There is something empowering in watching my five-year-old daughter pick flowers on Hitler’s mountain.
Her eyes light on the weedy purple blooms that emerge from the crevices of rocks, from patches of gravel at the edge of the walking path. Her little brown hands consider them and pluck her favorites.
“Mom? Can you put these in my backpack? Somewhere safe.” She gingerly hands her treasure to me.
I zip them in a pocket on her pack, which is harnessed across her chest and has a handle for me to grab on the back. An intentional choice for today, seeing as the Kelsteinhaus, Hitler’s mountaintop home, the Eagle’s Nest, rises an abrupt 4000 feet from the city below, from Berchtesgaden, Germany. A fortunate choice as well, I realize now that we are here, since there are few guardrails between myself, my husband, our two children, and the one step too far that would send us plummeting to the invisible ground below.
This is surely why the Nazi’s loved this place, I think to myself. It is impossible to stand on this summit and not feel God-like, as if from this vantage you can survey all of creation. Here even the clouds are beneath you. And yet, you are simultaneously only one lunge away from meeting death.
How many times did some Nazi official plant his feet here on the edge and feel the precarity of his life? I wonder, did he then walk three steps back and apprehend the defeat of death, the rush, as I do now? For men who loved power, this seems to me the only place in the world they would ever want to be. Aloft. Defiant of mortality, at the top of the world.
And now they are all dead, and my daughter picks their flowers.
There is some triumph in this. But it also feels, like life itself here, precarious. I see it in the faces of another mother and father who rode up with us on the bus. They stand fifteen feet away from me now, their young son at their side, his almond eyes preoccupied with the birds of prey that fly in the distance. He has Downs Syndrome. He is maybe nine years old.
I think to her, the mother, silently, “You feel it too, don’t you?” I see it in the tightness of her mouth. This place was not built to welcome us. And yet here we are standing. Standing like bulwarks between the past and the present, a generation between the horrors of those who preceded us, and what comes next in the generation that proceeds from us. Here at the top of the world, it feels like a heavy burden. It feels like weight.
She looks like she might speak English. She might even be an American tourist, like I am. I wish I could run over and ask her, as well as, “Were you expecting the Neo-Nazis today? I wasn’t expecting them. Did they also catch you off guard?”
Did she lose her breath for a moment, when she parked her car at the base of the mountain, walked to buy a ticket up, and saw the somber men mulling on the sidewalks? I did.
They weren’t organized. I bet they can’t organize. I’m certain some law prevents it. Germany bans all glorification of the Third Reich—displays of swastikas, yelling “Sieg Heil!” or making the Hitler salute—they can’t engage in these displays. It would also seem that they aren’t allowed to stand together either, or even to stand still. There are about twenty of them, all men dressed similarly in black paramilitary style clothing, with closely shaven heads. They keep seemingly intentional distances apart, and they never ever stop moving, mulling, pacing.
The abnormality of it feels vaguely threatening. As did the young man who paced around me in an erratic circle, though never closer to me than five feet, as I stood looking at an oversized “You Are Here” map.
“Mom?” my small son had asked, slinking against my legs. “What is he doing?” Faced with the impossibility of explaining to my five-year-old why the composition of our family makes a Neo-Nazi angry, I eventually just breathed out a whisper. “I don’t know.”
But I do know.
I know that I was born blonde and blue-eyed, and I grew to be tall and attractive. I married a man whose eyes are as piercingly light as my own, whose skin is a similar shade of white. We are both intelligent. We could probably make beautiful Arian babies. But we brought home our beautiful brown children instead, and so every move we make in this space is a defiance of the worldview of these men dressed in black. We are here and we declare that love is thicker than blood. Better than blood. That identity is ultimately defined by a higher calling than race.
I know these things. I just don’t know how to now explain them to my five-year-old child, as we stand on a sidewalk, surrounded by the enemy.
None of the paramilitary stalkers rode up the mountain with us on the bus, and I was grateful for that. Still, I can’t quite place the politics of everyone who is here with us at the summit. If appearances are any indication, it seems we are split, maybe ninety-percent to ten. Nine in ten of us being tour groupers, or history buffs, or just simply tourists checking off sites along the way. One in ten of us, though, look like something more, sound like something more in the snippets of conversation that I catch.
