Living space in Braunau is scarce, but an imposing Renaissance-era buildingÂ stands empty in this post-card pretty Austrian town because of the sinisterÂ shadow cast by a former tenant: AdolfÂ Hitler.
With its thick walls, huge arched doorway and deep-set windows, theÂ 500-year-old house near the town square would normally be prime property.Â Because Hitler was born here, it has become a huge headache for town fathersÂ forced into deciding what to do with a landmark so intimately linked toÂ evil.
The building was most recently used as a workshop for the mentallyÂ handicapped, which some saw as atonement for the murders of tens of thousands ofÂ disabled people by the Nazi regime. But that tenant moved out last year for moreÂ modern quarters.
The departure reignited debate on what to do with the house that burst fromÂ the town hall chamber into the public domain last week after the mayor declaredÂ that he preferred creating apartments over turning the building into anÂ anti-Nazi memorial.
“We are already stigmatized,” Johannes Waidbacher told the Austrian dailyÂ Der Standard. “We, as the town of Braunau, are not ready to assumeÂ responsibility for the outbreak of World War II.”
That sparked a storm of criticism, with Waidbacher accused of trying to buryÂ memories of the Nazi past.
The comments were particularly ill-received due to the fact that Braunau’sÂ town council only withdrew honorary citizenship from Hitler last year, 78 yearsÂ after the Nazi dictator was given the accolade – as did nearly a dozen otherÂ towns and cities after checking their archives.
Stung by the criticism, Waidbacher has since stepped back, saying he canÂ conceive of “all possible uses” for the building.
On Thursday, Waidbacher expressed surprise at the vehement reaction hisÂ comments caused, saying he did not mean to make light of the significance of theÂ house. “Our town has definitely done its homework as far as its past isÂ concerned,” he told The Associated Press.
Nonetheless, concerns about the building’s fate continue to reverberate onÂ the ancient cobble-stoned streets of this town of 16,600.
One major fear: The house could fill up with Hitler worshippers if convertedÂ into living space.
“These are certainly people we don’t want here,” said town council memberÂ Harry Buchmayr, noting that most visitors are not normal tourists but neo-NazisÂ stopping to pay homage to Hitler, even though he spent only the first few monthsÂ of his life in the building.
And it’s unclear who else might want to take up residence in the house.
“I wouldn’t want to live there,” said 19-year-old Susanne Duerr, as sheÂ paused from pushing her baby carriage to gaze at the yellow stucco building. “IÂ think I would have a bad conscience.”
Other townsfolk old enough to remember the Fuehrer echo that sentiment.Â Georg Hoedl, 88, recalls Hitler as the man who dragged depression-era AustriaÂ and Germany out of the kind of abject poverty that forced him to go begging. ButÂ he also is aware of the evil Hitler spawned.
“There should be something else inside, something cultural. But apartments – I’m not for that,” he said
Wife Erika, 73, says that bearing the burden of the house’s legacy “wouldn’tÂ be pleasant for the tenants – once they moved in they would be asked about thisÂ all the time.”
Austria’s Interior Ministry has rented the house since 1972 from the owner,Â a woman in her 60s who refuses to be identified publicly. The ministry has beenÂ careful to sublet only to tenants with no history of admiring Hitler. AskedÂ about the debate, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sonja Jell said the ministryÂ remained “particularly sensitive” about the future uses of the buildingÂ considering its legacy.
The owner refused a request by Braunau officials to let the city mount aÂ sign on the house warning of the evils of the Nazi past. But an inscription on aÂ chunk of granite on public property near the building calls out to passersby:Â “Never again fascism, never again war.”
The building still has the initials MB in the iron grillwork above theÂ massive wooden doorway. It stands for Martin Bormann, Hitler’s privateÂ secretary, who bought the house shortly before World War II with thoughts ofÂ turning it into a shrine to the dictator.
The house is one of the few remaining structures directly linked toÂ Hitler.
A house in nearby Leonding where he spent some teenage years is now used toÂ store coffins for the town cemetery. At that graveyard, the tombstone markingÂ the grave of Adolf Hitler’s parents, a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, wasÂ removed last year at the request of a descendant. A school Hitler attended inÂ Fischlham, also near Braunau, displays a plaque condemning his crimes againstÂ humanity.
The underground bunker in Berlin where Hitler committed suicide on April 30,Â 1945, was demolished after the war. It was left vacant until the East GermanÂ government built an apartment complex around the site in the late 1980s. TheÂ apartments, which are still occupied, overlook the German capital’s monument toÂ victims of the Holocaust.
Ultimately, it’s the owner who will decide the Branau building’s fate. She’sÂ known to be opposed to turning it into a Holocaust memorial, meaning there’sÂ still a chance it could be converted into apartments.
That’s a nightmare scenario for Buchmayr, a member of Austria’s SocialistÂ Party that has done much over the past four decades to sensitize citizens toÂ their country’s Nazi past.
“You can’t simply wish it away,” Buchmayr said of the house. “UnfortunatelyÂ we have it here.
“Hitler was born here.”