Excerpted from Hitler at Home by Despina Stratigakos. Out now from Yale University Press.
At the end of October 1939, as the American people nervously followed the German defeat of Poland and the spread of conflicts in Europe, readers of Life magazine opened their weekly issue to discover a lush color feature on Adolf Hitler’s paintings and mountain home. The Oct. 30 issue offered the usual Life mixture of political reporting and more lighthearted human-interest stories, spanning the U-boat sinking of the British battleship Royal Oak to the athletic feats of glamorous Texan cowgirls. The article titled “Paintings by Adolf Hitler: The Statesman Longs to Be an Artist and Helps Design His Mountain Home” sat awkwardly between these two journalistic approaches. Although Hitler continued to have his champions in the United States, a sympathetic portrait of the dictator who, a few weeks earlier, had threatened Europe with a devastating secret weapon would not have been well received by the majority of the magazine’s readers. The editors handled the tricky situation of writing about a warmonger’s love of art and interior decoration with a new weapon of their own: sarcasm.
The article began with a remark made by Hitler to British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson about his desire to one day give up politics and return to his youthful pursuit of art. If he were to do so, Life’s editors suggested, “the world would lose a very shrewd politician and gain a very poor painter.” Despite Hitler’s rejection from art school, his “ambition to be an artist was never dimmed by his lack of talent.” The young Austrian “tinted postcards and painted houses for a living,” haunting Munich’s cafés in the hope of being noticed by established artists. Demonstrating why they ignored him, the article turned to examples of Hitler’s early paintings, reproduced on two full color pages, that it claimed had been smuggled out of Germany and were being published for the first time. The strengths and faults—mostly faults—of Hitler’s work were assessed for readers, such as the crudeness of the technique and the obsession with “empty, desolate spaces.” A painting titled Battleship Wien, an Austrian ship torpedoed in 1917, prompted the criticism that Hitler had hidden the “stern of [the] ship in [a] smudge of smoke” because he was “too tired or lazy to finish details.”
Having largely dismissed the German leader’s own artistic skills, the article then addressed his impact on the nation’s artistic production. “As the defender of German art,” it stated, “he has purged it of modernism, handed it over to the academics.” The article featured two photographs of Hitler in the company of Gerdy Troost, his interior decorator, and high-ranking Nazi officials visiting the Great German Art Exhibition earlier that month. The article also noted that the Nazis enjoyed nudes that were “literal and very explicit,” a claim accompanied by a photograph of Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements, which had become infamous when first displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition of 1937 for its attention to Aryan pubic hair. The article thus undercut the Nazis’ claim to protect the purity of German art with a reference to the salaciousness of its defenders.
When the article turned to Hitler’s involvement with architecture, both as patron and creator, the biting tone of the article began to subside. Hitler’s artistic impulses, it stated, were now mostly channeled into architecture, and he stayed up nights in his mountain home “furiously” poring over architects’ designs. He personally approved all important public buildings, which “are being frozen into the decent but uninspired modernized-classic architecture that Hitler insists on.”
Less ambivalent words of praise were reserved for the Berghof, “a huge mountain mansion” designed, readers were told, with Hitler’s help. Two full pages of color photographs, the first color images of the interior most Americans had ever seen, revealed the rooms with prismatic intensity. Burgundy and jade green hues predominated, with the eye being drawn to the richness of the red marble banister in the entrance hall or the warmth of the polished wood in Hitler’s study. To contemporary readers, who had heard much about Hitler’s simple and “soldierly” tastes, the vividness and complexity of the color scheme must have come as a surprise.
