If Manfred Hackl is asked about his hometown abroad, he simply says that he comes “from near Salzburg”. It is 60 kilometers to Salzburg, but the local Green politician avoids the exact geographical indication. Because it would arouse surprise, surprise, perhaps suspicion.
Hackl, 56 years old, lives in Braunau am Inn. In Upper Austria, on the border with Germany. Above all it says: Braunau is the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. And therefore world famous.
At the Baccili ice cream parlor at Salzburger Vorstadt 13, Manfred Hackl talks about what it is like to be repeatedly confronted with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. “It’s really annoying,” says Hackl. And smugly says: “As a local politician you are not proud of it.” He prefers to take care of other things, advocating Braunau as a “school town, cycling town, cultural town”.
Adolf Hitler lived in the city for only one year
In summer Braunau, 17,000 inhabitants, with its beautiful old town exudes the aura of a somewhat sleepy place with very nice corners. A few meters from Café Baccili is the tobacco shop in a low-rise barrack, next to it people sit at the “suburban snack bar” and drink beer. Opposite the house is the world shop, followed by the nature shop and, further up, the hemp shop. The connection to Simbach in Lower Bavaria on the other side of the Inn is close and friendly.
But in the midst of all this, right next to the ice cream parlor, is this house in Salzburger Vorstadt 15 with its dirty-yellow facade. A town house from the 17th century. Three stories high, massive, emptiness behind the windows.
Adolf Hitler was born there on April 20, 1889. He spent the first year of his life in the house and “filled the diapers” as the locals say. The family moved within Braunau and to Passau in 1892, when Adolf Hitler was three years old.
The house is still in place. Over two wars. Also about the one that the Braunau child unleashed in 1939. Braunau has to deal with the legacy, somehow. Now there is a big dispute about it that extends into Austrian federal politics.
The Ministry of the Interior in Vienna – the Austrian state has owned the property since 2017 – decided after the establishment of two expert commissions that nothing should be remembered about Hitler. In November 2019, the non-party interior minister Wolfgang Peschorn said: “We want to remove the memory of the house as a whole and thus neutralize it.”
“A typical Austrian suppression grotesque”
Neutralize – that is the (in) word that fuels the debate. After the renovation, the district police command and the Braunau police station are due to move in in 2023, perhaps also a police school. An office in Voralberg has now won the architectural competition, according to the design of which the facade is being dismantled to a state before the Hitler era, a conference center is to be built on the rear property, and a small park next to it. The police are “a guarantee for democracy”, says the incumbent Interior Minister Karl Nehammer from the conservative ÖVP.
Fix a problem by erasing the past? The writer Ludwig Laher from St. Pantaleon, 35 kilometers away, describes this as “a very Austrian grotesque of repression”: “The idea that you can deprive the building of its symbolic value and then everything is fine – that’s incredibly naive.”
Then there is the matter of the memorial stone. It’s been standing knee-high on the sidewalk in front of the house since 1989 and bears the inscription: “For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism, warn millions of dead. ” It is the only – indirect – reference to the house and to Hitler. When the plans were presented in Braunau, a top official from the Ministry of the Interior said that the best thing to do was to remove the stone and display it in Vienna in the “House of History”.
Even the right-wing populists from the FPÖ are skeptical
Many citizens see it very differently. Nobody can be found in Braunau who says that it would be best if nothing at all should remind of Hitler and the Nazi crimes. Not even Hubert Esterbauer, Second Mayor, from the right-wing populist FPÖ. “I’ve dealt with history, I’ve learned everything about the Third Reich.” He too wants the stone to stay. He thinks that the police should move in as “not very happy.”
Before Florian Kotanko is ready to talk, he has to help two tourists. Until his retirement he was the rector of the Braunau grammar school and is considered a walking local dictionary, he heads the local “Association for Contemporary History”. The Japanese ask him if this is the house and point to the 15. They take photos, Kotanko says: “It happens here all the time.” Whoever comes to town also goes to the house. The tourist office has found a solution for this: there are no references to the building on the city maps. The memorial stone directly in front of it is marked as a sight.
