In Austria, the legacy of the Nazi era is part of our lives. Even as witnesses dwindle to the final few, this tormented chapter is retold, as it must be, in commemoration and re-lived in bodies of literature. This tortured history also lives on in the places we have inherited, and the debates continue to play a central role in shaping Austria’s collective memory and national identity. How should we live with and in these places now? How should this be remembered?
A decaying guest house in Braunau am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, had made the provincial village into a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis, causing perpetual frustration to both the village and the federal government – though as former Bezirkshauptman, Georg Wojak famously said, Hitler had at most, “only had his diapers changed” there. By age three, he and his family had relocated to Passau.
In 1989, after decades of opposition, the then mayor erected a memorial stone in front of the building reading “For Peace, Freedom and Democracy. Never Again Fascism. Millions of Dead Remind [us]”. Today, the three-story guest house stands unoccupied and the stone untouched – although if plans go through, not for much longer.
Putting the Police on Site
On June 2, Austrian Interior Minister, Karl Nehammer announced that the site will be repurposed to a police station and the stone transferred to the Wiener Haus der Geschichte in Vienna. The move has been sharply criticized as an erasure of this not-so-distant past and a dishonest portrayal of neutrality towards an ostensibly historical problem.
The recent decision to convert the site into a police station has left some concerned for the symbolism and future implications of such a move. However, historian Gregory Weeks, former head of Webster’s International Relations Department, thinks it’s a good development.
“There were proposals for a museum, but that won’t prevent it from being a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis,” he said. As a police station, this is less likely. “Since it’s illegal in Austria to do the Nazi salute or to carry swastika flags, the police can enforce it. An open space like that is otherwise hard to police.”
The debate was rekindled in 2016, when the ministerial council invited new ideas for redesign and alternate use of the property. Only a year later, the council expropriated the decaying site, following continued visits from right-wing extremist groups and the former owner’s refusal to keep the building up to code. Some argue the vital importance of ensuring the house is a place of education, precisely because of the allure this site has to a particularly distasteful type of tourist. In an interview with Erinnern.at, Dr. Bernhard Weidinger, a political scientist at the archive of right-wing extremism DÖW (Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes) stated that the most effective way to dissuade neo-Nazi visits would be as a memorial to the Allied armies – or perhaps a Mcdonalds.
Though more seriously, were the efforts of historian Andreas Maislinger of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service and Braunau Contemporary History Days has long argued for a ‘House of Responsibility’ – a center for volunteers from EU-countries, Austrian civil servants and returning foreign service staffers as a residence center dedicated to social and human rights. Under this proposal, the three floors would represent the ‘unwanted inheritance’, the present, and the future, a working space for social assistance and development projects.
However, Weeks asserts that the current decision, while perhaps poorly timed, is the most effective way to deter visits from neo-Nazis. “The police station seems strange but at the same time makes a lot of sense,” he said. “If you turn it into a museum or allow it to be a private house, you’ll still have extremists showing up because — simply put – it’s not illegal to show up outside of a building.”
Will be a problem for the police? Here Interior Minister Nehammer was clear: “This is exactly what a police station is for,” Nehammer told Der Standard. “The police are the protectors of Freedom and its attendant rights,” purposes he suggested would be thus carried within the uses of the building itself.
The decision on the Geburtshaus has coincided with a global discussion on facism, police brutality and institutionalized racism. The Black Lives Matters solidarity marches have prompted the toppling of statues commemorating the work of now controversial figures.
And the post-war Austrian Republic has never openly honored Hitler, the complex history of brutality and collaboration, along with simple endurance meant decades of a poisoned silence. And while over the 75 years since WWII, a different Austria has arisen from those ashes and gradually come to some sort of terms with this history, this has been far from easy. Taking things head on is not the Austrian way.
“Up until the 90s, many of these issues still hadn’t really been addressed,” Weeks said. It had taken the so-called “Waldheim affair” in 1986 when new evidence emerged showing that former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, then campaigning for Federal Presidency had misrepresented his Nazi past, that public discussion really began. “It’s a difficult one for the Austrians because the majority of those in the resistance didn’t get their due and were treated as traitors by other Austrians, and those who served felt that they did their duty.” This decision, rather than an evasion, “is exactly the opposite. It’s being responsible to their history by addressing the problem. For years they didn’t do anything about it; to come to a final decision is a way of resolving this issue.”
In the end, while commemoration matters, it doesn’t always work.
“Sometimes it’s good to have a plaque, but when the site attracts people who are incorrigible, like neo-Nazis, then there is no other solution but to take it down.”