In Hitler at Home, Professor Despina Stratigakos explored how the Nazi PR machine relied upon Hitler’s three dwellings to foster the myth of the führer as a morally upstanding and refined man. The book considers the architecture and design of Hitler’s private homes and their role in Nazi propaganda.
Here, writing for History Extra, Stratigakos explores the fascination with Hitler’s domestic life…
On 16 March 1941, with European cities ablaze and Jews being herded into ghettos, the New York Times Magazine featured an illustrated story on Adolf Hitler’s retreat in the Berchtesgaden Alps. Adopting a neutral tone, correspondent C Brooks Peters noted that historians of the future would do well to look at the importance of “the führer’s private and personal domain,” where discussions about the war front were interspersed with “strolls with his three sheep dogs along majestic mountain trails”.
For more than 70 years, we have ignored Peters’s call to take Hitler’s domestic spaces seriously. When we think of the stage sets of Hitler’s political power, we are more likely to envision the Nuremberg Rally Grounds than his living room. Yet it was through the architecture, design and media depictions of his homes that the Nazi regime fostered a myth of the private Hitler as peaceable homebody and good neighbour. In the years leading up to the Second World War, this image was used strategically and effectively, both within Germany and abroad, to distance the dictator from his violent and cruel policies. Even after the outbreak of war, the favourable impression of the off-duty führer playing with dogs and children did not immediately fade.
Hitler maintained three residences during the Third Reich: the Old Chancellery in Berlin; his Munich apartment; and Haus Wachenfeld (later the Berghof), his mountain home on the Obersalzberg. All three were thoroughly renovated in the mid-1930s and facilitated the creation of a new, sophisticated persona for the führer.
Postcard view by Heinrich Hoffmann of the Berghof, c1936. (United States National Archives, College Park, Maryland)
The Old Chancellery
The Old Chancellery had, since 1871, been the official residence of German chancellors. After being appointed chancellor in 1933, Hitler refused to move into the building because he was sensitive to what this “shabby” palace (in his eyes) would say about him. The chancellery was in the heart of the government district, and Hitler felt that these buildings, including the chancellor’s residence, had a role to play in reclaiming Germany’s lost diplomatic prestige following the First World War.
Hitler therefore hired the Munich-based architect Paul Ludwig Troost to renovate its public and private spaces. When Troost died in January 1934, the work was assumed by his widow, Gerdy, who began a new design firm, the Atelier Troost. She would henceforth become Hitler’s main interior decorator.
In the renovated public spaces of the Old Chancellery, the dominant object in the main reception hall, where Hitler entertained foreign diplomats and reporters, was a vast Persian-patterned carpet. Hitler liked to tell the story that this luxurious carpet originally had been ordered by the League of Nations for its new Geneva headquarters, but when it was completed, the league was short of funds and could not pay, so he acquired it for his official residence. Hitler thus presented himself – no doubt with mocking reference to having withdrawn Germany from the League in October 1933 – as literally pulling the carpet out from under them.
Hitler claimed that he personally paid for the costly Old Chancellery renovations as a service to the nation. Gerdy Troost’s invoices, however, reveal that it was German taxpayers, struggling through the Great Depression, who largely footed the bill.
Heinrich Hoffmann, photograph of the reception hall in the Old Chancellery in Berlin after the 1934 renovation by the Atelier Troost. (LOT 3940 (H), Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division)
Hitler’s Munich apartment
The luxury apartment at 16 Prince Regent Square in the Bogenhausen district of Munich, occupied by Hitler in October 1929, also made a statement: it signalled the firebrand politician’s social respectability to the city’s better classes. The apartment spanned the entire third floor of the imposing five-storey building designed in a Jugendstil style [in German ‘Youth Style’] by the Munich architect Franz Popp in 1907–08.
In January 1935, Hitler hired the Atelier Troost to renovate and redecorate his spacious Munich apartment at the extravagant cost of 120,000 Reichsmarks – more than 10 times the average income earned by a doctor in Germany that year. On 25 April 1935, when the apartment was nearing completion, The Daily Telegraph published an article about the renovations stating that the führer was overseeing the work and that “all the furnishings and decorations are being carried out according to Herr Hitler’s own designs”.
