Stumbling Into Hitler, Bumping Into God

[I wrote this article based on a visit to The Eagle’s Nest in 2000. It subsequently appeared in an e-zine I had with my daughter. Of all the places I have been in the world this one still leaves a major impression. I can only explain that by saying read the article and you will understand why.]

It is an early Sunday morning in May in Salzburg, Austria. I am in the car at 8 a.m. to see what I can of this historic city. There isn’t much time since I have a long drive back to Zagreb to be at work tomorrow morning.

It doesn’t take long before I realize that this is no place for a car.

I can’t recall being in a more auto unfriendly environment – no parking here, no left turn there, trolley cars bullying the traffic for the narrow street space. It makes Barcelona feel like an empty parking lot. Resisting the urge to simply return to Zagreb I drive south just out of Salzburg and pull over to the side of the road to ponder alternatives. It is such a glorious, sunny, blue-sky spring day I will be a fool to spend most of the daylight hours in the car.

Reaching across the front seat I grab my indispensable Marco Polo Euro Map to find some impromptu destination. It hasn’t failed me yet. There it is!

Berchtesgaden, just south of Salzburg! “Isn’t that where Hitler had a vacation residence?” an imaginary voice whispers to me. And it is just off the road “home” to Zagreb.

I roll down the windows, let the smell of spring intoxicate me, and head off to see if my memory can be trusted. A stop here, a turn there, half an hour later I feel smug! I arrive at Berchtesgaden to begin a bus trip to The Eagle’s Nest, as this one of Hitler’s former places is called. I have a slight pre-conceived image of it: a child’s memory of WWII newsreels of Hitler and snow at a mountain-top lodge with his paramour Eva Braun.

I buy my ticket and wait half an hour for the next tour to begin.

The bus starts its’ slow ascent of the mountain on a roadway that swerves left and right like the most twisted parts of the Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur, only this road is single-lane! Occasionally you can see Salzburg in the distance. I realize that the driver is using a hand-held radio to avoid a head-on catastrophe, by coordinating one-way traffic.

I listen attentively to the guide and make special note of the fact that the former governor pleaded with the wartime victors – the Americans – to not destroy this place. Certainly not out of homage to a madman, but of economic necessity, since this area’s value is its’ natural beauty.

Arriving at a turn-around area, still perched on the edge of the mountain, we disembark and are shown a spacious pedestrian tunnel dug into the bowels of the earth. Entering the tunnel for the first time I begin to think about the monster Hitler, realizing that he walked where I do now. The dankness and very dim light contribute to making my skin crawl at the mere thought of his ghastly presence. It’s a comforting distraction that there are others walking quietly around me.

After a few hundred feet I arrive at the line just in front of the elevator doors. It is a fleeting, psychological oasis.

The doors part and the elevator discharges its’ load. I am struck by what appears to be an effusion of gold, having flashbacks to the gold souk in Damman, Saudi Arabia. The elevator can hold about 20 people, if we all squeeze together. We do. The glow envelops us from what are polished brass walls and ceiling. Hitler and his gang rode this elevator.

There is an eerie silence as we ride hundreds of feet to the surface. We exit at the top inside what is now a restaurant, which is all that remains of the wartime structures.

Seeking fresh air, and with such beautiful weather, I head outside to the wooden picnic tables. It is spring-sun warm, almost hot, although the air temperature might only be 60 degrees. Stretching my arms and looking around, it is as if I am struck dumb. The place is an island, a mountain parapet. Some of the surrounding snow-dusted spires of stone remind me of church steeples side by side.

Turning to the south with my binoculars I see a placid lake a couple of thousand feet below. My awe is interrupted by a swoosh, and I turn, look up and see that a glider, within what seems like arms reach, is playing with the mountain air currents. Two lines from John Gillespie Magee Jr.s* famous poem High Flight inspire me:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

“….touched the face of God…… touched the face of God” stays with me as I walk gingerly through the sun-made dregs of very slippery snow and ice to the very end of this minuscule plateau in the sky. I stand and look at the panorama. Hitler stood here.

I comprehend how a megalomaniac could believe himself God thinking he possessed this grandeur as far as the eye can see. And for those who profess no belief in God at all, to stand here and answer, from where did all this come?

But paradoxically, for those who do believe, to explain the existence of Hitler himself.

[Note1: *WW II Royal Canadian Pilot Officer who died in his Spitfire’s crash in England in 1941, when only 19 years old.]

[Note2: A BIG thank you for the image of The Eagle’s Nest goes to:]


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