Beginning with the architecture itself, the article described the “combination of modern and Bavarian chalet” styles as “awkward but interesting.” The interiors, “designed and decorated with Hitler’s active collaboration, are the comfortable kind of rooms a man likes, furnished in simple, semi-modern, sometimes dramatic style. The furnishings are in very good taste, fashioned of rich materials and fine woods by the best craftsmen in the Reich.” The ingenuity of repeating the colors of the Gobelin tapestry hanging in the great hall in the room’s furnishings was also carefully noted. The main stairway leading up from the ground floor was particularly commended for being “a striking bit of modern architecture.” This admiring assessment of design ability was balanced by a jibe at the type of paintings hung on the walls: “Like other Nazi leaders, Hitler likes pictures of nudes and ruins.” Nonetheless, the article concluded that the success of the design indicated that “in a more settled Germany, Adolf Hitler might have done quite well as an interior decorator.” With their backhanded compliment, the editors thus insinuated that the man reordering the map of Europe had missed his true calling of rearranging furniture.
Not all of Life’s readers were amused. In the Nov. 20 issue, a number of letters to the editors defended Hitler’s artistic tastes. A group of readers in Canton, Ohio, took the magazine to task for its snobbishness: “Let’s not confuse personal opinion with art criticism!” Referring to the comment that Hitler had been “too tired or lazy” to finish the stern of the Battleship Wien, they countered that the rest of the painting was done well enough and that the “smudge of smoke” critiqued by the article “shows a fair amount of thought and work.” A Mrs. Seefried, writing from Pontiac, Michigan, wrote: “Adolf certainly scores one up on the Roosevelt family when it comes to decorating a home. Maybe there are too many women in the Roosevelt household.” Mrs. Seefried’s suggestion that the White House had been spoiled by a domineering female presence (a comment directed at the president’s outspoken wife, Eleanor, and his mother, Sara) would surely have pleased the bachelor Adolf. Finally, a reader in Chicago complained: “A preference for nudes plus ruins indicates a normal, male romanticism… . Architectural preferences, be they for the elaborate or the simple, indicate nothing beyond a normal inclination to create, cause, impress, possess.” In that reader’s eyes, the magazine’s efforts to psychoanalyze Hitler through his artistic or decorative tastes amounted to a blasé, “So what?”
Other readers, however, took the magazine’s analysis a step further. Examining Hitler’s paintings closely, several readers observed that “all the lines in his pictures slant definitely to the right,” thus implying a link between his ideology and his brushwork. A reader in Portland, Oregon, believed that on the basis of the Berghof, Freud might diagnose “not only claustrophobia but a Hitler aversion to any close physical contact with others, expressed even to the point of separating the chummiest grouping of chairs by an intervening table.” Several other readers inadvertently revealed the anxieties taking root in the country when they believed that they recognized the Statue of Liberty in a tiny, blurry detail of the Battleship Wien, thus seeing in the painting, presumably completed decades earlier, an ominous portent of Hitler’s plans to invade New York Harbor. Their fears were likely not quelled by the photograph of Hitler’s study. In the caption, the editors brought the reader’s attention to the world atlas placed prominently on his desk, with a magnifying lens lying on top for ready consultation.
By introducing critical and even sinister tones in its reporting on Hitler’s domestic spaces, Life magazine began the shift away from the positive assessments of the off-duty Führer that had appeared in the mainstream English-language press since the mid-1930s, and that had culminated in fawning portrayals in Homes and Gardens and the New York Times just months earlier. While such admiring accounts had seen in Hitler’s artistic endeavors the charm and abilities of the gentleman-amateur, those same activities now evoked the embarrassing foibles of an untalented and pompous dilettante—a person tinting postcards and house-painting while imagining himself a Vermeer. Yet the change in tone did not entirely displace feelings of appreciation, even if these were now expressed more grudgingly and with defensive wit. And since Life’s readers were particularly attuned to its photographs, which were at the core of the magazine’s journalism, the publication of such appealing color images of Hitler’s home must also be seen as contributing to a favorable presentation. The text may have poked fun at the (absent) occupant, but the elegant interiors stood as a substitute for the man, proclaiming his taste and sophistication.
Excerpted from Hitler at Home by Despina Stratigakos. Out now from Yale University Press.