For decades the Republic of Austria has been renting Hitler’s birth house in Braunau to prevent it from becoming a Nazi-cult site. The owners, whose ancestors profited from Hitler-tourism in the past, undermine any meaningful usage of the house. Now the Republic is examining the possibility of expropriation.
The small town of Braunau on the Austro-Bavarian border is notorious. Neither the purposefully planted “Peace linden” nor the Jägerstätterpark have helped to improve its image. Adolf Hitler was born here on April 20, 1889. His birtplace, Salzburger Vorstadt Nr. 15, is a two-story dirty-yellow and scruffy-looking building, which attracts souvenir hunters who scrape off pieces of the facade. The windows in the basement are secured with bars, dark streaks from the scrapings are visible along the entire facade, and the house has not been painted in a while. The faded inscription “People’s Library Braunau” dates from the Nazi era. There is no name next to the doorbell and above the oak door an intertwined “MB” is visible in the wrought-iron ornament. The initials “MB” stand for Martin Bormann, Hitler’s former private secretary and asset manager of the NSDAP.
This house was not a place of terror or mass murder, but the ghost of the “Führer”, who himself was an ardent believer in the cult of genius, seems ineradicable. It was Hitler himself, who created the myth: In 1924 he wrote in “Mein Kampf”: “Today I see it as fortunate that fate chose Braunau am Inn out of all cities as my place of birth. The town on the Inn – gilded by the rays of German martyrdom, Bavarian by blood, and part of the Austrian state – was the residence of my parents at the end of the eighties of the past century.” Hitler also immortalized his hometown in his oil paintings.
It is a magical place for Nazis. In the past they sometimes laid flowers by the windows, today they pose in front of the building and post the pictures online. A few months ago the memorial on the sidewalk in front of the house – made of a block of raw marble from the Mauthausen concentration camp – was smeared with blue paint.
The Republic of Austria has been troubled by this haunted house for half a century. Over the past decades the issue has been dealt with in a scandalous manner – in a typical Austrian way, one might say. The house is owned by the third generation of a business-minded family who, already in the 1930s, cleverly merchandised Hitler-tourism. The Pommer family sold the house to Martin Bormann in 1938 at an “collector’s price”, i.e., absurdly overpriced. After the liberation from the Nazi regime the Republic of Austria inherited the house. The Pommers sued for restitution and recovered it for a minimal price in 1954. The widow argued that they had never been Nazis and that they were forced to sell the house under pressure. Mrs. Pommer had the nerve to claim that her husband had died out of grief over losing the house and got away with it.
Since then the Pommers have been profiting from the leases with public authorities. The rent currently amounts to 4,800 euros per month. The house has been empty for the past three years as the current owner, Gerlinde Pommer, refuses to carry out renovations that would guarantee further use of the house. At the same time, she is not willing to sell it to the Republic, at least not for a realistic price.
The result is that the building is left abandoned and appears even eerier than ever. Lately, however, there has been a new development in this never-ending story. When the grave of Hitler’s parents, a pilgrimage site for right-wing extremists, was demolished in Leonding last year, the Ministry of the Interior commissioned a report to examine the possibility of expropriation. This would set a precedent.
What connects the Pommers with Hitler? Why are they so emotionally attached to this house? Why did they object to placing a memorial plaque stating “Never again” on the façade?
As far back as the 17th century this house served as an inn with an adjacent brewery, barn, and living quarters. When Hitler was born, his father, a choleric customs officer, had just married for the third time. His wife was a very young and distant relative, who called her husband “uncle” at first. Initially, the Hitler family lived with their housekeeper on the second floor of the house. However, soon afterwards they moved and rented another house in Linzer Street in Braunau, a fact which receives little or no attention today. In his birth house Hitler merely “shit his diapers,” as the district commissioner Georg Wojak put it.
In 1912 when Josef and Maria Pommer purchased the inn for 58,000 crowns, Hitler had been a failing art student in Vienna. As an unemployed drifter he embraced the hatred for Jews of the time and frequented esoteric Aryan circles.
The Pommers had originally named their inn „Zum braunen Hirschen“ (At the Brown Stag). But since this name was already used by another tavern in Braunau, the inscription on the the house read simply: “Gasthaus des Pommer” (Pommer’s Inn).
