Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest)
In 1937, Martin Bormann conceived an idea to give Adolf Hitler a surprise birthday present for his 50th birthday, April 30, 1939. His scheme was to construct an alpine chalet on Kehlstein peak, 1800 meters (6000 feet) above Obersalzberg. The site became known as Kehlsteinhaus (home on Kehlstein peak) and was given the name “Eagles Nest” by Allied forces.
Construction began August 27, 1937 and Bormann kept a daily log, following the progress and visiting the site often. More than 2500 workers, many experienced Polish laborers, took only thirteen months to carve a one lane road six kilometers long, four meters wide (13 feet) up 1800 meters (2600 feet) to reach the peak.
Hard and dangerous work
The plan was a massive and expensive undertaking, carving a road on a steep granite mountain under dangerous conditions from avalanches, hostile weather, and extreme temperatures. Workers had to endure lightning, high winds, rainstorms, and searing temperatures in the summer. In the fall and winter, they were confronted with rainstorms, hail, blizzards and freezing temperatures. But Bormann was committed to the project to show the energy and skills of German engineering.
The work was arduous, dangerous but well-paying. Men were not allowed off the site once they signed on to work. Many quit after a few weeks of hard work, dangerous conditions, and isolation. But they were treated well; tea and sausages were provided every afternoon. They received incentive pay for hazardous work at high altitudes and many hardships. There was even an allowance for working in muddy conditions.
On pay-day, laborers were allowed to buy alcohol. As could be expected fights and disputes arose broke out from the tension of working under hostile and close conditions. The men slept in special barracks they built on the mountain. Twelve died during construction, mostly from avalanches, faulty explosive detonations, and vehicles plunging down the steep mountain.
A tunnel and elevator carved from granite
It took twelve months to reach a steep granite cliff 125 meters below the peak. It would have been nearly impossible to carve out a road to the peak; instead, they drilled a 125 meter tunnel into the mountain then bored an elevator shaft to carry lumber and granite to build the chalet. The elevator shaft was bored from the peak downward because a shaft bored upward would have been dangerous when explosive charges would fill the shaft with rocks. Debris from the elevator shaft was transported down on cables.
An Italian mining company from Tyrol was hired to drill the 120 meter tunnel to the elevator shaft. After completing the tunnel, they lined it with artistic tiles to enhance the aesthetic experience for visitors and guests. A German submarine engine was transported to the site to serve as the machine to hoist the elevator. The original engine still operates today.
In current dollars, the construction cost to build the Eagle’s Nest about 130 M Euros ( in 2007 values), taken from the Nazi Party treasury.
Eagles Nest Tour
Our tour with Eagles Nest Tours continued after our visit to the Obersalzberg documentation center and the bunkers. To reach Eagle’s Nest, visitors board buses designed to maneuver up the steep grade on the highest road in Germany. The bus route is one way in both directions with an area half way up for buses to navigate around each other. Buses leave from the Kehlsteinhaus tunnel and the documentation center at specified times to meet pass at the wide spot in the road.
The buses from the documentation center climbs a steep grade for a thousand yards, then makes one hair pin turn to climb the last thousand yards. Travelers on one side of the bus gaze out to the valley and across at pine forests clinging to granite peaks. On clear days they can glimpse the mist shrouded Konigsee in the distance. After the one hair pin turn, passengers on the other side get the same stunning views.
It is an eerie feeling, admiring the breathtaking beauty of the valley and the surrounding Alps, pondering what would happen if the bus went over the edge and plunged down the rocky hillside. Not a trip for the timid or weak of heart..
The bus stop is at a gravel parking lot 125 meters from the peak. One side of Kehlstienhaus is visible up a vertical granite cliff.
The entrance to the tunnel is a carved stone arch about ten meters high. The tunnel is well-lit with tiles and brick floors and looks amazingly modern and well constructed.
Inside Kehlstein Mountain
At the end of the 125 meter tunnel was a circular brick lined room where visitors meet to wait for the elevator. Before the elevator arrived, we were told by our guide that we could take pictures inside the elevator, but not use flash. Once the elevator doors opened, we understood why.
The interior of the cramped elevator, which accommodates about twenty people, was polished brass that shined under bright overhead lights. Our elevator attendant was a German man, about 40 years old, who stood at a console with the original clock and old black phone installed in 1939.
The ride to the peak was like being on a 1940’s movie set. When the doors opened, I almost expected to see Humphrey Bogart waiting, smoking a cigarette, wearing a well-tailored suit, with Lauren Bacall on his arm wearing a long silk dress. But when we exited, it was into a wood-paneled corridor facing a kitchen. We walked through a narrow cafe that lead into the largest room at the Eagle’s Nest, a octogon shaped former conference center, now a modern restaurant.
