Don’t mention the war!
Weimar has Goethe, Salzburg has Mozart – and Braunau has Hitler. How to market a dictator’s home town.
• Everyone in Braunau am Inn knows the story of Hans Steininger, the mayor whose beard was so long that he kept it in a silken pouch or wound it three times around his right ankle so as not to trip over it. But during the Great Fire of 1567, old Hans forgot, trod on it and broke his neck.
There are countless monuments to Bearded Hans Steininger in Braunau, Austria; the most striking is the life-size funerary effigy in red marble outside St Stephan’s parish church. After centuries as a family heirloom, the facial hair itself – almost two metres long – is on display at the local Herzogsburg museum.
The town would probably like to have Steininger as its most famous son. A timeline in a museum leaflet – illustrated by an actor with a stick-on beard – skips straight from 1874 (another fire) to 1903 (a visit by Emperor Franz Joseph I). In between those dates, on 20 April 1889, Adolf Hitler was born and he remains the town’s best-known son as far as the rest of the world is concerned, however much the Braunau tourist board may wish to change that fact.
On the Experience Braunau am Inn webpage, a search for “Hitler” produces only one result: on a guided tour entitled Discovering Braunau’s Contemporary History, next to the Night Watchman Tour with real lanterns. Hitler’s birthplace does not have its own entry. Characteristically, Google Maps is more upfront, listing the Hitler-Geburtshaus as the town’s foremost tourist attraction with 3.8 stars out of 5 and 128 reviews.
Visitors who ask for directions to the “Hitler House”, as it is curtly referred to here, are directed to it. No one is trying to hide anything, except perhaps how much they dislike visitors reminding them of the curse of their hometown and not instead strolling down to the meadows along the banks of the river Inn, or admiring the fine streets of well-kept old townhouses and the splendid Italianate marketplace. Or remembering that Field Marshal Kutuzov, a major figure in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, had his headquarters here and that, for a while, even the Orient Express used to call at the station.
But no, they get none of that. Just the same old question about that awful house. Fine: “Just go through the marketplace and through the gate; it’s on the left, number 15. You’ll find it easily enough…”
In fact, you can’t miss it. It’s a decrepit hulk of a building in faded beige with low, heavily-barred windows and plenty of black mould all around the front, garrotting it like a deathly garland. Standing, just barely, between the studiously renovated façades of the neighbouring medieval buildings, it’s like a wound in the street that just won’t heal. There’s nothing on the house itself to identify it, although there is a large stone monument outside.
A special case
Unlike most remnants of the National Socialist past, Hitler’s birthplace is private property. The Scheibenwang family brewed beer and ran a tavern in the building until 1875. Then the building changed hands but the pub remained. In 1912, while Hitler was still a struggling artist, it was taken over by the Pommer family, who named it Zum braunen Hirschen (The Brown Hind), albeit without much success on account of an existing pub in Braunau called Zum Goldenen Hirschen (The Golden Hind). Gerlinde Pommer inherited the building in 1977 and still owns it.
Concerned that neo-Nazis might one day erect some sort of shrine to Hitler here, the Austrian government took over the lease, currently €4,600 (£4,100) a month. Until 2011, it housed a centre for disabled people, a decision that sent a strong message. Yet when the listed building needed refurbishment, the owner refused to cooperate. It wasn’t just plans to make it more wheelchair-accessible that she rejected: a few years earlier, she had refused to have a memorial plaque put up. Now, the building is empty and decaying.
In this curtain-twitching small town where news spreads fast, Pommer is considered an enigma. Little is known about what drives “Gerli”, as locals call her. Some speculate that it’s a form of revenge because she got bullied at school. Most people, however, keep their views to themselves.
Weimar has Goethe, Salzburg has Mozart – and Braunau has Hitler. It’s not an ideal situation, but Elke Pflug, the head of the marketing company promoting Braunau and neighbouring Simbach, just across the river in Germany, tries her best: “The building isn’t a factor in people’s lives here anymore.” Is this cross-border tie-up perhaps an attempt to bury the stigma and give the local economy a boost? After all, having Braunau as your headquarters does not send out the most positive message to the world.
“Not at all. The two towns were always close,” Pflug insists. “When I was a teenager, I always had two wallets on my bedside table: one with Austrian schillings and one with Deutschmarks. That’s how often we crossed the river.” During the floods in June 2016, half of Simbach was under water, but Braunau’s firefighters could not go straight over to help because there was no official process for doing so. Their response was simply to cast off their uniforms and go over to help as neighbours. “The cross-border marketing initiative was born out of our friendship, not out of desperation.”
So while the tourist board prints its Steininger leaflets, Pflug deals with the overall package. The top priority for Braunau-Simbach Ltd since it was set up in 2015 is “urban branding” for the twin towns, “with joint content and coordinated marketing positioning for the whole cross-border region”.
There’s only one thing missing from this holistic concept: the Hitler house. “It’s not part of our remit,” says Pflug. “Personally, I have my opinions on it, but not as managing director of the firm.” She is keen to stress that “it’s not a gagging order” but she would rather not talk about it all the same. “What I will say is that we are not a town of perpetrators,” she adds, skirting the controversy around the concept of the Tätervolk – “nation of perpetrators”, or collective guilt – in historical debate. She quickly adds: “We’re not a town of victims, though, either.” In Braunau, they’ve long agreed with the former, but the latter is something the whole of Austria has trouble with.