In 1920 Hitler returned to his birthplace for the first time as campaigner for the Nazi Party. Although he was then an minor member of the movement he was already a popular agitator for the party. Hitler’s speech in Braunau made it into police records, as there was a brawl during the event.
Braunau, separated from Germany only by the River Inn, proved to be fertile ground for the Nazis. Nomen est omen – “Braunau” literally translates as “Brown Meadow”, a fitting name for the “brownshirt” ideology of the Nazis. Nowhere else, in that early phase in Austria, did the German nationalists have such great electoral success. They received 24 percent of the vote in 1919. By the 1930s the petit-bourgeois German nationalists had already been undermined by fanatic young nationalists. Storm troopers patrolled Braunau and ripped party badges from the lapels of Social Democrats. While in Germany, the NSDAP was close to seizing power, in Austria they attracted attention with bombings, political murders and attacks on political opponents. Nevertheless, in April 1933, the city council of Braunau by a slight majority voted against awarding a honorary citizenship to Adolf Hitler. The expressionistic painter Aloys Wach, whose works were later added to the index of degenerate art, claimed that Hitler was “the only one this town could be proud of, and on behalf of whom it would have been worthwhile for this town even to exist in time and space.”
In 1933 Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany, but his party was outlawed in Austria. However, the public authorities in Austria were powerless against the new movement. Ninety citizens of Braunau had their permits to enter Germany revoked, but these hotheads simply crossed the Inn at night in a barge. According to the files of the district administration, these transports of illegal Nazis were planned in Pommer’s Inn.
In October 1933 the son of the Pommer family was charged with distributing Nazi propaganda. He had been playing radio broadcasts from Munich in his inn and quickly switching the channel when police arrived. According to police files, the broadcasts could be heard on the street outside.
44 years after his birth, Hitler’s ghost was back to haunt his birthplace, reverberating through the walls of the tavern. Many Nazi supporters from Braunau, including the Pommers in the bar, had been listening to the broadcasts. The son was given a fine; his father, as the owner of the inn, received a warning because “his tavern was almost exclusively visited by followers of the National Socialistic idea” and because this was not the first time he had supported “the gathering of Nazis or their agitations”.
Half a year later, the entire row of houses in the little town outside of Salzburg was covered with Nazi propaganda (“break the Dollfuss-chains, only Hitler can save us”). After the “July Revolt” of 1934, during which the Austro-Fascist Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was assassinated, celebrations took place in Braunau. Although the prosecution of illegal Nazis intensified, the red swastika flag hung from Pommer’s tavern.
In 1936 Hitler’s sister Angela Hammitzsch, néé Raubal, visited the Pommers to see the birthplace of her famous brother. A thriving Hitler tourism began. The tavern became a pilgrimage site for wealthy Hitler supporters. Pommer converted the room where the “Führer” was born into a small museum. According to the official correspondence, the Austrian authorities were powerless. The NSDAP was outlawed, but can one outlaw the official symbols of a neighboring country?
In May 1937 Pommer received official permission to show the “Führerzimmer” to Germans and other foreign tourists, but not to Austrians. The Director of Security for Upper Austria deemed the museum as inappropriate for his own countrymen.
In January 1938, two months before the Nazis gained power in Austria, these rules were no longer observed and a plaque honoring Hitler was placed on the tavern.
When Hitler invaded Austria with the German “Wehrmacht” on March 12, 1938, he entered Austria via his hometown. Braunau was filled with cheering crowds, swastika flags, flowers and shouts of “Heil Hitler” as Hitler passed by his birth house, standing in an automobile.
In May 1938 Martin Bormann acquired the house on behalf of the NSDAP. The price was 150,000 reichsmarks, about four times its market value at the time. The rest of the property stayed in the Pommers’ possession. The local Nazi press reported that the negotiations took longer than expected because the Pommers had driven up the price.