The former history teacher strikes back. “The house is to be separated from the memorial stone,” he says. The house belongs to the Republic of Austria, the stone to the community. The state had expropriated the previous owner in 2017 and paid her 812,000 euros in compensation. According to reports, the woman did not respond to any suggestions for further use after the disabled facility “Lebenshilfe” moved out in 2011.
Neo-Nazis came once – 40 years ago
Kotanko now speaks of a necessary “historical contextualization”. For example, you could have an exhibition about “what was” in a room. The stone, on the other hand, has now been decided by a working group of the community, with its inscription, remains in place in front of the house.
The siblings Elisabeth Wimmer and Martin Simböck, 64 and 66 years old, are Braunau veterans, active in culture and local politics. “You can’t neutralize the house,” says Elisabeth Wimmer. The petite woman with long white hair is a goldsmith and sat on the local council for the SPÖ for many years. She says: “The police have not always guaranteed democracy.” Her brother Martin Simböck recently wrote in a letter to the editor: “If you cover your eyes, the house is still there.” And he says: “A lack of history takes revenge.”
The two sing in the “Democratic Choir” Braunau, always on May 8th they appear at the memorial service for the liberation from the Nazi dictatorship. Workers’ and anti-fascist songs are sung. Interior Minister Nehammer is now saying that the house should no longer be an attraction for Nazis. Simböck counters: “This fear is unfounded.” One time, on April 20, 1979, 500 right-wing radical students were deployed. That was more than 40 years ago. Elisabeth Wimmer is certain that “Braunau is not a Nazi attraction”.
A house of responsibility
But what to do with the house that is not the place of the perpetrators – in contrast to the Nazi headquarters in Berlin, in Munich, on the Obersalzberg, where war and genocide were planned? And in contrast to the extermination camps and the countless places of atrocities and war crimes?
The mayor is not a minor person in a city. But Johannes Waidbacher from the ÖVP keeps out. He doesn’t want to talk to the media, instead he sends out a press release. It says that the architectural competition plans “to restore the building to the historical facade”. This was suggested by various institutions, it “serves to neutralize the object and was considered to be expedient”.
The siblings Wimmer and Simböck think a “house of responsibility” would be good. This is an idea from Innsbruck political scientist Andreas Maislinger that is 20 years old. He wants to build an “international place of encounter and reconciliation” in the building. Young people should meet there for workshops and work on social issues. However, implementation has not progressed very far. “You need a lot of patience for certain things,” he says on the phone. With a “House of Responsibility” Braunau would “lose its stigma”.
Urban politics without sovereignty
The writer Laher from St. Pantaleon can also imagine a house like this in addition to apartments and offices, or “a similar future-oriented solution without direct reference to NS”. Ludwig Laher speaks calmly and friendly while he pats the cat in his garden. But his words are all the sharper.
He sees the “lack of sovereignty of the city politicians” in Braunau and speaks of a “structural avoidance attitude”. You shift the responsibility to Vienna and you are probably very happy about it. In doing so, Braunau as a place must try “to face the phenomenon and the burden offensively”.
But Vienna has decided. Everything looks like the police are moving into the house where Adolf Hitler was born.
Background: Braunau was meaningless to Hitler himself
The city of Braunau had long tried to ignore the house where Hitler was born. The building was erected in the 17th century as a large town house. A brewery with an inn and rental apartments were housed in it. It is a listed building.
The customs officer Alois Hitler and his wife Klara had their third child, Adolf, here on April 20, 1889. By the time he was 15, Hitler had already lived in six different Bavarian and Austrian cities. He himself was never particularly interested in the place where he was born, the house was too shabby for him, and he distanced himself from the modest circumstances of his family at an early stage.
Nevertheless, as Reichsleiter of the NSDAP, Martin Bormann bought the building in 1938 for four times the market value. It was used as a Nazi cultural center for propaganda purposes, a library was located in it, pictures were exhibited.
After the end of the war, the house was returned to the previous owners in a settlement in 1952. The Republic of Austria rented it until it was expropriated in 2017. The city library was housed until 1965, as can be seen from a lettering at the entrance. It was then used as a vocational school. From 1977 to 2011, Lebenshilfe Oberösterreich was a subtenant, which operated a day care center for people with disabilities. (RND)