On a mountain-bike, the cyclist comes barrelling through the Bavarian pine forest, racing along a rough alpine track straight through what would have been Adolf Hitler‘s living room.
He does not stop, or even glance, at the greyish stone wall set in the nearby hillside which is all that remains of Hitler’s mountain retreat, known as the Berghof, his favourite residence for more than 10 years until his death by suicide in a Berlin bunker in 1945.
The Berghof, half way up a Bavarian mountain, was damaged by bombing at the end of the Second World War and U.S. occupation forces dynamited what was left.
No signpost indicates the way to it, but a notice board does tell visitors they have reached the right spot once they find this historical no man’s land, neither quite on, nor off the map, a symbol of how Germany still finds it difficult to deal with its Nazi past.
In contrast, Hitler’s “tea house,”known as the “Eagle’s Nest,” a nearby mountaintop lodge, is well on the beaten track.
Tens of thousands of visitors follow a dizzying road to the top for breathtaking views of peaks and valleys in both Germany and Austria.
The 1,800-metre-high Eagle’s Nest, which now houses a restaurant, a cafe and shops selling books with titles such as Hitler’s mountain, was a gift from the Nazi party to its leader on his 50th birthday.
It is said he suffered from fear of heights and visited infrequently.
Historians want both sites preserved for posterity, but others fear highlighting any site too closely associated with the Fuehrer could encourage perverse pilgrimages or turn the area into a Nazi Disneyland.
“You must be very careful not to foster a fascination with Hitler,” said Axel Drecoll, a 36-year-old historian in charge of the local documentation centre whose exhibits, visited by 160,000 people a year, depict both Hitler’s domestic life on the Obersalzberg mountain, overlooking Berchtesgaden, along with Nazi crimes.
“You’ve got to satisfy the curiosity of the tourists without pandering to sensationalism,” he said.
Locals were appalled when a newspapers this year reported that a British company was offering a Hitler holiday to Berchtesgaden, along with other sites associated with the Fuehrer.
“That really made waves,” said local tourism director Michael Griesser who recalls how Bavarian authorities sought to stop the so-called Face of Evil Tour before realizing they were dealing with ordinary tourists rather than neo-nazis. Of course, there are still a few of those.
Some, surreptitiously, lay flowers and candles at the Berghof on Hitler’s birthday, or wreathes on the anniversary of his death, but the documentation centre, a short distance away, quickly disposes of them, says Drecoll.
The real problem, he believes, isn’t right-wing radicals but the fact that, as people grow less afraid of the Nazi past, “the line between historical inquiry and commercial kitsch gets blurred.”
Ingrid Scharfenberg, 80, who runs the Zum Tuerken guest house, one of the few original buildings still standing near the Berghof, feels she’s herself treated like a Nazi exhibit.
“People say this is the brown (Nazi) mountain and that everyone in Berchtesgaden is Nazi. You can’t blame generation after generation just because (Hitler) once lived here,” she said.
The U.S. military kept a lid on the place for years by turning it into a recreational area for soldiers before handing the mountain back to the Bavarian government in 1995.
Until then all ruins, including some 12 kilometres of underground tunnels and bunkers, much of it closed to the public, had been subject to an official, but secret, preservation order.
But the order was then lifted “for political reasons,” says Egon Johannes Greipl, head of Bavaria’s Office for Ancient Monument Preservation.
And authorities started carting off what remained of the rubble.
A few marble paving stones from Hitler’s terrace did get recycled, by mistake, into a small outdoor chapel, newspapers said.
Greipl now wants the preservation order restored.
“After all nobody would think of demolishing the ruins of Olympia (Greece) and argue it would be better preserved in a documentation centre.
“It’s original historical evidence you have on the Obersalzberg,” he says.
Those opposing the idea fear neo-Nazi pilgrimages, or the jeopardizing of local tourism through too close an association with Nazi history, said Greipl.
Charlotte Knobloch, the 78-year-old leader of the Jewish association in Munich, argues that neo-Nazi pilgrimages are not possible precisely because everything, outside of the documentation centre, has been done away with.
“A pilgrimage site must have a focus and there isn’t one,” she said, underlining her opposition to any preservation order.
Try as it may Berchtesgaden, like Germany, has trouble finding the proper balance when dealing with such history. A five-star hotel, recently built on the ruins of a house that belonged to Nazi leader Hermann Goering, near the Berghof, made sure all rooms were provided with a copy of a historical book on Hitler’s crimes.
But such bed-time reading bothered some guests and the books were removed to the hotel library.