No easy task: The house in Braunau, Austria where Adolf Hitler was born is to be remade into a police station. How to deal with Nazi-tainted buildings?
"Of course one wonders whether it wouldn't be important to create a place of remembrance," says Stefan Marte of the architectural firm Marte.Marte, which won the competition for the conversion of Adolf Hitler's birthplace.
"It's a sad fact that Adolf Hitler was born here, but then again, it's just the birthplace." The building's connection with the Nazi era was brief compared to the much longer history of the real estate, he pointed out.
In the 17th century, two buildings at the address in Braunau am Inn, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Salzburg, Austria, housed a brewery and tavern. The buildings were later joined, and then apartments were situated there on the street called Salzburger Vorstadt.
Many years later, towards the end of the 19th century, a married couple moved into one of the apartments, and on April 20, 1889, the third of their six children was born there. It is due to this birth that the house in Braunau remains the subject of controversial debate today: Their son, Adolf Hitler, later becoming Reich Chancellor and a dictator, would start the Second World War, be responsible for the Holocaust and bring indescribable suffering to the world.
Hitler's birth house vacant for nearly a decade
In the National Socialist era, the anti-Semitic party NSDAP established a cultural center with a gallery and public library in honor of their Führer in the house where he was born. After the war, US troops briefly opened a memorial there. It later housed a library, then a school, and finally, for more than 30 years, a workshop for handicapped people. The house closed in 2011 for lack of renovation work and has stood empty since. In 2017, Austria expropriated the ownerafter a long disagreement about how the building should be used. It ended up not being demolished in accordance with regulations protecting historical monuments.
Now the building is being revitalized: it is to become the headquarters of the district police and Braunau's police station in one — as a symbol of democracy, human rights and immunity from persecution. The reconstruction is to cost 2 million euros ($2.2 million) and is scheduled for completion at the end of 2022. In November 2019, the Ministry of the Interior announced an architectural competition for the bid.
The building at Salzburger Vorstadt 15 in its current state: The facade has remained largely the same since the NS period
A valuable historic substance to Hitler's house
The architectural firm Marte.Marte, based in Feldkirch in Vorarlberg, also designed the Documentation Center for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, which is to open near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin in 2021.
"As an architect, you approach such a project with as little prejudice as possible and a certain naivety: There are specifications, and you consider how they can best be implemented," Stefan Marte told DW. "You take a step back and look at the architecture, the construction, and think about what can be improved. There is a valuable historical foundation there — and it is in the corridored building style that includes a large plot of land typical of that district, to which we are adding new buildings."
The competition jury praised the simplicity of the building design, which is not to attract attention after reconstruction. Since the facade today still resembles that seen in archive pictures from the Nazi era, there was great concern that it would become a pilgrimage site luring neo-Nazis eager to pose in photographs.
Only Hitler's birthplace, or historically significant?
The description for the competition bid stated: "The external redesign of the existing building is intended to eliminate the memory of the National Socialist era [...]" and "to prevent the cultivation, promotion or dissemination of National Socialist ideas or an affirmative remembrance of National Socialism."
"Our aim is to extract the original design and revive it," the architect stressed. The Nazis left the interior of the house almost unchanged. "The NSDAP only changed the facade; the shapes and size of the windows were supposed to make the house look more stately. The rear side is also unchanged."
Tear down, redesign or preserve historic monuments?
The building's historical significance is difficult to classify because it was not a place where, for instance, atrocities occurred. Nor did Hitler draft his plans there; he was just three years old when his family moved out.
The structure is nonetheless is a prime example in the debate on the proper way to deal with historically tainted edifices. The Obersalzberg, Munich's Königsplatz, Berlin's Olympic Stadium and Italian architecture from the fascist era that sometimes still bears the mark of Benito Mussolini — the question applies to all: should they be torn down, redesigned or preserved as a historical reminder?
"In archaeology, the term for the attempt to erase memory is damnatio memoriae, a widespread practice in Egypt and Rome," said Viennese historian Marcello La Speranza, author of Brisante Architektur: Hinterlassenschaften der NS-Zeit (Controversial Architecture: Remnants of the NS Period), in an interview with DW. "It's a matter of banishing all evidence of existence, thus erasing the past from our senses." But history has shown that it does not erase itself.
Extinguishing history poses risks
The historian says he does not want to "attribute too much historical relevance" to the site; it just "happens to be Hitler's birthplace." Nevertheless, the house does have that very history, and to fill it in "without a reference to the past can also create new myths around a building, especially in right-wing circles." One way to address historically charged buildings would be to create a space providing information, says Marcello La Speranza.
Architect Stefan Marte believes that the way historically charged buildings are handled should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis: "There is no question that there could have been other possibilities for this building, for example, to be preserved as part of history in the way the NSDAP left it. There is not just one right solution."