The good citizen
So, if the tourist association is busy caring for its historical beard and Elke Pflug at the regional marketing company is willing to talk about everything except the Big Brown Elephant in the room, who is responsible for Braunau’s past?
The answer is: Florian Kotanko. Like Pflug, he was born here; unlike her, though, he can say whatever he likes. Kotanko taught Latin and history at the local grammar school, rising to headteacher before he retired. While some pensioners take up chess, Kotanko runs a website – www.Braunau-History.at – on which he collates and publishes all the things the town’s official marketing people have to stay silent on.
Much like the town’s fire service during the Simbach floods, he wants to save Braunau’s honour, as an impartial historian. “Partly, I’m trying to tackle prejudices in my own mind, too,” he explains. That’s why he digs up old voting records that show that Braunau was never “browner” (from the Nazi brownshirts in Germany, unlike the blackshirts associated with fascism in Britain) than the surrounding area.
He’s no stranger to the embarrassment when someone asks him where he is from – even historians don’t always want to talk about Hitler. The problem is that, in the wider world, there is nothing much else anyone knows about Braunau. Only residents will know about the wooden bench in front of the Schüdlhaus on which Napoleon is said to have emptied his pipe, or the cast-iron horse protruding from the gable at Weinhans that was shot full of holes by bored US troops using it for target practice.
To the rest of the world Braunau is just Hi… him. Researching her sociology dissertation, Judith Forster found that 97% of Braunau residents surveyed had been asked about Hitler at some point. Then there’s the name: the brownshirts’ leader got his German citizenship in Braunschweig and was born in Braunau. You couldn’t make it up.
Not that, in terms of Hitler’s relationship to Braunau, there is much to talk about beyond the word association. Though the town feels weighed down by Hitler, he actually showed almost no interest in it. He mentions it in the first sentence of Mein Kampf for its symbolic situation on the border of Austria and Germany – a frontier Hitler felt shouldn’t be there. Although he was born in Braunau, he only spent a few months in the house and just three years in the town. Passing through Braunau in a motorcade on the day of the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria – in 1938, he did not stop and he is said to have not even glanced at his family’s former residence as he went by. Hitler considered Linz his true home.
What use is that to Braunau residents today, though? However much they would probably love to point visitors down the road to Linz, it won’t work. And what else does Braunau have? Newsworthy events have been scarce here in recent years, if you don’t count the woman injured by a ram falling on her.
This, in Kotanko’s view, is the wrong way to approach the issue. He would like to see historical facts talked about more openly. That would also benefit Braunau in the Czech Republic, 250 miles away, which is frequently mistaken for Hitler’s hometown by groups of overexcited, under-informed neo-Nazis who spend a day wearing out their jackboots looking fruitlessly for Salzburger Vorstadt 15.
However, one battle is finally nearing an end. Since early last year, a laminated notice on the garage doors in the courtyard of the Hitler house has told tenants to stop paying rent. Gerlinde Pommer appealed to the constitutional court against the town council’s compulsory purchase order, but her lawsuit was dismissed. The Austrian media reported that her lawyers were taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
“I don’t know what’s got into Gerli either,” says Kotanko. “I wrote her a long private letter and advised her to just give that awful building to the state. It would be a magnanimous gesture that would get rid of a lot of bad feeling from the past.” It has been suggested that the elderly woman did not want to lose the rent, but Kotanko has never received an answer from her, like the many journalists who have approached her for comment.
So Braunau’s unofficial official for dealing with the Hitler legacy just keeps on going. As head of the local history society, Kotanko campaigns for a forward-looking approach that does not erase the past. Working with the Social Democratic mayor in the 1990s, he got Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” – brass memorials to victims of Nazi persecution) laid among the cobbles and a large granite block from the Mauthausen concentration camp put up in front of the house. It is inscribed: Für frieden, freiheit und demokratie / Nie wieder faschismus / Millionen tote mahnen (For peace, freedom and democracy / Never again fascism / Millions of dead remind us.)
“Lots of things have got better,” says Kotanko, and most people in Braunau agree. The bad times are behind them: in 1979, some 500 neo-Nazis made a pilgrimage to Hitler’s birthplace for what would have been his 90th birthday, buying Führer souvenirs from the townspeople; in 2011, Hitler’s honorary citizenship was revoked. If that seems a little tardy, it was because there was no proof of it ever having been granted in the first place – the relevant files were missing from Braunau’s archives. At least Adolf-Hitler-Platz, Adolf-Hitler-Straße, and SA-Straße were all renamed soon after liberation in 1945. For good measure, Hitler’s right to live in the town was also revoked. And there has been a ban on weddings on 20 April since 2001, so neo-Nazis cannot get married on Hitler’s birthday in his birthplace.
Yet for all the town’s self-congratulation over its de-nazification, it is sobering to see that there are still Nazi stickers on the guttering around the Hitler house. On the town sign on the bridge over the brown waters of the Inn, far-right football hooligans, “ultras” from Dynamo Dresden, have left their own fascist graffiti, too. It’s unlikely that they came all this way to join a walk through the old town.
Old Steininger would be turning in his grave!