BRAUNAU, Austria – This pleasant town across the Inn River from West German state of Bavaria has decidedly mixed feelings about a monument established to commemorate the acitvities of its most famous native son. The burghers are not quite sure how they want to commemorate, on Thursday, the 100th anniversary of the man who was born in the three story houre at No. 15 Salzburger Vorstadt – Adolf Hitler.
Since the end of World War II, most Braunauers would just as soon forget that Hitler was born her – in effect subscribing to the adage that Austria has managed to convince the world that German-born Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. None of the tourist brochures describing the attractive community of 16,000 mentions the German dictator, who committed suicide in 1945 in his bunker in war-ravaged Berlin just 10 days after his 56th birthday.
Moved away as an infant
But Hitler did come from here and Mayor Gerhard Skiba, a Socialist, has chosen to remind the world of that fact–in a rather oblique way–with a three-foot chunk of stone outside the house.
An inscription chiseled on the granite from the quarry at the former Mauthausen concentration camp mentions neither Hitler nor the house but reads:
For Peace, Freedom and Democracy
Never Again Fascism
In Memory of the Millions of Dead.
Skiba said: “As mayor, I have decided to erect a monument and reminder in front of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace as a clear and open sign as to the way we in Braunau think about the past and remember the victims of fascism.
“The 20th of April was in the past, and is in the present, a date which brings with it a particular meaning for our city–through no fault of the citizens of Braunau.”
Skiba said the text “serves as a reminder, as a declaration and call to work against budding neo-Nazism and other obvious dangers to democracy.”
But other citizens say that Skiba is calling undeserved attention to Braunau’s past, and they worry that the monument itself will attract neo-Nazis from Austria and Germany. Harald Klinger, district commissioner for the Braunau area, has received reports that neo-Nazis and others sympathetic to Hitler will gather here on April 20 to demonstrate.
“We will have to reckon with violence,” Klinger said. “We have to hope and pray no one gets killed. This could well be the last big anniversary here, but if there is a martyr we will have the same circus every year.”
The stone memorial outside the house, which is now used as a craft school for handicapped children, has become a magnet for snapshot-taking tourists, who might otherwise not have noticed the building just 50 yards from the city’s main square.
The irony is that, according to historians, Hitler never much cared for his birthplace. The family left when he was 3, first to Passau in 1892 and then in 1895 to Linz, which Hitler regarded as his hometown. Hitler on several occasions said he remembered nothing about Braunau.
The dictator came back only once, with German troops who annexed Austria in 1938, and though the town staunchly supported the Anschluss, or union, with Germany and made him an honorary citizen, Hitler never returned. Local historians point out that the name “Schicklgruber,” which British leader Winston Churchill, among others, used to call the Fuehrer, resulted because his maternal grandmother, Maria Ann Schicklgruber, bore a child out of wedlock who was later given a step-uncle’s name and became Hitler’s father, Alois Schicklgruber.
Inside the buff-and-white building at No. 15, which could stand a coat of paint, director Kurt Hell showed a visitor the brightly colored tapestries made by the children and said he did not know when the house was built. But he pointed out old wooden staircases and stone floors.
Attention a Nuisance
“Nobody seemed to notice us before – just the occasional tourist – but now all the attention is getting to be a nuisance. We´re trying to teach handicapped children. Actually, nobody knows what room Hitler was born in here,” he said. However, townspeople said that the owner of the house, who rents it out, objected to a commemorative plaque being embedded in the wall – and that is why Skiba placed the stone monument on the city street, next to a row of angled parking spaces.
Most of the nearby shopkeepers expressed indifference to the new stone marker, but one worker said: “I just don´t like the look of it. I think it´s ugly.” A bookseller added: “All this is for the history books. I don´t know why the mayor thought a marker was necessary.” And another Braunauer commented, “Hitler was born an Austrian but he became a German.”
All around Braunau are reminders of the war, including a cemetery with World War I and World War II dead just outside of town. And the crypt of St. Stephan´s Church, a 15th-Century building, bears the names of local residents who died in both wars. Hitlers name is missing, said Father Stefan Hofer, the parish priest, because he was not inducted into the army from Braunau. The priest said, “I think the inscription should have said, ´No more dictatorship,´ rather than referring only to fascism. I really don´t think it is fair to single out Braunau, since Hitler only lived here as an infant.”
Would the Hitler reminder be good or bad for Braunau? “We will see,” said Father Hofer. And provincial official Klinger, looking uneasily toward April 20, cautioned: “The eyes of the world will be on us. The reputation of Austria is at stake.”