TRAFFIC BUZZES AROUND US as we drive along the busy highway a few miles east of Berchtesgaden, a quaint Bavarian town whose domed church steeples are retreating in the growing distance. My tour guide, Tom Lewis, turns onto a narrow road and as we travel toward Obersalzberg Mountain, where Adolf Hitler built his infamous retreat, a wild wind whisks away the noisy snarl of traffic. Rolling pastures surround us, terminating in dense swaths of pine forest. It feels like we’ve entered another world.
Germany’s future leader first came to this vacation spot in the Bavarian Alps, near the Austrian border, just four months before his attempted November 1923 coup against Germany’s Weimar Republic, the Beer Hall Putsch. He returned in 1925 after serving a short prison sentence and rented a small cabin where he wrote the second part of his autobiography, Mein Kampf, which laid the groundwork for National Socialism.
Enchanted by the mountain’s clear sunlight and fresh air, Hitler soon started spending more time in Obersalzberg than in Berlin. In 1933 he used profits from sales of Mein Kampf to buy a house there, which he named the Berghof and expanded into an estate. Many of his henchmen soon followed—including Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s deputy Rudolph Hess, and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—all of whom built villas near Hitler’s home on this isolated hilltop.
Visits to the mountain were invitation-only, from a high-ranking official or Hitler himself. “The Obersalzberg Mountain was a Reich security zone,” Tom says. “A sentry checked everyone who went in or out.”
Higher up the mountain, Tom parks and leads me down a winding path into the forest, and shows me a line of houses on the road in the distance below. Their tall facades, wooden shutters, and alpine balconies show the unmistakable blend of utilitarian restraint and rustic vernacular that mark the Third Reich style developed by architect Albert Speer, who also had a house at Obersalzberg. “They’re private residences now, but they were once for the families of SS officers,” Tom says. About 2,000 high-ranking Nazi officials and their families once lived there.
Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and head of the Nazi Party Chancellery, facilitated the resort’s transformation into a Nazi playground by purchasing and repurposing homes of the mountain’s residents. If residents refused to sell their property, Bormann found other ways to “persuade” them. Locals would “come home and find the roof missing from their house or their belongings moved out into the street,” Tom explains as we pull up outside Hotel Zum Türken, located near the top of the hillside.
The hotel fell into Nazi hands in 1933 after its owner, Karl Schuster, refused to sell it to Bormann. Furious, Hitler imprisoned Schuster at Dachau concentration camp for three weeks until the owner finally agreed to sell the property.
On April 25, 1945, 375 Royal Air Force bombers attacked Obersalzberg, severely damaging many homes and other buildings, including the hotel. After the war, the U.S. Army occupied the resort, using it as a military recreation center until 1995, when they handed the territory back to the German government. As part of the condition of the return, Germany demolished Obersalzberg’s remaining houses and rebranded the area as a tourist attraction.
The Schuster family was allowed to buy back and repair Hotel Zum Türken. Tom shows me pictures of the hotel in the 1930s; the alpine-style facade staring out from a remote mountain flank looks much the same today. Now run by Karl’s granddaughter, this rustic hotel is popular among nature lovers who come to hike in the surrounding hills.
Later in the day, we trek to a nearby pasture where Hermann Göring’s house once stood. The Reichsmarschall’s sprawling pastoral lodge came complete with a swimming pool. Inside, Göring had filled his villa with art, books, and hunting paraphernalia. I watch as Tom brushes away the leaves and grass to reveal a flight of stone steps embedded in a hillside. This staircase, which once led to a large underground air raid shelter, is all that remains of Göring’s house.
Over the years, brambles and overgrown brush have colonized most of the site where Hitler and his cronies once plotted world domination, but one wartime vestige stayed fully preserved. In 1999 workmen tearing down the Platterhof—a hotel where Hitler housed important guests, later repurposed for the occupying U.S. Army—discovered part of a vast tunnel complex sprawling beneath Obersalzberg. Sealed by the Allies in 1945, Hitler’s labyrinth of subterranean bunkers laid hidden under rubble for decades.