During the Nazi era, Braunau was like every other small town in which everybody knows everyone else. Denunciations took place every day. The wife of an unskilled worker was denounced by her neighbors for saying in their kitchen, “I’m so angry, I could stab Hitler with a knife”. When a woman said to her co-worker, “It isn’t our fault that this inflated ego was born in Braunau,” this led to her doom. Only the Hitler house made Braunau special. The Pommers used the money from the sale to purchase another house in Braunau, but this time they did not make it into a tavern. The NSDAP renovated their old house for an additional 150,000 reichsmarks in order to transform it into a cultural center and a public library. They also demolished the barns and stables behind the house. The “Braunau Gallery” devotes itself to themes such as “blood and soil, soul and landscape”, proclaiming the end of the “era of fake art”. The gallery showed artists acceptable to the party such as Alfred Kubin.
With the help of Hitler’s housekeeper, Rosalia Hörl, the room in which Hitler was born, was restored to its original condition. Postcards showing Hitler’s house and nursery became very popular.
During the last days of the war in early May 1945, when Hitler had already committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, a Nazi unit under district commander Eigruber tried to blow up the birth house. American soldiers were able to thwart their plan. Expecting massive resistance, US troops attacked Braunau with a whole division. A US soldier of Jewish descent was the first to enter Hitler’s birth room. He made the city elders promise to convert the house into an “eternal memorial”. It was never to become vacant, thereby becoming a “shrine”. In November 1945 the tavern housed an exhibition on the horrors of the concentration camps. Later the American secret agency CIC used the house as its quarters.
After some time, everything in Braunau returned to how it was in the old days. The infamous Nazis fled and the dignitaries of the town quickly adapted to the new circumstances. Most of them claimed never to have been Nazis and that they joined the NSDAP only under pressure. Streets and squares were renamed. In 1946 the US military government appointed the bank of Upper Austria and Salzburg to maintain the house. Later, in 1947, the house became the responsibility of the municipality of Braunau.
Martin Bormann, whose whereabouts were unknown at the time,was sentenced to death at the War Crimes Tribunal in Nürnberg. His assets were confiscated. (Bormann had already died during his escape from Berlin in May 1945, but at this point his corpse had not been recovered.)
In 1947, Mrs. Pommer, a widow by then, sued for restitution of the house and the scandal began: Maria Pommer, already an old woman at the time, argued in these proceedings that she and her husband had never been members of the NSDAP and that her husband had died in 1942 because of the pain resulting from the loss of the tavern. The Nazis had (allegedly) considered them ‘unworthy’ to run the business any longer.
Josef Pommer was 74 years old when he died. The notice in a local Nazi newspaper of his funeral – where half the people of Braunau and the local Nazi fire brigade were present – does not give the impression that the Pommers had problems with the Nazis. Mrs. Pommer claimed that they would never have given away the tavern voluntarily for an offer of 150,000 reichsmarks. It was Bormann, through his lawyer, who set an ultimatum to make the deal and who threatened to resort to other means to settle the problem. The municipality of Braunau argued that the sale price was extraordinarily high. Comparable houses would have been sold for “maybe 60,000 or 70,0000” schillings, not 250,000 schillings, the equivalent of 150,000 reichsmarks at the time.
Maria Pommer died in 1948. Her daughter, Kreszenzia, who continued her mother’s claim, argued that losing the tavern resulted in major financial loss. She recovered the house by paying 150,000 schillings to the Republic in 1945. Her brother Josef, a known Nazi sympathizer who could not play the role of the Nazi victim convincingly, gave up his claim to the house for her benefit.
The legal case is puzzling: why did no one in Braunau mention the close connection between the Pommers and the Nazis?
A comparison with the former Hitler refuge in Obersalzberg shows that there were other options available. There Bormann, commissioned by the NSDAP, bought farms, fields and hotels, also by using strong threats. The Free State of Bavaria rejected all repurchase claims, arguing that, although the former inhabitants had sold their homes under pressure, they had received prices at or even above the market value. Furthermore, they had not sold their houses as victims of persecution, with the exception of the owner of the tavern “Zum Türken”, who was boycotted, dispossessed of his property, and imprisoned by the Nazis.
The Pommers, on the other hand, continued to make money with the Hitler birth house. In the 1950s the municipality of Braunau rented the house to accommodate high school classes. There was a classroom shortage but the municipality also wanted to ensure that the place would not become a sort of tourist attraction for Nazis. For some time the city library used the building. Pommer also rented it out to a bank, but she continued to appeal to the municipality, stating that there were others interested in the property, without providing names.
