An elderly woman is stopping the Austrian government from buying the building in which the dictator Adolf Hitler was born, as they try to prevent it from falling into disuse or into the wrong hands.
The vacant building in the town of Braunau am Inn is privately owned but has been rented by the Austrian government since 1972, to prevent the pale yellow building from being transformed into a shrine for neo-Nazis. Since then, it has been sub-leased, and served as both a school and a library. But the last occupants, an organisation for disabled people, moved out in 2011 and since then the building has been empty.
Now the government desperately wants to attract new tenants to the notorious site, but the owner’s reluctance to make crucial renovations to the old building is making a difficult sell an almost impossible one. The owner is Gerlinde Pommer, a woman thought to be in her mid-60s who reportedly receives almost €5,000 (£3,925) a month in rent from the government. This money ultimately comes out of Austrian taxpayers’ wallets.
A spokesperson for the minister of the interior says Pommer is expected to make a decision about whether she will sell the building in the next few weeks. She has so far expressed her opposition to this prospect and also to any renovations being carried out on the property, although her reasons are unclear.
The government is now also exploring legal options with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance and the federal chancellor to dispossess the owner, and take full control of the building.
“It’s a problem,” said the spokesman. “We can’t find an agreement with a new organisation to use the building so it is necessary to make some adjustments so it can have more modern standards, because it’s an old building. But we need the agreement of the private owner.”
Local historian and founder of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, Andreas Maislinger, said “Of course the government is worried, because they are spending taxpayers’ money for nothing. And if the house is empty, it is dangerous. It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t make a good impression.”
Locals have expressed frustration at the unwillingness of Pommer to allow the government to take over the building and make better use of it, as they are keen to challenge the negative reputation of their hometown. Maislinger said he has heard accounts of the town’s residents being greeted with a ‘Heil Hitler’ Nazi salute after they’ve handed over their passports at airports.
However, he doesn’t think the house should be pulled down: “The house is not guilty, it’s just a house”, he explained, saying that he’d prefer the building to be turning into a ‘House of Responsibility’ where young people could come to learn about history.
Another local historian, Florian Kotanko, went to kindergarten with Pommer and has lived in the town since 1949. While he believes that taking her property by legal force would probably be an unpopular move in the town, he criticised Pommer for her seeming lack of social awareness, and says he “can’t imagine any just cause” for why she won’t allow renovations of the building to attract new tenants.
“She has a social responsibility as a citizen of Austria.” he says. “It’s a problem for Braunau and annoying for the whole country to be paying this money to a woman for nothing, for no good, social purpose.”
Kotanko explains that Pommer is a private figure and doesn’t believe she has a husband or children. He says his letters to her have gone unanswered, and that friends have warned him not to bring up the topic of the building with her. The building was passed down to her by her mother in 1977 and been in the family since 1912.
However, Kotanko believes the matter could be resolved this year, with Pommer still collecting rent but forced to accept certain government conditions.
In 1989, a memorial stone was erected in front of the house which read: “For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions of dead remind us,” and every year a memorial service organised by the town, is held in front of the house to commemorate the victims of the Nazis.
In a press statement, the mayor of Braunau Johannes Waidbacher of Braunau said he is “ensuring that private individuals do not misuse it in a way which would be contrary to the interests of the republic…This building should never become a place of pilgrimage for those stuck in the past.”