My Research Trip To Hitler's Austrian Origins

All the writers I know consider research to be the 'fun part' of our business. It allows us to leave the lonely keyboard and meet people and visit places. The research involved in Young Hitler didn't exactly lend itself to such 'fun'. The events the novel depicts happened more than a lifetime ago. There were no eyewitnesses alive that I could have questioned about the young Hitler. A few people who had met the older Hitler are still alive, but these people had been interviewed countless times and many of them had written books about their experiences. These witnesses had repeated their accounts for decades, and I didn't see what could be gained from interviewing them yet again. Therefore my research was almost entirely confined to the libraries of Vienna, Berlin und Munich, with one exception: when I started out to investigate Hitler's beginnings in-depth in the early 1990s, I felt that I needed to get a more visceral feel for Hitler's Austrian origins, and so I visited the localities where the pivotal character of my story had lived before coming to Munich in 1913.

My research trip started in Braunau am Inn, where Adolf Hitler was born in 1889. Braunau is a sleepy little Austrian town bordering Germany. In the town centre I asked an older woman where Hitler's birthplace was: the woman stared at me with contempt, shook her head and walked away without a reply. I didn't quite understand her reaction. Did she think that I was a Neo-Nazi wanting to visit my idol's birthplace? Was she fed up because so many tourists had asked her the same question before? Or did she simply not want to be reminded of Hitler? On asking a middle-aged man the same question, I got a similar reaction: the man carried on without saying a word. Why were these people reacting this way? Why wouldn't they tell me where Hitler was born? When I asked a young girl with a bike I finally got lucky. The girl told me that 'the Hitler house' was not too far from the main square.

The buildings on the street where Hitler was born were all nicely maintained, except one: the Hitler house. The Hitlers had lived in a tavern which was now abandoned and whose façade hadn't seen fresh paint for long time.
I rang a bell next door and the woman who answered had the keys to the courtyard of the former 'Pommer' tavern. It took some persuasion to be allowed in, as the woman insisted that there was nothing to be seen. From the yard, the derelict house appeared in even worse condition than seen from the street. The stone balconies were crumbling, and plaster was falling off the walls. Precisely where the Hitlers had lived, the woman couldn't (or didn't want to) tell me. The people of the Waldviertel are not generally known for their loquaciousness. But when it comes to Hitler, I realised they become positively taciturn. The only information I was able to glean was that after the war, Hitler's birthplace had been used as a library and a school. When I said goodbye, the woman was visibly relieved. Even though she lived next door to this house, Hitler was obviously someone she didn't want to speak about, at least not to strangers.

School in Fischlham

School in Fischlham

(The local administration of Braunau is currently trying to buy the house with the help of EU funding and turn it into a memorial).

My next stop was Fischlham, a hamlet in Oberösterreich, 45 kilometres from Linz. Hitler's family had moved here when Adolf was six years old. The humble building where Adolf went to primary school in Fischlham was still standing, but the schoolhouse was now abandoned.

The 'Rauschergut', a small farmhouse which Hitler's father had bought, is situated in Hafeld near Fischlham and sits in the middle of surrounding fields with no direct neighbours.

As I approached, the farm the owner stepped out and regarded me with distrust. When I told him that I was doing research on the young Hitler, the man immediately lightened up, invited me in and introduced me to his wife and daughter. In stark contrast to the people I had met in Braunau, the house owner was extremely talkative. He told me that the Nazis had planned to turn the estate into a boarding school for the children of the Nazi elite, but the downfall of the regime had put paid to these plans. Then the man showed me the land register. He was proud to have been the next proprietor immediately after the wife of Martin Bormann, Hitler's powerful party secretary. According to the house owner, Bormann had also owned Hitler's birthplace in Braunau as well as other properties on behalf of the Führer. The man had never met Mrs. Bormann, the sale of the Rauschergut having been settled by her representative. According to the land register, Martin Bormann's wife had a New York address, which I found astonishing: had the wife of Hitler's all-knowing accomplice been given preferential treatment by the Americans in exchange for information?