In the late 1960s, the chairman of the Braunau tourism association announced that he intended to use the house commercially. He envisioned some kind of museum. The centerpiece of the museum was to be the private collection of Kronberger. Kronberger was a citizen of Braunau who collected diverse memorabilia from the Third Reich: pictures of Hitler, swastikas, medals, weapons, flags. Today, the collection is locked in the basement of the district museum. This project produced headlines worldwide and was eventually cancelled.
However, rumors of a takeover by a network of former Nazi supporters would not stop. At one point, a man from Strasbourg apparently expressed interest in the house. Later, a Bavarian innkeeper signaled his interest. Afraid that the house would turn into a Nazi cult site, maybe with a “Hitler Schnitzel” or a “Göring Casserole” on its menu, the city council of Braunau approached the Social Democratic Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. In 1971 the government decided to rent the house.
A lawsuit initiated by Pommer in 1984 stated: “The negotiations to rent the house turned out to be difficult. On the one hand, Kreszenzia Pommer wanted to obtain the highest possible rent, on the other hand, she wanted to pass on as much as possible of the running and maintenance costs to the tenant.”
In the end a serious error was made: The public authorities at the time did not consider making the house a memorial site or marking its historical significance. Instead, people wanted to hush things up, a fact also apparent in the lawsuit of 1984.
For several years parts of the technical high school of Braunau were housed there. In 1976 the “Lebenshilfe”, an Austrian NGO for the disabled, began to use the house as a daycare center. Everyone was relieved, because it seemed to be the right symbol. People with Down’s Syndrome would live in a house where a man was born who had people like them killed. But barrier-free access was needed and the owner of the house, a granddaughter of Pommer, refused permission to carry out the necessary construction work. She was as stubborn in this case as in the memorial plaque affair years later. In 1983 the parish council of Braunau wanted to install a memorial plaque on the house with the inscription “Never again fascism. Millions of dead remind us” (“Nie wieder Faschismus – Millionen Tote mahnen”). But when construction workers wanted to install the plaque on the morning of October 6, 1983, the district court issued an injunction. The owner had sued the Republic of Austria for trespassing and the court had ruled in her favor. After reading the lease very carefully, the judge decided that the terms of the rental contract did not permit a clearly visible political statement having nothing to do with the rental agreement.
By then, at the latest, the restitution proceedings should have been reexamined and the owner’s thinly veiled threats of selling the house to unknown third parties should have been questioned.
In 1989 the town placed a memorial stone on municipal land in front of the house. Gerlinde Pommer could not prevent that.
Since 2011, when the NGO “Lebenshilfe” moved out, the house has remained empty. This has led to strange ideas. A Russian member of the Duma wanted to purchase the house in order to blow it up. Others wanted to use it as a residential building. Braunau’s Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) even considered installing a baby hatch.
The owner has objected to any reasonable suggestion. She has blocked every use that would refer to its historical background by citing the terms of the lease. She also opposes the project called “House of Responsibility” put forward by historian Andreas Maislinger. Even when everyone else agreed last spring on the Volkshilfe (an NGO which works with the social disadvantaged) and the “Volkshochschule” (an NGO for adult education) she said no. Again because it would have required changes in the floor plan.
What does this woman want? What drives her to make the government run in circles for decades? To this day she has never spoken publically of her motivations. Her lawyer apparently is also not allowed to speak.
Herman Feiner, the official of the Austrian Department of the Interior in charge of the case has rarely seen her. He is beginning to despair as well. He says that Mrs. Pommer is a smart woman and that her attitude is like the proverbial whistling in the dark. But things cannot continue like this, Feiner says. The woman wants neither to permit remodeling nor to turn it into a memorial for the victims, and she does not want to sell the house to the state at a reasonable price. A collector’s price will definitely not be paid, according to Feiner. Four weeks ago Feiner asked all federal departments involved if there were new ideas for what could be done with the property. At the same time he commissioned a study to determine whether eminent domain on the basis of public interest would be possible. Also to be examined is “whether property-like rights could be derived from the long lease in the name of public interest”. Until now eminent domain cases have been carried out only in regard to roads or railroad lines.
