One of my strangest projects was photographing the remains of Hitler's fortified retreat at Obersalzberg, in the Bavarian Alps, near the Austrian border. Like a James Bond villain Hitler lived in an imposing villa, the Berghof (below). This boasted a huge reception room - the Great Hall. It's massive picture window could be lowered into the basement. You can see it below the balcony behind which Hitler's study was located. Jutting out from the front of the building was a garage where Hitler's armoured Mercedes limousines were housed On the roof of the garage was the Berghof terrace with fabulous views of the mountains. Here Hitler and his henchmen relaxed and schemed. I spent a week in the area while researching my Albert Speer programmes. I was intrigued by that home movie the former Nazi had shown me and wanted to see where it was taken. Ringed by snow-capped mountains Hitler's headquarters was a place of haunting beauty. But beauty brought out the beast in Hitler. Many of his evil plots were hatched here.
Obersalzberg became a place of pilgrimage for the Nazi faithful in the 1930s. Hysterical women took away stones on which Hitler's feet had trodden. It was also a centre of power - a second seat of government along with Berlin. Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, Lloyd George and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came here to see the dictator. During World War II Obersaltzberg was one of the most secret and closely-guarded places on earth. Surrounded by a fence 9 miles long this huge complex of buildings swarmed with troops and SS guards. Smoke filled the valleys when enemy aircraft approached. But to no avail. Hitler's hideout was bombed at the end of war. Afterwards the Allies destroyed much that remained. Nonetheless, when I arrived in 1980 there was plenty to see. The ruined Berghof garage, where the terrace was located, was still there - massively constructed, with walls two feet thick (above).
Squeezing through a window I clambered inside and surveyed the wreckage. Water dripped through the ceiling. Rubble covered the floor. Plaster had been blown off the walls exposing the bare brick beneath. And I could see the remains of a fireplace - a reminder that this building was snowbound in winter and needed heat to prevent Hitler's Mercedes from freezing. Later, I scrambled up on the roof, where the Berghof terrace had been. All trace of the terrace had gone. No garden furniture, striped umbrellas and SS guards now. The balustrade had vanished. Where once there were flagstones there was now grass. Dense undergrowth sprouted in place of neatly-groomed lawns and flowerbeds. Even the famous mountain views across the valley were blocked by trees. The rest of the Berghof had disappeared. The Grand Hall - scene of violent arguments and life-and-death decisions that changed history - resembled a wood. The broad flight of steps up which dignitaries trudged had vanished.
Five minutes walk away along a winding path you could find Hitler's guesthouse (left). Mussolini stayed here and the dictator's secretary, Martin Bormann, had his office in the building. The guesthouse was wrecked when the site was bombed in 1945, but all four walls were standing and the arched portico was intact. There were signs saying Off Limits and Danger - Keep Out, but I ignored them and ventured inside. The rooms were a shambles. Everything of value, including the light switches, had been looted. Some of the floors had caved in and there was rubble everywhere. Since my visit the building has been redeveloped as a museum.
Further down the mountain lay the remains of Hitler's tea-house (left). Each afternoon the dictator and his entourage, including his mistress Eva Braun, would walk there from the Berghof. Deer, squirrels and rabbits grazed in the meadows. The tea-house lay on a small plateau overlooking a valley with wonderful views of the mountains. Far below the River Arch curled away in the distance.
The tea-house was round and looked like a grain silo. An aroma of coffee filled the building as the party entered and took their places in a large circular hall lined with marble, picked out in gold. Hitler drank apple-peel tea, tucked into cakes and biscuits, talked amiably to his staff and dozed when the mood took him. In addition to the marble hall the tea-house contained an anteroom, kitchen, guardroom and offices. Like most of Hitler's buildings it was short-lived. On the wall behind me as I gazed at the ruins someone had scrawled the words - 'Teahaus A. Hitler 1938-45.'
Although the tea-house lay in ruins the most fantastic building of all - the Eagle's Nest - still existed. That was perched on the summit of a mountain over a mile high. To reach it you had to drive up a mountain road ten miles long full of hair-pin bends. Four hundred feet from the top you found a tunnel that led to heart of the mountain. At the end was a round chamber and a golden lift lined with glittering brass - Hitler's lift (left). The elevator wafted you to the summit and the house at the top.
Martin Bormann conceived the idea of the Eagle's Nest as a spectacular 50th-birthday present for his master. The construction was superb - massive stonewalls, pine pannelling, bronze doors, and a giant marble fireplace. An eight-cylinder submarine engine was hauled to the top of the mountain to supply power in the event of electricity failure. Although the Nazi insignia had gone the interior was largely as it was. Beside a large circular conference hall (left) there was an SS guardroom (now a restaurant),kitchen and a room for Eva Braun.
As for Hitler - he came to the Eagle's Nest only 14 times. The thin mountain air made him feel ill. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, paid a visit at the end of the war. Nowadays the Eagle's Nest is the ultimate mountain restaurant for tourists. And black eagles really do wheel circle round the summit.
Close to the ruined Berghof you could find the former Gestapo headquarters - now an hotel. Tourists were enjoying drinks and ice creams. Inside you could find the entrance to Hitler's underground bunker - a warren of tunnels and rooms carved out of the solid rock 100 feet below ground. Albert Speer's studio still existed, as well as masses of other buildings. Once swarming with men in uniform Obersaltzberg was now almost deserted. I wandered freely and, despite warning signs, took hundreds of photos without interference as I explored the bombed-out remains of this historic site. Since my visit what was left of the ruins have gone.
If you wonder what the area looks like watch The Sound of Music. Julie Andrew's movie was filmed a few miles away - an idyllic setting once occupied by genocidal murderers.
Click on page 3 of this website to see a related article - Meeting Albert Speer.