Impossible to deny

For a long time Braunau felt that Adolf Hitler’s house of birth was a burden. Today the Austrian border-town understands it as a chance to handle the unwanted heritage openly.
It seems to me to be a lucky determination today, that fate assigned Braunau am Inn as my birthplace to me. This little town is located on the border of two German countries which should be desired to be reunited at least by us younger folks by all means, and we should see this as our destiny.
– Adolf Hitler 1924 in Mein Kampf)

To Braunau across the border: In earlier times there were two border outposts. The officers of these outposts got an aching arm from waving through people all the time. During the night some just nodded and some also fell asleep. The border had been ridiculous even then.

Today the growing together of Europe can be observed here. The border: At first sight it is non-existent, not even invisible. Actually it follows the unostentatious bridge made of reinforced concrete, that leads across the Inn to Austria, but the cellular phone still remains in the German network. Nobody waves through anymore, there are not even signs posted, and whoever find themselves at the townplace of Braunau can pay their parking fees in German Marks, too.

The smell of Kebab and “Farmer’s Pizza” are blowing across the place, but it is not really cold here. The baroque facades are glowing lively even during wintertime, and in one of the cozy houses there sits mayor Gerhard Skiba, who says with barely hidden pride that he has a bad conscience bringing even more companies to Braunau: There is a lack of labor force. Braunau is a “center of technology”, that profits from its location near the upper-bavarian chemical plants.

Skiba is happy that more and more people come to Braunau because of that. It is an irony of history that Austria and Germany grow together in a completely different way now than Hitler wanted it. But Braunau is still haunted by the spirit of its unloved son. Today still numerous tourists come to Braunau only because of one house, the birthhouse of Adolf Hitler, that Braunau is hiding in a back alley of the town place. And still some brown tinted men try to occupy the town, the name for them, even though Braunau fights against it with all its power.

There is no sign at the townplace pointing at the house in which Hitler lived throughout his first three years. Whoever is looking for it has to ask for it. And whoever does that is feeling that the nonexistence of signs is less a concealment or indifference, but a form of passive resistance against brown pilgrims: The right ones are meant to run into a vacuum.

Somehow one is hesitating to ask for it. “To the Hilerhouse?”, here it is, the ugly word, local lingo that is briefly shocking in its toughness. The passer-by at the townplace pronounces it without hesitation, but it seems like she has dropped a heavy boulder. Still she is explaining the way quite friendly, which she obviously has done before. She doesn’t examine one directly, but one can notice by her looks: there is something else.

At the office of tourism the question for the house earns one – apart from the sparse description of the way – a profound glance by Brigitte Resch, who adds another line on her list shortly after. There are ten to fifteen people daily in spring and summer, “many younger people up to 30, among them many Americans and Canadians”, as well as “the older generation” from 60 years up. You can get information on train connections, here as well as information about the “Salzburger Land” and a folder about the “historical trade city Braunau”, which recommends to visit the district-museum (“the great people’s manger , the fire extinguishing tools and the precious collection of weapons should be emphasized as well…”). Whoever gets here has to browse the free plan of the city to find Hitler and the house. “memorial for the victims of the NS-regime” can be read, printed in bold letters in the legend of the map, “in front of Hitler’s birthhouse” in small, meager letters right below it.

Through the “Hitler-house” one can get to the “Salzburger Tor”, which seperates the town-place from the “Salzburger Vorstadt”. Inbetween beautifully renovated gables there it is, neglected, undecided. The yellow façade from which the plaster is crumbling already reads “Volksbücherei”. Nevertheless it is a popular motif of photographs – for the thoughtless as well as for ones with ulterior motives. The front entrance is closed, there are stars and christmas-trees made of transparent paper in the windows. They have been made by mentally handicapped, who are supervised by the “Lebenshilfe” (“life help”), an organisation that has been consciously chosen as tenant of the “Hitler-house”. This idea is not well received by old- and neo-Nazis: “Last year one visitor almost cried when he saw that there is a workshop for the disabled here now.”, the workshop’s director Heinrich Huemer recounts, who had to remove candles more than once that had been put on his ledge on the occasion of the “Führer’s” birthday. The young man, drunk and in army pants, was hard to dispel from the house – and he left no doubt about his attitude: For good-bye he showed his outstreched right hand – the “Hitlergruß”, the way the Nazis greeted each other.

