THERE WE WERE, motoring down the autobahn in a black turbocharged C class Mercedes. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself – I had booked a Ford Mondeo from Hertz and I lucked out with fabulous upgrade when I picked up my rental car at Frankfurt airport.
Christmas in Munich, New Year in Vienna, then on to Budapest, Bratislava and Prague. A wonderful winter Central European motoring vacation, made all the better by the truly wondrous vehicle upgrade.
In Munich I checked the map. There’s an autobahn all the way to Vienna. But there is slightly shorter northern route on a secondary highway that passes through the small town of Braunau am Inn. This unremarkable little place, just on the Austrian side of the border with Germany, is the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.
I’ve had a fascination with the evil genius my whole life. He is the main reason I learnt German, so I could better understand why and how one of Europe’s most civilised cultures hatched such a monster. After a lifetime of study I think I know why, and it troubles me to see many of the circumstances being repeated in modern world. I felt I had to go to Braunau.
It’s only an hour or so out of Munch. It’s quite a pretty place, and looks like it would have changed very little since Adolf Hitler was born there in 1889. He lived there only until he was three years old. His father was a customs inspector in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, in charge of the border crossing on the River Inn (the same river that passes through Innsbruck, which is German for ‘Bridge over the Inn’).
I didn’t expect to see any signs in town telling you anything about its most famous – or infamous – inhabitant. Hitler is not exactly the kinda guy you celebrate, unless you’re a neo-Nazi. I went into the town’s small information centre. Nothing there about Hitler, just brochures on the local district and the big aluminium factory just out of town, the largest in Austria.
So, in my best German I asked at the desk whether they had any information about Adolf Hitler. The lady sheepishly reached down below the counter and gave me a couple of photocopied sheets that had a bit about him and a map that showed where he was born. It was like being passed pornography.
Hitler’s birthplace was a short walk up the hill, beyond the arch at the southern end of the town square. As I walked through it I wondered how many times his mother Klara would have walked that way carrying him as a baby, or a little later with toddler Adolf at her side. Did people stop her and say what a lovely child he was?
The house is unremarkable. It is a solid stone three storey building painted a pale yellow, now as then divided into apartments. There is a small memorial out front which reads in German “For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again Fascism. Millions of dead remind us.” It was placed there by the local authorities on the centenary of Hitler’s birth. The stone on which the inscription is written comes from Matthausen concentration camp, which is not far away.
There have always been worries that Hitler’s birthplace would become some sort of shrine to his memory. The rise of far right wing nationalism in Europe in recent years has rekindled these concerns. Now, in 2019, the Austrian Interior Ministry has announced that the building will be turned into a police station.
We stood in front of the house for a few minutes. There was nothing else to keep us in Braunau. We wandered back down to the river and drove off for lunch in Melk, site of a famous mediaeval monastery on the Danube. The Austrian countryside on a crisp winter morning is a pretty place, especially through the windows of a sleek Mercedes-Benz sedan.
Then it was on to Vienna, one of the world’s most charming cities, where as a failed artist before World War I Hitler picked up his hatred of Jews. We hit town late afternoon.
Seeing where Hitler was born was somehow important to me. I suppose it’s okay that it’s becoming a police station, but perhaps something like a kindergarten would have been better. “Never again Fascism.” If only more people understood how easily it can happen.