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Making Hitler's birthplace a police station met with outrage

The inconspicuous Biedermeier stone house with the address Salzburger Vorstadt 15 is painted in friendly beige. Iron bars block the windows on the first floor. A bus stop catches the eye, and next to it a waist-high memorial stone made of granite. "For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. The millions of dead remind us," reads the chiseled inscription. Adolf Hitler, the dictator of the Third Reich, was born in this house.

That alone makes it and the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn significant.

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Even 78 years after Hitler's suicide in the bunker of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin — with which he evaded all responsibility shortly before the unconditional surrender of the German Army — there are still discussions about the use of his birthplace.

Austria is struggling with the recognition and would like to get rid of the neo-Nazi pilgrimage site.

That is why a police station is now to be housed there, but this is being met with resistance.

'Completely wrong signal'

"A conversion to a police station is the completely wrong signal," says filmmaker Günter Schwaiger, "a slap in the face of the victims." The 58-year-old has made a widely acclaimed documentary about Hitler's birthplace titled "Who's Afraid of Braunau?"

Since the beginning of September, the film, which Schwaiger worked on for five years, has been playing in Austrian cinemas and will appear at the Hofer Filmtage in Germany at the end of October.

"Braunau is not a brown town. Quite the opposite!" Schwaiger tells DW, with brown being a term used to describe Nazis.

The fact that Hitler was born here forces people to face the past more than anywhere else. "You don't need to be afraid of Braunau and certainly not of the people," says the filmmaker.

Meanwhile, the citizens' association Bürgerinitiative Diskurs Hitlerhaus (Discourse Hitler House) is running up a storm against the plans of the Austrian Interior Ministry.

"The symbolic effect would be catastrophic," spokeswoman Eveline Doll tells DW. The police played a questionable role during the Nazi era, she said. "Besides, there are many good ideas and suggestions on how to use this house intelligently and responsibly in terms of contemporary history."

Commission seeks 'historically accurate solution'

The search for "appropriate" use goes back a long time. After Austria's annexation by the German Reich in 1938, the Nazi Party (NSDAP) acquired the birthplace of its "Führer" and set up a cultural center.

After the war, it reverted to the former owners. The state became the tenant, and from then on, it served sometimes as a library, sometimes as a school and finally as a workshop for people with disabilities.

Hitler's birthplace has been empty since 2011. In 2016, Austria expropriated it from private ownership to prevent it from being appropriated by neo-Nazis.

But what's the solution? The country established a "Commission on the Historically Correct Treatment of Adolf Hitler's Birthplace." In its final report, the commission, which also included historians and politicians, stated: "The myth of the Führer and the cult of the Führer were and are part of the core narrative about Hitler."

It is essential, the report said, to "break through the symbolism of the site" through either a "socially charitable or an official-administrative use." Educational projects and contemporary history exhibitions were "discouraged."

'Not a place of pilgrimage for Nazis'

"It was always a question of this house not becoming a place of pilgrimage for Nazis," explains Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish Community of Vienna and a commission member.

He could have imagined other uses for the building, Deutsch tells DW. However, it should be noted that "a police station of a democratic constitutional state is intended here, whose task is, among other things, to take action against National Socialist re-enactment." This goal was ultimately shared by all those involved.

In March, Diskurs Hitlerhaus had 1,000 Austrians surveyed by the Market Institute in Linz. More than half (52%) were in favor of the creation of an "institution that deals thematically with National Socialism, remembrance, anti-fascism, tolerance and peace," while 23% were in favor of demolition, and only 6% were in favor of the police moving in.

Doll, the spokeswoman for the citizens' initiative, still has an ace up her sleeve. The Viennese association Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem are keen to permanently show the traveling exhibition "The Righteous — Courage is a Question of Choice" in Hitler's birthplace.

The 400-square-meter show commemorates courageous non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Most recently, the exhibition was on display at the Museum Niederösterreich in the Austrian city of St Pölten.

"This idea is a basis for discussion," says association spokesman Georg Schuster somewhat cautiously. "If the proposal doesn't catch on, that's okay."

So apparently, nothing stands in the way of the €20 million ($21.2 million) conversion to a police station. A training room is also planned, where police officers will be educated about human rights.

Construction work will start at the beginning of October, but this discussion about Hitler's birthplace in Braunau will likely continue.