Posted Thursday, October 28, 1999

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THE world's first museum dedicated to the history of the Third Reich opened in Bavaria last week on the site of Hitler's former southern headquarters and Alpine holiday home - despite protests from local people that it could become a shrine for neo-Nazis.

Sunday, October 24, 1999

Outrage at Third Reich museum


Obersalzberg, in the mountainous Berchtesgaden region of southern Germany, was described by Hitler as his "chosen home" and he completed the second part of Mein Kampf while he lived there from 1924 to 1926. It has become the annual pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis celebrating Hitler's birthday on April 20.

The innocuously-named Obersalzberg Documentation Centre opened its doors after four years of heated debate. More than 1,000 visitors turned up on the first two days to tour the controversial museum on the site of the former Nazi guesthouse "Hoher Göll", where Hitler personally entertained prominent guests.

The crowning glory of the Obersalzberg complex of 80 buildings was the 6,000ft high "Eagle's Nest". It also featured the Berghof, Hitler's personal villa that was bombed by Allied aircraft and then completely destroyed after the war. The exhibition, which cost more than £1 million to set up, shows the rise and fall of the Third Reich - starting with the role of Obersalzberg in the Nazi propaganda machine. Photographs of Hitler were taken here, depicting him as a lover of nature, children and animals.

The exhibition covers how military leaders commanded their forces from the mountain retreat, the resistance, foreign policy, the Holocaust and Hitler's hold over the German population. The centre also incorporates part of the network of bunkers which ran underneath Hitler's lair, in addition to multimedia exhibitions using original source material. Many of the exhibits, such as photographs of the execution of 700 Jewish women, are on show for the first time.

After the war, the region was taken over by the Americans and used as a recreation centre for its servicemen with hotels, golf courses and, in winter, skiing. But they handed it back to Bavaria in 1995, sparking controversy over how the site should be used. Wolfgang Illner, a spokesman for the Bavarian state authorities, said: "After years we were suddenly handed a political hot potato, and it was very difficult to decide what to do with it. There are strict rules for the area. People cannot open shops selling dolls in SS uniform. What to do has not been an easy decision."

Much of the criticism came from local people who did not want to attract neo-Nazis to an area looking to develop a tourist industry after the departure of the GIs and their dollars. Martin Seidl, a Berchtesgaden councillor, said people there were not against the idea of a museum, but thought that it should be staged somewhere else and not be so lavish. "In principle, I have nothing against the idea, but such a centre belongs in Berlin or Munich, not here. Hitler was in Berlin as often as he was in Obersalzberg," he said. "We don't want accusations that people here are earning money through Nazi tourism."

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre is opposed to the idea, and described the plans for the museum in such a sensitive location as "scandalous". The centre also said that experts from the United States and Israel should have been involved in making sure that such a sensitive subject was approached with the utmost care. The project was put together by the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, which said from the beginning that it should not just be based on the region and its history.

Volker Dahm, a spokesman for the institute, said the criticism was unfounded. He said: "The neo-Nazis won't come here because we're telling the truth - and they don't want to hear it. After the American forces left the area we had to do something because we have thousands of visitors each year looking for information about the area's history, and the current information available is poor."

The institute named the museum the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre in an effort to avoid the impression that it glorifies the area's Nazi past. But there is little hope of that. German war veterans and neo-Nazis still flock to Obersalzberg where - although the local council has long since removed all traces of the Berghof - a memorial to Hitler regularly appears in the unmarked location, complete with candles and flowers, on the anniversary of his birthday.

The area attracts 350,000 visitors a year. Hartmut Mehringer, from the institute, said: "The Right-wing radical tourism only counts for a very small part. Most visitors are simply curious." At the official opening Kurt Faltlhauser, the Bavarian Finance Minister, said: "The documentation centre is a warning to be always vigilant against extremism and to be ready to intercede for basic democratic principles."

Mr Dahm said: "This is the first permanent exhibition in the world which shows the whole face of the Third Reich and not just a sector such as resistance or the Holocaust. It is perfect that the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine is now the location for the site where the truth can be told."

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