A Child in Hitler’s Backyard
On Hitler’s Mountain By Irmgard Hunt
Imagine growing up in the ethereal beauty of the mountains of Berchtesgaden—steps away from Adolf Hitler’s alpine retreat, the Berghof. We have all seen images of the Fuhrer standing on his terrace overlooking the mountains, brooding about his war plans, meeting with his generals or frolicking with Eva Braun. Here is a look at that life as seen through the eyes of a young child, Irmgard Hunt, whose incredible life began in that improbable place and time and who, after the war, would escape from the closed minds of many of her friends and family by dint of her intellect and hard work.
She immigrated to the United States in 1958 where she married a young American doctor. Irmgard became an American citizen in 1968 and went on to an astonishing and accomplished career. She graduated from Columbia University in 1982 and received an MPA degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1985.
Irmgard spent more than thirty years working for the Nature Conservancy and as U.S. Project Director of the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe. In this capacity, she worked with people and organizations in the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and Poland to establish a foundation in each country that would support local environmental groups with grants and training. It was hoped the increased capacity of the nongovernmental sector would speed rebuilding of withered democratic societies and alleviate environmental degradation. Irmgard went on to become an international consultant for clients ranging from The World Bank to USAID. It was an improbable career that took her from a three-year-old child who once bounced on Hitler’s knee for news cameras to an advocate of democracies the world over.
Her book is an extraordinary reminiscence of a time and place that is no more. But it also helps explain how Hitler managed to kidnap an entire country through his electric speeches and ruthless control of the Fatherland. Within Irmgard’s own family, there were intense arguments about the Fuhrer as his power grew in the 1930s. Her grandfather detested Hitler. Following Irmgard’s selection by Hitler to sit on his knee for photos, her family became locally famous for this event. She basked in the admiration for her encounter with the man she would one day consider a monster.
There were many clues to the real Nazi character as Irmgard was growing up. A neighbor’s retarded child was taken from the family and probably killed. Others, including many Jews, disappeared into a new kind of prison called K.Z. or Konzentrationslager—concentration camp. Already in 1933, local papers where Irmgard lived were calling for a boycott of Jewish businesses and publications. Later came Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) of November 9, 1938, when storm troopers, with help from the public, destroyed some two hundred synagogues, homes and shops belonging to Jews throughout Germany and Austria.
Irmgard lived the first eleven years of her life under Nazi rule. Her memories of these early events, no doubt embellished by things she was told by her elders, would haunt her as she grew older and began to see the way things really were. She recalls being fearful that her home might be taken away as Hitler’s men had taken away so many others in order to secure the mountain retreat of the Fuhrer. Yet, she remembers her mother telling her that all the S.S. men guarding Hitler and watching, seemingly, her family’s every move, also provided protection and that they were fortunate to live on a mountain free of crime.
On Hitler’s Mountain provides a unique perspective on the manner in which Hitler managed to rise to power and control the minds of so many. All seen here through the eyes of a young girl, as later interpreted by her adult, and highly educated, self. This is one of those remarkable gems of a book that enables the reader to gain further depth of understanding of one of humanity's darkest moments.