Only two of the tunnel entrances have been unsealed and opened to the public in an effort to prevent neo-Nazis from using the tunnels as a pilgrimage site. One entrance lies under Hotel Zum Türken, where history lovers can pay a small fee to visit them. The second is beneath the mountain’s museum, the Documentation Center, at the old Platterhof site. Opened in late 1999, the museum contains hundreds of original documents, photographs, and films that tell of the Holocaust and of Obersalzberg under the Third Reich, including a scale model showing the original Nazi installations at the time.
Slipping past the crowds, Tom and I head for the tunnels beneath the center. Constructed in 1943, these passageways functioned as a hideout for Hitler and his closest advisers in case of an attack. Within 20 months, workmen dug out more than four miles of tunnels and bunkers throughout the mountain.
Despite the speed with which the tunnels were built, they are sturdy, with high-domed roofs and wide floors. We walk the long corridors carved out of the solid, smoothed rock face and stop occasionally to glance at graffiti the Allies left after the war—including two Crosses of Lorraine inscribed by French soldiers who were the first to enter the bunkers in 1945—or peer into rooms dug deep into either side of the walls that served as storage spaces for crates of French champagne and stolen art. I get a real sense of the immensity of the tunnels, however, only when we reach the end of one and stare down into a dizzying 100-foot-deep hole that was formerly an elevator shaft connecting these tunnels to Hitler’s Berghof bunker.
Exiting the museum, we hike toward the wooded spot where Hitler’s Berghof once stood. Little remains of the house or its vast terrace—where Hitler’s longtime mistress Eva Braun—much to the dictator’s disgust—occasionally sunbathed in the nude. Although the house was only lightly damaged from the bombing, Hitler demanded his retreating troops burn it down. Its remnants were destroyed in 1952 at the request of the occupying U.S. Army. Only a low stone wall that was part of the Berghof’s Great Room still stands. In its heyday, Hitler received important foreign leaders, including Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain, in its expansive lounging area, which featured a red marble fireplace and lavish furnishings.
The room’s centerpiece, an impressive 25-foot-high window, provided a panoramic view of the nearby Untersberg mountains, where German legend says Charlemagne slumbers, awaiting a divine sign to awaken and save Germany from its enemies. Hitler, an admirer of the Holy Roman emperor, admitted to having had his house built around the window. “Look at the Untersberg over there,” Hitler once boasted to architect Albert Speer. “It is not just by chance that I have my seat across from it.”
Standing in the former spot of the Berghof’s grand window, Tom and I stare at the vista once admired by the Nazi dictator. As we head back, the sun descends in a scarlet blaze, and the Berchtesgaden Alps—whose tall peaks tipped with snow divide Bavaria from Austria, Hitler’s homeland—cast dark shadows on the habitations that cluster small as doll houses in the valley below. I’m not sure if it’s the icy alpine cold, or the juxtaposition of this beauty with the ugliness of Hitler’s regime that makes me shudder. ✯
Berchtesgaden and Obersalzberg can get crowded during the summer, so plan travel for spring or autumn. For summer tours contact Eagle’s Nest Historical Tours (eagles-nest-tours.com), named for the only surviving Nazi building—a mountaintop tea house Hitler used for entertaining dignitaries, now a restaurant. Guide Tom Lewis gives tours in the winter, but be aware The Eagle’s Nest (kehlsteinhaus.de/en) is open only from May through October. Contact Tom by phone at: 49 1602-641800.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Most visitors to Obersalzberg stay in Salzburg, just a 25-minute drive away. For lodging, the Sheraton Grand Salzburg (sheratongrandsalzburg.com) is a plush hotel overlooking the famed Mirabell Palace Gardens featured in the classic film The Sound of Music. A good budget option is Kasererbraeu (kasererbraeu.at/en), located in Altstadt, Salzburg’s historic district. For local fare, the Getreidegasse, a bustling shopping street, features a number of excellent restaurants.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE AND DO
Salzburg was the main location for many scenes featured in The Sound of Music. Panorama Tours (panoramatours.com) leads excursions to sights linked to the movie. The city is also well known as the birthplace of Mozart and has two museums devoted to the composer; Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg (mozarteum.at/en/museums.html) conducts tours of both sites, which contain some of Mozart’s personal items.
This column was originally published in the December 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.