“When it comes to such properties there are not only civic rights but also civic duties. When a house has a history such as this, the owner has to ask herself questions different from those of other house owners,” Feiner says, referring to Mrs. Pommer.
Gerlinde Pommer is a ghost-like figure. Even long-time residents of Braunau know almost nothing about her. She lives in Braunau in the house her grandparents bought using the “Bormann-money”. She travels a good deal. According to town records she was born in 1950 and has a license to run gas stations, parking garages and lots. She owns the property behind the Hitler house, the garage parking spaces, the parking lots and one half of the house next door.
Even mayor Johann Weidbacher of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), who was born in Braunau, hardly knows Mrs. Pommer. He would like “to know her intentions,” he says.
Florian Kotanko, retired high school principal and spokesperson for the Braunau “Verein für Zeitgeschichte” (Contemporary History Association), who also runs the extraordinary website “braunau-history.at”, does not understand Mrs. Pommer’s motivations. “Whether it becomes a museum, a ‘House of Responsibility’ or whether a non-profit moves in – there should definitely be a reference to the historical importance. What happened there should be documented,” Kotanko says. Some time ago he wrote a personal letter to Gerlinde Pommer to try to soften her resolve. He never received an answer.
Gori, Predappio, Shaoshan: How do the birthplaces of Stalin, Mussolini and Mao deal with the dictators’ ghosts?
The city fathers of Braunau tried to veil the subject of Hitler’s birthplace in silence until the late 1970s, without success, as we now know. The case of Stalin was handled in a completely different manner. A few years after Stalin’s death his crimes and the cult surrounding him had already been discussed by Nikita Khrushchev in the “Secret Speech” at the Soviet party congress in 1956, but Stalin’s legacy was not dealt with very harshly. The head of the secret service, Lavrentiy Beria was principally blamed for the Gulag system and for the prosecution and murder of millions of opponents of the regime. All over the country monuments to Stalin were demolished, except in Georgia. Josef Jugashvili, better known under his nom de guerre Stalin, was born in 1878 in Gori, near Tiflis. In the 1930s, the heyday of Stalinism, the small house in which Stalin spent the first three years of his life was moved from the edge of town to the center and encased in a kind of temple of glass and marble. Around it parks and a giant museum were erected. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union the place remained a tourist attraction, although the exhibition was changed completely. Four years ago the 56 foot high statue of Stalin was taken down in Gori, but many wanted it to be erected again.
Italy’s neo-Fascists pay homage to the dictator Benito Mussolini at his birthplace Predappio, a village between Bologna and Rimini, set in the hilly landscape of the Emilia-Romagna. There are souvenir shops with Duce-lighters, Mussolini busts, SS-badges, Benito ice cream and Mussolini wine. Hitler-wine can also be bought there. A simple sign points the way to the house where Mussolini was born in 1883. The municipality bought the house and turned it into a small museum. However, the main attraction for Mussolini worshippers are the family crypt at the cemetery of Predappio and the Villa Carpena, an estate outside the village where Mussolini’s widow lived until her death in 1979. A married couple from Lombardy bought this house from one of Mussolini’s sons and turned it into a private museum. Here the furniture can be viewed in its original state of the 1940s alongside the widow’s dresses and Mussolini’s tattered tennis racket.
In contrast to Hitler, Mussolini is seen by most Italians as a harmless dictator. That he was responsible for a brutal system of oppression, used poison gas in the colonial wars in East Africa and introduced race laws in 1938 seems forgotten.
The cult surrounding Mao continues without interruption in China. Every year eight million people make a pilgrimage to Shaoshan, in China’s Hunan Province. The wooden house where Mao Tse-Tung was born in 1893 is now situated in a picturesque park with a small pond, and is open to visitors. In Shaoshan’s museum Mao’s toothbrush is on display, as are his slippers, his threadbare stockings and his red swimming trunks. No word about Mao’s excesses of power and his “Great Leap Forward” campaign which caused 20 million people to die of starvation, or about the victims of his cruel cultural revolution.