Travels April 2005

The Hitler Shrine

A luxury hotel has opened next to the site of Adolf Hitler's notorious mountain retreat, the Berghof

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."

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