adolf Hitler. And scenes like this are exactly what the Austrian government wants to put an end to with their new plan to convert Salzburger Vorstadt 15 into a local police station and headquarters for the force’s regional bureaucracy. The building, known locally as Hitler-Haus, will be transformed—“neutralized,” Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer says—to the tune of $5.7 million, with work to be completed by 2023. “Today, in our approach to our historical responsibility, we turn over a new leaf,” Nehammer proudly told the press at the beginning of June.

Nehammer’s announcement has been met with mixed reactions, both nationally and locally, highlighting the perplexing and complicated question—brought to the fore in the United States by the debate over the fate of Confederate monuments—of what should be done with physical spaces and other reminders of difficult or embarrassing history.

Oliver Rathkolb, chair of the University of Vienna’s Institute for Contemporary History, says the house requires a different approach. In Vienna, the government has recently broken ground for a new Holocaust memorial (a “Wall of Names”) and moved to requisition land around the former Gusen concentration camp for future memorialization. Meanwhile, Star of David-shaped light installations have been erected at the sites of Vienna synagogues destroyed in November 1938 during Kristallnacht. In June 2018, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, “I have to admit that there were many people in Austria who did nothing to fight the Nazi regime. Far too many actively supported these horrors and even were perpetrators.” His comments capped a lengthy process, begun in the late 1980s, of Austria’s coming to terms with its Nazi past after a long period during which it clung to the myth that it was the first victim of National Socialism and denied its role in the Holocaust.

But Rathkolb maintains that the Hitler-Haus “is not the place to remember the Shoah.” He believes that the conversion to a police station will finally break the house’s association with Hitler, preventing it from being a selfie stop or “dark tourism” site for Hitler fanatics and neo-Nazis. In Munich, for instance, Hitler’s former apartment at Prinzregentenplatz 16 has housed the regional police department since 2011, and a spokesperson for the city’s police says they have had no known incidents involving neo-Nazis for more than a decade.

A police station—or something like it—could also help the house avoid the fate of Hitler’s former mountaintop retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, which today boasts a restaurant with panoramic views and is a tourist attraction precisely because of its association with Hitler. Other Hitler-related sites have been successfully repurposed. Michaelsbergstrasse 16 in Leonding (near Linz), where the young Hitler and his parents lived between 1899 and 1905, for instance, became a funeral home in 2002, and the homeless shelter at Meldemannstrasse 27 in Vienna, where Hitler bunked between 1910 and 1913, has been an assisted living facility since 2008.

“Not everyone who comes here to photograph the house is a neo-Nazi. Not everyone who photographs a Catholic church is a Catholic,” reflects Florian Kotanko, head of Braunau’s Association for Contemporary History, sitting outdoors at a café-cum-ice-cream-parlor next door to Hitler-Haus. Today the building’s yellow façade is scarred with black mold from years of untended water damage. Above the first-floor windows, faded letters point to its use as a library during the Nazi period. As he shows me around, Kotanko notes detailing left over from that time, including flagpole holders that would have once kept the Nazi flag aloft.

The Hitler-Haus remains an oddity, a curiosity, a relic of history in this engaging medieval town of some 17,500 on the Inn River, which marks the border with Germany. But for critics of the current plan, including those who live in Braunau, questions about the government’s strategy remain: Is the plan appropriate? Will it work? Is it even necessary? “Neutralization is a nonsense,” Kotanko tells me, borrowing the interior minister’s word.

The saga of salzburger vorstadt 15 begins on April 20, 1889, when Adolf Hitler was born in a small rented apartment there. His father, Alois, had moved to Braunau for his work as a customs official in 1871. The month following their son’s birth, the Hitlers moved into another building, staying only a few months before moving again in September. When Adolf was three years old, his father’s work took the family across the border to Passau, Germany.

Although the Nazi Party would buy the house from the owners, the Pommer family, after the Anschluss in March 1938, Hitler did not want it turned into a museum. Instead, what had been a brewery and inn was renovated, and reopened in 1943 as a cultural center, library and art gallery. In 1945, the building was taken over by American troops in Austria, who staged an exhibition there on the horrors of the Nazi regime.

The house was restituted to the Pommers in 1954, and from then until the late 1960s, the town of Braunau leased the building from the family, using it as a school and, until 1965, a library. After 1972, the federal and local governments leased the building together, paying between $5,150 and $5,700 a month to keep the Pommers from selling and ensure that the house stayed out of extremist hands. In the 1970s, the building was a bank and then a school until 1977, when the NGO Lebenshilfe, which works with people with disabilities, moved in. This arrangement worked well until Lebenshilfe wanted to modernize the building and make it more accessible by installing an elevator. The then-owner, Gerlinde Pommer, rejected their request, and the organization moved out in October 2011. Thereafter, the state continued to pay rent on an empty building.

