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Resort Bids to Balance Past, Future

Germany: Plan for a luxury spa hotel where Hitler once entertained raises the question of whether such places should be developed.

July 29, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERCHTESGADEN, Germany — Adolf Hitler slept here.

But so have millions of others who came not to ponder evil but for the soothing scenery and pure mountain air.

Bavarian officials have embarked on a project to reinvent this former Nazi playground as a resort that recaptures the 19th century splendor of Alpine recreation while respectfully heeding the region's role in Third Reich horrors.

More than half a century after the Nazis were defeated, however, the psychological wounds of that era have yet to heal. The hotel project has stirred debate among Jewish groups and leftist politicians as to whether skiing, golf and gastronomy are appropriate activities for a place where a dictator and his cronies plotted the deaths and suffering of millions.

Those behind the project to boost tourism to Berchtesgaden argue that their town's Nazi past should not be a barrier to the future--after all, tens of thousands of U.S. troops used this retreat for their own R&R during the Cold War.

"We cannot ever forget the past. That was a terrible time, with terrible consequences. But Berchtesgaden will be 900 years old next year, and the Nazis were here only 12 of those years," said Peter Renoth, part-time mayor and local forester.

A documentation center chronicling Hitler's use of the Obersalzberg promontory as a summer seat of power opened nearly two years ago, and workers broke ground just this month for a luxury spa hotel that will crown the mountaintop from which the Fuehrer once surveyed his native Austria below.

The historical displays--in a former guest house and throughout an eerie subterranean network of bunkers connecting Nazi leaders' summer houses--have won acclaim from historians and Holocaust victims for fostering a culture of remembrance.

Town planners say they are pleased with the healthy flow of visitors to the documentation center, which sits just a short walk from the site where the Berchtesgaden Intercontinental resort is scheduled to open in 2005. Curators had expected about 40,000 visitors to the center per year, but the figure has topped 170,000 in the 21 months it has been open.

"We are trying to show how he used propaganda to cast himself as a man committed to family and nation, then used this image to lure his countrymen into the campaign of terror," said Linda Pfnur, who organized the museum exhibits. They include rarely seen photographs of Hitler at leisure with his mistress, Eva Braun, and with Nazi ministers.

It was here that the Nazis plotted the 1939 invasion of Poland and worked out strategies and schedules for deporting European Jews to death camps. It was also at Hitler's summer residence that the dictator hosted British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the start of 1938 negotiations that led to Britain and France consigning Czechoslovakia to Nazi domination in exchange for a short-lived peace in their own lands.

Berchtesgaden, a quaint village perched near the summit of the Obersalzberg that will be the site of the new hotel complex, has gradually recovered much of its tourist appeal over the past half-century. Its architectural treasure trove of baroque castles and country homes has been restored, and freshly gilded signposts hang over the cobblestone streets hawking everything from pottery to pretzels.

A ski resort in winter and peopled by golfers, hikers and equestrians in warm weather, Berchtesgaden and four nearby villages already host more than 1 million overnight visitors a year and 2 million more who come for day trips.

The mountaintop resort-in-the-making--with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, health and beauty spas and ski lifts--will remain the property of the state of Bavaria but will be run by Britain's Bass Hotels & Resorts.

Some Jewish community leaders in Germany, such as Rabbi Andreas Nachama, who heads Berlin's Topography of Terror memorial project, laud the development plans as an opportunity to draw even more visitors to the documentation center.

Others, however, contend that the site should be dedicated to more reflective retreats, such as youth seminars to discuss this country's tortured history.

"We are against the hotel because it would mask the history and role of an authentic place" where crimes against humanity were plotted, said Michel Friedman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Political opponents of Bavaria state's conservative government have lambasted the resort as tasteless and insensitive.

But acceptance of the bid to boost high-end tourism here appears to far outweigh reservations and resentment. Even Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal has implied that the world can't put every place Hitler patronized off limits.

"Hitler traveled all over Germany. Do we really want to say that nothing can be built anymore just because he was there?" Wiesenthal said.

Fears that the resort could attract neo-Nazis have been dismissed by developers as unfounded. The luxurious, 138-bed hotel planned at the summit is unlikely to be affordable for the mostly unemployed and disgruntled youths who make up Germany's small coterie of the extreme right.

To the extent that Berchtesgaden is a lure for the voyeuristic, those who simply want a drive-by glimpse of where the dictator gamboled already do come here.

The dictator's summer house, the Berghof, was destroyed by British bombers in the last days of World War II, and the tea house he hiked to daily was razed by U.S. forces who occupied the region for the next 50 years.

The resort project won approval only after developers provided assurances that Berchtesgaden would never become a magnet for neo-Nazis--a provision fulfilled by the creation of the documentation center and promises not to build on the actual site of the Berghof.

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