The mayor knows what impact just one picture like this has on public opinion. He says he has seen “Journalists giving an adolescent money on a 20th of April, just to have him do the “Hitlergruß” in front of the house.” Fatal when a bank dissolves an account that the NPD set up for their Austrian followers had to set up of all villages and towns in Braunau am Inn. The town can also be sure about response in the international media when the police excavates a group of 17 Neo-Nazis. Gerhard Skiba shares the resignation of the local head of the police, who says that this incident had just “fit in well again”. It wouldn’t matter that the right wing extremists were arrested in a village 10 kilometers away from Braunau.

Generally the whole town seems to be on their toes, fearing a wrong word of the “fool of the village”, after the newspapers wrote again: “Typically Braunau”. Even in the pubs one is watched suspiciously as a Journalist. At the bar in the “Mayr-Bräu” finally the story of a reporter of a newsmagazine is told, who managed to rent a room in the back of a pub on the birthday of the “Führer”. For him a clear proof of Braunau’s hospitality towards Nazis.

It makes sense that the small town withdrew from those who put their finger once too many into Braunau’s wounds. But Braunau exposed itself to the reproach of secretive accomplicement.
From 1989 with Gerhard Skiba one of the post-war generation came to lead the small town that counts 17500 inhabitants, one who is dedicated to handling Braunau’s unwanted heritage openly. In the beginning he stood pretty much alone with his approach: A plate should be put at the house, but the owner had it prohibited by court. The municipial council did not want a memorial stone from the concentration camp Mauthausen, which is located closely by Braunau: For safety reasons. Skiba had the stone installed anyway, in a night-and-fog initiative, he was in a rush: The “Führer’s” 100th birthday was just around the corner, and with it presence of media as well as the police to a previously unknown extent in Braunau.

Since then, a lot of things happened. The shop that sold beer-mugs with Hitler’s picture on them finally closed, the people of Braunau attend events like the “Zeitgeschichte-Tage” in large numbers, and when they say about their SPÖ-mayor, he would be an “old Juso”, it sounds absolutely appreciatively. The “Zeitgeschichte-Tage”, an annual event that started in 1992 with the motto “unwanted heritage” and now is dealing with issues like the fate of forced laborers, but also the conflicts at the Balkan, are just a first step in Braunau’s way of handling its historical legacy openly.

And again it is a historical irony that Braunau’s chance to do that came just with the participation of the FPÖ in the government in Vienna. The local newspaper initiated a declaration of peace, liberty, tolerance and democracy that invited the government in Vienna to buy the “Hitlerhouse” together with the City of Braunau and advanced by EU-money: It should become an international place of reconciliation and meeting.

Things go well for such a “House of Responsibility“, because the ministry that is responsible announced to fully support the project. “The FPÖ-part of the government needs an improvement of its reputation urgently.”, says Skiba, who still has an uncomfortable feeling with this horse trading of “money for a better image”. Until now everything seems to work out, the declaration is based on a broad consensus: Not only many citizens, even the FPÖ of Braunau signed it.

Following the concept of the political scientist Andreas Maislinger of Innsbruck, who grew up near Braunau and co-organizes the “Zeitgeschichte-Tage”, not only the past shall be worked off in those three floors, but also social and peace-service projects worldwide shall be supported and coordinated. Braunau will then have another project that transcends borders.

Lukas Grasberger / Translation by Alexander Zlamal
Frankfurter Rundschau

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