I think they might be pilgrims. I think they might be devout men and a few women beside them, visiting their Mecca.
I hadn’t expected it. I hadn’t expected there to be so many of them either. Maybe one. Maybe two. But not twenty. Not thirty. From the wary look on the other mother’s face, she with the other child who is seen as an aberration to these aberrant men, I think she hadn’t expected it either.
“Are you also worried that they might grab your baby and throw him off the mountain?” I want to ask her. “Is it an irrational thought at the back of your mind, that you wish didn’t feel more rational when you look at these cold hard faces?”
But I don’t ask her. I only continue to watch my daughter pick flowers, and my son marvel at the clouds beneath him, and her son point out the distant hawks.
At the time we are at Berchtesgaden, we are nearing the end of our trip. Weeks ago, when we’d first arrived in Europe, I casually flipped on BBC International and was greeted, surprisingly, with news from the hometown I’d just left. From Atlanta, Georgia.
There on the screen were the faces of Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff, the Republican and Democratic contenders, respectively, who were vying to become the next representative in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. My district.
It was just a single congress seat, in a usually less-than-important district in Georgia, and yet here was the whole world, watching. A total of fifty million dollars were spent between the two campaigns, making it the most expensive House race in the history of the United States of America. Contributions came in from across the nation as the election took on mythological proportions and symbolic meaning.
This was one of the first special elections since Donald Trump had been elected leader of the free world. If a Democratic Contender could here win, if a deep red Congressional district in the Deep South could turn blue, this would be a referendum. This would be a rejection of the nationalism that put Trump in office. This could point the way forward for America, out of a confusing time. And so many people gave their money, and the whole world watched. What would we in the 6th district do? Would we lead, and how? What history would we little people make?
I thought of this, when I first staked a Jon Ossoff sign in my front yard, that it might end up in the history books.
I cast my absentee ballot the day before I, my husband, and my children boarded our Air France flight to Paris, then went on to catch our connection, a tin can of a commercial plane, on to Central Europe. The crowd on the flight to Paris had been overwhelmingly multicultural, polished, sleek. The crowd on the next flight was paler, more disheveled, as we moved away from the cosmopolitan centers of Western Europe and crept closer to the edges of the former Soviet empire.
The election closed a couple of weeks later, on a Tuesday night, at 7pm—which for me, watching a world away, was 1am on a Wednesday morning. Europe slept. My husband had already acclimated to the time change, and my children had thus far been so overstimulated that they slumbered easily no matter what time it was.
But I found myself wide awake at 1am, wrapped in a blanket on a balcony. I had in mind my plans for the upcoming day, to go visit the Hofburg Palace, to go stand in the Heldenplatz in Vienna’s city centre.
Many important historical events transpired in the Heldenplatz, but in my mind they are most all eclipsed by the most recent drama to unfold there—Hitler’s ceremonial announcement of the Austrian annexation, the Anschluss, the joining of the nation to Nazi Germany on the 15th of March, 1938.
It was not until 2006 that Austria publicly owned up to what happened on that early Spring day. And even then, as President Heinz Fischer bravely picked holes in the nation’s 1955 declaration of independence—what had become the official retelling of the history, and which helped paint the nation’s false memories—even then, there was still vociferous resistance from the public. Surveys from 2006 show that a majority of Austrian citizens continued to deny what happened in the Heldenplatz. Many of them still do today.
But the pictures prove it.
The pictures show 200,000 citizens welcoming Hitler’s troops with euphoria. The pictures show the ecstatic crowds gathered at the Heldenplatz to hear the führer deliver a rousing speech. The pictures show the masses waving Nazi flags, sticking their hands out in salute. They cheer.
There are no Jews in the pictures, even though Vienna had the largest Jewish population in all of Austria. It is impossible that, if you look at the photographs, if you search among the smiling faces on the Heldenplatz, it is impossible that you do not see neighbors of Jews. Classmates of Jews. Friends of Jews. And they smile. And they probably do not know that they are welcoming the death of their neighbors.
