BRAUNAU AM INN, Austria (AP) — Adolf Hitler was born in the house behind her and the building is a natural draw for tourists. But when asked about her hometown’s most important landmark, Ivonne Bekking gestured down the road toward a baroque church steeple.
It’s a well-taught defense mechanism in Braunau am Inn, where Klara Hitler gave birth to Adolf in 1889 and locals have spent decades debating the fate of Hitler’s homestead.
“I know that at school we were taught always to point in this direction, to the church tower,” said Bekking as she stood in front of Hitler’s birthplace, an apartment within an imposing three-story yellow building that dates to the 16th century. Hitler’s family spent only his first three years of life in the town bordering Germany, yet Austria’s government has felt compelled to rent the building for nearly 45 years to ensure that fascists could not transform it into a Nazi shrine.
Most residents say they would like nothing more than to erase any association between their community and Hitler. Yet many oppose a new proposal by Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka to demolish the property once the government seizes ownership as part of a bill unveiled this month and expected to pass parliament later this year.
“Tearing it down is no solution,” said Deputy Mayor Florian Zagler. “It’s a birthplace, not a crime scene.”
Insiders know that the initials “MB” in the iron grillwork above the imposing wooden entrance stand for Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, who bought the house shortly before World War II with thoughts of turning it into a shrine to the dictator. The property was handed back to its original owners after occupation by U.S. troops.
No sign explicitly marks the spot as the Hitler homestead. Instead, in 1989, the town council placed a granite slab retrieved from the pits of the Mauthausen concentration camp on the sidewalk outside. “Never again fascism; millions of dead remind us,” an inscription reads.
The empty dwelling radiates interest from ordinary tourists and others on a darker journey.
A Bulgarian man in his 50s who identified himself only as Boyko ran his fingers over the BM initials standing for Hitler’s secretary. “I’m here on a pilgrimage,” the man said.
The government bill unveiled July 12 would empower the state to take ownership of the building from its reclusive owner, Gerlinde Pommer, who since 2011 has been in dispute with her government tenants over how to use the building, previously home to a workshop for the mentally ill.
Sobotka says he thinks demolishing the property represents “the cleanest solution” to erase the town’s links to the dictator. A government-supported anti-Nazi research center called DOW has suggested that a supermarket should be built on the spot.
But not all of Sobotka’s government colleagues agree, and zoning laws and aesthetic concerns also stand in the way.
The property is already designated as a monument not because of Hitler, but for its historic and architectural value. Putting a wrecking ball to it would leave an ugly gap in the rows of flanking Renaissance-era buildings lining cobblestoned streets.
Some historians argue that the building should be preserved specifically because it’s one of few surviving structures linked to Hitler.
A house in nearby Leonding, where Hitler lived as a teen, is now used to store coffins for the town cemetery. There, the tombstone marking the grave of Hitler’s parents, a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, was removed last year at the request of a descendant. A school that Hitler attended in Fischlham, also near Braunau, displays a plaque condemning his crimes against humanity.
The underground bunker in Berlin where Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, was demolished. The site was left vacant until the East German government built an apartment complex around it in the late 1980s. Occupants of the apartments overlook the German capital’s monument to victims of the Holocaust.
In Braunau, at an 800-year-old inn across the street from the Hitler homestead, guests proved reluctant to discuss with a visitor what should become of the building, preferring to focus instead on the hostelry’s apricot dumplings.
But the proprietor, Klaus Wolfgruber, was firm that the building should stay, perhaps to house a museum or other historical attraction. He said demolishing it would be “the worst-case scenario.”
“You can’t wipe out history by destroying it,” he said.