Some 78 years after Adolf Hitler’s suicide, and following decades of dispute, Austria has finally begun building work to transform the dictator’s birthplace into a police station.
For 12 years, the inconspicuous two-storey, cream-coloured house in the town of Braunau, an hour north of Salzburg, has stood empty as Austrians debated how best to deal with the building and its link to the Nazi dictator, born here in 1889.
A granite memorial outside the structure makes clear where the town stands, reading: “For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. The millions of dead warn us.”
In the 1930s, Hitler’s Nazi Party (NSDAP) acquired his birthplace and turned it into a museum to its leader. It was returned to its previous owners after the war. The Austrian state became the main tenant and the building served variously as a library, a school and a workshop for people with learning difficulties.
After its owners evicted all tenants in 2011, the building stood empty. Fearing it might be bought by neo-Nazis and turned into a place of pilgrimage, the Austrian state moved in to seize the building in 2016 with plans to demolish it.
Austria’s then-interior minister Wolfgang Peschorn described the intervention, backed by the country’s highest court, as an “unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked”.
Pandemic delays prompted a rethink of the building’s future and a €20 million redevelopment as a station and police training facility.
Six years on, many locals in Braunau are happy that something is finally happening with the derelict building: on Monday the first workers showed up to erect fencing and begin work gutting the former residential building.
But not all are thrilled, given the mixed record of Austrian police in collaborating with the Nazis after the 1938 annexation or so-called “Anschluss”.
“A conversion to a police station is completely the wrong signal,” said local filmmaker Günter Schwaiger, who has made a new documentary about the building called Who’s Afraid of Braunau?
The 58 year old told Deutsche Welle (DW) the building’s new use was a “slap in the face of victims” of fascism.
Equally critical is local historian Florian Kotanko. He described the move as a “sign of fear”, motivated by concern that neo-Nazis could cause trouble.”
He turned up a May 1939 local newspaper report suggesting that Hitler personally backed plans to repurpose his birth house for “administrative use”. Mr Kotanko suggests this could have meant a police station, making today’s plan “completely in the spirit of Hitler”.
A Braunau residents’ campaign group has criticised the planned use by the police as “catastrophic”. A survey of residents showed a “socially charitable or an official-administrative use” was viewed as best suited to “break through the symbolism” of the building and the so-called “Führer cult”.