Since the source for the article was likely the Nazis’ own press office, the erroneous attribution of the creative work to Hitler seems deliberate. The article reported on the führer’s love for German art and his passion for music, telling readers that “the decorations in his flat follow the German heroic colour scheme of blue, gold and white, made famous in Wagner’s operas, and the furnishing is all of the same style”. Through the reinvention of his domestic spaces, Hitler was thus portrayed as an artist and composer in his own right. While the article implied his wealth, it also gave the impression of a man so devoted to art and culture that even the colour of his pillows spoke to his idealism.
On the morning of 30 September 1938, Neville Chamberlain met privately with Hitler in his Munich apartment. The previous day and night, Hitler, Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and the French prime minister, Édouard Daladier, had debated and eventually signed the Munich Agreement, which had sealed Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment. Chamberlain went to see Hitler privately to ask him to sign a short joint declaration that the Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in 1935 symbolised the desire of the two nations never again to go to war with one other.
Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s photographer, recorded the meeting of the two leaders. In an image released to the public, we see Chamberlain, Hitler and Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s translator, seated in the living room. Hitler, who occupies the centre of the photograph, is framed by markers of his cultivation: rows of fine books and German and Renaissance painting and sculpture.
During their conversation, Chamberlain had asked that, if Czechoslovakia resisted Germany’s annexation of parts of its territory, its women and children be spared aerial attacks, to which Hitler replied that he hated the idea of babies being killed by bombs. In the photograph, the carefully chosen objects around Hitler seemed to reinforce the reassurance that Chamberlain sought, suggesting that he was negotiating with a man who understood and shared Europe’s highest cultural values.
Photograph by Heinrich Hoffmann of Hitler’s private study on the second floor of the Old Chancellery in Berlin after the 1934 renovation by the Atelier Troost. (Credit: Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division)
Haus Wachenfeld (later the Berghof)
Almost as soon as work was completed on his Munich apartment, Hitler undertook a massive expansion and renovation of Haus Wachenfeld on the Obersalzberg, the place most Germans identified as the home of their führer. The work began in late 1935 and was completed the following summer. What had once been a modest chalet was now transformed into the Berghof, a large and carefully guarded compound. The structural expansion was undertaken according to Hitler’s proposals by the Bavarian architect Alois Degano; the interiors were completed by the Atelier Troost, also working closely with Hitler.
Images of the Berghof and its happy owner, most of them taken by Hoffmann, were widely distributed and collected during the Third Reich. The mountain served as a medium to humanise Germany’s leader through his contact with animals and children. Hoffmann’s camera captured the off-duty führer handing out treats to deer and toddlers, in the seemingly perpetual sunshine of the Alps. In such officially produced propaganda, as well as in a host of popular merchandise depicting Hitler’s mountain chalet, Germans consumed fantasies about an ideal domestic life rooted in the natural landscape. These ‘homey’ images captured the promised land of abundance and happiness at the end of their years of suffering, the beauty interwoven with the regime’s brutal policies of war and extermination. For tens of thousands of Germans, the Obersalzberg also became a place of pilgrimage, where one might lay eyes or even hands on the man who many perceived as the nation’s saviour.
To the broader world, the renovated Berghof proclaimed Hitler’s maturation and confidence: in its stately and carefully appointed spaces, Germany’s leader greeted kings and princes, prime ministers and marshals, religious leaders, secretaries of state and ambassadors. It was where he negotiated with the powers of Europe that stood between him and his vision of a greater German Reich.
Photograph of Eva Braun’s room in the Berghof with a framed Hitler portrait. This print is pasted into one of Eva Braun’s photographic albums. (Credit: 242-EB-12-2, Eva Braun Photographic Albums, National Archives, College Park, MD)
Like the renovation itself, the Great Hall – the centrepiece of the Berghof – was meant to convey the ‘new’ Hitler, not the ex-corporal who roused rebels in beer halls or the dictator who cut down his opponents in cold blood, but rather a powerful, cultivated and, above all, trustworthy statesman.
Hitler spent more than a third of his 12 years in power at his mountain home. Even a war did not seem reason enough to sacrifice its pleasures, and, after 1939, the Berghof became a military headquarters from which he conducted battles and planned strategy. Hitler, it has been said, pioneered the work-from-home movement, and the Great Hall was at the centre of his intention to rule an empire from the comfort of his living room sofa.
Despina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the author of Hitler at Home (Yale University Press 2015).
This article was first published by History Extra in November 2015