Travels April 2005

The Hitler Shrine

A luxury hotel has opened next to the site of Adolf Hitler's notorious mountain retreat, the Berghof
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When Herbert Kochta first thought about designing a five-star alpine hotel just outside the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden, a mere 300 yards from the ruins of the Berghof, Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat, the veteran Munich architect knew he could conceptualize a hotel on a hill in either of two ways. He could work with contrast, like Walter Gropius or Frank Gehry, creating a counterpoint to the natural world. Or he could take the Frank Lloyd Wright approach, designing a building that complemented, balanced, and integrated itself into its surroundings.

Kochta first chose the Gropius solution. He wanted something "modern"—an architectural statement in glass and steel and concrete—that would dominate the cozy Bavarian hills, its glinting windows and sparkling concrete walls standing as a man-made challenge to the towering summits nearby. Kochta wanted something "self-evident," an expression of human confidence in the face of some of the most stunning natural beauty on earth.

To this end he designed a 138-room hotel with two parallel wings that curved slightly outward, providing hotel guests with maximum exposure. He then connected the wings at midpoint with a central corridor. It was a sleek design that spoke of luxury, elegance, and efficiency. But when the model was complete, it became clear that from an airplane or an adjacent peak the hotel would look like a giant "H" branded on the landscape, an uncomfortable reminder of the mountain's most infamous former resident. So Kochta adjusted his design, curving the wings inward and shifting the connecting corridor to their northern ends, thereby creating the impression of a giant horseshoe. Before opening, in March, the InterContinental Resort Berchtesgaden promoted itself as the "most impressive hotel project" in Germany, a dream setting "halfway between heaven and earth." But what about the setting's association with the man who created a very real hell on earth? The German response to this question has been awkward and uneven. During preparations for construction, numerous Nazi-era structures officially identified by the Bavarian Monument Protection Agency as "historical objects" were obliterated, along with a nineteenth-century guesthouse whose foundations dated back to the fourteenth century. At the same time, the developers harnessed the touristic magnetism of the Eagle's Nest, presented to Hitler for his fiftieth birthday. Perched dizzyingly atop a knife's-edge cliff and accessed by a perilous switchback road, the Eagle's Nest provides a breathtaking vista of the surrounding alps and a bird's-eye view of the InterContinental.

Remnants of other Nazi-era structures litter the area: the "Kampfhäusl" ("Struggle Hut"), in which Hitler worked on the second half of Mein Kampf; the "Mooslaner tea house," to which he took his daily constitutional; and, most significant, his residence at Obersalzberg 26, the Berghof. "That is where I spent my most pleasant times, and conceived my great ideas," Hitler once claimed.

For more than half a century the remains of the Berghof have moldered in relative obscurity. The massive retaining wall, cut into the hillside, marks the perimeter of the house. Shattered brick structures and concrete foundations protrude from the forest floor. Towering trees have emerged to screen the ruins from the nearby road; they form a leafy dome that lends an almost mystical air to the site. Each year unknown numbers of Hitlerpilger ("Hitler pilgrims") pay quiet homage to the former Nazi leader on this neglected spot. Within the protection of the enfolding greenery, frequently in the darkness of the alpine night, they gather to construct altars, light candles, and hold vigils. The bark of the surrounding trees has been scored with Nordic runes and with the double lightning bolt of the SS.

Ignored by historians and neglected by government officials, all of whom find the site too "toxic" to deal with, the Berghof ruins have inadvertently become Germany's secret shrine to Adolf Hitler.

Eighty-two years ago this spring Adolf Hitler, then a thirty-four-year-old political upstart, called on his fifty-five-year-old mentor, Dietrich Eckart, a rabid anti-Semite who was being sought by the Bavarian police and was in hiding in a small pension on the Obersalzberg. At the time the Obersalzberg was little more than a cluster of farmhouses and summer vacation villas in a meadow overlooking Berchtesgaden and across the valley from the imposing face of the Untersberg. Klara Schumann and Johannes Brahms had vacationed here, as had Sigmund Freud.

