The Obersalzberg documentation centre in Berchtesgaden with the modern exhibition building on the right and a view of the Untersberg.

I’ve never been to ... the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre

“Der braune Berg” – The Brown Mountain

For the ”I've never been to...” series, our authors explore places in and around Munich that they have never visited before. This time, Karoline Graf reports on her first visit to the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre in Berchtesgaden.

Obersalzberg, the Americans and Me

To be honest, I have been to Obersalzberg before, as a child, ages ago, at the end of the 1960s, when the Americans ran a recreation centre for their soldiers here. At that time, there were no plans for establishing a documentation centre on the place’s history during the Nazi era. I remember the steep and winding mountain road from Berchtesgaden up to Obersalzberg with its borders of light-coloured natural stone blocks and how miserable I felt in the back seat of the VW Beetle, wedged between luggage and my three sisters. After our arrival, I lay with a headache in the darkened room of the "Zum Türken” inn, with the smell of fried fish wafting in from the restaurant early in the morning. When I was finally able to go outside again, there were flower meadows and a kind of little wall to balance on, which I still found unchanged decades later.

It’s easy to explain what my family did at Obersalzberg: My mother worked as a translator for the US Army. One of her clients was the Rod & Gun Club, a hunting and fishery leisure club for American officers in Germany, which organised a large gathering at Obersalzberg once a year. Not far from our accommodation at the time was the General Walker Hotel, and while I was still struggling with my nausea, the obligatory Berchtesgaden brass band was usually already playing the opening tunes to start the club's annual general meeting in the ballroom.

By then, the war had ended a good two decades ago. The opening speaker would welcome the local musicians in his American German as a gesture of friendship that had developed over time: ”Wir danken Ihnen für die schonen Tonen, die Sie uns geblusen haben“ - we thank you for the beautiful tones you have blown for us. This and all the other speeches at the conference then proceeded in English and were interpreted by my mother for the German participants.

For this task, she was called in once a year from Heidelberg, the headquarters of the US army in Europe at the time. And all of us, her husband and children, accompanied her. During one of her final assignments, she received an award for her services. This certificate is still framed and displayed in my parents' home, encapsulating a piece of contemporary history from Obersalzberg.

50 years later – a visit to the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre

Half a century later, I find myself back at this place. All that remains of the General Walker Hotel is a faceless extension, which now houses the Berggasthof inn; the rest has given way to the visitor car park of the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre. The exhibition was opened after the withdrawal of the Americans at the end of the 1990s. It sheds light on the years between 1923 and 1945, when Hitler initially discovered Obersalzberg as a place of retreat for himself, only to turn it into his second control centre alongside Berlin after seizing power in 1933.

With the museum, the Bavarian government implemented the so-called two-pillar concept: The aim was to reopen tourism on the former ”Brauner Berg” (the Brown Mountain) and at the same time create a place that educates people about Nazi crimes and counteracts any kind of Hitler folklore.

For a long time I didn't realise that Hitler had spent a whole four years here on the mountain range between the Watzmann, Untersberg and Hoher Göll. I had also always confused the Berghof with the Kehlsteinhaus, also known as the Eagle’s Nest. After my visit here, I know better: Only a few remnants of the walls of Hitler's residence, the Berghof, exist today.

The Eagle's Nest, on the other hand, 800 metres higher up, was rarely used by Hitler and spared together with part of its dreary 1930s interior from the bombing raids at the end of the war. Its location with a view of the Watzmann mountain and Lake Königssee was intended to impress foreign state guests. Today, most tourists combine a visit to the Documentation Centre with an ascent to the Eagle's Nest. However, this is only possible from the beginning of May to the end of October.

Idyll and Crime – my tour of the new exhibition

The new exhibition ”Idyll and Crime” was opened in September 2023 in a spacious extension building, examining the history of National Socialism from the Obersalzberg point of view. It is one of the best exhibitions on the topic I have come across so far. Even the title refers to Hitler's self-glorification and life on the Berghof.

Across five chapters, selected photographs, exhibits, biographies, crime scenes, and locations of atrocities are used to illustrate how early persecution and marginalisation shaped politics in the picturesque Berchtesgadener Land. It also shows how Obersalzberg became a planning and command centre for the Holocaust and the criminal war. The documentation was curated by the Institute of Contemporary History, based in Berlin and Munich, which has been researching the National Socialist dictatorship since 1949.

 

The “Führersperrgebiet” – the Führer’s restricted zone

I join a group that has booked an 80-minute walk, including a visit to the bunkers built from 1943 onwards. I can only recommend this tour. Our guide impresses me with his calm demeanour, his in-depth knowledge, and his ability to articulate complex historical contexts.

