Some thoughts about visiting Hitler's hideaways

THERE is normally a feeling of unease when visiting places associated with evil. For me at least, that unease is not so much rooted in walking the same ground as where horrific acts were either executed or planned, but more in the problematic relationship the visitor has with such sites.

How reverential should your demeanour be? Is it acceptable, for example, to wear shorts when visiting Auschwitz? How comfortable are you with the presence of a gift shop? Are you merely visiting the site as a box-ticking exercise on some holiday? Is it all right to drink a beer in the café and chat about day-to-day stuff? Ultimately, is the touristic commercialisation and exploitation of such places really appropriate?

All these questions – and more – occurred to me when I visited the Obersalzburg in Germany last week in order to participate in a six-part documentary series on Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill for the Danish production company Kompagniet. As many know, the Obersalzburg was the site of a large enclave of buildings used by the senior Nazis as their weekend retreats. Hitler’s home was known as the Berghof, and at the top of the Kehlstein mountain sits the Eagle’s Nest or Kehlsteinhaus, which was built for Hitler as a glorified mountain hut.

[Hitler's retreat, the Berghof, near Berchtesgaden]
The Berghof, c. 1938
The Eagle’s Nest, or Kehlsteinhaus

Today, the Berghof lies in ruins. It was bombed heavily during the war, and in the early 1950s it was dynamited by the US Army to stop the property becoming a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazi loons. The Eagle’s Nest, however, remains, and is now a very popular spot for visitors, partly because of the views, but mainly, I suspect, because of the association with Hitler.

The remains of the Berghof today
The Eagle’s Nest today

Going around the Kehlsteinhaus was a strange experience. On one level, you are aware that this is a place that was built for Hitler and used by him. Where you walk, Hitler walked. Stand by the fireplace, and you stand right in front of where the dictator and the likes of Josef Goebbels sat some eight decades before – still within living memory.

Hitler, Goebbels, and Helga Goebbels sitting at the fireplace at the Kehlsteinhaus. The fireplace was a gift from Mussolini.

Stroll along the sun terrace, with its staggering view down to Königsee, and you will pass by where Hitler also enjoyed the same view.

Hitler on the sun terrace of the Kehlsteinhaus
The sun terrace today

While the knowledge that you are walking in Hitler’s footsteps obviously makes you think, what interrupts your thoughts are the presence of not only your fellow visitors – of which there were many when I visited – but also all the trappings of a tourist spot, including buses, a restaurant, a gift shop, and tour guides.

Of course, it takes the worst sort of hypocrite to be a tourist and yet complain about the presence of your fellow tourists, and I’m certainly not going down that path. But ultimately, the Eagle’s Nest suffers from what physicists call the ‘observer effect’, in which the very act of observation disturbs and corrupts what is being observed. It’s just really hard to get imbued with the sense of history – and horror – associated with the Eagle’s Nest.

Far more moving were the ruins of the Berghof. Because there is less to see, there are very few people, and we were able to film almost completely undisturbed.

What I really felt at the Berghof was not only a sense of place, but also a sense of history. Yes, just as when you are up at the Eagle’s Nest, you know that you are in the same spot as Hitler when he admired the same view, but here you are not distracted by others or the trappings of tourism.

GHDI - Image

But as well as the scenery, what I also noticed were the wildflowers – which included wood crane’s-bill, blue bugle, and sweet woodruff. I have no idea whether Hitler had a particular fondness for wildflowers – although it appears that Eva Braun liked picking them – but what the flowers provided was a different and very delicate sense of place to the almost noisy enormity of the scenery.

It’s very likely that these flowers would have grown here when Hitler walked these paths, and perhaps he too would have noticed them, and drawn the same pleasure from them as I felt. In a disturbing way, the flowers were a reminder of Hitler’s humanness.

It was a lesson, therefore, that just as you can see heaven in a wild flower, you can also see hell.

Wood crane’s-bill at the Berghof

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