Hitler’s Honeycomb: The Berghof revisited

The grandiose mansions Adolf Hitler erected in Germany may have vanished, but their vast bunkers remain largely intact..

More than 60 years have passed, but the quaint Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden, nestled amidst a stunning Alpine panorama, still struggles with its heritage of having been Adolf Hitler's favourite hideaway.

The Berchtesgaden Tourism Office is reluctant to actively promote the former Obersalzberg site just above the town and is not particularly eager to answer questions pertaining to the locations of the remains of houses and pleasure grounds of the German dictator and other Nazi key figures.

Nevertheless, Obersalzberg boasts an unassuming, modest documentation centre in the modified, former Nazi Party's guesthouse, where the crowds of daily visitors can educate themselves about the mountain's embarrassing history.

It was in the early 1930s that Hitler, his deputy Hermann Goering, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the dictator's personal secretary Martin Bormann and his personal architect Albert Speer built impressive Bavarian-style estates on the mountain slope facing Berchtesgaden.

These were complimented by extensive infrastructural facilities like a greenhouse and a model farm where new agricultural and livestock-raising techniques were researched, a hotel to accommodate visiting heads of state and their entourages, as well as barracks housing Hitler's personal bodyguard contingent.

In his own estate, the so-called "Berghof" (mountain estate), Hitler received his Italian ally Benito Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and King Boris I of Romania, among others.

But the true secret of the mountain was concealed deep within its limestone rock: a honeycomb-like network of reinforced-concrete bunkers, warrens and tunnels interconnecting the "Fuhrer's" personal section with those of the other Nazi leaders.

Several kilometres of bomb-proof bunkers and caverns were drilled into the mountain. Although sparsely furnished, the rooms were fitted with elaborate ventilation systems, power generators, drinking water tanks and food supplies that would have lasted months.

In case of an attack, the complex was almost impenetrable thanks to the well-devised positioning of machinegun pillboxes guarding the underground blast-proof steel doors.

The end came in early April 1945 when United States bombers dropped their loads over the site reducing the majority of buildings on the surface to smoldering heaps of rubble.

Bavaria's government dealt the final blow to Obersalzberg in June 1952 when it detonated the blackened Berghof ruin to prevent it from becoming a shrine neo-Nazis.

The only building spared was the dictator's "Eagle's Nest", a teahouse precariously perched on the top of Kehlstein mountain, a short drive from Berchtesgaden.

Considered an engineering feat in its day, it was developed by the Bavarian government into a rest house for mountain trekkers after the war.

Today very few traces remain of Obersalzberg's former Nazi structures.

A five-star luxury hotel was built over the foundations of Goering's house, with the resort's swimming pool ironically located on the very spot where the Reichsmarshal himself once took a dip.

Even Hitler's mansion, whose automobile garage topped by a large recreational terrace was left virtually undamaged until the late 1980s, has in the meantime vanished completely except for the mighty, touch to demolish bracing walls designed to prevent landslides.

Deep inside the tortured mountain, however, the bunker system still remains largely intact.

A small section of it, back then occupied by Hitler's security service, the "Sicherheitsdienst" (SD), can be visited via a wrought-iron spiral staircase leading down from the premises leading down from the premises of the former guesthouse "Zum Tuerken", today a privately-owned 'pension' that was faithfully rebuilt in its original style after the devastating bombing raid.

Approaching "Zum Tuerken", the alert visitor will see the emergency exit of Bormann's bunker section beside the road, nowadays sealed by a steel door to deter all too inquisitive souls.

At the entrance to the pension's parking lot, a guardhouse remains in its original condition.

After paying the admission fee of a few euros, the descent into the dimly lit caverns begins through the SD's cell block where former detainees have left their often heart-wrenching graffiti on the drab, sod-stained walls.

A long and steep staircase leads down into the heart of Obersalzberg, and at its foot one is confronted by the machinegun portholes of one of the before mentioned pillboxes.

A bunker guide asserted that the concrete walls were strong enough to easily withstand even rockets from a bazooka.

Entering the bunker system proper, each step eerily ricochets off the grey walls, creating an atmosphere that cannot have been much different when Hitler's honeycomb was still fully operational.

As this section of the network accommodated Hitler's security force, it was originally fully fitted with sleeping quarters, shower and recreational rooms, a kitchen, weapons and ammunition stores, and a generator room.

An old electrical switchbox adorns one of the walls, its red paint peeling off in the damp and stale air.

Rusty steel ladders lead up into the several pillboxes.

Peeking through the portholes it is not difficult to imagine how the formerly-installed machineguns would have mowed down and annihilated any intruders under their crossfire.

The tunnel leading to Hitler's personal bunker section has been bricked up, but a hand-painted message in German relates how the dictator and his long-term mistress Eva Braun had planned to make these gloomy caverns their last holdout.

Little did the 3rd Infantry and the 101st Airborne divisions, who captured Berchtesgaden a few days after the bombing raid, know that the dictator had abandoned his plan and instead chose to commit suicide together with Eva Braun, whom he had married the very same day, in his Berlin bunker on 29 April 1945.

In fact, the Nazi leader had not visited his beloved Berghof since 1944, when he spent three months there.

With all traces of its former occupants wiped off the mountain's surface, only the extensive maze of bunkers deep within its bowels reminds modern Berchtesgadeners of this most unsavoury episode of their town's history.