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For Austria, A Tough Choice On What To Do With Hitler's Birthplace

Dec 10, 2016
Originally published on December 10, 2016 4:18 pm

The question of what to do with Adolf Hitler's birth house has plagued his home country of Austria for decades.

If it were up to the government in Vienna, authorities would simply tear it down. That's what Germany did more than a quarter-century ago to the Berlin bunker where Hitler committed suicide in 1945. The site is now covered by a parking lot, with a plain plaque providing the only hint of what used to be there.

But many Austrians disagree with taking that approach to Hitler's birth house, including some residents of the Fuehrer's hometown, Braunau am Inn, near Salzburg.

"It's a hot topic," says Barbara Ebener, editorial director at the local weekly newspaper, BezirksRundschau. "If this house is torn down, people don't want it left empty. And if it isn't left empty, the question is — will what goes up there instead be acceptable?"

Few people in this picturesque town, in walking distance from the German border, are willing to talk to NPR about the building Ebener says many would rather forget.

An exception is 87-year-old native Luise Keuschnig. She bristles over the Interior Ministry's plans to seize the three-story building from its elderly owner, Gerlinde Pommer. "Personal property is personal property," Keuschnig says. "The house is part of the town's landscape."

NPR couldn't reach Pommer for comment. By many accounts here, she inherited the property from her mother, from whom the house had been seized once before — by the Nazis during Hitler's rule. They turned the cream-colored home on the edge of the old town into a cherished monument.

That's the opposite of what the current Austrian government is looking to do with the nearly three-century-old building. Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck said the government's goal is to make sure the house doesn't become a shrine for neo-Nazis.

"There is a certain mystification of this building under the Nazi ideology," he says. "Therefore it was very important for the Interior Ministry to guarantee that nothing would happen there in this building that could support Nazi ideology in any way."

For the past 44 years, the ministry rented the structure from Pommer and eventually turned it into a daycare center for people with special needs. But the government and owner repeatedly clashed over required renovations. The center shut down and moved elsewhere five years ago, Grundboeck says, though the government continued to pay rent on the building.

"We elaborated a number of concepts and discussed with the private owner on how again we could make use" of it, he says. "And the discussion became more and more complicated."

He says the impasse eventually led to the ministry's decision to seize the property. At first, officials simply planned to tear it down, which met with resistance from some historians and many Austrians, including townsfolk. Grundboeck says the current plan, after the government takes over ownership, is to appoint a committee to decide how to rebuild it so that it will look completely different than it does now.

Under current Austrian law, the ministry can't apply eminent domain — seizing private property for public use, with compensation — because it doesn't cover seizing historic property because the history is objectionable. So the ministry appealed to Austria's parliament, and last week, a committee approved a draft bill forcing Pommer to sell Hitler's birth house to the government. How much she would get for the sale of the house is unclear.

The final approval could come from the parliament as early as January, says Braunau Deputy Mayor Christian Schilcher. He says Pommer, whom he talks to on occasion, isn't happy about what the Austrian government is doing.

Schilcher isn't happy, either — he fears this will set a precedent leading to more private property being taken by the government against people's will.

"We are opening Pandora's box," he says. "This could launch something that we won't be able to put the brakes on."

Schilcher, a member of the populist Freedom Party of Austria, also disputes the Interior Ministry's claim that the birth house could become a magnet for neo-Nazis. When people come to look at the house, he says, they're usually tourists.

Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian who founded the Muslim Jewish Conference, an educational nonprofit in Vienna, is disappointed in the government's plans, but for different reasons.

"This is a huge chance for an educational institution, a huge chance for a physical landmark which can be combined with a whole concept of understanding about what happened here, about the social and political dynamics that started in Braunau and took off from there," he says. "There might be neo-Nazis coming there and worshiping the place, so think about it — what are you going to do with it, what are your strategies to face that?"

Instead, he says, "The only solution is, 'Oh my God, we don't know what to do with it, let's tear it down, let's do nothing with it.' "

One thing the Interior Ministry's Grundboeck says the Austrian government has no intention of removing is a jagged stone memorial to the victims of Adolf Hitler in front of the house.

It came from the former Mauthausen concentration camp, about 80 miles away, and is inscribed with a warning: "For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions dead are a warning."

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There's a different property dispute in Austria over what to do with the house where Adolf Hitler was born. The question has plagued his home country for decades. It has pitted the government in Vienna that wants the birth house gone against Austrians who say it has historical value. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Austria.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The hometown of the world's most notorious man is Braunau am Inn, a fact most of the residents here would like to forget. Barbara Ebener is editorial director of the local weekly newspaper, BezirksRundschau.

BARBARA EBENER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She says, as much as residents don't want to be associated with Adolf Hitler, many here also don't want to see the three-story home in which the fuehrer was born in 1889 torn down.

Among them is Luise Keuschnig. The 87-year-old is outraged the interior ministry would seize the property from its local, elderly owner, Gerlinde Pommer.

LUISE KEUSCHNIG: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Keuschnig tells me her personal property is her personal property. And the house is part of the town's landscape. The cream-colored building, a short walk from the German border, does blend in with a 17th century facade of Braunau.

The house is locked up but draws curiosity seekers and, more disturbingly, Neo-Nazis, says interior ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck.

KARL-HEINZ GRUNDBOECK: Because there is a certain mystification for this building under the Nazi ideology. And therefore, it was very important for the interior ministry to guarantee that nothing would happen there, in this building, that could support Nazi ideology in any way.

NELSON: So the ministry rented the building for the past 44 years. But the government and owner clashed over needed renovations, and the center moved five years ago, Grundboeck says.

GRUNDBOECK: We elaborated a number of concepts and discussed with the private owner how we could again make use of this building. And the discussion became more and more complicated.

NELSON: He says the impasse led to the ministry's decision to seize the property. Grundboeck says the ministry aims to gut and rebuild Hitler's birthplace into something unrecognizable.

A parliamentary committee last week approved a draft bill forcing the owner to sell Hitler's birth house to the government. The owner couldn't be reached for comment. Braunau Deputy Mayor Christian Schilcher says he's talked to her, and she isn't happy.

CHRISTIAN SCHILCHER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He worries the special seizure bill, which is expected to be approved by the full Parliament next month, will broaden the government's authority to take private property. Other Austrians I interviewed are also uncomfortable with the government's plans but for different reasons. Ilja Sichrovsky is a Jewish resident of Vienna who founded the Muslim Jewish Conference.

ILJA SICHROVSKY: The only solution is, oh, my God, we don't know what to do with it. Let's tear it down. Let's - let's do nothing with it.

NELSON: Sichrovsky says the government should instead turn the Hitler building into an educational landmark. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.