Hitler slept here, and that poses a problem


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BRAUNAU, Austria -- Living space in Braunau is scarce, but an imposing Renaissance-era building stands empty in this postcard-pretty Austrian town because of the sinister shadow cast by a former tenant: Adolf Hitler.

With its thick walls, huge arched doorway and deep-set windows, the 500-year-old house near the town square would normally be prime property. Because Hitler was born here, it has become a huge headache for town fathers forced into deciding what to do with a landmark so intimately linked to evil.

The building was most recently used as a workshop for the mentally handicapped, which some saw as atonement for the murders of tens of thousands of disabled people by the Nazi regime. But that tenant moved out last year for more modern quarters.

The departure reignited debate on what to do with the house after the town's mayor declared that he preferred creating apartments over turning the building into an anti-Nazi memorial.

"We are already stigmatized," Johannes Waidbacher told the Austrian daily Der Standard. "We, as the town of Braunau, are not ready to assume responsibility for the outbreak of World War II." That sparked a storm of criticism, with Mr. Waidbacher accused of trying to bury memories of the Nazi past.

The comments were particularly ill-received due to the fact that Braunau's town council only withdrew honorary citizenship from Hitler last year -- 78 years after the Nazi dictator was given the accolade -- as did nearly a dozen other towns and cities after checking their archives.

Stung by the criticism, Mr. Waidbacher has since stepped back, saying he can conceive of "all possible uses" for the building.

Concerns about the building's fate continue to reverberate on the ancient cobble-stoned streets of this town of 16,600. One major fear: The house could fill up with Hitler worshippers if converted into living space.

"These are certainly people we don't want here," said town council member Harry Buchmayr, noting that most visitors are not normal tourists but neo-Nazis stopping to pay homage to Hitler, even though he spent only the first few months of his life in the building.

Austria's Interior Ministry has rented the house since 1972 from the owner, a woman in her 60s who refuses to be identified publicly. The ministry has been careful to sublet only to tenants with no history of admiring Hitler. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sonja Jell said the ministry remained "particularly sensitive" about the future uses of the building considering its legacy.

The house is one of the few remaining structures directly linked to Hitler. Ultimately, it's the owner who will decide the Branau building's fate. She's known to be opposed to turning it into a Holocaust memorial, meaning there's still a chance it could be converted into apartments.

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