Should Austria seize Hitler’s birthplace?

The Austrian government hopes to seize a private home known to be Hitler's birthplace, sparking debate about destroying a relic of dark history versus using it for education.

Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters
The house in which Adolf Hitler was born is seen through a fence in the northern Austrian city of Braunau am Inn September 24, 2012.

The Austrian government has drafted a law that would dispossess the owner of the home where Adolf Hitler was born.

This is a new step in a back-and-forth between the Austrian government and the house owner Gerlinde Pommer, who has reportedly refused to sell the unoccupied building in the town of Braunau am Inn on the German border. The government wants to take ownership in order to prevent the site from becoming a place of homage for those who admire the Nazi dictator, the Associated Press reports.

Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck says the Parliament will vote on the law sometime this year. He did not specify plans for the property, but the discussion surrounding the house and its fate lands in the middle of a decades-long conversation about how to both deal with the legacy and artifacts of Nazi atrocities and ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

But it also arises within the current context in Austria, a nation that within the past year has seen the rise of the far-right populist Freedom Party, originally founded by former Nazis and Teutonic nationalists, as well as incidents like the May arrest of a suspected neo-Nazi man who threatened gun violence against asylum seekers.

Experts have linked Austria’s recent shift right to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have passed through the country on their way to Sweden or Germany or, in the case of 90,000 refugees, applied for asylum in Austria. These events led to border closures and limits on asylum claims in the country.

And when it comes to connections to Nazi past, some suggest that Austria has a more complicated relationship than Germany. While covering the rise of the Freedom Party in Austria, The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana spoke to experts about the effects of post-war history, during which time Austria was both freed from Nazi domination and occupied by the liberators, before become an independent, neutral democratic nation in 1955. Referring to these points, Ms. Llana wrote:

Michal Vašečka, a Slovak sociologist and professor at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic, says that this matters today because the countries that were under the Austro-Hungarian empire never “properly reconciled with Nazism, Fascism, or the results of World War II,” he says. Because of this, unlike Germany where the far-right is growing but remains on the fringes, hateful rhetoric finds more fertile ground here.

Germany, which was left with myriad Nazi buildings and artifacts after the war, has taken a strict stand against overtures of nationalism and racism and worked to instill recognition of the Holocaust in its school curricula and field trips, as well as in public museums and memorials. 

However, that nation has faced criticism for how it handles a dark past, and observers are quick to look for situations where history appears to be swept under the rug. Debates have continued into recent years about the representation of Munich's Königsplatz square, a former site for Nazi rallies and book burnings, as a cultural hub and the republication of Hitler's manifesto "Mein Kampf" after a 70-year ban.

As officials in Austria take a step closer to gaining control of Hitler’s birth house, discussions are on-going about what to do with the structure, were it to be seized through the special legislation.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka told Austrian television that he thought “the cleanest solution” would be to demolish the house. That was just what US soldiers stopped German troops from doing in the final days of World War II, and instead the home housed an early exhibition about the concentration camps, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Other suggestions range from a home for refugees or a maternity hospital to a museum educating about Nazi atrocity.

The building most recently housed a charity for people with mental disabilities. The government has rented the property since 1972 in order to maintain control over it. The Pommer family had sold the house to Hitler’s secretary in 1938 and then bought it back from the government in 1954. It wasn’t until 2014 when Ms. Pommer moved to cancel the government’s lease that the current controversy began. 

The legislation would take the house on the grounds that it is of historical significance.

While it does not mention Hitler by name, an inscription on a rock outside the house reads: "For peace, freedom and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead are a warning."

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