Just inside the southern German border, a mere stones throw from Austria, lays the village of Oberzalberg. This is a gorgeous area of the German/ Austrian Alps. On a clear day one can indeed see that the hills are alive with the sound of music—or rather the constant rustle of wind as a crisp deep Prussian blue sky dotted with giant balls of white popcorn clouds makes one feel as if they must be just below Heaven’s gate (perhaps my German friends may not like the color description but this is from an art teacher who loves the color Prussian blue).
Perched high in the mountains, above this quaint village, exists the remnants of a once glamorous and yet ominous mountain home. The Kehlsteinhaus, or Teahouse, was the 50th birthday gift, for the Chancellor of the Third Reich, Adolph Hitler. It was presented to him from one of the top leaders of the Nazi Party, Martin Bormann.
It is often in the old black and white photographs and film footage that we see Hitler, along with his companion and future wife, Eva Braun, walking along the outside deck, overlooking the picturesque view of endless mountains, quaint Alpine villages along with a view of the city of Salzburg in the far distance. It is here that the Fürer would entertain the prominent dignitaries of the day.
Back in October, when I was fortunate to travel on the great retirement celebration trip, we were to spend 3 wonderful days in Salzburg before traveling on to Vienna. When planning the trip I discovered that I could arrange a couple of side trips, using our stay in Salzburg as our base of operations. As a huge history buff, I really wanted to take the 4.5-hour tour to the Eagle’s Nest, or Kehlsteinhaus.
I was both excited as well as nervous about our trip and tour to the Eagle’s Nest. This was a tremendous piece of history, notorious history—the history that I have spent a lifetime reading about and learning. Things and places like the Kehlsteinhaus seem almost bigger than life, especially because of who use to be a the “owner.” Hitler is like the elephant in the room in this area—not seen or spoken of, but whose presence remains eerily heavy in the air.
The weather was not cooperating on our chosen day of travel, as it was drizzling and chilly. We took a tour bus for about an hour or so drive from Salzburg into Germany. The drive was very pretty, especially as we began to climb up into the mountains. The higher we ascended on the journey, the fog and clouds grew heavy with visibility fading fast, as a light drizzle spit on and off.
Eventually the bus made its way to the top to the mountain where we parked in a large paved area. We disembarked only to wait before next boarding a smaller shuttle for the remainder of the journey upward. As we had a few minutes before loading on to the next shuttle, we decided to visit the small souvenir shop located at the bus parking lot. The shop was outfitted with all sorts of alpine wear and alpine souvenirs, along with a couple of books about the building of the road leading up to the “retreat” but very little information in the way of the original owner and of his time on the mountain—which made me begin to wonder.
As I was now cold from the blustery wind and drizzle, accompanied by a dip in the temperature the higher we climbed, I found myself buying some cute pairs of socks and a beautiful alpine woolen sweater. We eventually boarded the smaller shuttle which took us the remainder of the way up the mountain to, yet, another parking area. Disembarking the shuttle, we were led to the entrance of a long stone tunnel that bore its way 400 feet in to the mountain.
It was dimly lit, damp and I swear I could almost hear the boots of soldiers’ goose-stepping through the same tunnel almost 70 years prior. The tunnel is just as it was. It leads all visitors to a massive elevator that is fitted in brightly polished brass and green leather seats with mirrors covering the walls. It is said that Hitler was as vain as he was paranoid—the mirrored walls allowed him a full visual access to those with him when in the elevator. The elevator holds almost 40 people. It ascended 400 feet to the top of the mountain.
When the doors opened, we found ourselves in small unassuming “foyer” or hallway. We were told we had about an hour before having to reload the shuttle. We were confused—where was the museum, the artifacts, the history? What we found was, however, a restaurant. That was it, a restaurant. I was dumbfounded! The Eagle’s Nest, the Kehlsteinhaus, the Third Reich Teahouse, is now just a tourist trap of a restaurant. We glumly found a table and ordered an apple strudel and hot chocolate, as there wasn’t much to look at or do. Granted had the weather cooperated, the view from outside would have certainly occupied our time.
There was the massive marble fireplace still intact in the larger room that had once been the main conference room during Hitler’s occupation of the “retreat.” The marble fireplace had been a gift from Mussolini. Italian marble I surmised. There were a few plaques on the wall showcasing the massive building effort of the road leading up the mountain. From reading the plaques,although in German, I understood it took just one year to build. But, still, the one missing figure, which was truly the elephant in the room, was nowhere to be seen.
