Prehistory of the Obersalzberg Documentation

Since 1933, the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden, a mountain village characterised by tourism since the second half of the 19th century and Hitler’s holiday resort since 1923, was turned into the “Führersperrgebiet” (the Fuehrer’s off-limits area), a second seat of power besides Berlin, where important political decisions, also about peace and war as well as the Holocaust, were proposed and made. Propaganda utilised the grandiose mountain panorama effectively in the media to portray Hitler as a politician close to the people, a friend of children and nature, a good neighbour, a great statesman and a solitary visionary.

On April 25th, 1945, British and American long-range bombers bombed the site and destroyed most of the buildings. The ruins of the Berghof, the houses of Goering and Bormann and the SS barracks were blown up in 1952. Only a few buildings remained, including the Eagle’s Nest and the bunker complex built between 1943 and 1945.

Occupied by American forces since May 4th, 1945, parts of the Obersalzberg were used as a recreation area for the US Army already since 1947 and were only accessible to members of the American military. Only a small section was open for tourism since 1952.

Even though the Free State of Bavaria was already the owner of the Obersalzberg area according to Allied legal pronouncement, it was only returned to Bavarian domain in 1996 after the withdrawal of the Americans. Commissioned by the Free State of Bavaria, the Institute of Contemporary History Munich-Berlin then developed the plan for a permanent exhibition at the historical site, which was inaugurated on October 20th, 1999 by then Bavarian State Minister of Finances, Kurt Faltlhauser.


As a second seat of power for the German Reich after Berlin, Obersalzberg is classified amongst the so-called "Taeterorte" (sites of the perpetrators), which can be distinguished in the spectrum of National Socialist historical sites from the so-called "Opferorte" (sites of the victims).This differentiation is not completely coherent and is also not unproblematic, as it there is no "Opferort" without some former presence of the perpetrators and also because the term "Taeterort" can also be understood antithetically as a location of mass murder. Nevertheless this terminology is now generally established due to the lack of a practical alternative.

While the term "Opferort" can be understood intuitively, the category of the "Taeterorte" requires some explanation, as occasional misinterpretations show. "Taeterorte" first and foremost include the locations of the bureaucratic "desk murderers", which do not in fact have to be totally "free of victims", but where the number of local victims is incredibly low in comparison to the many victims in other places affected from this "Taeterort" location. The area of the former Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office) in Berlin with its permanent "Topography of Terror" exhibition is a good example for this kind of "Taeterort".

Secondly, locations that were of eminent importance to the Nazis themselves but did not house institutions of the persecution and extermination apparatus, are also understood as "Taeterorte".

Obersalzberg was not only a center from which power was exercised, it was also a political arena for the Cult of Hitler, through which the "Fuehrer" Myth – legitimizing Hitler's personal dictatorship - was continually nurtured. After the Berghof was completed in 1936, the "Fuehrer" liked to receive guests of state and other high-ranking personalities here in order to present himself as a major, highly respected statesman of the world. Against the majestic mountain backdrop Hitler could be portrayed as a visionary far removed from the banalities of everyday life. Above all, Obersalzberg added to the image of the brilliant "Fuehrer" as a man with feelings and sensibilities. The cult ostensibly lifted the veil surrounding Hitler's private life and showed him here as a simple man of the people, as a friend of children, animals and Nature, as a good neighbour, in short, as a normal, warm-hearted person whom one could trust blindly. The calculated and orchestrated scenario of ordinariness and normality, which even today is mistaken by many for historical reality, was to be exposed for what it really was: subtle propaganda that aided in consolidating Hitler's personal power and his regime.

Alongside these historical considerations, thought also had to be given to the present situation at Obersalzberg. The journey along the Kehlstein road, carved into the steep flanks of the mountain with breathtaking views down to Koenigssee Lake and magnificent mountain panoramas, has been one of Berchtesgaden’s tourist highlights for decades. More than 250,000 visitors ride up to the Eagles Nest each year and a good number of them stay for a while at Obersalzberg to search for the remains of Hitler's retreat. The visitors are quite obviously attracted by the historical authenticity of the setting, by an aura which this site has never lost despite every attempt to erase all traces of its past. Only a small minority are motivated by a sense of nostalgia or indeed extreme right-wing convictions. Most of the visitors simply succumb to the aura emanated by all authentic sites of outstanding historical significance, although this "magnetic attraction" appears to be particularly strong at Obersalzberg.

For decades visitors were left totally unaided or had to rely on brochures of dubious quality in their search for historical clues to the site that had been changed beyond all recognition first of all by the removal of the ruins and secondly by partial reforestation. These brochures were mainly focused on the alleged private life of Hitler and his entourage and in this way extended the Nazi Obersalzberg propaganda into the present. The consequence was that the provision of serious, accurate information was perceived as essential in order to prevent a trivialization of the site as well as Hitler’s character and his regime.
Because Obersalzberg, like the capital of the Reich and — during the war — the field headquarters of the "Fuehrer", was a site associated with the entire spectrum of the regime's deliberations, planning and decisions, the "Dokumentation" had to present an overall view of National Socialism, with regionally specific aspects integrated within it, and with local and contemporary history conjoined. Nonetheless, owing to the limited exhibition area, the presentation had to be restricted to the so-called regime phase of National Socialism and to the historically more important aspects of the structure and functioning of the regime.
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