If you ask an old man in Austria what happened on March 15th, 1938, he will tell you that the annexation was forced upon his people. He will tell you that they reluctantly accepted a political situation over which they had no control.
But if you ask him if his parents were at the Heldenplatz—if you ask him how his parents felt about the Anschluss—he may become as quiet as my own grandfather has, when I have asked him about the KKK in Georgia.
“Papa?” I have asked. “I know you were just a boy in 1938. But did you know about the Ku Klux Klan? Do you know if there were any members in your community?”
“Don’t know nothing about that, sweetheart.”
But then there was the day that I found a KKK pamphlet in one of his father’s, my great-grandfather’s, books. It was pressed thin as a leaf inside the pages of a Biblical commentary, a musty old tome that nobody else in the family wanted. But that I had in my home, because I loved old books.
“Papa? What is this? I found it in your father’s book.”
He took the pamphlet in his hands, studied it, then wordlessly turned away and walked to the back of the house, taking it with him. He never returned.
And there was no more mention of the pamphlet. My grandmother fed me homemade biscuits and asked me about my new job, then casually sent me home. In the years since, I have on two occasions asked to have the pamphlet back, and the answer has been the same.
“Don’t know nothing about that, sweetheart.”
“But I’d just like to have it back, please? I found it. It’s mine. We don’t have to talk about it.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart.”
Ask an old man in Austria if his parents were waving flags at the Heldenplatz. Isn’t that them there, in the photograph?
He won’t know what you’re talking about either.
I stared off our balcony, toward the Heldenplatz, as Georgia’s 6th‘s election results rolled in. And I wondered, as I felt the tightness in my chest, the precarity of watching history unfold, if some Austrian woman had ever been here before me.
Maybe seventy-nine years prior, had she too looked towards the Heldenplatz and mourned for her nation? Had she felt powerless against the tide of politics among her neighbors, the pull of nationalism, the fear of the foreigner? The anti-immigration sentiment that wanted to send the Jews back from whence they’d came. That wanted to build a wall.
Did the ladies in her social circle dislike her discussion of the Nazis? Did her family ask her to be less political during Sunday lunch?
What was the 1938 equivalent of an election yard sign? Had hers been pulled up, like mine, by her neighbors, and thrown in the middle of the road? Had her mailbox been spray painted, as those on my street had? Had she ever seen a threatening letter stuck in her front door, telling her that the neighborhood was tired of seeing her politics in the front yard?
How did she feel the night before the nationalists marched onto the Heldenplatz? And was it in any way similar to how I felt, as I watched a nationalist win Georgia’s 6th congressional district election? Or how I felt half-a-year before, on November 8th of 2016, when a nationalist won the nation?
I can never know. But I have imagined.
The elevator operator at the Eagle’s Nest, on the day that we were there, was a stern unsmiling German man who spoke to no one. When we first rode up to the summit, there had barely been room to breathe inside the elevator box. Probably fifty of us strangers had squeezed into the space, then stood perfectly still as it rose hundreds upon hundreds of feet through the center of the mountain. On the ride down though, there was only me, my husband, and my two children. And the elevator operator.
As my lone family boarded into the gilded box, the operator broke from his stoic expression for one brief moment and looked aghast. Did no one else want to ride down? Sticking his head out the elevator doors, he scowled as if this must be some trick. The elevator is always crowded. But upon seeing no one waiting in the queue, he threw up his hands and pressed the button to close the doors. And down we went, alone.
And that is how I found myself inside an experience that is not usually open to the public—riding privately in Hitler’s elevator.
The walls of the box are gilt copper mirrors on the top, plush jade leather padding on the bottom. The once matching leather benches have been removed, but in their day, they sat the likes of Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, the Goebbel’s family with all their young children, and many other notorious namesakes. And of course, none rode the elevator more than Eva Braun.
I peered into the mirrored walls as we descended, breathed a long quiet breath out into the air. What else could you do as you made the long trip down? This must have been a universal experience for all who rode here, in the quiet. To listen to the creaking in the shaft. To stare into your own eyes in the mirror. To exhale.
