“Idyll and crime”: how the beautiful Bavarian region of Berchtesgaden manages its terrible Nazi past

The idyllic image projected by the Bavarian region of Berchtesgaden, famous for its wonderful mountainous landscape of the Alps and its spectacular Lake Königssee, contrasts with its terrible Nazi past. A past that is not always known to tourists who travel to the area to stroll through its impressive mountains, but it is there. Obersalzberg is not just any mountain. It was the place chosen by Adolf Hitler to spend his vacations. And also where he made some of his most terrible decisions during World War II.

The region has been immersed for some time in the arduous task of how to bring its past closer to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come attracted by the beauty of one of the most beautiful areas of Germany, on the border with Austria, but without turning it into a place of pilgrimage of the extreme right. This contrast between the beautiful place and Nazism is the common thread of the new exhibition at the Obersalzberg Documentation Center, reopened at the end of last year after a thorough renovation.

Under the title of Idyll and crime, The images of Hitler enjoying his inner circle and nature are put in context with the terrible acts that were unleashed from there. From the invasion of Poland in 1939, which unleashed the world war, to the deportation of the Jews from Hungary or the program to eliminate mentally ill and disabled people.

The Obersalzberg documentation center, built on the former country house of Adolf Hitler.Documentation Obersakzberg/Melanie Diehm

“Before there was no serious memory work in Obersalzberg about the Nazi past, people came and visited only the tea house at the top of the Kehlstein mountain,” explains Albert Feiber, deputy director of the Documentation Center in Obersalzberg, about the decision. of Bavaria to set up an exhibition to tell what happened there. For years the region was concerned about how to manage its past. “There is hardly a place in Germany that has been, and continues to be, as closely associated with Hitler as this one.”

The area is a tourist magnet for nature lovers, but leaving aside the darkest chapters of its history does not make them disappear. Feiber recalls that initially, in 1999, the inauguration of the first documentation center provoked massive rejection from the local population, who asked what Obersalzberg had to do with Auschwitz or Nazi crimes. “Today that has changed. Now Berchtesgaden faces its history.”

“The central message on which the exhibition revolves is the contrast between the idyllic and the crime. On the one hand we have Hitler looking at nature from his house in the mountains. On the other hand, what was decided here? The invasion of Poland was prepared here. We always show the idyllic image of Obersalzberg and next to it the photo of the crime related to that moment,” indicates the historian.

Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler, in their home in Obersalzberg.ullstein picture German (ullstein image via Getty Images)

The center is very close to where the so-called Berghof was located, the private house where the dictator met with his inner circle and where he retired when he had to make important decisions. There are images from that time, such as one in which Hitler is seen walking with Heinrich Himmler (leader of the SS) through the mountains. “We do not know what they said on that day, but it was precisely at that moment that the invasion of Hungary by the German Army and the deportation of the Hungarian Jews were announced. That means that when Himmler came to Obersalzberg, something he did not do very often, he did not come to talk to Hitler about the good weather, but to make important political decisions. This image of Hitler with Himmler is contrasted in the exhibition with images of destroyed Warsaw or Auschwitz. “These are the Hungarian Jews who arrived at the Auschwitz ramp,” he says.

Hitler surrounded himself with his inner circle, made up of about 20 people, among whom were his partner, Eva Braun; Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister; Martin Bormann, head of the chancellery of the Nazi party; Albert Speer, architect and Minister of Armaments, and Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Air Force. These last three even had their own vacation home there and came with their families. Being part of that circle was a privilege. “The Berghof group was made up of different people of different ranks, who formed a kind of Hitler’s court, as if he were an emperor,” explains Feiber.

At first, Hitler was just another vacationer. He fell in love with the region on his first trip, in April 1923. Two years later he rented a log cabin in the woods where he wrote part of the second volume of his diatribe. My fight (My fight) and three years later, a country house called Wachenfeld, which he would later buy in 1933. He later transformed it into the luxurious Berghof, with immense panoramic windows to the mountains and a terrace where he could drink coffee.

Visitors to the exhibition ‘Idyll and crime’.Documentation Obersalzberg

The summer residence became his second seat of government, where he spent a quarter of his time in power (1933-1945). Also with SS barracks and administrative buildings. Despite what many of their assistants claimed after the war, in Obersalzberg they lived communally and were aware of Nazi plans, although they would later claim that they only discussed trivial topics. It is what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.

Politicians, heads of state and military leaders from around the world flocked to Obersalzberg, where Hitler negotiated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 and dined with Italian Benito Mussolini on several occasions. In November 1940, he also received the then Spanish foreign minister, Ramón Serrano Suñer.

At the same time, the picture-postcard Alpine landscape provided Hitler with the perfect backdrop to present himself as a leader close to nature and the people. Photos of him looking thoughtfully into the distance, stroking the heads of blonde children, shaking hands or sitting on the terrace with his inner circle went around the world.

Bunkers beneath the Obersalzberg documentation center.Documentation Obersalberg/Melanie Diehm

It was common for him to take walks after eating to a small tea house with panoramic views. The trail was small and only two people could walk together. This allowed Hitler to talk with the chosen person during the 20-minute journey. Subsequently, Bormann had another tea house built in 1937 at the top of the Kehlstein mountain, at 1,834 meters above sea level, which is what is known today as the Eagle’s Nest, but where he only visited a dozen times. Hitler.

The bombing raids on Germany led the Führer to build a nearly six-kilometer bunker system between 1943 and 1945, beneath virtually every building in Obersalzberg. Only 10% of that network can now be visited. “There were heaters, bathrooms, wooden floors, bedrooms, kitchens. Everything you could need. It was relatively modern and generously equipped. Hitler, Göring and Bormann had fully functional bunkers, with water supplies, underground power generators, machine gun nests and complete communication facilities,” explains writer Florian Beierl, who was able to enter the bunkers to document himself for his book. Hitler’s mountain.

Hitler last stayed here in July 1944. Much of Obersalzberg was destroyed on April 25, 1945, during a British bombing raid. Later, Berghof was burned down by Nazi troops so as not to leave any “trophy” for the victors. The US army settled in Berchtesgaden after the end of the war, in May 1945, and remained there until 1995. To avoid the pilgrimage of curious onlookers who approached the area in the 1950s, they finally decided to destroy what remained. in 1952.

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