We ventured outside and the fog was so thick we could barely see in front of our own faces. There was outdoor seating which would have been nice on a warmer clear day and one could make the short hike up the summit of the mountain to see the cross that has since been erected. Such beautiful irony, that a cross is now gracing the summit of this one time bastion of an evil ideology. I took the small climb up to the summit. I peered out through the fog into nothingness. I knew that had the day been clear, what I would be seeing would have certainly taken my breath—but the endless fog seemed to match my mood, as well as of the heavy history that I felt to be present– even if any and all images of such had long been removed.
Along the path, as I slowly made my way back down from the summit to the main building, I looked down to what I knew was the unmistakable edelweiss flower. The edelweiss is a small white flower, which grows in very high alpine altitudes. There are many legends and lore which surround this demure small flower—the one I like best I found on a site that addresses all sorts of folk legends:
In the country of eternal snows, lived a white lady: the Queen of Snows. She was surrounded by many small wights, who were in charge of her protection. Armed with spears of crystal, they protected their queen from the intrusion of stranger folk and those who might do her harm.
When a hunter or an imprudent mountaineer approached the beautiful lady, she was often pleased by the visit, and she would encourage him with her smiles and her eyes to join her. Fascinated by the gentle eyes of the beautiful lady, the mountaineer forgets the danger and continues to climb…and he climbs higher and higher with the hope of seeing more closely this beautiful face.
Confronted by this apparent danger, the wights take to their spears and push back the suitor until he falls into a precipice.
The white lady at the sight of that horrible spectacle began to cry; the tears then ran along the glacier and flowed to the pastures, and when arriving near the rocks, they changed into Edelweiss.
During our trip, while visiting Switzerland, we were also told this story of the edelweiss–a young suitor, in order to show the girl of his dreams his true feelings, would have to climb very high up into the alps, risking his own safety, in order to find an edelweiss. He was to pick the elusive flower, bing it back down from the mountains and present his “love” with the flower, a true symbol of his affection.
I was sorry to have missed the stunning view, as I have heard it is breathtaking, but somehow the fog and drizzle seemed almost appropriate for where we were. After the war there was debate as to whether or not they should blow the “retreat” off the mountain. But the officials of the time decided to keep it, as it was such a stunning setting. And I suppose they didn’t know how to treat the place—not to make it a shrine to a dark and sinister individual but opted for the Disney approach, when in doubt, make it a tourist attraction—hawk souvenirs, food and a view. I, for one however, was disappointed. I wanted some history–and history was not to be found.
I asked our guide if there wasn’t some sort of museum near, perhaps down in the village, which provided a more historical slant to the Kehlsteinhaus and the surrounding area. He was very vague and told me that there wasn’t much time. Again, I had a very odd feeling. We had come all of this way for what I had hoped to be a mini history lesson but instead we simply had a nice piece of strudel and hot chocolate.
Later, once we were back home, I was talking with a friend of mine from Switzerland who now makes his home in Florida. He had recently been home to Switzerland, visiting relatives, and decided to create a short holiday by driving to Austria and Germany for a few days. He too decided to visit the Kehlsteinhaus. As I retold him of our misadventure and of my disappointment with the tour and of our trip to the Eagle’s Nest, he shared a similar experience.
As he and his wife were driving, they stopped in the small village of Oberzalberg to stay for the evening. Asking at the hotel for directions as how to best visit the Kehlsteinhaus, he was met with a bit of confusion. The hotel operator told him that they did not know of what he was asking. It was as if they had never heard of the Kehlsteinhaus. How could that be he wondered. He told me that he was indeed conversing in German so there was nothing to be lost in translation.
My friend later, sitting on the balcony of his hotel room, looked up and on top of the opposite mountain, there he saw what he knew had to the Eagle’s Nest. The next day he and his wife figured out how to drive their way to the mountain retreat, purchasing tickets, leaving their car in the lower parking lot and taking the same shuttle for the journey up the mountain. And they too were met with the same sense of disappointment that they were simply visiting a restaurant. However, the weather cooperated for them, and they were at least rewarded with spectacular views.
All I can think is that it is difficult for most Germans, as well as Austrians, to sort out this part of their past. As I can only imagine it must be—how can one allow oneself to lay claim to something that was so terribly dark and tragic? How can one say that what happened 70 years ago is a part of one’s country’s history and not feel some inextricable sense of guilt or cling to some sort of vehement denial? It is the paradox of being, I suppose, German as well as Austrian. Painful to confront something so unimaginable.
And perhaps denial or ignoring is part of all of that—and perhaps that is how one generation may deal with it, the younger generations may feel so far removed that those things are not a part of or have no bearing on the past that they know.
One day I hope that I will have the opportunity of returning to the area as I would like to explore the lovely Alpine villages and perhaps catching a sunny day for some spectacular views while enjoying yet another piece of strudel.