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.
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.
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.
Stroll along the sun terrace, with its staggering view down to Königsee, and you will pass by where Hitler also enjoyed the same view.
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.
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.
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Got a sick feeling in my stomach when I looked at the photo of Hitler and Goebbels sitting by the fireplace. Even more so because Helga is sitting there, smiling. Such a stark contrast between innocence and evil. I don’t understand why anyone would want to visit the Eagles Nest and stand where Hitler stood and plotted and planned. I think I’d prefer visiting the site of the Berghof, because the site has been wiped clean, so to speak, which feels a lot more honest and honourable to those who died at the hands of the Nazis. Just my opinion, for what it’s worth.
I would like to go, in the same way that I would like to visit other places of evil to ensure they are not forgotten. I can’t understand the extent of commercialisation though. Visit, experience it and reflect, yes; relax over coffee and a have a wander around the gift shop? Not for me.
I have never visited a place which was imbued with wickedness, I have visited a few places where I really could feel the presence of history. Two were particularly strong, the Culloden battlefield and the car park site of former Hitler bunker in Berlin. As a Scot I had a profound feeling of great sadness, the irredeemable defeat of Jacobite ambitions.* In Berlin, standing in the car park with the remains of the bunker beneath my feet, I thought what appalling waste wrought by the insanity of one man. And that he is dismissed by the site of his decease being turned into a car park. (*probably for the best)
I've found with these places that the Big Emotional Expectations, built up over years of hearing about them or seeing them onscreen etc., throw you for a loop. Are you feeling the "right" thing? Are you not? Does that mean you are an ignoramus with a heart of stone. You said it so well about the wildflowers. Sometimes the unexpected things speak the loudest. At Auschwitz, I was really worried that I was some sort of a psycho when the piles of shoes and the "Arbeit macht frei" sign didn't seem to upset me as deeply as I thought they "should". Endless images presenting them as the ne plus ultra of horror seemed to have inured me to their pathos and I was seriously disturbed by my lack of feeling. Then, when in the car returning to Krakow, we passed through a field far from the camp and drove over some disused and overgrown railroad tracks. Those tracks and what they meant blindsided me, and I just fell apart.
Great piece, I saw your photos of the visit & did wonder what we would read about it. I’m sorry but my overwhelming thought the first time I read it was “a bloody gift shop??”
Interesting. Thanks for that.
Guy, are there still people in the area that remember that era and are willing to talk about it? It would be interesting to get their take on it as painful as it must be
Great post Guy. There is a conflicting emotion when visiting any historical site but when visiting one as infamous as Auschwitz or the Berghof such conflicts are greatly magnified.
I often visit Dublin (living in Northern Ireland its a short train journey away) and have visited many of the sites of the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War.
I found visiting Kilmainham to be very thought provoking - especially the site of the executions of the Easter Rising ringleaders.
I felt similarly when I visited Auschwitz years ago and enjoyed a very good steak dinner at the restaurant outside the main gates. All of us at the table felt the same way. Should we be enjoying it?
I also felt the same thing just a few weeks ago when I saw a photo of Hitler touring the Opera Garnier in Paris. I attended a performance there and realized I had stood on many of the same spots he did.
Ultimately, it's up to the individual visitor to demonstrate respect and be familiar with what happened at places like Auschwitz or the Eagles Nest. Others may not feel the same way but you can.
This is a lovely piece of writing - thought-provoking with the sudden dramatic shift of scale right at the very end.
Could your response to the bombed-out Berghof also, though, be that culturally ingrained reaction to ruins made most explicit through Romanticism - but also present, inter alia, in the Old English poem 'The Ruin' (8th century?) - in which contemplating the wreckage of a once-monumental structure becomes a point of embarkation for reflecting on the limitations of all earthly power and glory, etc, etc - worthy, not-entirely-secular thoughts like that? Flowers grown in the ruins are very relevant to that, with their suggestion that a fragile, pretty little thing that won't even last the summer will also, at some level, outlive empires, thousand year reichs very much included.
Whereas, the busy café at the Eagle's Nest, with its commercialised, matter-of-fact, perhaps slightly voyeuristic atmosphere is the Enlightenment personified: Hitler's dead, the war's over, people still need to buy and sell things, life goes on, have a beer, etc. And there's a truth in that too, I suppose - and I suspect it also would have annoyed Hitler, which is always a bonus. (Speer seemed to enjoy contemplating his own architectural compositions as future ruins, but not as future tourist traps, and presumably his boss concurred.)
And that's why your reflections are so good - because they remind us that historic places can be all sorts of different things, and that those in charge of them have quite a choice to make there, and there isn't one single easy answer.
I’m maybe going to be controversial here. Please feel free to bollock me later! I just think some people don’t really know what to think.. “ohhh Hitler stood here” “This is where Hitler gassed Jews”. I’ve heard it. I believe it’s a lack of education. You know how to feel Guy as do most of us here who subscribe. We ARE aware of the enormity of these things. And providing we conduct ourselves accordingly and are happy with our reason/motivation/conscience for being there, then that’s all we can do. If said places want a souvenir shop ( I’m not sure how many do!) then, they are party to the ignorance. Unless, like many of the lesser known D-Day museums, you can only buy educational material. Not Cricket clickers or fake 20mm shells. (I may have missed the point of your post- if so. Call me a knobber. I can take it. I’m Cornish. Lol. )
Despite all the research I had done, and the period photos I had looked at, I found it virtually impossible to feel any sense of history at the Kehlsteinhaus. It's in effect nothing more than a mountain-top restaurant. Nice view, average if somewhat over-priced food. If the authorities wanted to instill a real sense of what happened there, they'd kick the restaurant out and install an appropriate exhibition. But that wouldn't make as much money. So, no chance.
I was eagerly anticipating this piece thank you. It’s near-impossible to avoid comparing old photos with the new and have exactly the thought you describe. If that gets a little intense, I find visiting photos of the same locations featuring Captain Winters and Easy Company admiring the same mountaintop view a bit of a cleanser...
👏 must confess that the commercial trappings of tourism would trouble me. And wondering about the motives of some visitors. Almost wish the Americans had blown up the lot.
Can however fully understand in many ways feeling closer to a sense of history at the Berghof. You don't always need the physical man made objects to feel what has gone before.