What world changing thoughts had been contained in these four small walls, as a man was forced into his own head, stared down by his own reflection, as the elevator descended?
When the elevator reached the ground, my little family walked off and fifty waiting people climbed on, and then we found ourselves again, suddenly and utterly, alone. I nearly ran to turn the corner in the silent alcove of the arrival tunnel, to look down the long hollow cave that led toward daylight. How had we missed the crowds, the other hordes of tourists? How were we alone? Surely there were at least a hundred people around the corner.
But there weren’t.
“Wow,” my husband whispered, and the word hit the walls of the empty cave, bounced around in the damp dark, disappeared somewhere toward the distant daylight.
“Wow,” I replied, and the word was big and round and hollow in the acoustics of the tunnel.
“Mom? Is it haunted?” followed the timid voice of my daughter.
I considered that in the echoing silence. “Only by memories,” I finally said. And then a moment later I whispered, only to myself, “Don’t fear the dead. Fear the living.”
It was June 27th. We were exactly one week past our congressional election, where the Pro-Trump candidate won, and we were exactly one week away from July 4th, America’s Independence Day.
We would still be in Central Europe for the 4th, and it will be a lonely holiday, as well as a lesson for me in empathy toward any American expat abroad. I will miss my homeland and her people. And I will grieve, alone, over the way I feel different this Independence Day.
Month’s later, a family friend will be seated at our dining room table, eating dinner with our family. I will recount to him the way I felt.
He, a brilliant man, a scientist, an inventor, a mentor who my husband is fond of saying has forgotten more than we will ever know. He, a patriot and an immigrant—he in his accented English, that I still sometimes struggle to understand, he will say, “This was the first Independence Day in thirty years that I did not feel,” he will pat his chest. “This was the first time since escaping the dictatorship of my homeland, that I did not feel,” pat, pat. “The pride.”
My eyes will smart with tears, just for one quick moment, as the weight of how much I understand this settles on me, and settles around the table.
“And I had to ask myself,” he will continue, “Have I been naïve, in the way I have so loved this nation.”
I don’t yet know it in the tunnel in Berchtesgaden, but things are forcefully barreling ahead in the world. Things are arriving. They will come.
In America, white nationalists will rally in Charlottesville. In Germany, there will be a spike in Holocaust memorial desecration. In Austria, there will be an election of an anti-immigrant prime minister, and he will only be elected because he has allied with the OVP, the political party that the Nazi’s morphed into. For the first time since World War II, Austria will re-elect her nationalists. Poland, who knows so much of death from the previous era, will have fascists march in Warsaw. They are marching as I type, now.
My own mother will ask me if I want to go visit my Trump-voting extended family. She will ask me if I can find it in myself to break bread with them. And I will tell my mother the only truth that I know, in light of the things that are. It is a difficult truth that won’t leave me.
I will say something that is the modern equivalent of an Austrian woman in 1938 telling her own people, “I cannot sit quietly around a dinner table, and smile, as my loved one’s support the Anschluss.”
And my mother will say that she understands. But I will wonder if she really does.
The far right is on the march.
“You should sing Edelweiss,” says my husband in the empty tunnel, in Germany, as we slowly make our way toward daylight. I gingerly touch the cold wet walls of the cave as we go, like they are an artifact in a museum, like someone might catch me and demand that I stop.
I hum a few bars of the song. The cave acoustics catch them and amplify them like the voices of a thousand ghosts.
But it is wrong. It doesn’t feel right. It isn’t the song for this. Not for this era and not for this moment that I walk in.
Perhaps it is the upcoming holiday, the 4th, that prompts me into the verse that I do sing in the tunnel. I quietly find the opening notes of the song, but I shift them down to a minor key. This tunnel is haunted. This song should be too.
Small haunted words.
for patriot’s dream,
They nervously fill the hollow space.
that sees beyond these years,
an alabaster city gleams, undimmed by human tears.
And then the swell.
Like a prayer.
God mend thine every flaw,
Like a plea.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
A beggar’s prayer in Nazi-haunted Germany. In Hitler’s mountain. In the age of Trump.
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!