By his own account Hitler arrived in Berchtesgaden in April of 1923, under the pseudonym Herr Wolf. In the company of a fellow Nazi, he trudged up the mountain on foot to the pension where Dietrich Eckart was hiding, arriving late in the night. "We knock on the door," Hitler recounted years later. "'Diedi, Wolf is here!' He came out in his nightshirt with his hairy legs sticking out." Hitler spent the night in the pension, and the next morning awoke to a mountain vista unlike any he had ever seen. "It was so wonderful!" he wrote. "A view of the Untersberg! Indescribable!"

After that spring Hitler returned repeatedly to the Obersalzberg. In 1928 he rented the "Haus Wachenfeld," which he bought in 1932 with royalties from Mein Kampf. After the Nazis seized power, in January of 1933, Hitler undertook a major renovation of the house, adding a series of extensions, a wood-paneled library on the second floor, a bowling alley in the basement, and a giant picture window that could be lowered mechanically in order to provide a completely open view of the Untersberg. "I basically built the house around a window," Hitler later confessed. He named his refurbished residence the Berghof—"Mountain Court."

At the same time, the Obersalzberg's other residents were evacuated to make room for Hitler's closest associates, and the area gradually evolved into a retreat for the Nazi elite, with a movie theater, a kindergarten, and two SS barracks with a subterranean shooting range (to keep the daily target practice from disturbing the alpine tranquillity).

The Obersalzberg comprised three security zones. The second innermost zone was dubbed the Führerhoheitsgebiet ("the Führer's autonomous area"); here the Nazi elite gathered to plan and relax while their children played cowboys and Indians, watched the comings and goings of dignitaries, and splashed in Hermann Göring's swimming pool, all under the watchful eye of the SS Leibstandarte Division.

Hitler spent much of August 1939 at the Berghof, making final plans for the invasion of Poland. The 1941 assault on the Soviet Union was named Operation Barbarossa, after the great red-bearded king whose spirit was said to reside in the Untersberg. Less than two years later, following the defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad, Hitler transformed the Obersalzberg into the alpine fortress where he had originally intended to make his final stand.

In April of 1945, just days before his suicide in Berlin, 359 Lancaster bombers devastated much of the Obersalzberg, flattening many of the buildings and seeding the area with unexploded ordnance. Although the Berghof suffered only slight damage (the kitchen and one wing were hit), Hitler ordered the retreating SS units to set the house ablaze. By the time the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division arrived, the Berghof was a smoldering ruin. The entire area was confiscated by the Allies, and the Obersalzberg was placed under U.S. administration.

By the early 1950s the Berghof ruins were attracting a steady stream of tourists and Hitlerpilger, who scrawled graffiti on what was left of the walls and searched for mementos in the rubble. Hermann Göring's former groundskeeper conducted private tours of the ruins. Fearing that the site was becoming a shrine, the Germans had it dynamited and the resulting debris hauled away. The area was then planted with trees. In 1995, when the United States and Germany celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the property was formally returned to the Bavarian government.

Volker Dahm, of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, recalls, "When the Americans abandoned the Obersalzberg as part of the general troop reductions, the Bavarian government made the decision to open the area for tourism. But the question remained: Should this be for a resort hotel or historical purposes? The institute was charged with developing a concept." The Obersalzberg presented Dahm with a unique challenge. Whereas at the sites of victimization (Opferorte), such as Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen, there is a moral imperative to remember, mourn, and warn, the mandate for sites of perpetrators (Täterorte) is less clear, especially when it involves residential properties in an alpine meadow only indirectly associated with the horrors of war and genocide. In response to the ambiguities present in the Obersalzberg, the Bavarian government adopted only part of Dahm's proposal, which called for the creation of a museum in a Nazi-era structure, and opened the mountainside to development. In the spring of 1999 earthmoving equipment entered the Obersalzberg, obliterating everything in its path. Bulldozers leveled forests. Diesel-powered excavation machines and front loaders cut into the mountain, eradicating entire underground complexes.