Members of the Social Democratic Party of Braunau at a July 2020 rally to save the memorial stone. (Photo credit: SPÖ Braunau)

Meanwhile, various proposals for the house went nowhere. In February 2000, Andreas Maislinger, founder and chair of the Austrian Service Abroad, unveiled his vision for a House of Responsibility—a gathering place for young people from around the world to attend workshops on freedom and human rights. More vaguely, the project’s outline indicated that one floor of the building would be dedicated to “the past, which we commemorate and want to learn from.”

The Association for Contemporary History’s Kotanko explains that the proposal was a reaction to the far-right Freedom Party’s entry into a national coalition government in February 2000, which resulted in European Union sanctions and mass protests. The proposal never had a concrete concept, he says: “There were many promises, but nothing was ever fixed.” The House of Responsibility idea still has around 1,000 advocates in politics, journalism and academia, “but very few of them live in Braunau,” he emphasizes. “The further one is from Braunau, the more supporters you will find.” Rathkolb, meanwhile, calls it an “extremely bad idea,” one which, in attempting to subvert the building’s past, only serves to reinforce its association with Hitler.

Hanno Loewy, director of the Jewish museum in Hohenems—located near the Swiss border in western Austria—is also opposed to creating a House of Responsibility or museum at the site. A concentration camp, Gestapo prison or administrative building, he tells me, presents us with questions best addressed through memorialization and museumification: How does the entire apparatus of a state enable a genocide? How do millions of ordinary citizens become complicit in the destruction of other human beings? However, if one were to visit Hitler-Haus, he says, “I don’t know what interesting questions would be provoked. I can’t envisage anything positive to do with that building. Concentrating the memory of the Third Reich on one person is misleading. It was a project of many Germans and Austrians, and very often Hitler is a kind of excuse, talking about the ‘Hitler dictatorship’ or the ‘Hitler system.’” Loewy’s first preference would be to have the house torn down and left as a void, but he realizes that would be impractical for the town’s planners and instead supports some kind of educational use.

When the disability group moved out in October 2011, the Austrian government was faced with a conundrum. After much debate, it decided that the best way to exercise total control over the house’s future use and prevent it from becoming a site of pilgrimage for Hitler fanatics was to requisition it. A lengthy legal process, which began in 2016, ended in August 2019, with Pommer awarded $927,800 for the property and her troubles. Simultaneously, the government had established a commission of experts—Rathkolb was among the members—that, in October 2016, recommended either a social, charitable, official or administrative use for the house, along with a total architectural redesign. The building was to have nothing to do with Hitler or National Socialism.

In November 2019, three months after the requisition proceedings were complete, the Austrian interior ministry settled on the idea of the police moving into the house, and in June, their plans for the building’s redesign were unveiled. As far as the federal government is concerned, its plans for who will use the house, how it will be used and what it will look like are fixed. But the debate in Braunau continues.

Wearing a Panama hat and linen shirt and carrying a wicker basket filled with papers and brochures about Braunau, Florian Kotanko walks me around the Hitler-Haus, outlining the changes the government plans to make. The façade, he explains, will be restored to its original townhouse-like character. Garages, located at the rear of the building, will be demolished to make way for two new adjoining structures to house the police headquarters offices. A nearby parking lot, currently used by local supermarket patrons, will be greened over. Computer renderings show a child playing with a kite there, in the shadow of Hitler’s birthplace.

Kotanko is content to have the police move into the house—but only in an administrative capacity. “I don’t think it is a good idea that someone could be arrested [and] have it written up that they were detained in the Hitler-Haus,” he says. Current plans, however, show that the original house will contain the actual police station, including rooms designated for the identification and interrogation of suspects. Austria’s interior minister Nehammer contends that the police will be a guarantor of democracy and that a police station will be “the antithesis of everything for which [Hitler] stood.” But as journalist Gerhard Matzig wrote in the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, while “the police can uphold and defend democracy,” they can also “operate within a police state.”

In Braunau, the debate about the house has a partisan dimension, with the Green Party and Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) standing in opposition to the proposal coming out of the center-right People’s Party-controlled interior ministry in Vienna. Lizeth Außerhuber-Camposeco of Braunau’s Green Party meets me outside her offices on a quiet, cobbled side street before walking me to the main square and thoroughfare, at the center of which stands a fountain named for a weekly market where local fishermen once sold their wares. Sitting outside, drinking a cappuccino, Außerhuber tells me of her and her party’s qualms about the government’s plans. “I can live with the decision,” she says, “but we’re not happy about it.” Born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and a resident of Braunau for 40 years, Außerhuber knows what it’s like to “come from a country that was controlled by a military dictatorship for many years” and “lacked a well-trained police force” to which people could turn for their security.

