Wednesday, 26 September 2012

What to do with Hitler's House?

There was a furore in Austria last week, after the mayor of the small Austrian town of Braunau-am-Inn declared that he thought that an 18th century house in the town should be converted into flats.

Hitler's 'House' in Braunau
Small place Austria, but even that story would not make the news were it not for the toxic association with Austria’s most infamous son, Adolf Hitler.  The house in question – formerly the Gasthof zum Pommer – was where Hitler was born in April 1889, and where he spent the first three years of his life. 

Naturally, this connection has loomed large over the years.  In the Third Reich, the house was purchased by the Nazi Party, festooned with swastikas and became a place of pilgrimage for the Nazi faithful.  Hitler himself, visited in 1938 at the time of the Anschluss with Austria, but never returned.

After the war, the connection was largely forgotten, until the process of Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung reached even this pretty corner of Austria in the late 1980s.  Close to the centenary of Hitler’s birth in 1989, the then mayor of the town had a large piece of Mauthausen granite erected on the pavement outside the house, bearing the legend “Nie wieder Faschismus” (Fascism, never again). 

Since that time, the building – now privately owned once again – has served in a number of capacities, not least as a workshop for disabled people.  But now, once again, stands empty – hence the intercession of the town’s mayor last week and the resulting furore.

To my mind, there are a couple of points here.  First of all - to be clear, Hitler lived in Braunau as a baby, moving to Passau when he was 3.  He did not spend his formative years there, did not go to school there, did not become a Nazi there.  He returned to the house only once - for a photo opportunity - in 1938.  It obviously did not mean much to him. 

Bearing this in mind, it strikes me that some of the various suggestions for the building's use – 'inter-cultural understanding workshop', disabled centre, and so on – risk fetishising the poor benighted building (on the flimsiest of evidence) just as much as the Nazis did.  The idea of putting something in that building that Hitler would have despised – a spurious act of posthumous revenge – seems faintly ridiculous and, I think, says much more about us than it does about him.   

Secondly, if something is to be made of the building - let it at least be relevant to that history.  Germany (and Austria) have made great strides in recent years in the thorny process of ‘coming to terms with the past’ – the famed Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung.  The information boards erected in the last decade at places like the Berghof on Obersalzberg and the site of the Chancellery Garden in Berlin are testament to a growing confidence in dealing openly and honestly with this most toxic legacy.  Also, the excellent “Documentation Centres” (museums) at former Nazi sites around Germany are an imaginative and educational way of handling that difficult past.  Perhaps it’s too soon for a “Documentation Centre: Hitler” at Braunau – and as I’ve said, the connection is a rather tenuous one – but, in another decade or so, maybe that idea will not seem quite so outlandish.  Time will tell.

Lastly, one has to remember that this story really is a bit of a storm in a camomile teacup.  For all the discussion, the politically-correct suggestions and the hand-wringing, the house is still in private ownership – back in the hands of the family that it was purchased from by the Nazis in the 1930s – and they are apparently not selling.  So, until something changes there, all of this is merely politically charged hot air…

© Roger Moorhouse 2012

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