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Tag: WWII

View of Braunau am Inn and the distant Alps.

Tearing down Hitler’s house

The Austrian government announced yesterday that it plans to demolish the house in which Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889. The house stands on a street corner in Braunau am Inn, a picturesque town located just across the Inn River from Germany. After a half-decade of legal fights with the owner, during which time the house has stood empty, the government has apparently seized the property and intends to raze the structure (or possibly remodel it beyond recognition) to prevent it from becoming a pilgrimage site for Neo-Nazis.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2006, I studied German in the village of Bogenhofen, just down the road from Braunau. Hitler’s birthplace was a familiar sight from my regular visits to Braunau for shopping or exploring. The house was not marked by any interpretive plaque, but it was easy enough to find. Even my Lonely Planet guide identified its location.

The facade of the house in which Hitler was born, Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria.

The facade of the house in which Hitler was born, Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria.

I am usually a staunch advocate of historic preservation, but I am willing to make an exception for the Austrian government’s decision to destroy Hitler’s birth house. The destruction of this one building will represent a repudiation Hitler and Nazism, and an acceptance of a peaceful and inclusive present and future. Large-scale destruction of sites associated with the Third Reich would be troubling, as it would signify an attempt to forget about a past that is still very real and very relevant. But Neither Austria nor Germany has undertaken such destruction, not since the dynamiting of certain key monuments just after World War II. There are still many built reminders of the Third Reich in both countries, from the Olympic stadium in Berlin to the Mauthausen concentration camp eighty miles east of Braunau.

When the government tears down Hitler’s birth house, I hope they leave in place the Mahnstein, a monument that stands on the sidewalk in front of the house. It is a rough brown stone taken from the quarry at Mauthausen. The side facing the street bears a simple but powerful inscription:

Für Frieden, Freiheit, und Demokratie, nie wieder Faschismus, millionen Tote mahnen.

[For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.]

Whether the house stands or is destroyed, this stone should remain as a warning of the destructive power of racial ideologies such as Hitler’s.

Monument in front of Hitler’s birthplace: “For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.”

Monument in front of Hitler’s birthplace: “For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.”

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The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

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