It was a day as crystalline as any in the Bavarian Alps can be in late spring. In room 357 of the InterContinental Resort a smartly suited young receptionist drew back the blinds. The view toward Austria was a knockout. There were still streaks of snow in shadowed crags on the mountain summits, but below the tree line the valley meadows were a shimmering emerald, the wilder slopes colored by gentian, Alpine rose and columbine.
I held up an old archive photograph to compare it with the panorama. The mountain profiles were identical. This exact view, the one in the archive photograph, had once been selected and framed by a giant window, das grosse fenster, by a man who drew spiritual and historical inspiration from it — Adolf Hitler. Here, some 1,200 feet above the resort town of Berchtesgaden, Hitler had designed and built the Berghof, his favorite home where he spent a large part of his 12 years as Fuhrer, sometimes for up to six months at a time.
Seventy years ago, on May 4, 1945, the United States Army’s Third Infantry Division, which in three years had fought all the way from North Africa to Germany, reached the bombed-out shell of the Berghof and then, on a promontory above, raised the Stars and Stripes – marking symbolically, if not literally, the end of the Second World War in Europe.
Today’s InterContinental Resort is sited on that promontory, where once also stood a grand villa built by Hitler’s swaggering chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring.
In room 357 I noted that the slightly higher elevation had given Goring the same view of the Alps enjoyed by Hitler but not with the benefit of das grosser fenster that could be lowered by SS guards to admit the bracing air. The many admirers who visited in the 1930s to genuflect in the Fuhrer’s presence – people like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, King Leopold of Belgium and the ambassadors of Italy and Japan – would be invited to drink in the view and particularly its centerpiece, the Untersberg, a mountain said to contain the soul of the emperor Charlemagne, who had conquered most of Christian Europe in the ninth century and was one of Hitler’s role models.
I can’t say it was comfortable getting this close to the physical – or, indeed, the metaphysical – locus of the Nazi creed. Before I decided to go there for the first time, a few years ago, I had only a hazy idea of the geography of Hitler’s Bavarian idyll. Three different names -- Berchtesgaden, Obersalzberg and the Eagle’s Nest -- are often, confusingly, used to suggest one location. Berchtesgaden is frequently used as a generic for the whole compound rather than simply the town, which itself was never part of the Nazi estate.
The state of Bavaria has usefully solved this confusion with a small museum called the Dokumentation Obersalzberg. The museum has a large topographical model showing, in relief, the terrain of Obersalzberg, the correct name for the area immediately around the Berghof. It includes the location of every Nazi residence, military barracks and installation. By 1937 the place had become like a very large gated community for the exclusive use of the Nazi bigwings – the party bought 687 acres from private owners and 1,762 acres from the state of Bavaria. This provided plenty of space for more than 50 properties, and those owned by the likes of Goring and Martin Bormann got the prime spots. Way above, at the summit of the closest mountain, was the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, a work of brutalism with surpassing views but which Hitler never liked because he hated heights.
The museum is clearly concerned that Obersalzberg could become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis and other similar cultists. To counter this it does an effective job of recording the machinery of terror, detailing the systematic organization behind the programs of extermination culminating in the Holocaust, but it’s a tougher challenge for the museum to explain the elemental power field that Hitler drew from here and invoked in his dedication to the purity of the Aryan spirits.
The Bavarian Alps do seem to generate a peculiar fever of blood and mythology. The Augustinian monks who first settled here in 1102 described the region as “a vast solitude inhabited by wild beasts and dragons.” It’s not much of a stretch from that to Valhalla, that great mausoleum in the sky reserved for heroes and demi-gods – Richard Wagner, a favorite companion spirit of Hitler’s, drank deeply from such places.
And, indeed, Hitler did savor the communion of opera and evil. Early one morning in August 1939, shortly before he invaded Poland and began the Second World War, he led his courtiers to the terrace of the Berghof. The broody summer sky was crackling with electric discharges from the Northern Lights, and the Untersberg was caught in the glow. Albert Speer, Hitler’s pet architect, said it looked like the last act of Gotterdammerung, a Wagner opera that Hitler saw repeatedly. “Looks like a great deal of blood,” Hitler said, already knowing that diplomacy was exhausted and war was imminent, adding: “This time we won’t bring it off without violence.”
