Doppelgänger ethics: Why Austria arrested a Hitler double

Austrian police say they detained the man after witnesses reported seeing him repeatedly in front of the home where Adolf Hitler was born. 

Kerstin Joensson/AP/File
An exterior view of Adolf Hitler's birth house is seen in Braunau am Inn, Austria, Sept. 27, 2012. Austrian police said they have detained a man described by local media as 'Hitler's double' for possible violations of laws against glorifying the Nazi era.

Austrian police have detained a man for violating a 1947 Austrian law that makes it illegal to promote Nazi ideology after he allegedly dressed like Adolf Hitler and stood outside of the home where the infamous dictator was born.

The accused, Harald Zen, has been referred to as "Hitler's double" by Austrian newspapers. Witnesses say they spotted him on multiple occasions in a 1940s-style suit and a haircut-mustache combination ripped directly from old photographs and newsreels of Hitler.

Mr. Zen, who once identified himself in a bar as "Harald Hitler," had been photographed in full Hitler regalia in Braunau am Inn, an Austrian town close to the German border and the birthplace of the dictator. Zen was arrested on Monday in front of the house where Hitler was born in 1889, which was recently acquired by the Austrian government.

Zen has been spotted posing for photographs in front of the house before, and witnesses reported him in a local bookstore's World War II section shortly before his arrest. Zen reportedly moved to Braunau in mid-January from the Austrian state of Styria, and has no prior criminal record. An acquaintance told The Local that Zen had dropped out of art school (perhaps an homage to Hitler's failed art career) and had taken up acting lessons to prepare for his illegal role.

"He wanted to learn to move like Adolf Hitler," said the acquaintance.

But Austrian authorities were less than pleased with his impression of the dictator.

"The glorification of Adolf Hitler is punishable," a spokesperson for the Ried prosecutor's office told a local newspaper. "If I dress as Hitler and pose outside his birthplace, I am reviving this nationalist ideology."

Austria has struggled with the legacy of Nazism for decades. The country was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, an event which many Austrians framed as a victimization of their country, despite widespread approval of the invasion at the time. Until recently, Austrian officials would not admit to the extent of Austrian participation in many of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, the site of the alleged doppelgänger incident has for years troubled Austrians as neo-Nazis visited it as a tourist destination. 

The question of what should become of the house had raised tough choices for Austrians, whose understanding of their country’s role in World War II has only in recent decades shifted toward an acknowledgment of involvement in the Third Reich’s crimes. And it seems to underscore the importance of the public's understanding of its country's history and what that means for the present.

The site has been the object of pilgrimages by neo-Nazi groups, to the dismay of locals. And the climate of European politics turning rightward – the far-right populist Freedom Party nearly captured the Austrian presidency in this month’s elections – probably “weighed heavily on the minds of policy-makers” in debates over whether to raze the house or remodel it, says Thomas Berger, a Boston University professor of international relations who has written a book about the role of guilt in post-World War II politics.

“No one expects the Nazis to come back,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. But there are disturbing similarities between politics of mid 20th-century Europe and the present, he adds. “European political leaders want to remind the general population that Europe stands against it.” 

In such a political climate, dressing up like Hitler in front of his birth house is more than a controversial prank. For many Austrians, such an act can become threatening statement.

"It is definitely not a carnival joke or an art project," an Austrian police spokesman said. "The young man knows exactly what he is doing."

Braunau is particularly sensitive to Hitler's legacy. In December, the Austrian parliament passed a law that allowed the government to seize Hitler's birth home, which many residents hoped would be torn down. It was decided, however, that the house would remain standing as a reminder of the country's sordid past with Nazism. The home will be remodeled and given to a charity that assists people with learning disabilities, a group heavily targeted by Hitler.

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