The homeowner then pulled out two voluminous photo albums to show me who had visited his house in the past. Many of the visitors apparently took their hairstyle and fashion lead from the Fascists. Some were posing with a Hitler salute. Noticing my aversion to that particular kind of nostalgia, the man emphasized his disinterest in politics, but was still proud to show me photos of 'Hitler's son', a Frenchman who claims that he is the result of an affair that Hitler allegedly had with a French woman during WWI. I had read about this lurid story in German papers. No serious historian gives this claim any credence. "His son comes here every so often," recounted the man, "and every time he is deeply touched to see the house where his father had lived."

As I prepared to leave, the owner asked me if I wanted to see Adolf's room. We went upstairs to be greeted by blaring rock music. The owner opened a door into a room where his fifteen-year-old daughter was sitting on her bed, swinging to the rhythm of the music. "This is it," declared the man solemnly. "This is his room." I looked at the posters of rock and movie stars that adorned the walls and asked the girl, "Do you know whose room this once was?" The girl nodded. "How do you feel about that?" "Great," the girl answered, "It's just so super cool!"

Apartment block in Lambach

Apartment block in Lambach

Hitler's sister Paula was born in the farmhouse in Hafeld, from which his stepbrother, Alois Jr., ran away at the age of fourteen, never to return again. After only two years the Hitlers moved again, this time to the village of Lambach, which is situated a few kilometres away. In the town square, the family occupied a 2nd floor apartment right opposite the impressive Lambach church and monastery.

At the time of my visit, the flat was vacant and the neighbours didn't answer the door. I stayed in Lambach for the night, where the innkeeper told me that when Austria was annexed, Hitler and his entourage toured the country in a Mercedes convoy, entering Austria via Braunau. Thereafter, Hitler's motorcade had stopped at every place where the Hitler family had lived. I realised then that I was about to make the same tour.

In Lambach, the eight-year-old Adolf became a member of the monastery's boy choir and an altar boy. In the enormous cloister, huge paintings portray the suffering and the crucifixion of Jesus in gory detail and impressive commemorative plaques honour soldiers killed in action in the wars of the past. One of the few monks who still inhabit the vast complex told me of a fellow cleric who had been young Hitler's teacher. The late teacher had told of vivid recollections of his belligerent pupil. Even as a little boy, Hitler had always instigated fights...
In the sacristy, the monk drew my attention to a symbol carved in marble that resembled a swastika.

"Swastika" in Lambach

"Researchers and TV teams have come here from all parts of the world," said the monk. "Some claim that this is the origin of the Hakenkreuz of the Nazis. But this is no swastika, no sun wheel. It is the crest of a former abbot depicting crossed carpentry nails, symbolizing the abbot's profession."

After living in Lambach for one year, the Hitlers moved again, this time to Leonding near Linz. Driving into Linz, the first thing that struck me was the enormous industrial plant of the VOEST, a Nazi creation, which was once called the 'Hermann-Göring-Werke'. In addition to Munich, Berlin, Hamburg and Nuremberg, Linz was one of the "Führerstädte", cities that the Führer had declared especially dear to him. During Nazi rule, competition arose between these five cities to see which would one day be awarded the honour of housing Hitler's mausoleum. As Hitler considered Linz his 'home', the town had a reasonable chance of winning. Once the war had been won, the fifty-year-old Führer intended to realize the grandiose blueprints he had drawn up for Linz as a twenty-year-old, while living in Vienna. One of his last photos shows Hitler in 1945, sitting in his Berlin bunker looking at a model of his extensively remodelled 'hometown'.

Leonding is an unassuming village on the outskirts of Linz. The small dwelling that Alois Hitler bought is located next to Leonding cemetery and is used today by the cemetery's administration.

