This old house: Austria torn over what to do with Hitler’s birthplace

Decision to turn the house into a police station rankles locals.

This old house: Austria torn over what to do with Hitler’s birthplace

BRAUNAU AM INN, Austria — For years, Austria has wrestled with an uncomfortable question: What do you do with the house where Adolf Hitler was born?

From the outside, there is nothing that catches your eye about the three-story yellow house on Salzburger Vordstradt, which has stood vacant since 2011. Its pastel-colored paint has seen better days, its windows are empty, and its street number has been taken down.

The house has been many things over the years, including a school, a bank and a center for the disabled. Some suggested turning the building into a museum or an international meeting place dedicated to peace. Others have called for it to be torn down entirely.

Now, after a protracted process to expropriate the house from its owner, Austria’s government recently put an end to the speculation: It will be renovated and turned into a police station, with construction slated to break ground soon and finish by early 2023.

Earlier this summer, the Austrian interior ministry released the winning architectural design for the site; officials also suggested a memorial stone in front of the house, which was installed in 1989 as a warning about the dangers of fascism, should be moved to Vienna or elsewhere in town. The ultimate goal of these changes is to “neutralize” the history and symbolism of the house, officials said, preventing it from serving as a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis in the future.

For decades after World War II, Austria’s official position was that it was the first victim of the Nazi regime.

Rather than bring a long-awaited sense of closure in the town of Braunau, however, these developments —especially the suggested removal of the memorial stone, which the city council has since voted against — have rankled locals, who aren’t thrilled at the prospect of police moving into the house and believe downplaying its history is the wrong choice.

“The birthplace of Hitler is obviously a symbol for everything which is related to Hitler,” said Ruth Wodak, an expert on far-right rhetoric at the University of Vienna. “if you change that, you have to do it in a way that makes people aware of what it is and was, what it symbolizes, why it has become that symbol.”

She warned: “You cannot just make it un-happen, that would be wishful thinking.”

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The Austrian government’s push to “neutralize” the house of Hitler’s birth raises difficult questions about how thoroughly the country has reckoned with its past.

For decades after World War II, Austria’s official position was that it was the first victim of the Nazi regime — a view that ignored the fact that many Austrians welcomed the German Reich and served in its army.

Vienna has since shifted its stance, acknowledging its role in Nazi crimes and working to build a more comprehensive memory culture. But such debates continue to pop up today: From a handful of recent scandals involving neo-Nazi songbooks at far-right fraternities to a scandal in Braunau over a “deeply racist” poem comparing humans to rats, Austria’s relationship to its past and the role of neo-Nazi ideology remains fraught.

That’s in part why a proposal to tear the house down back in 2016 from then Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka was ultimately such a non-starter: Critics said it would send the wrong message about Austria’s willingness to engage with its history.

For Braunau, in particular, the relationship to Hitler is a peculiar one. Although the house is clearly tied to the German Nazi leader, it has no further relationship to his regime or the crimes he planned and carried out: When he was 3, his family moved away from Braunau, and he was never particularly interested in the town as an adult.

While it made sense to turn former concentration camps like Auschwitz or Mauthausen into memorials, the ideal fate for the yellow house in Braunau is less obvious.

The government’s plan for the house is “well-intentioned,” said Florian Kotanko, a former history teacher and principal at the local high school who now serves as the head of the Braunau Historical Association. But he added: “They need to somewhere show what actually happened in the house and what kind of relationship there is between Hitler and Braunau, and between Braunau and Hitler.”

The house will be renovated and turned into a police station | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

These debates have an outsize impact on the town itself, which has long been defined by its connection to the Nazi dictator. Ask anyone in Austria what they know about Braunau and the first (and perhaps only) thing they know is that Hitler was born there.

Add to that the fact that the town’s name contains the word braun, or “brown” — which is typically a reference to Nazis — and it’s a difficult reputation to shake. (Braunau is hardly a bastion of the far right: For most of the post-war period, it was a stronghold for the center-left Social Democrats, only recently changing hands to the center-right People’s Party.)

Stuck with the stigma that comes with the house, and yet not in control of its fate, many locals felt left out of the conversation.

The government’s decision was “truly strange,” said Ingo Engel, head of the city association and Braunau’s former city planner. “People only shook their heads.”

No matter the end result, Braunau will always retain at least some part of its identity as Hitler’s birthplace, locals admitted

Had the decision been up to the people of Braunau, police wouldn’t be moving into the house, said Hubert Esterbauer, the town’s vice mayor from the far-right Freedom Party and a former police officer himself.

“If we had been able to decide, we would have gone more in the direction of a social service organization. That would have been wiser,” said Esterbauer. Those making the decisions are too removed from the situation on the ground, he added: “Vienna is far away, Vienna is big, Vienna is different.”

Others are less concerned about the specific use of the house and more interested in resolving the issue so Braunau can move forward.

The ongoing discussions leave little room for Braunau to show how “open” it really is, said Lizeth Außerhuber-Camposeco, a local politician in charge of the town’s integration efforts.

Vienne has changed its tune, and started acknowledging its role in Nazi crimes | Hitler Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Initiatives like a new rest space for Sinti and Roma passing through town are overshadowed by the controversial yellow house. “People also need to know these things are happening,” said Außerhuber-Camposeco, a member of the Greens.

No matter the end result, Braunau will always retain at least some part of its identity as Hitler’s birthplace, locals admitted. All the renovations and repurposing in the world can’t do away with that aspect of its history.

“People know where it is and will find it, whether it has a blue façade or a yellow one, whether the roof has one gable or two,” said Georg Bachleitner, director of tourism for Braunau. “It will remain the birthplace, and people will still want to see it.”

Source : Politico EU More