Books: A monster and his surroundings

A new book explores how Nazi propaganda tried to humanize Hitler.

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs at the Berghof, his home in the Bavarian Alps (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun with their dogs at the Berghof, his home in the Bavarian Alps
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Published in 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Adopted Homeland featured 22 drawings of beautiful Alpine landscapes; interiors of the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain home; and villagers in traditional garb.
In an afterward, Walter Schmidkunz, the author of popular books on hiking and skiing, described the coziness of the Berghof’s hearth, the affectionate little children who surrounded the avuncular führer, and his faithful German shepherds, Muck, Wolf and Blonda. As he gazed out his window, with blossoming flowers in front of them, Schmidkunz wrote, Germany’s new chancellor “comprehends with joyful eyes the magnificence of the mountains. And for some of the onlookers, it may be thoughts such as these that first awaken them to that glory.”
As much propaganda as travelogue, the book, whose format resembled an artist’s sketchbook or a postcard album, was part of a concerted effort by the Nazis to give a makeover to Hitler, who was viewed by many Germans as the leader of a violent paramilitary group, a convicted traitor, a virulent anti-Semite and a bachelor around whom lurid rumors swirled.
In Hitler at Home, Despina Stratigakos, a professor of architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo, demonstrates that the Nazis used Hitler’s three residences – the Old Chancellery in Berlin, his apartment in Munich and the Berghof – to portray him, in Germany and abroad, as honorable and humane, cultivated and kind. Beautifully illustrated and richly detailed, Hitler at Home offers a fascinating – and frightening – look at one of history’s most consequential public relations campaigns.
In contrast to the monumentality and spectacle of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, which inspired the joyful submission of the self to the united Nazi nation, Stratigakos points out, showcasing Hitler at home encouraged Germans to exit from the mass, at least temporarily, and experience “a fantasy of recognition and intimacy.”
Stratigakos demonstrates that the makeover of Hitler’s private persona shaped public opinion in the United States as well. By comparing the homes of Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Anthony Eden, for example, Vogue magazine grounded Europe’s political differences in national stylistic temperaments rather than ideology.
For Vogue, in 1936, Stratigakos writes, “swastikas remained pillow decorations.”
On August 20, 1939, as 100,000 German troops massed on the Polish border, “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds” appeared in The New York Times Magazine. In the article, Hedwig Mauer Simpson described the führer’s daily routine, including a late breakfast, walks in the Alps, vegetarian meals, attending to private petitions from widows and orphans, an encounter “with a pretty child with a mop of fair curls,” and Hitler, “who can be a good listener,” conversing with dancers and movie stars.
Many Americans, especially those who opposed intervention in a second World War, Stratigakos suggests, clung to the images of Hitler in these newspaper stories, “as if a taste for good design somehow militated against barbarity.”
With the admonition of her mother (a victim of Nazi brutality) ringing in her ears – “Please do not make Hitler look good” – Stratigakos never forgets “the horrors clinging to the underside” of the transformation of Hitler’s public image.
In fact, she reminds us, Hitler was awkward around children. He lied again and again about the cost of his residences to taxpayers. And, of course, Hitler and his band of murderers stole art, gold and other treasures valued in the billions of dollars for display in their mountain hideouts.
Among the loot recovered in 1945, were barrels brimming with pearls, rubies and sapphires, wooden cases filled with “the gold and silver fillings from the teeth of tens of thousands of murdered Jews” and thousands of wedding rings ripped from the fingers of their victims after they were gassed and “strung on ropes like country sausages.”
In the face of such colossal greed and indifference to human suffering, Stratigakos emphasizes, speaking of Hitler’s modesty and morality was, “in a word, obscene.”
Ironically, Stratigakos indicates, the revelations about Hitler and his henchmen gave Germans a convenient explanation for their ignorance of and or complicity with their genocidal government. They had been taken in by Hitler’s publicists, many of them insisted. Classed as “a major defender” during the postwar denazification proceedings, Gerdy Troost, Hitler’s lead interior designer, maintained that she had nothing to do with concentration camp practices and other “things that fill us with shame.”
And, she asked, displaying some features of the self-interest, self-denial and cognitive dissonance that was nurtured by Nazi propaganda, “How can a person who can be so kind, so attached to his dog, who can look at a child with such love, who can stand before a work of art and contemplate it with such feeling, how can such a person be a murderer?” How, indeed.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.