- Associated Press - Thursday, September 27, 2012

BRAUNAU, Austria (AP) — Living space in Braunau is scarce, but an imposing Renaissance-era building stands empty in this post-card-pretty Austrian 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 normally would be prime property. Because Hitler was born there, it has become a huge headache for town fathers forced into deciding what to do with a landmark so intimately linked to evil.

The building most recently was used as a workshop for the mentally handicapped, which some saw as atonement for the murders of tens of thousands of disabled people by the Nazi regime. But that tenant moved out last year for more modern quarters.

The departure reignited debate on what to do with the house, with the mayor declaring he preferred creating apartments over turning the building into an anti-Nazi memorial.

“We are already stigmatized,” Johannes Waidbacher 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 Mr. Waidbacher accused of trying to bury memories of the Nazi past.

The comments were particularly ill-received because of the fact that Braunau’s town council only withdrew honorary citizenship from Hitler 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.

Stung by the criticism, Mr. Waidbacher has since stepped back, saying he can conceive of “all possible uses” for the building.

On Thursday, Mr. Waidbacher expressed surprise at the vehement reaction his comments caused, saying he did not mean to make light of the significance of the house.

“Our town has definitely done its homework as far as its past is concerned,” he told the Associated Press.

Nonetheless, concerns about the building’s fate continue to reverberate on the ancient cobblestone streets of this town of 16,600.

One major fear: The house could fill up with Hitler worshippers if converted into living space.

“These are certainly people we don’t want here,” said town council member Harry Buchmayr, noting that most visitors are not normal tourists but 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 19-year-old Susanne Duerr 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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