Hitler’s birthplace is planned to be converted into a police station. But the debate about the fate of the building continues to divide Austrians.
It is located at 15 Salzburger Vorstadt. It is an unobtrusive Biedermeier-style house made of stone and painted in a pleasant cream color. The windows on the first floor have iron bars. Next to it, a bus stop catches the eye and, in front of it, a waist-high granite memorial stone. “For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism, warn millions of dead,” reads the chiseled inscription. It is the house where Adolf Hitler was born.
For that reason alone, it is a special house, and so is the town in which it stands, Braunau am Inn. Even 78 years after Hitler’s suicide in the Reich Chancellery bunker in Berlin, there are still discussions about the fate of the dictator’s birthplace.
The Austrian state, which owns the eerie building, is debating what to do with it. Since they want to get rid of the place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, they are thinking of converting it into a police station. But the idea meets with some resistance.
“A completely wrong signal”
“Turning it into a police station is completely the wrong signal,” says filmmaker Günter Schwaiger, “a slap in the face for the victims.” The 58-year-old filmmaker has made an acclaimed documentary about Hitler’s birthplace entitled “Who’s Afraid of Braunau?”.
“Braunau is not a brown town,” Schwaiger tells DW, alluding to the color by which the Nazis are known. “Quite the opposite!” he continues. The fact that Hitler was born here forces people to confront the past more than anywhere else. “You don’t have to be afraid of Braunau, let alone the people,” says the filmmaker.
For its part, the “Citizens’ Initiative Speech Hitler House” is up in arms against the Austrian Interior Ministry’s plans. “The symbolic effect would be catastrophic,” its spokesperson, Eveline Doll, tells DW, since “the Police played a questionable role in the Nazi era.” “In addition, there are many good ideas and suggestions on how to use this house intelligently and responsibly in terms of contemporary history.”
In search of a “historically correct solution.”
The search for an “appropriate” use goes back a long way. After the annexation of Austria to the German Reich in 1938, the Nazi party NSDAP acquired the birthplace of its “Führer” and set up a cultural center. After the war, it reverted to its former owners. The state became the tenant, and since then it has served as a library, a school and finally as a workshop for the disabled. Since 2022, Hitler’s birthplace has been empty. In 2016, Austria expropriated it to prevent neo-Nazis from taking it over.
But what to do with the building? The state has appointed a “Commission on the Historically Correct Treatment of Adolf Hitler’s Birthplace.” In its final report, the Commission, which included historians and politicians, stated, “The Führer myth and the Führer cult were and are part of the central narrative about Hitler.”
Thus, it is important to “break the symbolism of the site” either through a “social-charitable or official-administrative use.” The Commission advised against “educational projects and contemporary history exhibitions.”
The debate continues
“It has always been a matter of ensuring that this house does not become a place of pilgrimage for Nazis,” explains Oskar Deutsch, chairman of the Jewish Community of Vienna and also a member of the Commission. Deutsch emphasizes in a conversation with DW that “a police station of a democratic state under the rule of law is planned here, whose task is, among other things, to act against National Socialist reenactment.”
In March 2023, the “Bürgerinitiative Diskurs Hitlerhaus” surveyed 1,000 Austrians at the Linz Market Institute. More than half (52 percent) were in favor of creating an “institution dealing thematically with National Socialism, remembrance, anti-fascism, tolerance and peace,” 23 percent were in favor of demolition, while only 6 percent were in favor of the Police moving in.
Eveline Doll, spokesperson for the citizens’ initiative, has an ace up her sleeve. Her idea is for the Viennese association “Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem” to put the exhibition “The Righteous. Courage is a matter of choice”.
The 400-square-meter exhibit commemorates courageous non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. “This idea is a basis for discussion,” says association spokesman Georg Schuster somewhat cautiously. “If it doesn’t take off, that’s fine.”