Right at the beginning of the exhibition, visitors are awaited by an interactive model of Obersalzberg during its time as a restricted area. With the press of a button, the properties of Nazi leaders such as Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring and Albert Speer, who lived here alongside Hitler, can be illuminated.

The General Walker Hotel is also depicted: Known as ”Platterhof” and something like the cradle of tourism on Obersalzberg, it served as a hotel of the National Socialist leisure organisation ”Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) during the Third Reich.  After 1945, it was used by the Americans and demolished in 2001.

Not far away, another little light bulb indicates the location of hotel ”Zum Türken”, where my family was accommodated in the 1960s. What I did not know until today: From 1933 to 1945, it housed Hitler's guards, the SS and Gestapo. A bunker system connected the hotel with the Berghof.

 

A myth of the approachable Führer

Hitler dressed in traditional attire, signing autographs, patting the hands of village children. In those early years, the dictator used the ”Obersalzberg stage” to portray himself as a family person, who was close to the people and loved children. However, at a media table, it turns out that every supposed snapshot was carefully crafted National Socialist propaganda, intended to reach every child's bedroom. Cigarette-card collector’s albums, where one could stick pictures of the Führer, sold like hot cakes.

One truth becomes evident: all the folksy demeanour was mere façade. Hitler ruthlessly destroyed the old village of Obersalzberg. To ensure his inner circle could enjoy undisturbed ”tea parties”, not only the owner of the ”Türken” was forced to sell the hotel in 1933, but the entire village community was driven from their farms. Homes were either demolished or altered beyond recognition. There is nothing left of the once picturesque mountain farming village, which had held the title of ”climatic mountain health resort” since 1921 and attracted numerous summer holidaymakers, including celebrities, since the mid-19th century. The deep cleft that was created becomes obvious when comparing historical photos of Obersalzberg with its present state. It is a gap that can never be bridged: There is no return to yesteryear’s idyllic countryside.

 

Shoah, war crimes and murders of the sick

Instead of presenting a broad overview of National Socialism, the exhibition uses individual destinies to illustrate how people’s lives were shattered and how the Nazi regime spared no one: People, who were respected fellow citizens, neighbours, club colleagues, perhaps even members of the NSDAP party today, could be denounced and ostracised tomorrow. No one was safe. Least of all those who were denied any right to life, simply because of their origin or physical limitations.


The exhibition vividly documents the fates of many of these individuals: they were fathers or mothers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends or relatives. The sight of the two girls with Jewish stars – one looking solemnly into the camera, the other with a shy smile – brings tears into my eyes. They were deported from Munich to Lithuania in 1941 and murdered.

The fourth chapter of the exhibition reveals the harrowing results of murderous decisions taken at Obersalzberg: Millions of people across Europe perished and suffered. In killing centres such as Hartheim, sick and disabled individuals were classified as unworthy of life, while Jewish children, women and men were systematically murdered throughout Europe. The inhabitants of Leningrad starved during the siege by the German army. In the Battle of Stalingrad, thousands of German soldiers froze or starved to death, while twice as many Russian soldiers lost their lives. And yet – at the Berghof, there was always the sound of a cheerful laugh.

 

Preventing the establishment of a place of pilgramage for old and new Nazis

Before heading back to Munich, I take a stroll from the museum over to the hotel ”Zum Türken”. Where Hermann Göring's villa once stood, there is now a five-star hotel, where guests sunbathe in white bathrobes.

The Berghof and other ruins of crime sites on the former ”Brauner Berg” have long since been reclaimed by the forest. Whatever survived the bombing by the British in 1945, was demolished in the early 1950s. Hitler's cherished retreat was not meant to become a site of pilgrimage for old and new Nazis. And yet every year on Hitler's birthday, the caretaker has to remove grave candles from the Berghof, our guide tells us.

During my research, I encountered websites where relics from the Berghof, such as candles adorned with swastikas or lace gloves that belonged to Eva Braun, are traded. Why on earth do people collect such items? What is going on inside them? And why are parties that openly propagate the marginalisation of others socially acceptable again today?

Many visitors to the exhibition express concerns about the resurgence of right-wing populist parties and far-right groups in Germany and across Europe. From the numerous entries on this topic in the guest book at the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre, I would like to share this quote, entered at the beginning of June 2024:

“It should never happen again. Resist the beginnings! (...) We are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors, but we must ensure that history never repeats itself!”

www.obersalzberg.de

 

 

Text: Karoline Graf; Photos: Frank Stolle
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