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How media ‘fluff’ helped Hitler rise to power

The cover of Heinrich Hoffmann’s book “Hitler Away From It All” shows Adolf Hitler (left) standing with a view of his mountain estate on the Obersalzberg. In the center photo, Hitler escorts a young girl, Rosa Bernile Nienau, to his house. Hoffmann's book, “The Hitler Nobody Knows,” features Hitler in a country landscape (right) relaxing with his dog. Credits: Heinrich Hoffmann, courtesy of Bavarian State Library

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published September 3, 2015

Some of the most iconic photos of Adolf Hitler show him at his most intense, eyes alight with frenetic energy as he addresses an audience or salutes a crowd.

Equally haunting, however, is another set of images that is oft-forgotten: In the years preceding World War II, news outlets from home magazines to The New York Times ran profiles of the Nazi leader that portrayed him as a country gentleman — a man who ate vegetarian, played catch with his dogs and took post-meal strolls outside his mountain estate.

These articles were often admiring — even after the horrors of the Nazi regime had begun to reveal themselves, says UB architectural historian Despina Stratigakos.

Her new book, “Hitler at Home,” will be published Sept. 29 by Yale University Press. It recounts how the Führer’s inner circle worked throughout the 1930s to reinvent his image from a solitary oddball with few family ties to a statesman of fine taste and morals.

“They were able to engineer a complete transformation of Hitler’s public persona,” says Stratigakos, interim chair of the Department of Architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning. “They accomplished this by focusing on his private life — by showing him playing with his dogs and with children, and at home in architectural spaces designed to evoke a feeling of warmth. By the end of the 1930s, news stories around the world described him as a caring, gentle individual with great taste in home décor.”

“It was dangerous because it made him likeable,” Stratigakos says. “After reading these stories, people would feel like they knew the ‘true’ Hitler, the private man behind the Führer mask, and that maybe this person was not as bad as all of the news coming out of Europe seemed to suggest.”

She notes that while many historians have dismissed Hitler’s personal life as irrelevant, his private persona was, in fact, painstakingly constructed to further his political ends.

Flattering images of Hitler on the eve of war

Heinrich Hoffmann, postcard of the Berghof, 1936. Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection, Picture Archive, Bavarian State Library

Stratigakos says her early research for the book uncovered a media landscape that felt surreal: “These news stories filled your head with positive images of Hitler. I was shocked at the extent of it and how late they appeared.”

On Aug. 20, 1939, The New York Times published an article describing the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain chalet.

This was 12 days before Germany invaded Poland and started World War II, nine months after the violent anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht and six years after the first Nazi concentration camp opened at Dachau.

The article commented that Hitler’s estate on the Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat near the Austrian border, was “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions.” Unstained wainscoting and handwoven rugs combined to “create an atmosphere of quiet cheerfulness” in the Führer’s study, The Times reported.

Hitler had a tomato garden and a fondness for chocolate, the story said. He was a man “who can eat a gooseberry pie or a well-done pudding with relish.” He liked to take an afternoon nap.

A 1938 profile in Homes and Gardens, a British magazine, was similarly descriptive. The piece, a three-page feature on the same estate, related that the home was “bright” and “airy,” with a jade green color scheme. It noted that Hitler “had a passion for cut flowers” and considered his gardeners, chauffeur and air-pilot not as servants, but as “loyal friends.”

“All kinds of publications — from serious political journals to LIFE and even American Kennel Gazette, a dog magazine — were covering this story about the ‘real’ Hitler,” Stratigakos says. “In 1934, the German Press Association reported that images of Hitler at home playing with his dogs or with children were the most popular images purchased by the media in Germany and abroad.”

Architecture as a tool for manipulation

Heinrich Hoffmann, view of window in the Great Hall of the Berghof, 1936. Credit: Bavarian State Library: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection, Picture Archive, Bavarian State Library

The media’s adulation of Hitler on the eve of war shows how lifestyle stories considered “harmless fluff” can serve as powerful propaganda, Stratigakos says.

She notes the widespread media coverage of the Nazi leader’s home life was the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign.

Architecture played a key role in that effort: The makeover of the Führer’s public persona coincided with major renovations of three residences he occupied — the old chancellery in Berlin, his Munich apartment and his mountain home.

“Hitler at Home” documents the creation of these homes, showing how Hitler was intimately involved with each project, working closely with his architects and Frau Gerdy Troost — an interior designer who was well known at the time but subsequently forgotten by historians.

The team used architecture as a tool for manipulation, crafting spaces that, like movie sets, evoked the right emotions. Then, reporters were invited in for tours where they experienced Hitler in a setting that felt exclusive and emanated domesticity and warmth. Politicians also were invited and, in some cases, similarly duped.

Though the media changed its tune on Hitler after the fighting began, his private life remained a source of fascination and mystique even after the war.

The final chapters of the book trace the postwar looting of Hitler’s residences and the collectors who still avidly pursue these objects, how displays of such items in museums stir protest and how Germany has struggled to determine what to do with the places where Hitler once lived.

The dangerous power of media ‘fluff’

The story of Hitler’s homes is far from over, Stratigakos says.

Today, as in the past, we believe our domestic spaces reflect the inner person — the person someone “truly” is.

That powerful association is easily manipulated, Stratigakos says. Her book is not just about Hitler, she says, but also “about the way that we can be lulled into changing our ideas of someone through a slick presentation of their private lives.”

“The 1930s marked the rise of celebrity culture in the era of talking movies, radio and new lifestyle magazines,” Stratigakos says. “People developed a strong desire to know what the private person was like behind the public facade. Hitler’s propagandists took advantage of the new celebrity culture and even helped to shape it.

“Journalists seek out these behind-the-scenes stories because people demand it,” she says. “This still holds true today, and I believe that we need to be much more critical of the industries that focus on home or lifestyle news. They really do have influence.”