Days after Braunau Am Inn in Austria across the river from Bavaria surrendered to the United States Army in May 1945, a group of German soldiers sought to flatten a three-story house here that had served as a Nazi pilgrimage site and shrine since the late 1930s.
The American troops turned them back. But in protecting the building in the historic city center they managed to cement an unwanted legacy for the citizens of Braunau am Inn. Who, after all, wants a constant reminder in their midst that they live in the city where Adolf Hitler was born?
Many people here have other ideas about what this city on the river Inn should be known for. Peace. The birthplace of a hymn writer. The health of its local industry. But to turn the corner, they must first deal with the house.
When the troops stopped the destruction of the three-story building on Salzburger Vorstadt street, they paved the way for a dispute that still rages, though it may come to a head soon.
Since December, the Austrian government has been pressing for a solution for the vacant building, which is privately owned but rented by the government. It has offered to buy the house, and is exploring whether it would be possible to dispossess the owner if she continues to balk at necessary renovations. The condition of the building is making it difficult to find a tenant.
Over the years the house has served as a makeshift museum, a school and a library. For more than three decades an organization offering support and integration assistance for disabled people used it to run a shop and a workshop. But the group moved out in 2011, and the government again faced the question of what to do with the building.
The problem is not a lack of ideas or initiative.
“Why can’t refugees live there?” said Georg Wojak, commissioner for Braunau and the surrounding district, when asked about the future of the birth house. “We don’t need this house, but that would be an appropriate use for it.”
A historian from Innsbruck, has spent years trying to drum up support for his idea to establish an international memorial and peace project in the house that would involve young people and international collaborations, reflecting the unique status of the place.
“Braunau is a memorial site in its own category,” Mr. Maislinger said. “It is not a place where crimes were committed. No decisions were made here. Nevertheless, we have been preoccupied with the place for decades.”
“Braunau is a symbol,” he said. “It is where evil entered the world.”
After the war, the Germans and occupying forces sought to level all sites there directly linked to Hitler, from the old and new chancellery buildings in Berlin to the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps.
That sentiment is still alive. A leading member of the Left party, summed it up in his curt response: “Either the house should be torn down, or used in such a way that no neo-Nazis will venture to come near it.”
Fears that the house could become a pilgrimage site led the Austrian government in 1972 to take over the main lease on the building, now owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the family that first built it. It had a tavern on the ground level and apartments on the upper floors, one of which was rented by Hitler’s parents before his birth in 1889.
The current owner has refused for years to allow necessary renovations to be carried out, which drove away the organization for the disabled three years ago. Her reluctance has also made it hard to find a tenant who meets the requirements of using it for administrative, educational or social services purposes. In the meantime, the Austrian government continues to pay her about 4,800 euros, or $5,600 a month, in rent.
Mayor Johannes Waidbacher of Braunau sighs when asked about the house. He would rather concentrate on the expansion of the aluminum factory that serves as a backbone of local industry, or efforts to revive the downtown area, where Hitler’s birth house is one of several vacant buildings.
He spent months with the municipal council and others, struggling in vain to come up with a use of the house that would make everyone — the government, the city and the owner — happy. Now, he is sitting tight. “There is no point in coming up with further concepts until we see how the situation develops,” Mr. Waidbacher said.
Like many here, the mayor acknowledges the weight of responsibility that goes with the house’s — and the city’s — indisputable, if unwelcome, link to history.
The stigma has long plagued residents. It is hard enough living in a place that alludes to the Nazis in name — “braun,” German for brown, the color associated with the Nazi Party. “Braunau is not brown,” declared a slogan that had tried to improve the city’s image.
Braunau residents pass by the house’s empty windows or wait at the bus stop at the curb without so much as a glance at the memorial stone warning in block letters of the dangers of fascism. Yet, they would like nothing more than to be rid of it.
Some said they wished the Allies had not succeeded in 1945 in stopping a band of loyal Nazis from razing the building that drew pilgrims since Hitler’s earliest days in power. Newspaper reports from 1937 recount how German troops passing through the city would pay “solemn obeisance” at its doors.
As Hitler’s fame and influence grew, so did the significance of his birthplace, and Braunau’s association with it. A stamp issued in 1938 for Hitler’s 50th birthday featured him standing before the onion-shaped Gothic dome of the city’s St. Stephen’s Church in the background beneath the inscription, “The Führer in his birth city, Braunau.”
Now the local police say the neo-Nazi scene has dwindled in recent years. The house is under their constant watch, but problems are rare, they said.