Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
This week brought mixed messages on plans for the site from the Austrian government.
What exactly is going to happen to Adolf Hitler’s Austrian birthplace? This week, there’s been some confusion as to the future fate of the house in Braunau Am Inn where Hitler was born in 1889. On Monday, Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka announced in the press that the house would be razed so that nothing but the cellar remained. The house would go, a committee of enquiry had decided, because it had become a site of pro-Nazi pilgrimage. Tuesday, however, Sobotka contradicted this report. Instead, the building would not be demolished but undergo a “profound architectural transformation” so that its “recognition value” was zero.
An abrupt media backlash may have caused this about-turn. Many commentators saw the demolition plan as a capitulation to the power of Neo-Nazi pilgrims. As Mely Kiyak writes in Germany’s Die Zeit:
“To destroy a house because one does not become a master of its neo-Nazi [visitors] is a political declaration of surrender[...]The best way to prevent neo-Nazi tourism is not to destroy their pilgrimage sites, but rather their ideology. How to do this? By arguing against xenophobia, racism, prejudice and misanthropy.”
She has a point. Past experience with other Hitler residences shows that simply knocking down a building isn’t enough to clear the air of all history. In her book Hitler at Home, Despina Stratigakos, professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, notes that managing the legacy of places where Hitler lived has not always proved easy. Indeed, the issues over Hitler’s birthplace are ones that the surrounding regions have had to deal with before.
While his Berlin home was totally destroyed by bombardment and immediate post-war demolition, Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berghof, on the German-Austrian border, was left standing (albeit in ruins), while his apartment in nearby Munich survived intact. As Stratigakos tells Citylab, deciding what to do with these sites has been a thorny issue for decades.
“By the early 1950s, Neo-Nazism was starting to reappear in Germany, and stories began to emerge of guides giving pro-Hitler tours on the Obersalzberg [the mountain massif where Berghof’s ruins were located],” says Stratigakos. “A huge debate broke out over what to do with the site, and the Bavarian government, which included many social democrats who had spent time in concentration camps during the Third Reich, decided to demolish the house.”
But if the demolition intended to destroy the area’s role as a site of cultic pilgrimage, it failed. Visitor numbers may even have grown, and the area’s Nazi aura did not fade, it just got a little mistier—almost dangerously so.
“Amazingly, the tourists kept coming, and in the 1960s the (now forested) area where Hitler's house stood was the largest undocumented tourist site in Germany,” says Stratigakos. “The problem was that there was no historical information there. It was a romantic wooded site over which people could layer whatever meaning they wanted. In trying to erase the traces of Hitler like this, it created a vacuum which people could fill however they wanted. There was no critical context, and up until the 1990s you could buy tourist souvenirs there that were essentially re-purposed Nazi propaganda.”
Munich’s authorities took a different tack altogether. Instead of demolishing Hitler’s apartment, they turned it into a police station. Nowadays, high security, buzzer entry and an extremely frosty reception for tourists at the station’s reception discourage people from visiting. But as other Hitler-associated sites are demolished, the number of curious visitors seems to be growing. Knocking down Hitler’s birthplace could serve not to eradicate interest, but to draw further attention.
So what is the solution? The best answer seems to be a memorial or museum. This wouldn’t erase its history (what would?), but it would at least take control of the narrative surrounding it. This approach ultimately worked at Hitler’s destroyed mountain retreat at Berghof. In 1999, the area was redeveloped in a way that specifically addressed its Nazi past and also provided some hope for the future. A documentation center on the region’s Nazi links was opened barely 100 yards from Hitler’s old home. The site of Hermann Goering’s former house, meanwhile, was built over with a large hotel. The visitors center, which one million people now visit annually, channels curiosity about Nazi history towards a highly critical display, while the hotel has repaired broken links with the area’s pre-Nazi past as a popular tourist area.
A similar approach could work in Braunau. The existing building in itself is unremarkable—a standard small-town Austrian tenement where Hitler only spent his first 15 weeks—so its departure would be no great tragedy to architecture. Hitler’s toxic legacy will nonetheless always linger over the site, and it needs to confronted, not effaced. You can’t exorcise ghosts with a wrecking ball.