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Town debates future of Hitler house

BRAUNAU, Austria -- Living space in Braunau is scarce, but an imposing Renaissance-era building stands empty in this postcard-pretty 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 there, it has become a 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 the disabled by the Nazi regime. That tenant moved out for more modern quarters.

The departure reignited debate on what to do with the house that burst from the town hall chamber into the public domain after Mayor Johannes Waidbacher declared that he preferred creating apartments over turning the building into an anti-Nazi memorial.

"We are already stigmatized," he 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 Waidbacher accused of trying to bury memories of the Nazi past.

The comments were particularly ill-received in Braunau, where the town council withdrew honorary citizenship from Hitler only 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.

Waidbacher expressed surprise at the vehement reaction, saying he did not mean to make light of the significance of the house. Nonetheless, 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. Council member Harry Buchmayr noted that most visitors are neo-Nazis stopping to pay homage to Hitler, even though he spent only the first few months of his life in the building.

And it's unclear who else might want to take up residence in the house.

"I wouldn't want to live there," said Susanne Duerr, 19, as she paused from pushing her baby carriage to gaze at the yellow stucco building. "I think I would have a bad conscience."


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