For several days in the spring of 2002 I attended the destruction of the basement rooms of the "Modelhaus," a building near the Berghof that had housed Hitler's architectural models. As the demolition team, working with an excavator, crashed through, it came across not only a cache of military ordnance—ninety hand grenades, two machine guns, one infantry carbine, and more than 2,500 rounds of small-arms ammo—but also eighteen-inch reels of 35mm celluloid, a large marble sculpture that suggested the expert hand of Joseph Thorak (Hitler's favorite sculptor), the bronze death mask of Dietrich Eckart, and an extensive wine collection. As the excavator attempted to breach the wine cellar, I could hear glass shattering and smell the rich aroma of vintage wine.

I visited the Obersalzberg in the company of Edward Linenthal, a special adviser on sensitive historical sites to the U.S. National Parks Service. Linenthal has studied preservation efforts at sites ranging from Little Bighorn to Oklahoma City. He was appalled by the devastation. "Where are the scholars?" he shouted above the din. "Where are the historians? Where are the preservationists? If this were happening in America, the preservation community would be in an uproar."

By this past summer, when the diesel fumes had cleared and the tide of destruction had receded, the Obersalzberg was transformed. Manicured lawns and flawless asphalt parking lots had replaced the dense forests and most of the crumbling Nazi-era structures. Land that had once served as Hitler's vegetable farm had been cleared of unexploded bombs in order to provide hotel guests with a safe golf course. A modern documentation center—located out of sight of the hotel—provided a history of the Obersalzberg and a glimpse into a portion of the underground bunker system. The crowning achievement, of course, was the InterContinental, built for some $65 million and promising "wellness and sport in a dream setting."

Somehow the Berghof remnants survived, a mere five-minute stroll from the InterContinental. The site itself lies unmarked and seemingly forgotten—except, of course, by the gawkers and Hitler pilgrims.

By neither clear-cutting and obliterating the ruins nor "managing" the site in a historically responsible manner, the Germans have inadvertently sanctioned a de facto shrine to their dead Nazi leader. According to Wolfgang Illner, a local official who has overseen the Obersalzberg for the past thirty-five years, the Hitlerpilger come not just from Germany but from across Europe and the United States, in particular from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

In their ongoing battle against the Hitlerpilger, Illner and the Bavarian government have demolished the remnant of the terrace on which Eva Braun used to sun herself, and have repeatedly obstructed efforts to tunnel into the Berghof's extant basement rooms. The tracks and counterweights of the picture window are still intact, as is the underground bowling alley. Trees scored with SS and runic inscriptions have been stripped of their bark or simply felled.

Hitler had firm ideas about the disposition of the Berghof after his death: he did not want it turned into a museum, with explanatory signs and official guides, as had been done with the Goethe house in Weimar. After visiting the historical site, Hitler said it left him with the "impression of an endlessly dead object." "When you enter the room in which he died," Hitler observed, "it is no wonder that his final words were 'More light!'"

"In my opinion, the greatest tragedy would be if a Berchtesgadener were to take over my own mountain house and explain where I used to breakfast and where I used to sit," Hitler mused, "and when someone from Saxony would warn: 'Please stay with the tour, keep on the carpet, please don't touch the objects with your hands.' If you don't have a family to whom you can leave your house, then you should just have yourself cremated in it: a worthy funeral pyre!"

After his suicide Hitler was indeed cremated, in a shallow pit outside his underground Berlin bunker. The Berghof, too, was largely reduced to ash, sparing it the indignity of the tour guides Hitler so dreaded, and leaving a place of pilgrimage for future generations of Hitler worshippers—exactly how Adolf Hitler would have wanted it.

Timothy W. Ryback is a co-director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at the Salzburg Seminar. His forthcoming book, The Hitler Library, is based on his article in the May 2003 Atlantic.
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