By Gary A. Warner, JewishWorldReview.com
For more than a half-century, Obersalzberg in Germany has lived under the shadow of its most infamous former resident, Adolf Hitler.
Obersalzberg “is where I spent my most pleasant times, and conceived my great ideas,” Hitler said.
Now, more than 60 years after the end of World War II, the village where Germany meets Austria on the “roof of Europe” wants to change its image.
Obersalzberg and the nearby larger town of Berchtesgaden wish for a day when visitors hear their names and think of something besides the Nazi dictator.
The Germans don’t want visitors to completely forget what went on in Obersalzberg. The Bavarian state government’s official policy is that the area “bears a stigma and continues to do so.” It has built Germany’s best museum about the Hitler era in the shell of a former Nazi guest house.
But it has also made recent controversial moves to pull down remnants of Nazi-era buildings, bulldoze hillsides and allow construction of a luxury resort on land once owned by Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goring.
The InterContinental Resort Berchtesgaden opened in February 2005 amid much optimism., expressed in a speech by Kurt Faltlhauser, the Bavarian finance minister.
“Obersalzberg has another side to it,” he said. “It was always a place for rest and recuperation in the midst of a grandiose landscape. The new hotel is part of this tradition. It is not meant to suppress or cover up anything.”
But can Obersalzberg be “normalized?”
Not according to groups ranging from Germany’s Green Party to the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights organization. They and other have criticized the plan to turn what was once a Nazi enclave into what the Bavarian government has called “Resort Berchtesgaden.”
With an indoor-outdoor pool, spa and French restaurant, the 138-room InterContinental is the centerpiece of what officials hope will become an international destination resort known once again for its summer air and winter skiing. The glass and steel InterContinental was designed to break with the past. An architectural antidote to the Nazi-era buildings that survived in Obersalzberg.
The resort touts itself as being “halfway between heaven and Earth.”
The problem is that the area was once the workshop for hell on Earth.
From his home in the Obersalzberg, Hitler planned the invasions of Poland and Russia, which led to the slaughter of millions. The Nazis-only enclave later was bombed, torched and occupied in the bloodiest war in human history.
Hitler remains a big draw for international visitors.
“Americans are fascinated by Hitler,” said Hugo Casal of Fullerton, Calif., who was on a day tour of Obersalzberg. “It’s hard to fathom the evil. We’re going to Munich and Paris, but this is one of the places I really wanted to see.”
One of the ironies is that today’s visitors use some of the same facilities created to handle the hordes of Hitlerpilger, “Hitler pilgrims,” who came in the 1930s to be near their beloved Fuhrer.
They arrive at the Berchtesgaden train station, which was built in 1938 for the influx of swastika-waving tourists. Or they drive down from Munich, following the path of the old Party Road, the first autobahn built by Hitler to connect Berlin, Nuremberg and Munich with Salzburg and Linz in Austria (which he took over in 1938).
The story of Hitler, Obersalzberg and Berchtesgaden is told at the Dokumentation Obersalzberg, the taboo-breaking museum. While widely praised when it opened in 1999, the museum was hit by neo-Nazi graffiti during construction. A swastika and the words “Der Fuhrer Lebt” (“The leader lives”) where painted on a pillar.
The center tells how Hitler first visited in 1923 and was inspired by views of the Untersberg, the mountain where the spirit of medieval king Charlemagne was said to slumber.
Hitler bought a house, which he expanded into his beloved Berghof (“Mountain Palace”), with a gigantic window that could be opened on warm days. Other top Nazis build villas nearby.
When the war started going against Germany in 1942, a honeycomb of bunkers was burrowed into the mountainside. One of the largest surviving bunkers is under Dokumentation Obersalzberg and is part of the exhibit.
Hitler rarely visited in the last years of the war. On April 25, 1945, the British bombed Obersalzberg. Retreating Nazi units tried to burn the rest.
The area was occupied just before Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.
Obersalzberg was turned into an American recreational area during the Cold War. In 1995, the last areas were handed back to Germany.
Along with the museum, Obersalzberg today has three main draws. One famous, one secret, one eternal.
The famous is Kehlsteinhaus, known as the “Eagle’s Nest,” a $150 million present for Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939. Built atop a 6,000-foot mountain ledge, it has sweeping views of Germany and Austria. As a present, it was a dud. Hitler was afraid of heights, and rarely visited.
Buses leave every half hour for the twisting ride up the mountain. Visitors are dropped off at the entrance to a long tunnel with the year 1938 carved in stone. They then walk to the end, where a huge swastika was recently discovered behind wooden doors. It was painted over despite preservationists’ pleas — it is against the law to display the swastika in Germany in all but museum settings. Then the brass-lined elevator rises to the mountaintop.
One of the oddities of Obersalzberg is that Kehlsteinhaus is a restaurant, a leftover from a 1952 agreement between Americans and Germans to depoliticize the site. Guides must quietly tell visitors which room was used by Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, and maneuver around diners to show off the massive marble fireplace with pieces chipped off as souvenirs by Allied troops.
The gift shop, like some in the towns, sells baseball caps, T-shirts and other souvenirs. Dokumentation Obersalzberg says such sales trivialize a Nazi-era site: “Not everything offered by the souvenir shops is acceptable,” says a museum display.
The second most important site in Obersalzberg is an open secret. It is an unmarked place in a dense forest just downhill from the Hotel zum Turken.
A gravel driveway turns into a muddy path that stops at a massive stone foundation wall of what was once Hitler’s Berghof. Neo-Nazis have occasionally erected small shrines and carved SS lightning-bolt figures in the trees. According to Dokumentation Obersalzberg, when the symbols are found, they are photographed, then dismantled. The marked trees are stripped of their bark or felled.
The last and eternal site is the mountains. The ring of snow-capped peaks, including the Untersberg and Mount Watzmann, make Obersalzberg a place of timeless beauty.
It is this last idea that the InterContinental Resort Berchtesgaden wants to recapture. The resort seeks to draw visitors who want to relax in a natural setting. Interest in Hitler is a minor factor, if it is a factor at all. The average guest is 42, born in the 1960s. Seventy percent are Germans who come for conferences, the mountain views or a weekend spa getaway.
Tom Bauer, the general manager of the InterContinental, said he was sure his hotel wouldn’t become a magnet for modern Hitler pilgrims. But the staff is trained to keep their eyes open in case groups might try to book the hotel for key dates like Hitler’s birthday on April 20.
“There have never been any requests in relation to any historic dates,” Bauer said. “The hotel will on no account whatsoever tolerate any form of Nazi tourism.”
Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, once proclaimed that the area would never shake its association with Hitler.
“The Obersalzberg will be a place of pilgrimage for the German people for all time,” he said in 1938.
Dokumentation Obersalzberg says only a fraction of visitors are “notorious political pilgrims.”
Sharon Fendt, a guide with Eagle’s Nest tours, said the real changes in how Obersalzberg is thought of by visitors are simply a matter of the passing of time.
“The generation that lived through the war, here and in other countries, is passing on,” she said.
“For the generations after, this is history. It will be remembered, but how?”