Hitler's parents Klara and Alois are buried there in that cemetery, and a huge oak tree has grown out of their grave. When I visited Leonding, someone had just left fresh flowers on their grave.

After Alois died in 1903, Klara stayed in the house by the cemetery for two more years and then moved to Humboldstrasse in the city of Linz. The house is located in a petit-bourgeois neighbourhood, as was the apartment in Blütengasse, where Klara moved with her children in 1907. At the time of my visit, both the house in Humboldstrasse and the apartment in Blütengasse were vacant.

Linz 1900

Linz 1900

At the turn of the century, the Linz business directory listed no less than sixteen coffee houses, among them the Cafe Traxlmayr. One local I spoke to claimed that Hitler spent his days in this coffee house as a sixteen-year-old living the life of a dandy at the expense of his mother. It may well be that this was the case, but there is no confirmed evidence that the Traxlmayr was in fact the young Hitler's preferred hangout. In the coffee shop, not much had changed in the 100 years that had since passed. The vaulted ceiling, crystal chandeliers, velvet chairs, marble-topped tables and newspapers in wooden holders were still there, as if time had stood still.

My next stop was Vienna, where Hitler had moved when he was 18 and lived for more than five years until 1913. The opera house had been the young Hitler's temple. With its vast marble entrance, arched marble stairway, imposing ceiling frescos, elaborate stuccowork, chandeliers and uniformed attendants, the Viennese Hofoper feels like a cross between a grand hotel and a cathedral, an ideal place to forget about the meagre existence of a failed arts student and instead dream Richard Wagner's dream of the rebirth of religion through art.

On the day of my visit, the Hofoper was performing Tristan und Isolde, and as an operagoer had returned his ticket, I was given the unique opportunity of attending an event for which Wagner devotees wait in line for hours hoping to get their hands on one of the highly sought-after tickets. Listening to that very music in that particular place was certainly remarkable, but I am no opera aficionado, and as I sat through this spectacle, I became painfully aware that, even though a writer must try to come as close as possible to the sentiments of the characters he recreates, there is always a line that cannot be crossed.

The apartment in Stumpergasse where Hitler and his friend Kubizek had rented a room from Frau Zakreys is located in a middle-class neighbourhood, facing a yard and the half-plastered wall of another building. I went up to the apartment and found it to be vacant, just as the addresses in Braunau, Lambach, Leonding, Humboldstrasse and Blütengasse had been. The only Hitler residence that was inhabited at the time of my viewing had been the farmhouse in Hafeld. I took note of that curious coincidence, but refrained from speculating about possible reasons.

The lady who lived next door in Stumpergasse knew that Hitler had once resided on the same floor, but was apparently unconcerned. She suggested that I take a look at her home, which mirrored the Zakreys'flat. Her apartment had several middle-sized rooms, an old kitchen and a bathroom. Some decades ago none of the flats on that floor had bathrooms, and all shared the cast-iron wash basin and the old-fashioned toilet in the stairway that were still in place.

Asylum in Meldemannstrasse

Asylum in Meldemannstrasse

From Stumpergasse, I went to Brigittenau where my research tour would come to an end. Hitler had lived in the men's hostel in Meldemannstrasse before leaving for Munich in 1913. The 20th district of Vienna is still a relatively poor residential area today, and at the time of my visit the building in Meldemannstrasse was still home to an asylum. (In 2007 the building was converted into a nursing home for the elderly).

I slipped past an administrator at the entrance who was smoking and reading a paper. The hallways smelled of sweat and detergent. In a common room, homeless men, alcoholics, failed businessmen and petty criminals sat around tables, playing cards or reading newspapers. Not much seemed to have changed since Hitler had spent three years of his life between these walls. I looked at the faces of the residents, all lined with the traces of a life at the bottom of society. The probability that one of these men would ever be known to the entire world for centuries to come was as negligible as it had been at the turn of the century, but on rare occasions, it seems circumstances can conspire to make the impossible - even the unthinkable - reality.