AFRC Berchtesgaden

AFRC Bertchegaden Map

Oh this map brings back wonderful memories!

When Roberta and her brother and sister were cleaning out their mother’s house a few weeks ago they stumbled on this map tucked away into a souvenir booklet of the German region of Berchtesgaden. Their mother picked it up during a visit to Germany in the mid-1980’s when we and Roberta’s brother were stationed in Germany with the US Army.

Bertchesgaden has a twisted history. First let me say that the region, nestled in the southeast corner of Germany right along the border with Austria (the city of Salsburg, made famous in The Sound of Music is just a few miles away) is drop-dead gorgeous, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The high Alpine allure of the Bertchesgaden/Obersalzberg region is undeniable. And that’s why one of history’s biggest monsters, Adolph Hitler, chose to live on the Obersalzberg just above Bertchesgaden. While he was an evil SOB it is undeniable that he had an eye for composition and landscape. In the early 1930’s, using royalties from the sales of his book ‘Mein Kampf’, Hitler bought and started expanding a small gasthaus (hotel) on the Obersalzberg, turning it into his official residence known as the ‘Berghof’ (mountain home). Very quickly the upper echelon of Nazi leadership followed, with Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann and even Hitler’s personal architect and later minister of armaments Albert Speer establishing residences on the mountain.

During WWII the Obersalzberg was heavily and repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces on the off chance that Hitler or any of his cronies might be at home. They never did kill anyone important but they managed to reduce the buildings on the mountain to rubble. Then the 101st Airborne showed up (a scene made famous in the book and HBO series Band of Brothers) and took over the town and the mountain residences. We gave the town back, but not the mountain. Frankly, the post-war German government didn’t want it back. Too many bad memories. The US Army turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse and converted the entire mountain into a world class recreation center for American service members and their families. Berchtesgaden became one of two premiere Armed Forces Recreation Centers (AFRC) in Germany, the other being Garmisch-Partenkirchen, another former Nazi stronghold and site of the 1936 Winter Olympics,

But Roberta and I especially loved Berchtesgaden and all it offered. While the Garmisch recreation center focused on more intensive sports like skiing and climbing, Berchtesgaden was somewhat sedate and more family focused, perfect for a young couple with a new baby. But what drew me back to the Berchtesgaden AFRC time and again was the history of the place. The main hotel, the General Walker, was a former lodging center for high ranking Nazis and German officers who came to the Obersalzberg to confer with Hitler. When the Nazis owned it they called it the Platterhof, but when we rebuilt it and opened it as a hotel it was named after General Walton Walker, who had recently been killed leading American forces in the early stages of the Korean War.

The main entrance to the General Walker Hotel in the mid-1980’s, as Roberta and I knew it

Roberta on the terrace of the General Walker Hotel, 1984

You could easily stroll from the General Walker to the houses or the ruins of houses of all the key Nazi leadership. The Obersalzberg mountainside was literally littered with Nazi history. The US Army rebuilt some of the structures for their own use, tore down others or just left the ruins in place. On one visit we arrived late to Berchtesgaden to find our room at the General Walker would not be available until the next day, so the hotel management billeted us for the night in what had been Albert Speer’s personal studio, shown in the map above as the Evergreen Lodge. I spent a good part of the night lying awake wondering just what sort of conversations had taken place within those walls as Speer first catered to Hitler’s outlandish architectural dreams and later as the Reich Minister of Armaments he charted the inevitable downfall of the German nation as depicted by the nation’s declining stocks of raw materials and her industrial facilities being pounded to rubble by Allied bombers.

Albert Speer’s design studio, later renamed the Evergreen Lodge by the US and used as VIP lodging on the Obersalzberg. It was located just down the road from the General Walker Hotel

Albert Speer and Hitler conferring over an architectural drawing in Speer’s studio (later the Evergreen Lodge) on the Obersalzberg

But perhaps the most fascinating, and infamous, ruin on the Obersalzberg was Hitler’s official residence, the Berghof. In the early 1950s the US Army blew up the ruins and carted away most of the rubble. However, they didn’t get it all, and some significant remains of the building still stood. While no official US Army map or booklet showed the location of the ruins (note that they are missing from our map above), they were easy to find with just a little research or, in my case, simply by asking the hotel concierge. Immediately below the General Walker terrace (just over Roberta’s shoulder in the picture above) sat the ruins of an old gasthaus known as the Hoher Goll that the Nazis used as an administration office. Just below that, along an abandoned road, sat the remains of Hitler’s Berghof

Gasthaus Hoher Goll, used by the Nazis as an administrative office and a guard house controlling access to Hitler’s Berghof. The General Walker terrace wall is in the foreground. I took this picture in 1984

The Gasthaus Hoher Goll when the Nazis owned it, taken from roughly the same perspective as the previous picture. The German soldier at the gate guards access to the Berghof on the road that goes past the Hoher Goll

The Berghof was an expansive villa, more a compound than a house, and it served both as Hitler’s personal residence and a place where he conducted the business of state. Prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1938 and the opening of WWII, Hitler regularly hosted foreign leaders at the Berghof. Most came away impressed by the building and location but troubled by Hitler’s brand of international diplomacy.

So one afternoon while Roberta was taking a nap I wandered down the road past the ruins of the Hoher Goll and soon found myself looking up at this:

The last standing ruins of Hitler’s Berghof, taken in 1984

All that stood was the remains of the garage on the ground floor of the Berghof, seen in the foreground of this photo:

The garage structure has an interesting history because it supported the outdoor patio that Hitler so loved to sun himself on, and on which so many Nazi luminaries were photographed or filmed

In poking around the ruins I found a piece of brick from the garage that had ‘fallen’ from the wall and ‘accidentally’ made its way into my camera bag. It sits on my mantle today as a unique reminder of a fascinating part of American and German history.

Let’s fast forward a decade or two. In 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union and troop reductions in Europe the US Army decided to close the Berchtesgaden AFRC and turn the Obersalzberg over to the Germans. We spent millions of dollars getting the facilities ready for the turn over. When we handed the keys to the Germans the facilities were in top-notch condition. Still, the Germans wanted nothing to do with the place and all the buildings stood empty for a few years, including the grand old General Walker. Then one year the Germans ‘forgot’ to winterize the plumbing and steam heat system in the hotel. During a particularly cold winter pipes froze and burst all over the hotel. The Germans declared the hotel uninhabitable, tore it down and turned the location into a parking lot. Fourty years of American memories unceremoniously knocked down and bulldozed away. I still have not forgiven the Germans.

In addition to knocking down the General Walker the German government went after all the remaining ruins on the mountain, to include the last remnants of the Berghof. Any remaining ruins were completely bulldozed and the rubble hauled away. The Germans simply did not want any visible reminders of the Nazi era left on the mountain. The last remnant was the ruins of the old Gasthaus Hoher Goll. It had sat a neglected ruin for over 40 years, but the German government decided to renovate it and turn it into something of a museum that describes just what used to be on the Obersalzberg. Known as the Dokumentation Obersalzberg Museum, it showcases the history of the Obersalzberg from the time when Hitler arrived in the late 1920s to when the Americans left in 1995.

So let’s wrap it up here. There’s a lot more I could talk about in regards to the Obersalzberg, in particular the extensive underground tunnel system the Nazis dug through the mountain to connect all the key residences and facilities. But that’s a topic for another day.

Instead, let me leave you with a link to an excellent video produced by Ruiter Productions in Germany that shows how the Obersalzberg looks today in relation to the 1940s. For old Soldiers and their families who spent time at the Bertchesgaden AFRC it is a nostalgic look back at what was.

– Brian