Riding Hitler’s Elevator

Our schedule that afternoon in the Bavarian Alps was to visit Hitler’s Kehlstein, or as the Americans called it, “the Eagle’s Nest.” Not that he was trying to suck up to the Fürher or anything, but the mountain peak retreat was built at the direction of Nazi boss Martin Bormann, who used Nazi party money to build the getaway as a 50th birthday present to Hitler.

Eva Braun, the Führer’s gal, reportedly was especially fond of romping in the celestial cottage where she could marvel at the valleys below and at the Austrian Alps in the distance. In one room is an Italian red marble fireplace given to Hitler by his good friend Benito Mussolini, perhaps in anticipation of the good times they would have once Europe was conquered.

Instead, in the days immediately after the war, American and French troops rushed to the place enacting a grown-up version of “King of the Mountain,” making it clear that the old king had fallen off for good. Mussolini’s fireplace was left pockmarked because of chips taken away by conquering soldiers.

Tourism was the ultimate conqueror. The Bavarian government laid claim to the place where a trip to the top opens to a restaurant, gift shops, some framed pictures from the Reich days and the stunning views of Alpine valleys and peaks.

First, though, is the issue of getting to the top. To reach the elevator you have to walk through a long, damp tunnel, stand in a crowded line and then wait in front of the elevator door in anticipation of three dozen or so fellow passengers being packed in with you for the 407 foot trip (about 40 stories) up a tube in a mountain.

There must have been 200 people standing single file in the tunnel. The line nudged a little closer each time the elevator door opened, having disposed of its previous cargo. The elevator, which is about twice the size of an average freight elevator, was ostentatious as to befit a passenger whose Reich was to last 1,000 years. The walls are adorned with brass and mirrors. Originally there were green leather benches to rest Reich rumps, but they were eventually removed to pack more tourists.

Feeling somewhat claustrophobic, when our turn came my strategy was to try to stand next to the elevator operator whose presence somehow seemed assuring. I watched anxiously as others entered in anticipation of the full load: two, three, four. I wished those in line would somehow go away. And then a miracle: With only seven of us in the elevator and another man about to enter, the operator put up the palm of his hand to tell him not to enter. The man had paused to take a picture, which was verboten. To make his point the operator closed the door and began our journey – seven of us in an elevator built for 40. I was thrilled. There would have been enough room for an oom-pah band and for us all to do the chicken dance. Here was a spiritual lesson: Miracles can occur, even in a Nazi elevator.

We reached the top in less than a minute. The doors opened into the granite stone hideaway camp, next to the dining room, not far from the Mussolini fireplace and near the room said to be Eva Braun’s favorite because of the views. We walked around, had a beer, peered at the nearby Austrian Alps and weaved through the crowd.

Getting down via the elevator wasn’t so bad. There wasn’t a dank tunnel to wait in. I just stood near the elevator door waiting for the moment when the crowd seemed light and hurried in.

If I felt at all edgy, it turns out the precedent had been set by the most unlikely person. Hitler, we learned, seldom visited the Eagle’s Nest, and when he did, his stays were brief. He was uneasy with heights. He was also claustrophobic, so he too dreaded the elevator – even with its leather benches.

For all the anxiety the Fürher got out of his birthday present, it proved to be a waste of Deutsche Marks. Perhaps the Nazi cash could’ve better been used to give him an early retirement.

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