When we arrived, the restaurant was filled so our tour guide led us down a few steps to a corridor with tall glass windows looking out over a steep valley and across at mountains.
Photos of Eagle’s Nest
Posted on the wall were enlarged black and white photos and articles chronicling the history of Eagle’s Nest from construction to the American occupation in 1945. Photos showed workers hammering into granite mountain, building roads, and boring into the mountain. One picture showed a vehicle that had plunged off the mountain into a forest, killing two workers. Several photos showed American and Allied soldiers, including Generals Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower visiting Eagles Nest.
While the wind and rain slapped against the windows, our guide showed us a color photo album with pictures of Eva Braun sun bathing, entertaining, and even hiking in high heals and a dress to the Kehlstein peak. Others photos showed Nazi hierarchy, usually Martin Bormann, hosting banquets and receptions for dignitaries and party leaders.
Despite the enormous expense in time, resources and labor, Hitler only visited Eagles Nest about a dozen times. He never felt comfortable at the retreat since he was claustrophobic and had a fear of heights. One photo showed Hitler in a brooding pose, sitting by himself in chair looking over the valley from his private office at Kehlsteinhaus. He looked neither happy nor at ease.
Space was very limited on the narrow granite ridge of the Kehlstein peak. No bedrooms were installed at the Eagles Nest, and the kitchen was used only for heating food brought from Hitler’s kitchen at Berghof.
No one sleeps overnight at Eagle’s Nest and today restaurant workers descend after their shift to catch the last bus at 4:30 PM to the documentation center and catch the local bus into the Schonau area.
The largest room at Eagles’s Nest is the octagon shaped former conference room where Nazi officials held banquets and dinners. The octagon shape has a revered place in German history going back to 9th century Carolingian era of Charlemagne. The sanctuary in the Aachen Cathedral where Charlemagne’s golden crypt rests is also octagon shaped as is the Barbarossa chandelier above the sanctuary.
The Carolingian era was considered Germany’s First Reich; Frederich Barbarossa’s reign was the second Reich. Hitler’s dream was for his third Reich to last a thousand years.
The octagon shaped room is now the restaurant. The most prominent feature in the room is a red Italian granite fireplace, a gift from Benito Mussolini to Hitler.
The fireplace was a popular place for pictures of Nazi party leaders and guests. After American soldiers arrived in May 1945, they chipped souvenirs from the fireplace for souvenirs. But even today, the chipped red marble still looks impressive.
Parties and wedding receptions
Eagle’s Nest was used more by Bormann who held private dinners there, and Eva Braun, who sought the isolation from the madness going on in Germany. She liked to sunbathe, hike the peaks, and hold parties.
She hosted her sister Gretl’s wedding reception when she married a SS officer, Hermann Fegelein, who assigned to Hitler’s security detail. Fegelein was executed as a traitor at the Fuhrer’s bunker days before Hitler committed suicide. One report was that he was found drunk in his Berlin apartment with another woman and had a large amount of cash and a Swiss passport.
Allied bombers over Berchtesgaden
On April 11, 1945, British Lancaster bombers from Italian bases flew over the Alps to bomb Berchtesgaden. They carpet bombed the valley , destroying Hitler’s Berghof, the homes of Bormann and Goering, and Gestapo barracks and Nazi hotel.
But Allied bombs missed Kehlsteinhaus, which at 6000 feet on a narrow mountain peak, was a challenging target. Bombers had to quickly descend from 8000 feet in high winds to reach Eagles Nest. But as a result, Eagle’s Nest was intact when American and French forces arrived on April 28, 1945.
Windy . . . rainy . . . foggy
We didn’t have favorable weather the afternoon we visited Kehlsteinhaus. The peak was drapped in fog, blustery winds blew sheets of rain across the peak, but we walk around to get a few pictures and glimpse the Berchtesgaden valley and the villages below.
The experience of being in the Eagle’s Nest memorable but haunting, being in the very building, with many of the same fixtures when Hitler, Eva Braun, Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, and other high Nazi officials entertained from this unique historic location. It was living history. One can’t help imagining the conversations, pledges, and boasts, that Nazi officials made by in this mountain retreat with beautiful views of the land they ruled so tragically.
Our fathers in World War II
We’d like to return to Obersalzberg and Eagles when the weather is better to learn more about this tragic era in history. We are of an age when World War II was a common subject in our homes, at school, and daily conversation. My father Leo, served in U.S. Army the Pacific in 1944 – 1946, Marilyn’s father, Bill Logan, was an Army Captain and engineer who served in Belgium, France, and Germany from 1944 – 1946.
Touring Obersalzberg and Kehlsteinhaus, we mentioned our fathers and our memories of growing up when World War II was the war that everyone remembered with painful memories and stories. Anyone who has relatives who lived through the war should consider visiting Berchtesgaden. You’ll never forget the experience and the memories it will call up.
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