Hitler’s House and the Challenges of Representation
I recently visited Hitler’s house – or rather the museum Dokumentation Obersalzberg which has replaced it – in the context of a workshop with the curators. The house I am thinking of was Hitler’s retreat known as the Berghof, on the Obersalzberg near the small town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. In fact, the house no longer stands. Yet this site was used for propaganda purposes during the Third Reich, and images of it have circulated widely since then as well. As a result, this location remains a significant reference point in the history of National Socialism, and for the general conception of Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship. Nearly twenty years after it first opened, a new building is being built and the exhibition in the museum is being rethought. For the curators, the site still poses intriguing challenges of representation. This piece discusses some of these problems and how they are being tackled.
Politics and recreation
Hitler first came to the Obersalzberg area in the early 1920s. It was in this calm and idyllic location that he finished writing Mein Kampf. From 1928 onwards, he rented a house there on the mountainside, which offered fantastic views over the surrounding valley and mountains. After the Nazis came to power in January 1933, he purchased the house, extended it and renamed it the Berghof. The area around the house as a whole was declared a Führer Restricted Zone. Over the following years, it became a Nazi complex of sorts. The few existing houses were taken over and more were built, including an SS barracks. Nazi bigwigs Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer all had houses there as well.
Hitler spent a considerable amount of time in Obersalzberg between 1933 and 1945, including during the war. He not only staged propagandistic events and photo shoots, but also welcomed foreign statesmen and lived there with his close advisors. Images show him greeting local children and having dinner with Eva Braun. The site included a projection room for him to watch his favourite films. From 1943 to 1945, a six-kilometre-long bunker in the mountain was built, connecting the range of overground buildings with underground tunnels and providing a mirror image of them as a refuge in case of bombardment.
In April 1945, the area was indeed bombed and many of the buildings were destroyed. What remained was blown up by the Americans in 1952. During the Cold War, the Americans occupied the area, transforming it into a recreational site for their troops. In the small mountain village, life went on: in the 1970s, for example, a luxury hotel was built just above where Hitler’s house had once stood. The only remaining pre-war building, the guesthouse Zum Türken, offered (and still offers) its guests not only all the facilities they need to go hiking or skiing but also unofficial bunker tours.
Education and fascination
When the Americans vacated the site in the mid-1990s, the German authorities recognised the importance of, for lack of a better word, ‘memorialising’ the site. Berchtesgaden, a touristic town with ski slopes, a golf course, a lake and many mountain trails, would draw people to it whether they wanted it or not. Moreover, in the eyes of the public, its authenticity with respect to the Nazi dictatorship was unquestionable. The fascination needed to be tackled with education.
The exhibition established then, which is still on display today in a purpose-built structure near where the Berghof once stood, reflects this edifying purpose. It tells the history of the Third Reich in a broad, text-heavy and clear-cut manner. Evidence of the power of propaganda on the one hand, and the extent of Nazi crimes on the other, is literally placed side by side. The narrative stresses that Nazism was bad, even when it looked or felt good. Most problematically, perhaps, it suggests that all came from above – the Nazis said what they wanted and the Germans simply followed.
Only after walking through this broad account of Nazi rule is the visitor able to enter the bunker – a massive concrete structure which is in fact what draws most visitors to the site. Beyond the Documentation Centre, the path through the forest to the remains of the foundations of the Berghof, or any other of the key ‘authentic’ locations, has deliberately been left unmarked. To obscure the place further, the hillside, which was once bare, is now covered in trees. But this does not prevent those who know the way from finding these traces, as the candles and runes frequently found in the woods demonstrate.
1 – Centering on the object
The historians working on the new exhibition hope to circumvent some of the difficulties outlined above by centring on the object. While many of the visitors coming to the Documentation Centre have limited knowledge of German history, the curators have come to realise this is not the right place to attempt to offer a comprehensive history of the Second World War or National Socialism. Focussing in contrast on key objects, such as a widely-distributed propagandistic photo album of which one has to collect the images, can serve to tell an individual story which allows for a closer identification with the topic and a more nuanced understanding. While such private items can tell us about the collective (general enthusiasm for Nazism), they can also highlight the contingency and mundaneness of individual motives for supporting the regime.
2 – Obersalzberg as a stage
The curators’ main concern is to avoid a cultish approach along the lines of ‘this is where Hitler drank his daily tea’. To tackle this, the aim is to deconstruct the performance of power in this location. The emphasis is to be placed on Obersalzberg’s function as a stage on which Hitler and the Nazis performed and coordinated their politics and image – quite literally stage-managing crimes from a comfortable distance. A key hypothesis in this respect concerns the comfort Hitler found in withdrawing from Berlin to this natural idyll, to rule from a periphery he could control, surrounded by selected people. One can only be reminded of Trump’s weekends in Mar-a-Lago, among his paying ‘friends’ and safely away from the media and Washington’s politicians. The notion of ‘politics as a show’ is unfortunately as timely as ever and is intended to be a central thread of the new exhibition.
3 – Harnessing the fascination
Finally, a key aim of the new exhibition is to harness the potential (and the dangers) of the popular fascination for the site, reflected in the fact, for example, that people still place candles on the ruins of the Berghof over seventy years after the end of the war. A whole section of the exhibition will deal with the post-war history of the site and the different attempts to control or claim the legacy. Beyond this, the exhibition is to reflect more accurately the significance of Obersalzberg within the history of the Third Reich politics and imaginary, as well as the impact of the Third Reich on the local community. Obersalzberg and Berchtesgaden and their inhabitants can in this sense be seen as exemplary for many other Germans or places in Germany. It is to be presented as unique and ordinary simultaneously.
Feature image: ‘Obersalzberg, Berghof von Adolf Hitler’ taken by Heinrich Hoffmann (1933), provided by the German Federal Archive (Bild 183-1999-0412-502) under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.