Sunday, July 1, 2007

BERCHTESGADEN, Germany — The narrow road climbs higher and higher, first past pastures and stone houses, then leaving even the fir trees to reach blinding, snowcapped peaks.

But as Erin Kelly stepped into a claustrophobic tunnel on the last leg of her journey to the Eagle’s Nest, she was ready for jolting contrasts.

Just imagining Adolf Hitler walking down the same dimly lit shaft gave her a chill.

“I definitely felt something walking through the tunnel,” said the 23-year-old tourist from Greenwich, Conn. “It was kind of eerie thinking about the person who went through here.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest — about 6,000 feet high in the Bavarian Alps — were Hitler’s personal playground where he frolicked with his mistress, Eva Braun, and Blondi, his German shepherd.

It was the Fuehrer’s second seat of power outside Berlin, a place where he plotted conquest and genocide. Here, the Allies feared, he might make his last apocalyptic stand. But in the end he chose suicide under the rubble of Berlin on April 30, 1945.

Ever since Allied troops captured it, Berchtesgaden has struggled under the weight of the Hitler heritage, and the question of whether it could ever return to being simply a nice place to visit.

The Eagle’s Nest is now a restaurant, where on a recent spring day couples walked hand-in-hand through the grounds, youngsters climbed rocks, and tourists admired Alpine crows hanging still in the wind.

In the Kehlsteinhaus restaurant, an American World War II veteran named Shep Waldman was struggling to reconcile nature-loving tourists with the horrors associated with the Eagle’s Nest.

Mr. Waldman, an 83-year-old from Denver had come with a party of veterans on a tour of European battlefields. Here, despite his revulsion, he found the sheer splendor of the peaks breathtaking. “You cannot hide something like this,” he said. “You’ve got to have tourism here.”

Berchtesgaden itself, a five-mile winding drive downhill from the Eagle’s Nest, is a cozy village with pubs, sausage restaurants and mountain views. It long ago rid itself of swastikas and other Nazi insignia, as required by German law, and remade itself as a peaceful holiday spot.

The only Nazi symbols on view are at the Dokumentation Obersalzberg exhibition center at the foot of the Eagle’s Nest, close to the Intercontinental Berchtesgaden, a luxury hotel that opened two years ago.

The center sits on a bunker complex with a warren of underground tunnels around the Berghof, Hitler’s residence, which was heavily bombed in 1945 and blown up for good seven years later. The exhibition center and the resort were approved under the agreement whereby the U.S. military returned the site to Bavarian control in 1996.

The idea of Hitler’s hideaway becoming a place of fun offended many intellectuals and Jewish groups in Europe. Linda Pfnuer, head of the center, said enjoying the beauty of Berchtesgaden and the luxury of the Intercontinental had to go hand in hand with preserving the memory of the evil that inhabited the valley.

“It would not have been possible to build the hotel if we did not have the documentation center before,” said Miss Pfnuer.

The area has not become a neo-Nazi shrine as many feared. Instead, graffiti scribbled on the wall of the bunker complex read: “Never again.”

With such offerings as a picture of a mass execution of Jewish children and adults and the recorded voice of a Holocaust survivor, the exhibits are the bleak counterpoint to the bucolic scenes outside.

Initially, the center expected 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a year. Last year it got 166,000 and last month it welcomed its 1 millionth visitor.

“It is very important for Berchtesgaden,” said Miss Pfnuer. “This is an opportunity to clear up all the questions.”

When American soldiers arrived at the Eagle’s Nest after the Nazi surrender, they celebrated with a shot of Hitler’s whiskey. Today, Intercontinental guests can enjoy a 1948 Glenlivit All Malt for $130 a shot.

The resort’s spa has been named Germany’s best. The Le Ciel restaurant has earned its first Michelin star. The scenic golf course is the highest in Germany. Big companies bring their staff there on incentive trips.

Tom Bauer, the resort’s Austrian general manager, said he understands those who think all the recreation is inappropriate.

When Intercontinental guests retire to their rooms, they find a 600-page book titled “Die Todliche Utopie” — “Deadly Utopia” — on their night table. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

“We are not hiding the history,” Mr. Bauer said. “You will find it in all our rooms.”

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