Außerhuber would prefer that the house become a home for a charitable organization, but also likes the counterproposal made by Kotanko that the police station option should include an educational component, a program in which police can receive anti-racism training and instruction in democracy and human rights. Hohenems Jewish Museum director Loewy, too, supports this idea and takes as his model the Wannsee Villa, outside Berlin, where the Final Solution was coordinated in January 1942. The Villa is now a museum whose work, in part, involves educating civil servants and the police about the role their professions and organizations played in enabling National Socialism and state-backed persecution of minorities in Germany, and what that means today. “It’s a bit ghastly to say that the police are the guarantor of liberty, personal freedom, democracy and human rights,” he says. “The government should do something to better educate police officers to be servants” of those values.

Like the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party in Braunau would rather the building be put to a social or charitable use. “We’re not content with the house being used as a new police headquarters,” the SPÖ’s Wolfgang Grabner-Sittenthaler tells me in a meeting at local Party headquarters. “The police have many problems: with right-wing excesses, violence and so on. We don’t want the police there.” Lebenshilfe’s presence, running workshops and activities for people with disabilities, he says, was an “acceptable solution and a statement against National Socialism. The situation functioned very well. Nobody talked about the house.”

Christoph Zelenka, who runs the Braunau branch of Lebenshilfe, says that after the government requisitioned the house, talks were held and Lebenshilfe drew up plans to relocate part of their operations there. The central location of the building in Braunau remained a selling point. “Then the interior ministry decided to house the police [there],” he says. “In spite of our preliminary conversations, it was not worth it for them to inform us. We found out about their plans through the media.” For Grabner-Sittenthaler, “the problem is that the interior ministry did not communicate with the town regarding how the building would be used following its requisition.”

“Concentrating the memory of the Third Reich on one person is misleading.”

Another point of contention between the state and the town concerns the memorial stone in front of the building. Installed by the local government in April 1989, two weeks before Hitler’s 100th birthday, the memorial, which sits on land that belongs to the town, not the state, has become symbolic of a certain disunity between Vienna and Braunau. The only indicator of the building’s history, the memorial has not been included in the initial mock-ups for the police station. The Austrian interior ministry suggested it could be dug up and rehoused in the House of Austrian History in Vienna, a move Braunau opposes, the stone being a symbol of the city’s own reckoning with its past. The University of Vienna’s Rathkolb has his own problems with the stone, namely that its text, he says, “does not focus on the co-responsibility of Austrians for the Shoah. It is a broad, general statement [that] repeats the doctrine that in the end we are all victims, which is not true.”

The SPÖ organized a rally to save the memorial, and now the local government has made it clear the stone will stay. In a sign of cross-party unity, the Green Party’s Außerhuber also supports keeping the stone in place. She considers it an important marker in the town and a sign of Braunau taking historical responsibility. “I read the text again [recently], and I don’t understand what else one could write there,” she says in response to Rathkolb’s objections. A majority of Braunauers, Kotanko believes, also support keeping the stone in place.

In 2012, while researching her master’s thesis at the University of Vienna, Judith Forster, then a sociology student, became interested in the relationship between the house and ideas about social identity, collective memory and stigma, and set out to discover what the people of Braunau thought about their town’s inseverable connection to Hitler. Although she found that the topic was far from a day-to-day concern, it turned out that the majority of Braunauers felt that the house brought with it both positive and negative consequences. Yes, it attracts visitors to the town and demands an ongoing confrontation with the Nazi past—a positive. But at the same time, it can attract the wrong sort of visitors and connects the town of Braunau with Hitler in the popular imagination.

That “dark tourism” is one of the reasons the Austrian government is so keen to turn the house into a police station. In 2015, Braunau was one of the stops on a European tour planned by the Hungarian section of the international far-right network “Blood and Honor.” Other visitors have left flowers and candles by the house, and local media have in the past reported people scraping stucco off the building as souvenirs. But the SPÖ’s Grabner-Sittenthaler rejects the characterization of his town as one bedeviled by neo-Nazi sightseers. “This idea that Braunau is a center for Hitler tourism is not one I can comprehend,” he says.

And local anti-fascist activist Elisabeth Wimmer was definitive in telling the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, “Braunau is not a Nazi attraction.”

When I ask Kotanko if Braunau has a problem with “dark tourism,” he acknowledges that it once did. The last major wave of visitors, he recalls, occurred in 1991, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, when interested East Germans, holidaying in Bavaria, came over the border to see the house. But he, too, doesn’t see Braunau as plagued by “dark tourism” today and trusts the local police, who reported that in 2019 there were only ten incidents of “reactivation”—breaking the 1947 law which bans Nazi activity and Holocaust denial—in Braunau.

The majority of people in Braunau, he concludes, would prefer to bring the saga surrounding the house to an end and come to a decision about its future, be it as a police station or otherwise. At the same time, he recognizes that whatever becomes of the house, one thing will remain true: that Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn. “Okay, he was born here,” Kotanko says. “And? It’s an accident. It’s not something to be proud of or joyful about, but neither is it something to cry about or feel guilt or blame for.”

Opening picture: Adolf Hitler’s place of birth in Braunau am Inn, Austria in 1934 in juxtaposition with the building today. (Photo credit: Wikimedia & Liam Hoare)

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