Austria to seize, but not destroy, Hitler's house. Here's why it matters.

Austrian officials faced a tough choice about what to do with Hitler's house once legal groundwork was laid for its expropriation.

Leonhard Foegher/Reuters
A stone outside the house in which Adolf Hitler was born, with the inscription 'For peace, freedom and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead are a warning', is pictured in Braunau am Inn, Austria, Oct. 22, 2016.

The house where Adolf Hitler was born will become property of the state, after the Austrian parliament passed a law on Wednesday that legalizes the house’s expropriation. 

The vote brings an effective end to authorities’ longstanding battle with the owner, who refused to sell it. And after a meeting on Thursday between the Austrian interior minister; the provincial governor; and the mayor of Braunau, the town where the residence stands, the three officials announced that the house would be remodeled and given to a charity for people with learning disabilities, according to the BBC.

“After a lengthy meeting we decided not to knock it down after all," said Upper Austria governor Josef Pühringer, according to Agence France-Presse. "A social use, as was the case already over many years, is a life-affirming statement, a homage to the victims of National Socialism and a clear symbol against the crimes committed by Hitler."

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.” 

Interior minister Wolfgang Sobotka, one of the three officials who huddled on Thursday, had previously cited a 13-member panel of experts in saying that the house would be torn down, with a new building constructed for use by a charity.

But several panel members pointed out that they hadn’t actually recommended the destruction of the building, issuing a statement in October that equated razing it to “negating Austria’s Nazi past,” according to AFP.

That is a loaded charge in a country where, until the early 1990s, the official story was that Austrians were simply the Nazis’ first victims, obscuring the truth of the way that Austrians received the German takeover, according to Winfried Garscha, a historian at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance in Vienna.

“The majority of the Austrian population welcomed Hitler because for them it was a big event, the German chancellor invading Austria and coming here and bringing all those new promises of the Nazis, because Austria at that time was a very poor country,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in a 2015 interview.

“The second reason was a very Austrian one. In Austria anti-Semitism was even deeper rooted than in Germany. Vienna had a Jewish population of around 11 per cent. And as soon as the German soldiers arrived in Vienna you had an outbreak of the worst anti-Semitic pogroms you ever had seen in central Europe since the Middle Ages.”

A turning point occurred in the early 1990s, during the presidency of Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations, who lied about his involvement with the Nazi movement and German army as a military-intelligence lieutenant. Revelations of his wartime role were an international scandal.

“It was an important moment for Austrian thinking about the past,” Dr. Berger tells the Monitor. “They became much more forthright in dealing with the past … and came up with a policy of joint responsibility.”

“The Austrian public has come a long way from where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. That self-exculpatory language or thinking, while still there beneath the surface, is not nearly as strong. There’s a deeper sense of penitence and regret and revulsion for Austria’s role.”

It’s unclear to what extent the remodeling and repurposing of the house will discourage pilgrims. In September, the head of the Austrian Nazi Resistance archives, Gerhard Baumgartner, told an Austrian radio station that neo-Nazis might come even if the residence were demolished.

"We must put something there that nobody would want to photograph themselves in front of – a supermarket, a charity store or a fire station," he said, according to Deutsche-Welles.

Berger says he isn’t sure either way. But the handicapped, he notes, had been the Nazis’ first victims.

“A handicapped home? It’s a pretty potent symbol.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Austria to seize, but not destroy, Hitler's house. Here's why it matters.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today