Hitler’s discovery of Obersalzburg and his attachment to it began in the summer of 1925 when he checked into an inn called the Pension Moritz and was given a small cottage above the main building. While there he polished the first volume of his defining credo, Mein Kampf. He explored the region in a red Mercedes and adopted a new, rustic pose, wandering the hills in lederhosen. “Having to change into long trousers was always a misery to me” he wrote later. “Even with a temperature of ten below zero, I used to go about in leather shorts. The feeling of freedom they give is wonderful.”
There was a cold racial calculation in Hitler’s projection of himself as a pastoral, land-rooted figure. Obersalzberg set the stage for the idea of the Fatherland’s Volksgenossen, a union of “folk-comrades” that in Hitler’s hands fed into a newly empowered German nationalism with himself as the Volkskanzler – “the people’s chancellor.”
Not only the Fuhrer’s own people bought into this sham. It appealed to innocents abroad, the most egregious example being a writer named Ignatius Phayre who turned up at the Berghof on an assignment from the British magazine Homes & Gardens. He delivered a gushing, three-page cover story titled “Hitler’s Mountain Home.”
“There is nothing pretentious about the Fuhrer’s little estate” he wrote, “…the site commands the fairest view in all Europe.” After describing the color schemes, drapes and linen he reports that his host was “a droll raconteur” who enjoyed “an imposing array of vegetarian dishes” and that “the Squire himself will stroll through the woods into hamlets [where] rustics sit at cottage doors carving trinkets.”
On the opening page there was a carefully posed picture of “the Squire” standing on a knoll above the Berghof with Goring – Goring is wearing lederhosen and suspenders over a summer shirt, Hitler is in more formal wear with a swastika armband on his jacket; both have Alpine walking sticks. Behind them the meadows and woodlands broil in summer heat.
Photographs of the Berghof’s interior revealed private rooms decorated in a style that could be called rustic kitsch, with flower-patterned covers on the armchairs and drapes and wood-burning stoves. The public face was more theatrical, principally the Grand Hall, a large reception room hung with Gobelin tapestries of hunting scenes. Three tiers of marble steps led to a raised dais where visitors were seated at a round table alongside the huge leaded grosser Fenster. The Berghof was more faux baronial than imperial. Phayer noted that Hitler was his own decorator, designer and furnisher. Albert Speer, whose own architectural taste was neoclassical, said rather snootily that his master’s house “wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad either.”
Phayre’s admiring drivel appeared in the magazine’s issue of November 1938. November 9 was Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs torched 191 synagogues and terrorized thousands of Jewish families across Germany.
In 1945, when the Third Infantry Division drove up the twisting road from Berchtesgaden to Obersalzberg they found, as well as the gutted Berghof, a landscape pulverized by a force of more than 300 British bombers. But there was plenty of fine wine left for them to enjoy in the cellars of Goring’s villa, where now sits the InterContinental Resort, promoted as being “between Heaven and Earth.”
It is certainly an ideal site for a year-round resort, with skiing in the winter and golf in the summer. The architecture, though, is not harmonious with its setting – it looks too much like a transplanted airport terminal, with two curved wings positioned to give optimum views of the mountains. Albert Speer, who had a design studio at Obersalzberg, would no doubt have treated the site like a Greek acropolis and built something in his own neoclassical style, as he did for Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin.
In truth, no architect, however triumphal, could possibly match what Nature has fashioned from a full repertoire of Alpine effects, especially at twilight when clouds darken and the spirit of Sturm und Drang is palpable.
And that, in a way, is the problem. Can you drink in the beauty without recalling the past? I simply could not shake off the indelible presence of recent history. You could argue that 70 years is long enough to decontaminate even a place occupied by monsters like those who lived, played and schemed here. But I think those Augustinian monks understood the elemental power all too well, the “vast solitude inhabited by wild beasts and dragons.” The more I succumbed to the beauty, the more I feared that it was the pull of a dangerous rapture.