In November of 1938, when mobs in Nazi Germany burned synagogues, attacked Jewish people in their homes and forced the victims to perform humiliating acts in the streets, the British magazine Homes & Gardens ran a three-page feature lauding Adolf Hitler’s mountain chalet.
The article commented that the home on the Obersalzberg, a resort town near the Austrian border, was “bright” and “airy,” with a jade green color scheme. Meals were often served on a terrace shaded by large canvas umbrellas. The view of the Bavarian Alps was stunning: “The fairest in all Europe,” the author wrote.
In this idyllic setting, Hitler was a country gentleman. He ate vegetarian, “had a passion for cut flowers,” and considered his gardeners, chauffeur and air-pilot not as servants but as “loyal friends.” He read the news in a sun parlor adorned with chairs of white plaited cane.
Today, it seems surreal that a story like this could appear in a prominent magazine the same month as the pogroms of Kristallnacht, during which authorities rounded up almost 30,000 Jews to send to concentration camps. Though the publication may have hit the stands before the violence started, Jewish rights in Nazi Germany had already been severely curtailed through years of legislation.
But if you trace history, you’ll find that the Homes & Gardens profile was no fluke; publications worldwide, including Vogue and The New York Times, ran features on Hitler’s private life in the years leading up to World War II, says UB Interim Chair of Architecture Despina Stratigakos.
Her new book, “Hitler at Home,” recounts this forgotten history. Published in September, it details how Hitler’s inner circle worked throughout the 1930s to reinvent his public image from solitary rabble-rouser to statesman of fine taste and morals.
“You have this man who is seen as an oddball, with no known lovers and very limited family ties, and yet they manage to completely turn it around and create this new persona,” Stratigakos says. “They sell German and foreign audiences on this story of the ‘true’ Hitler being a caring individual.”
Architecture factored deeply into the makeover: The transformation coincided with major renovations of his three residences—the old chancellery in Berlin, his Munich apartment and his mountain home. The Führer was highly involved in each project, working closely with architects and his designer, Gerdy Troost, to create interiors that evoked the right emotions.
Reporters were invited to tour the dwellings, where they saw Hitler in a setting that embodied domesticity and warmth. “They were comforting images. They eased people’s fears, and they reassured people that it wasn’t that bad—that there’s this other side, the gentler, homey, good neighbor side, that’s somehow going to control the Hitler in the Reich chancellery,” Stratigakos says. “I think it was dangerous.”
Dangerous because while it was powerful propaganda, it was not seen as such. Even after the war, says Stratigakos, many historians dismissed Hitler’s private life as unimportant. In fact, its painstaking construction and packaging were essential to his political ends.
Seeing Hitler at home in these carefully selected settings, she argues, made him likeable; it made readers feel like they knew him personally, and it gave them an out—a reason to look the other way when terrible things were happening.
“We think of this stuff as harmless fluff, but it’s not,” says Stratigakos, adding that the book is not just about Hitler. “It’s about the way that we can get lulled into changing our ideas of someone through very slick presentation of their private lives.”