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  • Merrilee MacLean

Berchtesgaden - More than Just Hitler's Playground

Berchtesgaden from the balcony of the Hotel Wittelsbach
The town of Berchtesgaden, Germany, as seen from the balcony of the Hotel Wittelsbach

Berchtesgaden, Germany. For those with an interest in World War II, it brings to mind Adolf Hitler, his summer home with the big picture window and patio, and the “Eagle’s Nest” where the Nazis partied from what appeared to be the top of Europe. But, the town itself has long been a retreat for royalty and others lucky enough to find this beautiful village nestled in the Bavarian Alps

Market Square in Berchtesgaden
Market Square in Berchtesgaden, with 1677 fountain and frescoes from late 17th century

Berchtesgaden’s written history goes back over 900 years to a 12th century cloister of a former Augustinian monastery, which now serves as the royal palace of the Duke of Bavaria. There are vineyards that date back to 1400. The two-nave gothic church on the main street, Maximilianstrasse, was built around 1480 as an Augustinian convent, but Franciscan monks took it over around 1695 and remain in residence today, holding daily services. Behind that church is a fascinating cemetery dating back to 1685. Headstones mark centuries of families, with special mention to those lost in the two world wars. The Nonntal, a street a few blocks away, is named after the former Augustinian convent, and has some of the oldest buildings in the town, dating to 1560 and 1625. The Marktplatz (Market Square) has a fountain dating from 1677 and is ringed by the Gasthaus Neuhaus, built in 1576, and buildings with frescoes from 1594 and 1610, some mocking the spoilt lifestyle or the nobles that visited. Maximilian II built a summer and hunting residence in Berchtesgaden in 1850 and nearby is the Kurgarten, the former court gardens of the royal residence, offering peace and tranquility among fountains and colorful gardens. A do it yourself walking tour of all these sites is easily doable, with the map provided by the excellent tourist information office, and there are pedestrian areas and outdoor cafes to welcome you and ease your tired feet. One just needs to climb the hill behind the train station - easy to miss if you are focused only on visiting the Obersalzburg and Nazi relics. So, there really is a lot to see in this beautiful Bavarian town.

Berchtesgaden is also a center for more active endeavors, including a tour of the salt mine, established in 1517 and upgraded a few years ago. As with most salt mine tours, the best part is the wooden slide. There are numerous hiking, climbing and cycling trails for those with lots of energy, and the nearby Konigsee and Jenner cable car, which overlooks the sparkling lake, are excellent options for a day trip. Getting around is made very easy with the tourist card offered free to hotel occupants. With the card, you get free rides on most of the buses in the area, plus discounts for most activities. So, even without the WWII element, Berchtesgaden is an excellent choice for those looking for an Alpine vacation.

Stairs in bunker in Obersalzburg
Stairs in bunkers built under the Hotel Platterhof, reachable from the Dokumentation Center

However, the role of Hitler cannot be denied. Hitler started visiting the area in the 1920’s renting a small cottage in an area called the Oversalzburg, up the hill from Berchtesgaden. Hitler wrote the second part of Mein Kampf there. In 1933, when he became Chancellor of Germany, he purchased the cottage and over the next few years he expanded and improved it to what became known as the Berghof, with a magnificent picture window overlooking the valleys below and a sun terrace that was frequently shown in newsreel films. The Oversalzburg became a pilgrimage point for his followers, with thousands of people arriving to catch a glimpse of their Fuhrer. The other Nazi hierarchy moved there, too, buying out local residents, or if they refused, threatening them with (or sending them to) concentration camps. The SS built barracks, and the building nearest to the Berghof, which had been the Hotel Zum Tuerken, was turned into the SS guardhouse. As the war neared a close, bunkers were built into the mountain connecting most of the buildings, some of which still can be toured today.

After the war, the American military took possession of the area, and retained it as a recreation center for the military until it was turned over to the German government in 1995. Few of the original buildings remain. The Berghof was destroyed due to concerns it could become a shrine – but an excellent museum has been built, Dokumentation Oversalzburg, that describes the history of the Obersalzburg and the Nazi dictatorship, and even connects to some of the underground bunkers that remain. The film describing the tactics used to move out the local farmers, with testimony by the farmers themselves, is particularly telling. One man who was nine years old when these actions were being taken, reported that when asking his father why the Germans didn’t respond more forcibly when the Nazi government was taking away people’s rights, his father would say, in English, that one had to “break eggs” or in this case “crack heads" “in the interest of law and order, peace and security.” So, no one did anything. Something to think about. The museum is only in German, but an audio guide in English is available for only 2 Euros (and absolutely necessary) to fully understand the exhibit. Based on the current construction visible, the Dokumentation Center is about to be expanded significantly over the next few years.

Eagle's Nest and Kehlsteinhaus and tunnel leading to elevator
View of Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest) and tunnel leading to the elevator from bus staging area 407 feet below

Based on the crowds, it appears the main reason tourists go to Berchtesgaden is to visit the Eagle’s Nest or more properly called Kelhsteinhaus. Built in 1938 to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday, it is a small house built at the top of Kehlstein mountain, 6,017 feet (1,834 meters). It is reached by a private bus starting from the Dokumentation center and going 6.5 kms uphill, where one enters a long tunnel. A shiny, brass walled elevator takes you up another 124 meters (407 feet) to the house itself, which is now essentially a restaurant the beer garden. There are some remnants of Nazi history, particularly along the Sun Terrace, where there are some historical plaques and photos, but today it is mainly a place to enjoy the view from 6,000 feet. Indeed, Hitler is said to have visited the Kehlsteinhaus only 14 times – it was mainly used by other Nazi functionaries and for foreign visitors. Guided tours are offered from Salzburg and Munich, but if you take them, you will pass by all theother benefits of Berchtesgaden described above.

Berchtesgaden is only an hour by train from Salzburg, and about 2½ hours from Munich. It is well worth a visit, with many hotels and inns and even a youth hostel available over the Burger King adjacent to the train station. Train service is frequent, and the roads are fine. If you are interested in the WWII period, the best place to stay is the Hotel Zum Tuerken. This hotel, with a history going back to 1630 and located only about 300 meters from the remains of the Berghof, was sold to the Nazis only after the owner spent three weeks in Dachau. It generally served as the main SS guard house for the Berghof during the Nazi period and is visible in many photos from the period. In 1949, the family bought the hotel back and rebuilt it following the 1945 bombing raids that had caused significant damage. Monika Scharfenberg-Betzian, the great granddaughter of the woman that got the hotel back, still operates the hotel. In 2019 it was closed for some repairs, but if/when it reopens, there is no experience like it for people interested in Nazi history. Indeed, the bunkers that connected with the Berghof and other buildings are still in place, and tourable by those staying there.


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